SPA, Belgium: Defending Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel won the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday to strengthen his overall lead with seven races remaining.
Vettel started from the pole to win his seventh race of the season and 17th of his career. The German led Red Bull to a 1-2 finish with Mark Webber finishing close behind.
"I enjoyed every lap today. The car was fantastic to drive," Vettel said. "If the car does what you want it to do, this place is really fun. It was a very entertaining race, with the strategy to come in early."
Lewis Hamilton`s slim title hopes took a further blow when his McLaren crashed early on. Hamilton slipped to fifth in the standings. He is 113 points behind Vettel, who leads second-placed Webber by 92 points.
Ferrari`s Fernando Alonso is third ahead of Jenson Button despite the Briton overtaking the Spaniard late in the race to take third place.
Twenty years after making his F1 debut on the same track, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher started from last place after crashing during the first lap of Saturday`s qualifying session. The 42-year-old German drove his Mercedes with style to finish in fifth place behind Alonso.
Button, coming off a victory in Hungary, started 13th on the grid.
"To come away with the third was disappointing," he said. "Who knows what would have happened if we had qualified well."
Vettel was on the pole for the ninth time in 12 races this season. But he had not won any of the previous three GPs (Britain, Germany, Hungary) and only one of the last five entering the Spa, prompting speculation he was losing his grip on the title.
Vettel won for the first time on this track and banished memories of last year`s 15th-place finish. His jubilation was evident Sunday. He stood on top of his Red Bull after the race and pumped his fists.
"What a race!" he told his Red Bull team over the race radio.
He overcame significant tire wear early on and held off Alonso when the Spaniard was applying pressure to prevail on the 4.3-mile Spa circuit — the longest and perhaps most difficult on the F1 calendar.
Hamilton pushed to overtake Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi on lap 13 and the two cars collided coming into the corner. The crash was more spectacular than harmful as debris from Hamilton`s car flew into the air. Hamilton, who has won two races this season, climbed out of his McLaren as a safety car was deployed.
"I`m not really quite sure what happened, I hit the wall pretty hard," Hamilton said. "As far as I was concerned I was ahead of whoever I was racing and then I was hit by them."
Vettel seemed to get away quite slowly at the start and Nico Rosberg raced up from fifth place on the grid to overtake him at the Le Combe turn, with Ferrari`s Felipe Massa and Alonso both passing Hamilton.
"I thought the engine nearly died for a moment, for a moment it was quite critical," Vettel said. "Then there was a bit of trouble into turn one."
On the next lap, Alonso made a brilliant move to overtake Massa on a corner, while Hamilton also sneaked past the Brazilian to get back into fourth.
Vettel took an early pit stop on the fifth lap to replace his blistered tires with soft tires. He came out of the pits in eighth place, but soon cut through the field and regained the lead when Hamilton went in for new tires on lap 11. Within minutes, Hamilton was out of the race despite his team telling him over the radio to "take it easy."
By the halfway stage, Vettel regained the lead but the German had already come in twice to get new soft tires, while Alonso — about five seconds back after 27 laps — was still on one change.
Alonso finally came in to the pits on lap 30, switching to medium tires, followed shortly after by Vettel and Webber, leaving Button to briefly take the lead until he came in for new soft tires.
Bruno Senna, driving in his first GP with Renault after replacing Nick Heidfeld, started from seventh place.
But as several cars bumped and jostled near the back of the grid at the start, the Brazilian slammed into the side of Jaime Alguersuari, who had to pit his Toro Rosso because of a broken track rod.
Senna also pitted for damage and got a drive-through penalty for causing an avoidable accident. He ended up 13th.
Alguersuari and his Torro Rosso teammate Sebastien Buemi retired, as did Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo`s HRT and Mexican rookie Sergio Perez.