F1: Round 13 – Spa, Belgium – Aug 29

As the cars sat on the formation grid, the forecast confidently proclaimed no rain for at least 30 minutes. As the cars set off, eyes went skywards and suddenly the view was full of some very black clouds; by the time the cars returned to the grid for the start, suddenly it was rain in five. And that evil cackle you heard in the distance was the mischief spirit of Spa, cheerfully opening up his box of tricks and setting to work creating a predictably unpredictable spectacle of organised chaos.

For Mark Webber, it didn’t take the rain to cause his first headache: as the lights went out, the Red Bull’s anti-stall kicked in and all he could do was sit and watch half a dozen cars stream past. That left Lewis Hamilton to take La Source first, with Robert Kubica and Jenson button fighting it out for second, which the Renault won as Button was squeezed on the hairpin apex. Next time around, however, Kubica made a slight error on the exit of that first corner and Button was able to seize the moment and make it a McLaren 1-2 with Kubica soon also succumbing to Sebastian Vettel.

Ahh, but what about this rain? It looked quite light, nothing to worry about – until the cars arrived at the Bus Stop for the second time, where it was raining heavily – and all hell broke loose, almost none of the cars making the turn without running wide. Worst affected of them all was Rubens Barrichello, in his record 300th Grand Prix, who steamed into the chicane locked in a battle with Nico Rosberg and realised that he couldn’t stop before running right into the side of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. The Williams was badly damaged – Rubens out on the spot – but amazingly the Ferrari seemed relatively unscathed and able to continue on.

The safety car came out at this point – although this seemed a touch of overkill in the circumstances – and some of the drivers took this as a cue to pit for intermediates, among them Alonso who needed a check over in any case. But the rain was drying up fast and the move to wet tyres was quickly exposed as a mistake – Kamui Kobayashi’s BMW Sauber pit crew realised this even as he sat in the pit box, aborted the intermediates and put him back out on new slicks. Alonso was not so lucky, and had to make a return visit to pit lane that put him at the back of the field, the next few green flag laps marked by his scything through the backmarkers with contemptuous ease.

Hamilton kept the lead at the restart despite a feisty display from Button, but Jenson was soon suffering from handling problems stemming from damage to his front wing. Hamilton was released, and Jenson had his hands full retaining second place from an increasingly restive Vettel in third.

As the race completed third distance, the rain radar was flashing up alerts again for a brief and hopefully light shower. Sure enough, drizzle started to descend over the Bus Stop, just as Jenson Button brought the struggling McLaren through ahead of the clearly much faster Sebastian Vettel at the end of lap 16. Unable to get past, Vettel started weaving to try and put Button off, but he hadn’t allowed for the rain making the track greasy – and the car suddenly snapped sideways. Unfortunately, that put the Red Bull’s nose firmly into the McLaren’s sidepod, ripping it to shreds.

Button was out in the clearest way possible, steam billowing out from the shattered internal workings, but Vettel was able to dive straight into the nearby pit lane entrance for an emergency front wing change. Arguably he was still in with a shout of creeping back into the points, but then the stewards handed down a drive-thru penalty for causing an avoidable accident, and Vettel’s day was well and truly up the creek.

“Obviously it was not my intention to destroy his race or mine,” Vettel said afterwards. “I tried to out-brake him on the outside. When I changed from the inside to the outside, I lost the car under braking on the bump and then I then I couldn’t really control it anymore and unfortunately crashed into him.” Button, by contrast, was downcast as the implications for his championship sank in: “It’s a massive blow – a massive blow. It hurts quite a bit really.”

Having done its work, the rain cleared up again and now it was bright and sunny as Hamilton led from Robert Kubica and Mark Webber, whose damage limitation exercise after that dreadful start was now looking really rather promising. The leaders – no longer having to play a waiting game on a possible switch to intermediates – now came in for their single planned pit stops.

Further back, Vettel was showing signs of Red Mist Syndrome as he charged through the field on his way back up the positions, seizing 11th with a move on Tonio Liuzzi through the Bus Stop on lap 27 but then cutting across the Force India’s front wing, shattering it completely and sending Liuzzi diving for the pits. Vettel looked set to get away with it, but the contact had punctured his rear left tyre and Vettel was now faced with a slow limp around a full lap of the circuit to get back to the pits. It was proving to be a totally rotten day for the young Austrian.

Hamilton, by contrast, was in complete command of the race and it looked as if only another burst of rain could change that situation. So, sure enough, the rain clouds rolled in again with ten laps to go, the rain initially set to be short, light and brief. The teams had to calculate when and if the conditions mandated a switch to intermediates, or if it would clear up again like it had in the early laps of the race.

McLaren’s information clearly leaned toward the latter and they urged Lewis to stay out, telling him it wasn’t wet enough for the intermediates, that the tyres would just overheat and wear out, so around Lewis went while other teams saw their nerve break and cars start to pit behind him. But it was a miscaluation on McLaren’s part, and the rain was heavier and more prolonged than expected – and on lap 35, coming downhill into Rivage, Lewis suddenly found the car unable to brake or turn. He was off and into the gravel and closing fast on the tyre wall. He just managed to slow up and make the turn, lightly brushing the tyre wall without harm and just crawling back onto the tarmac without losing positions to Kubica and Webber. Presented with this evidence, it was no surprise that all three of them made a straight line for the pits and a set of this season’s must-have accessories in rubberwear – the invaluable intermediates. Lewis was in and out and retained the lead, but Robert Kubica slid through his pit box and sent the pit crew scattering: Webber’s pit stop went like clockwork and he was out in second while the Renault crew were still recovering.

The rain pulsed, looking seriously wet at one point that saw Nico Hilkenberg go for a full 360 degree spin at lap 9 on lap 37. Then conditions worsened at Les Combes, and the driver to find this out was Fernando Alonso on lap 39, running wide and losing traction on the kerbing. The car spun across the track, hit the barrier, rebounded – and came to rest at right angles right across the track. An alarmed Alonso exited the cockpit as fast as he could before a car came over the crest and T-boned him, and a safety car was inevitably scrambled.

The race resumed with three laps to go, and an early spin for Jarno Trulli showed how treacherous conditions were for everyone on cool tyres after running at the safety car speeds. Everyone held their breath for a last minute twist in the tale, but Hamilton held his nerve and slowly pulled away from Webber, who clealry had Kubica well under control at this point. The three avoided problems and made it to the chequered flag, all of them looking relieved at having survived the Spa experience.

Compared to the high drama of his team mate, Felipe Massa had a rather quiet and even dull afternoon – but far more successful, sliding into a strong fourth place, ahead of Adrian Sutil whose Force India had impressive speed on the long straights of Spa.

Michael Schumacher, starting from 21st, used all his skill and experience to end up a very creditable seventh place, one behind his team mate Nico Rosberg with whom he tangled twice during the race, a move by Michael through Les Combes clipping the end of Rosberg’s front wing, but Nico getting his own back when he forced Schumacher wide at the same point with three laps to go.

Ultimately the race was little short of a disaster for three of the main championship contenders – Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel all failing to score at a critical point of the season.

For Mark Webber, he could be forgiven for ruing that dreadful start costing him the win, but in fact this was a huge step forward for him as it puts him 28pts ahead of Vettel and gives him good standing to turn round to the Red Bull team and demand that they prioritise his title bid from here on.

But unsurprisingly the happiest person in Spa was Lewis Hamilton, who not only reclaimed the lead in the drivers’ championship (albeit by a scant 3pts over Webber) but also took his first win at this historic track which is as much a part of the fabric of the sport that he loves as Monaco and Monza. After some poor performances, McLaren seemed to have bounced back just as everyone else has faltered; lets see if that can take that upturn through to Monza next time out.

Race result

Pos   Driver              Team                Time/Retired
1     Lewis Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes    1:29:04.268   
2     Mark Webber         RBR-Renault              + 1.5s     
3     Robert Kubica       Renault                  + 3.4s     
4     Felipe Massa        Ferrari                  + 8.2s     
5     Adrian Sutil        Force India-Mercedes     + 9.0s     
6     Nico Rosberg        Mercedes GP             + 12.3s    
7     Michael Schumacher  Mercedes GP             + 15.5s    
8     Kamui Kobayashi     BMW Sauber-Ferrari      + 16.6s    
9     Vitaly Petrov       Renault                 + 23.8s    
10    Jaime Alguersuari   STR-Ferrari             + 29.4s    
11    Vitantonio Liuzzi   Force India-Mercedes    + 34.8s    
12    Pedro de la Rosa    BMW Sauber-Ferrari      + 36.0s    
13    Sebastien Buemi     STR-Ferrari             + 39.8s    
14    Nico Hulkenberg     Williams-Cosworth       + 1 Lap        
15    Sebastian Vettel    RBR-Renault             + 1 Lap        
16    Heikki Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth          + 1 Lap        
17    Lucas di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth         + 1 Lap        
18    Timo Glock          Virgin-Cosworth         + 1 Lap        
19    Jarno Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth          + 1 Lap        
20    Sakon Yamamoto      HRT-Cosworth           + 2 Laps       

Retirements

      Fernando Alonso     Ferrari            37  Accident
      Jenson Button       McLaren-Mercedes   15  Accident
      Bruno Senna         HRT-Cosworth       5   +39 Laps
      Rubens Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth  0   Accident

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:49.069s

World championship standings

Pos Driver                Pts	Pos Team                  Pts
1   Lewis Hamilton        182	1   RBR-Renault           330
2   Mark Webber           179	2   McLaren-Mercedes      329
3   Sebastian Vettel      151	3   Ferrari               250
4   Jenson Button         147	4   Mercedes GP           146
5   Fernando Alonso       141	5   Renault               123
6   Felipe Massa          109	6   Force India-Mercedes  57
7   Robert Kubica         104	7   Williams-Cosworth     40
8   Nico Rosberg          102	8   BMW Sauber-Ferrari    27
9   Adrian Sutil          45	9   STR-Ferrari           11
10  Michael Schumacher    44	10  Lotus-Cosworth        0
11  Rubens Barrichello    30	11  HRT-Cosworth          0
12  Kamui Kobayashi       21	12  Virgin-Cosworth       0
13  Vitaly Petrov         19
14  Vitantonio Liuzzi     12
15  Nico Hulkenberg       10
16  Sebastien Buemi       7
17  Pedro de la Rosa      6
18  Jaime Alguersuari     4
19  Heikki Kovalainen     0
20  Karun Chandhok        0
21  Lucas di Grassi       0
22  Jarno Trulli          0
23  Bruno Senna           0
24  Timo Glock            0
25  Sakon Yamamoto        0
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