F1: Round 13 – Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium – Sun Sep 7

Ahh, Spa, how we love you. And how we miss you when you’re not on the F1 calendar. You’re proof that the grand old race courses really were the best; and you still deliver drama like no other modern facsimile.

Spa’s ace in the hole is the unique weather, its ability to summon up a micro climate seemingly on demand, so that when the Belgian Grand Prix settled into a bit of a funk mid-race, it knew just what to do to deliver the kind of finish that will have people talking for days, months and years to come.

There had been rain before the race, but it stopped before the start leaving most of the circuit dry, but some dangerous wet and greasy patches here and there. The cars had no choice but to start on slicks (Nelson Piquet was a rare hold-out for intermediates, but he quickly regretted it as his race pace fell off rapidly compared with the others who sailed past him on track.)

As the red lights went out, pole sitter Lewis Hamilton’s wheels spun and he slithered away dreadfully slowly. It was an awful start – and yet still better than anyone else behind him, who were having similar problems. Hamilton made it first into La Source and with clear track in front of him he was able to start pulling away rapidly from the rest of the field.

He was helped by the two Ferraris having a spat. Mass managed to hold his line going into the hairpin, but at the cost of forcing his clearly faster team mate off the track entirely. Kimi Raikkonen took objection to that and used his superior speed to blast past Massa on the Kemmel Straight on the way up to Les Combes, no matter how hard Massa tried to block. The Finn’s mindset was evident: either I’m coming through or I’m taking us both out. One might think his entire world championship bid this year – or even his F1 career – was at stake. Which of course it was.

Once past Massa, Raikkonen showed just how much faster he was by pulling away from his fellow Ferrari. Hamilton was still extending his lead in front, so Kimi had his work cut out for him and it looked unlikely that he would be able to take the lead anytime soon.

So of course Raikkonen took the lead early on lap 2. That came about when Hamilton overcooked it going into La Source and spun his McLaren; Hamilton was lucky not to stall and to end up facing the right direction, and while the Ferraris has to take avoiding action, Lewis was about to rejoin in front. But his lead was gone and he had also lost his momentum, so that going into Les Combes Raikkonen had track position and speed – and Hamilton was dumped to second, lucky for it not to be worse.

It looked as though that one crucial error by Hamilton was going to define the race, as their strategy unravelled from there. It emerged that Hamilton had gambled all on getting (and keeping) pole, risking a very light fuel load that meant he was the first car in for a pit stop. It was only a lap less than Raikkonen, but it meant that Ferrari knew the McLaren strategy and could respond accordingly. It didn’t help that Hamilton emerged from his pit stop stuck behind traffic, and that hold up allowed Raikkonen to stretch out his lead and also potentially backed up hamilton into the clutches of Massa. Fortunately Massa was having a very anonymous day and could make no advantage from this opportunity, but the chance for reclaiming the lead was well and truly gone.

One of the slower cars Hamilton found himself behind in the midfield was his own team mate, Heikki Kovalainen. Despite qualifying third he had suffered a dreadful start that had put him behind a clash between Sebastien Bourdais and Jarno Trulli on the first turn that had forced everyone to take avoiding action. That left Heikki down in 13th place, but at least the McLaren had massively superior pace to the cars he found himself running with and he proceeded to blast past them as if they were not here.

But Heikki got careless with a lazy move on Mark Webber at the Bus Stop chicane, and he punted the Aussie’s Red Bull into a spin. The stewards took a dim view of this and quickly issued a drive-thru penalty that dumped him all the way down the order again, with all those places to make up again.

Things settled down in the mid section of he race, with Raikkonen and Hamilton leaving Massa and the rest for dead. But after the final pit stops, where Hamilton changed onto his favoured hard tyre compound, the balance shifted and Hamilton was now clearly much faster – taking several tenths per lap out of Raikkonen’s lead. With ten laps to go he was visibly much closer, but as the gap narrowed to just 1s the aerodynamic turbulence Lewis found himself in following the Ferrari checked his progress. As the cliché goes, catching is one thing – passing quite another. It seemed that Hamilton had done all he could.

Which is where Spa’s aforementioned microclimate kicked in. The teams alerted their drivers that rain was heading in and – while expected to be relatively light – it would arrive before the end of the race. They were right about the timing; but the effect was more devastating than they had forecast.

Pace abruptly fell off as the rain fell form the sky, but even crawling around the drivers were struggling to keep the car on track. They had a choice to make: play safe and get to the end however slowly, risk it all by trying to race, or come in for a change to intermediates and hope to make up the pit stop time on those that stayed out.

Hamilton wasn’t for pitting. And he wasn’t for holding position, either. Even though he’s fighting Massa in the championship rather than Raikkonen, and a clash between Lewis and Kimi would hand Felipe a massive boost for the title, he decided that he was going to make amends for his lap 2 spin by taking the win come what may.

With three laps remaining, Hamilton was all over the back of the Ferrari, diving down the outside into the Bus Stop chicane. Raikkonen stayed narrowly ahead and forced Hamilton into the run-off area, meaning that Hamilton has to lift off and yield the lead back to Raikkonen coming onto the start-finish area. But once that was done, Hamilton floored it. Raikkonen tried to weave to block him, but Hamilton got custody of the inside line going into La Source. Raikkonen hit his back wheel but neither Lewis’ rear tyre nor Kimi’s front wing sustained damage.

They continued the battle going up into the Kemmel Straight, when thy suddenly found the way ahead impeded by a slow backmarker. Hamilton had to swerve, and in the damp conditions that put him slithering off onto the grass at Fagnes, seemingly out of contention even though he managed to rejoin the track.

But the victory had been won at too high a price for Raikkonen, who was no longer in control of the Ferrari coming out of Blanchimont. It shot off to the right, then Kimi overcorrected and it speared left across the track and into a heavy impact with the wall. However would win this rain-fuelled lottery, one thing was for sure: it wasn’t going to be Kimi.

Raikkonen admitted it was all or nothing for him. “I was prepared to win or lose, but unfortunately I went off,” he told reporters. “I only wanted to win. I slid wide on the fast left hander, and tried to come back on the circuit but I spun. I needed to get points so wanted to win it or lose it but unfortunately went off. I didn’t want to finish behind we would have lost points. We see what we can do.”

Hamilton was tip-toeing painfully slowly to the end, and even at these speeds he was barely staying on the tarmac, the car snapping every which way. But he was under no danger from Masa, who was having similar problems; and while Nick Heidfeld was making up time and positions hand over fist after being one of those to decide for a pit stop to switch to intermediates despite only one lap remaining, the fact was that Lewis and Felipe were too far ahead. One lap further would have been another story entirely and they probably would have struggled to finish on the podium.

And so the race drew to possibly the slowest finish of modern times as Hamilton and Massa limped over the finishing line. It had been a heart-stoppingly tense final few minutes and one of the tensest finishes to a grand Prix in the last decade. But Hamilton had gone for pole-winning hero to spinning zero all the way back to hero in the course of a little under two hours. Not that it was over yet just because they’d taken the chequered flag …

“It was an experience and a half,” said Hamilton. “I could see Kimi ahead and after the second stop he was so far ahead, I didn’t know he had made a gap. I was pushing, pushing, pushing, I was catching him one tenth a lap.

“I was praying for rain, I wanted the rain to come, I knew how to deal with it and the heavens opened. I saw Kimi about to back off, brake a lot earlier than he did, into Turn 8 and I knew the fight was on. I don’t know if you saw when I went into Turn 12 I was going reasonably wide, it looked like Rosberg had done a spin and came back onto the track and I nearly crashed into him. I went over the grass, Kimi spun at the exit and I got it, it was straightforward from there. It was incredibly tough.”

Hamilton said Raikkonen had not been fair in their fight. “He pushed me wide. I was a little bit ahead and on the outside of Turn 1, he could have been fair<” he said. “I had no room so he basically pushed me where I would be on kerb and crash or use the exit route. I understood I had to let him past so I let him past. He was ducking and diving and I did the same and got inside. He hit me at the apex of the corner but I was gone from there.”

But the incident was investigated by the stewards, who ruled that Hamilton had gained unfairly from cutting the chicane at the Bus Stop – and handed him a 25s penalty, the equivalent of a drive-thru penalty, with the result that Hamilton not only loses the win but falls to 3rd behind Massa and Heidfeld.

McLaren have lodged a notice of intention to appeal, a spokesman saying: “We looked at all our data and also made it available to the FIA stewards. It showed that, having lifted, Lewis was 6km/h slower than Kimi as they crossed the start/finish line. Having passed the lead back to Kimi, Lewis repositioned his car, moving across and behind Kimi to the right-hand line and then outbraked him into the hairpin. Based on this data, we have no option other than to register our intention to appeal.”

The team have also made it clear that their focus will now switch to next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, on Ferrari’s home turf in Monza. “We are a racing team and now focus on Monza, with a view to extending our lead in the drivers’ world championship.”

In other news: Heikki Kovalainen, managed to work his way up to the points – only to stop on-track in those final few minutes and end up classified 10th. Sebastien Bourdais was due to take his best ever F1 finish when he crossed the line with one to go in 3rd place, only to lose four places as he struggled in slicks in the worsening conditions and slump to 7th. Fernando Alonso was cheered by fourth, narrowly missing a podium, after switching to intermediates for the final lap.

Timo Glock given a 25-second penalty for overtaking Webber under yellow for eighth place in the dying moments of the race, in an area where there were yellow flags following Kimi Raikkonen’s crash. The penalty drops him outside of the points and puts Webber into the point-scoring positions, meaning Red Bull’s consistent run of scoring continues after looking in jeapardy with that early clash with Kovalainen.

The only non-classified drivers were Nelson Piquet (who crashed out after hitting a damp spot on lap 14) and Rubens Barrichello, who retired with a gear box problem on lap 21.

The Belgian Grand Prix
Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium;
44 laps; 308.052km;
Weather: Cloudy.

Classified:

Pos  Driver        Team                      
 1.  Massa         Ferrari
 2.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes    
 4.  Alonso        Renault
 5.  Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari
 6.  Kubica        BMW Sauber
 7.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault
 9.  Glock         Toyota
10.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes
11.  Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault
12.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota
13.  Sutil         Force India-Ferrari
14.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota
15.  Button        Honda
16.  Trulli        Toyota
17.  Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari
18.  Raikkonen     Ferrari

Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1:47.930

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Barrichello   Honda                 (B)    21
Piquet        Renault               (B)    14

World Championship standings, round 13:

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Hamilton      76        1.  Ferrari               131
 2.  Massa         74        2.  McLaren-Mercedes      119
 3.  Kubica        58        3.  BMW Sauber            107
 4.  Raikkonen     57        4.  Toyota                 41
 5.  Heidfeld      49        5.  Renault                36
 6.  Kovalainen    43        6.  Red Bull-Renault       25
 7.  Trulli        26        7.  Williams-Toyota        17
 8.  Alonso        23        8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     17
 9.  Webber        19        9.  Honda                  14
10.  Glock         16
11.  Vettel        13
12.  Piquet        13
13.  Barrichello   11
14.  Rosberg        9
15.  Nakajima       8
16.  Coulthard      6
17.  Bourdais       4
18.  Button         3

I’ve written before that you can sense how things are flowing and who has destiny at their backs. Last year it was clear when destiny pulled back from Hamilton and switched to Raikkonen; but this year, it seems that fate is well and truly against Raikkonen

But is it for or against Hamilton? Before the stewards decision I’d have said that the stars were aligned for a Hamilton world championship. Now, though – is this the pivotal moment when it shifts Massa’s way? I don’t think so, not yet: the race proper proved that Hamilton has the edge whatever the off-track antics.

But meanwhile the FIA needs to be very careful. This is the second race i succession where a controversial decision has gone Massa’s way. There’s really very little doubt that he should have got a time penalty in Valencia for unsafe release from the pit box – a point underlined by the same thing happening again, and being pounced on, during this weekend’s GP2 where the championship contender Bruno Senna was penalised for exactly the same thing that Massa was let off for. And this week, the ruling that Hamilton cut the chicane seems beyond harsh, given that Raikkonen barged him off and then Hamilton gave back the place before mounting a new overtaking move. What more can a driver do? It seems that the stewards have their own view as to how everyone should drive and who should win, and aren’t averse to doing whatever it takes to make that come to pass. Which is not sport.

Lewis now leads Massa by just 2pts (pending the McLaren appeal), while Raikkonen trails his team mate by 17pts and is surely therefore doomed to spend the rest of 2008 … as Massa’s rear gunner. Oh, the ignominy.

Monza is next weekend.

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