Maybe it would have been better for the Formula One drivers’ championship had those Greenpeace protestors managed to properly disrupt Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

It was the only thing that might have put the brakes on Sebastian Vettel. The rain, normally so reliable around these parts, never materialised. Neither did much in the way of opposition.

Instead a rather tame affair by Spa’s admittedly elevated standards ended with Red Bull’s young German cruising home, 18 seconds clear of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, over whom he increased his lead in the title race to 46 points.

It was Vettel’s 31st career victory, drawing him level with Nigel Mansell in the all-time list at just 26 years of age, and took him one step closer to what will surely now be a fourth consecutive world title, a sequence as bright as the highlights in his hair which were the object of so much derision over the weekend.

Vettel is likely to have the last laugh. Certainly Lewis Hamilton, who could only finish third here despite starting from pole, was not mocking his rival.

While not completely giving up on this year’s championship, the Mercedes driver, who now has a daunting deficit of 56 points to make up, admitted it would be well nigh impossible to overhaul Vettel unless the German retires from a few races.

“It is a big, big gap to Seb so it is going to be very, very tough [if he finishes every race] but I am going to keep pushing,” he promised.

“He has had a phenomenal car for a long time and he does the job very well. But we have had some strong races in the past and have beaten them so it doesn’t mean we can’t do that [again]. But it is getting closer to the point where we need to finish ahead of him every single time in order to be able to close that gap before the end of the season.”

Hamilton, who has a tendency to err towards doom and gloom in the wake of such results, was admirably upbeat all things considered. He has returned from his summer break in good spirits and that positive mindset shone through even after Vettel's blow to the solar plexus.

Smiling throughout his interviews, the Briton reminded us that Mercedes were not expected even to be in the frame for this year’s title. Perhaps his equanimity stemmed from the knowledge that there was absolutely nothing further he could have done in order to halt Vettel’s charging Red Bull car.

After a pre-race scare that the start might have to be postponed as a result of Greenpeace protesters, some of whom managed to lower themselves from the main grandstand and unfurl a 20-metre banner protesting about Shell’s operations in the Arctic, the race got under way with the activists still dangling from the roof.

Hamilton made a good start, reaching La Source in the lead and mainting his advantage down through Eau Rouge.

A poor exit from Spa’s signature turn, however, allowed Vettel to close right up to Hamilton and then cruise past the Briton up the Kemmel Straight to Les Combes.

“Lewis got a little bit out of shape in Eau Rouge, and that was it,” Mercedes team princpal Ross Brawn admitted. “They were quicker than we were.”

They certainly were. Worryingly for Mercedes, so were Ferrari.

Hamilton lost the battle for second rather convincingly to Alonso, who made an electric start from ninth and passed the Mercedes on lap 15, after the first round of pitstops, when Hamilton ran wide at La Source. The Spaniard ended up over 10 seconds down the road, with Hamilton reporting that the Ferraris were “ridiculously” fast on the straights.

Behind them, Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen suffered his first retirement since his comeback last season, ending an incredible run of 38 consecutive finishes, the last 27 of which have been in the points, and in all likelihood, any chance he had of challenging for this title.

In his absence, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg held off Red Bull’s Mark Webber – who had another horrendous start – for fourth, while McLaren’s Jenson Button briefly threatened to challenge for serious points, trying to make a one-stop strategy work, only for his tyres to give way. He ended the race in sixth, back where he started.

There was disappointment for another Briton, as Paul di Resta’s Force India was taken out by Williams’ Pastor Maldonado, prompting the Scot’s cousin and fellow driver, Marino Franchitti, to tweet: “Did you know that Maldonado translates to Imbecile in English?”

In truth, however, this race was all about Vettel and his seemingly inexorable march towards yet another world title.

“You’d have to say that wouldn’t you?” Brawn agreed. “How many races left? Eight? That’s quite a lot of points. Who knows? Kimi’s run of races came to an end. We won’t stop trying.”

Final positions after race (44 Laps):

1 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 23mins 42.196secs
2 Fernando Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1:23:59.065
3 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1:24:09.930
4 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:24:12.068
5 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:24:16.041
6 Jenson Button (Gbr) McLaren 1:24:22.990
7 Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:24:36.118
8 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus F1 Team 1:24:38.042
9 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:24:51.743
10 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:24:55.666
11 Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren 1:25:04.132
12 Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:25:08.936
13 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari 1:25:10.454
14 Esteban Gutierrez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:25:22.632
15 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams 1:25:29.652
16 Giedo van der Garde (Ned) Caterham at 1 Lap
17 Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams at 1 Lap
18 Jules Bianchi (Fra) Marussia at 1 Lap
19 Max Chilton (Gbr) Marussia at 2 Laps

Not classified:

20 Paul di Resta (Gbr) Force India 26 Laps completed
21 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 25 Laps completed
22 Charles Pic (Fra) Caterham 8 Laps completed