SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Refreshed from Formula One’s summer vacation, Lewis Hamilton gets back to the business of trying to close the gap on championship leader Sebastian Vettel at this weekend’s Belgian GP.

Hamilton and Vettel have traded wins this season, with four victories each and one angry exchange of words in a heated moment at the Azerbaijan GP. But Vettel’s win in Hungary last month edged him 14 points clear of the British driver before the break.

It is not a significant gap, but Vettel has been keeping his Ferrari in front all season, and Hamilton needs to increase the pressure on the German driver over the remaining nine races. There is so much at stake with Hamilton aiming for a fourth world title, and Vettel aiming for a fifth. Vettel won his last title in 2013 when driving for Red Bull.

Vettel has even matched Hamilton’s Mercedes for outright pace at times, which had been considered an unrealistic prospect heading into the season. But the track at Spa — nestled in the dense forest of Ardennes and the longest in F1 at 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) — is more suited to Mercedes because of its fast corners and long straights.

Ferrari’s last win in Spa was Kimi Raikkonen’s back in 2009, and Mercedes has won the past two years.

“We’re more confident coming to this race than a track like Budapest,” said Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, who is third in the F1 title race. “On the high downforce tracks Mercedes are very strong.”

Furthermore, if Hamilton needs any extra motivation for Sunday, he need only think about last year’s race.

Although Hamilton finished in third place, it almost felt like a victory given that he started the race from the back of the grid after incurring a 15-place grid penalty.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen will also be highly motivated to do well after letting down his traveling Dutch fans by finishing a lowly 11th last year.

Some 20,000 tickets were sold to Dutch fans in 2016 — with even more expected to be coming this time — and he also attracts a wider interest from local fans because his mother is Belgian.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track, which was very cool to see,” said the 19-year-old Verstappen, who was also born in Belgium. “This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars, which will be more challenging.”

Spa’s old and famed track features the steep run up to Eau Rouge, a firm favorite with the drivers.

“The feeling when you drive Eau Rouge is completely different to any other corner on the calendar,” said two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, who drives for McLaren. “You’re so low in the car and the gradient is so steep that as you go up it you can only see the sky. It’s completely surreal.”

Meanwhile, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa will be back behind the wheel for Williams after missing the Hungarian GP due to vertigo.

“I feel good, ready to get back in the car. I was feeling a little bit dizzy that weekend, vertigo they call it,” Massa said Thursday. “It was the first time I had this. Very strange feelings. I was not feeling good to race.”

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JEROME PUGMIRE
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