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Sunday September 22nd, 2019 2:03AM

Vettel wins Belgian GP to trim rival Hamilton's F1 lead

By The Associated Press
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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) — Sebastian Vettel made a crucial early overtaking move on Lewis Hamilton to win the crash-marred Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday and trim his rival's overall lead.

Hamilton started from pole position for a record fifth time at Spa, and a record-extending 78th in Formula One, with Vettel second on the grid.

But Vettel has a knack for quick starts, and nudged his Ferrari past Hamilton's Mercedes on the first lap with a smart move down the left.

"I had a great start. I knew my chance would come," Vettel said. "Timing is crucial and I managed that perfectly I thought."

It came moments after Fernando Alonso's McLaren flew through the air and landed on top of Charles Leclerc's Sauber. Leclerc, unharmed, was likely spared a head injury by the protective halo device surrounding the cockpit area of F1 cars. The incident brought out the safety car.

Vettel finished about 12 seconds clear of Hamilton, with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen an impressive third after starting seventh.

Vettel's 52nd career win closes the gap to Hamilton to 17 points heading into next weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Monza — Ferrari's home. Hamilton has 231 points and second-place Vettel has 214. A win earns 25 points.

Moments after his victory, Vettel removed his steering wheel and held it aloft, almost like a trophy, as he stood on his car to celebrate. Then he jumped into the arms of his mechanics and grabbed a Ferrari flag. With eight races remaining, it was a crucial win to halt Hamilton's momentum.

It also moved Vettel one ahead of four-time F1 champion Alain Prost for third in all-time wins behind Hamilton (67) and Michael Schumacher (91).

"He drove past me like I wasn't even there on the straight," Hamilton said, expressing concern for Ferrari's greater speed. "Congratulations to Seb."

Hamilton fears Ferrari has speed Mercedes is unable to match, which could play into Ferrari's hands in Monza and in the following race at the Singapore GP — which is another quick track.

"In the end he was doing times that I wasn't able to equal," said Hamilton, who added that he eased up near the end. "It got to a point where it was just sensible to save the engine."

Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas, starting near the back after being penalized for too many engine changes, overtook Sergio Perez late on to place fourth.

Vettel's Ferrari teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, and Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo both retired.

Hamilton initially held his lead, but Vettel overtook him sharply as they headed onto the Kemmel Straight. Vettel then held off Perez, who had jumped up from fourth to third by overtaking his Racing Point Force India team teammate Esteban Ocon.

The heavy crash at the start happened when Hulkenberg bumped into the back of Alonso, sending Alonso's McLaren spinning and then flying up in the air. Hulkenberg took the blame, saying he misjudged his braking speed and was handed a 10-place grid penalty for Monza.

The incident led to a safety car coming out on track, with drivers forced to hold position and not allowed to accelerate.

Starting from sixth place, Raikkonen lost his rear right tire after being clipped by Ricciardo — who retired later after running a lap down because of time he lost while his team repaired the damage on his car picked up during the chaotic start.

Vettel has been sloppy recently, crashing in the rain while leading the German GP and then losing position in qualifying for the Hungarian GP, once again in the rain.

This time the rain stayed away, and Vettel looked more composed.

When the race re-started, on lap 4 of 44, the German driver smartly blocked an overtaking attempt by Hamilton.

"I had a great restart, I kept it clean," Vettel said. "After that it was a very smooth race."

Verstappen, meanwhile, displayed his usual slick overtaking by getting past Ocon and making light work of catching Perez to move into third — delighting the orange-clad Dutch fans congregated around the 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) Spa track nestled in the Ardennes forest.

Raikkonen was the previous Ferrari driver to win here, back in 2009, but his quest for a first F1 win since the season-opening Australian GP in 2013 ended with a mechanical failure on lap 9 — the third time the Finnish driver has failed to finish this season.

Up ahead, his teammate led Hamilton by 3.5 seconds at the halfway stage, when Hamilton pitted for new tires.

Vettel came in moments later and his stop was clean enough to see him regain the lead, but only a narrow 1.3 seconds ahead of Hamilton.

Ferrari's greater speed on the straights helped him pad that advantage out within a few laps, and he coasted home.

Both drivers have five wins this season as they seek to win a fifth F1 title and move level with Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio, and move within two of Schumacher's all-time record.

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

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