SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Nico Rosberg claimed a much-needed race win as he emerged victorious in a chaotic Belgian Grand Prix which had a Safety Car and a red flag period.
Pole-sitter Rosberg led from start to finish, looking untouchable for the majority of the race as drama unfolded all around him, most notably in a hectic opening six laps. The win slashes Lewis Hamilton's championship lead to nine points, with the world champion driving from the back row of the grid to the final spot on the podium in a weekend which has been all about damage limitation since incurring a huge grid penalty for engine changes.
The race also involved a terrifying crash for Renault's Kevin Magnussen on the exit of Eau Rouge on lap six. The Danish driver limped away from the scene of the accident before going to hospital for checks.
Rosberg's life was made a lot easier when the next three men on the grid, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, went three-wide into Turn 1 and made contact, dropping each man out of contention. Daniel Ricciardo emerged as Rosberg's closest challenger and turned in a solid drive to second, splitting the Mercedes drivers.
Nico Hulkenberg drove a great race to fourth, agonisingly short of a first career podium which may well have materialised had he not stopped for tyres just before the race was red flagged. Force India's Sergio Perez finished fifth to move Force India above Williams in the constructors' standings.
Chaos in the opening laps
The chaos started at La Source, when Max Verstappen got bogged down off the line and was jumped by both Ferraris behind him. Verstappen switched to the inside of Kimi Raikkonen for Turn 1, who was then squeezed by Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel -- who would not have seen Verstappen on the inside. Vettel hit Raikkonen, spinning around in the process, before Raikkonen and Verstappen made contact.
On the run down the hill, Verstappen's front wing came loose, while Raikkonen's car sprayed sparks from the rear for the rest of the lap -- all three men pitted at the end of the lap. The floor of Raikkonen's car appeared to catch fire at the rear during his stop, delaying him significantly in the pit lane.
Further back in the field on the crazy first lap, Pascal Wehrlein speared into the back of Jenson Button at Les Combes, waving his hand angrily in the direction of the McLaren driver. Wehrlein appeared to have more drive around the outside and was trying to undercut the McLaren driver on exit of the corner. Both men retired from the race.
On lap two, Carlos Sainz's right rear exploded on the Kemmel Straight. The Toro Rosso driver kept his car going but ended up spinning on the exit of Les Combes, before retiring further down the road with his rear wing hanging vertically off his car.
After a brief Virtual Safety Car period, the drama continued, with Magnussen spinning violently at the top of the hill at Eau Rouge and colliding heavily into the barriers. The Renault driver limped away from the incident. After four laps behind a Safety Car, the race was red flagged so marshals could repair the damaged wall.
The rest of the race
After Rosberg perfectly managed the restart and his next stint, the real interest was the battle developing for the podium behind him. The red flag had come at a perfect time for Fernando Alonso and Hamilton, who had both started on the medium tyre and were sat fourth and fifth, with many other drivers pitting immediately after Magnussen's crash after the deployment of the Safety Car.
Hamilton quickly cleared Alonso and Hulkenberg but was soon complaining about his tyres sliding a lot, prompting a pit stop on lap 22 and taking on the soft tyres. Hamilton had a used set of the more favourable medium tyre, guaranteeing he would have to stop again and meaning a podium was by no means a certainty at mid-distance.
That stint lasted just 11 laps, with Hamilton pitting again on lap 33 for the used mediums. He emerged in fourth ahead of Perez and quickly dispatched Hulkenberg, though Ricciardo was too far down the road for the championship leader to harbour ambitions of finishing second.
Away from the battle for the podium, Verstappen and Raikkonen's battle continued in the second stint, with the Dutch teenager forcing the 2007 world champion wide at Les Combes. That prompted a series of explitive-laden radio tirades from Raikkonen, who complained Verstappen's only interest "is hitting me off the circuit".
There was also nearly a collision in the pit lane between Hulkenberg and Alonso on lap 24. With Alonso nearly released into the path of the Force India, the two men exited side-by-side with Hulkenberg marginally ahead on the outside. Alonso grazed Hulkenberg's car with his tyre and did well to keep the car out of the wall, keeping position and staying inside the white line on exit. Hulkenberg turned in a great drive to fourth but will be wondering what might have been, as he had been on Rosberg's tail with fresher tyres when the red flags dropped on lap 11.
Perez and Vettel rounded off the top six, with Alonso's strong drive fading in the final period of the race as he settled for sixth ahead of Bottas, Raikkonen and Massa, who rounded out the points. Verstappen's erratic afternoon, which later saw him force Vettel off the road at Les Combes, finished out of the points in 11th. Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez's wait for points goes on as he finished 12th, though finished one place ahead of teammate Romain Grosjean.
Daniil Kvyat toiled to 14th, with the Toro Rosso's 2015 power unit brutally exposed on the long first sector despite sitting in the top ten in the early stages. Jolyon Palmer finished 15th for Renault, ahead of Manor debutant Esteban Ocon, who finished ahead of 17th-place Felipe Nasr.