Sunday, 7 September 2008

Belgian Grand Prix: Hamilton holds his nerve in classic Spa thriller

Lewis Hamilton cemented his place at the top of the Formula 1 World Driver's Championship with a stunning victory in a rain affected Belgian Grand Prix. Despite starting from pole position it was a victory that looked highly unlikely for much of the race, as Kimi Raikkonen looked to be driving his way back into title contention on this his favourite track. However, in the dying moments of the race the rain began to fall and chaos ensued; in one of the most thrilling finishes to an F1 race in years Raikkonen ended his race and his world title defence in the crash barriers on the exit of Blanchimont corner. Felipe Massa finished second to keep himself firmly in the contest for the title, while Nick Heidfeld secured an amazing third place despite starting the final lap in ninth place!

After a morning of fun and games in the rain for the GP2 drivers the track was still damp as the main event was due to begin. There was no rain predicted for the hour or so, so all drivers barring Nelso Piquet took the option of starting on dry tyres and braving it out for the first couple of laps. From the start everyone seemed to get away relatively cleanly and Hamilton lead comfortably going into La Source. Jarno Trulli had an incredible start and was scything through the field only to be bumped from behind be Sebastien Bourdais. This caused the field to bunch up and a number of cars to run wide, with Heikki Kovalainen being the big loser dropping from 3rd way down to 12th. Raikkonen was the beneficiary as he managed to get right in behind Massa through Eau Rouge and then tow straight past his team mate into Les Combes.

By this point Hamilton had gained himself a comfortable lead and was enjoying the clean air out front. Coming into La Source for the second time though the race changed complexion dramatically. Downshifting for the hairpin Hamilton locked his rear tyres and the back end snapped loose. The half spin meant Raikkonen went wide onto the run off zone for the second time in succession. Hamilton recovered his spin very quickly and managed to just maintain his lead through Eau Rouge, but Raikkonen was so close that he was able to draft straight by him on the straight just as he had done to Massa the lap before. Raikkonen had gone from 4th to 1st in less than two laps; it seemed that he was finally getting his act in gear after weeks of mediocre performances had the paddock and press doubting his championship credentials.

Raikkonen began to creep away from Hamilton slowly but surely, with his extra downforce really paying dividends through the second sector of the lap and Pouhon in particular. Hamilton was able to stay well ahead of Massa, and he in turn was ahead of Alonso who had had an excellent start. Kovalainen was beginning to recover from his awful start and was taking positions left right and centre from the mid field runners. However, his eagerness soon got the better of him as he got a little too bold into the Bustop trying to overtake Mark Webber, and he locked up on the greasy inside line and bumped the inside of Webber and earned himself a drive through penalty. Just as that was occurring the leaders came in to pit. Hamilton was in first, and unfortunately for him ended up rejoining the circuit right behind his team mate who in turn was now bunched up behind Kubica. What little chance Hamilton had of getting past Raikkonen in the pits had disappeared, as Raikkonen pitted next time round and was able to avoid all traffic and increase his lead easily.

For the rest of the second stint the status quo was more or less maintained. Raikkonen had a 5-6 second lead over Hamilton, and Hamilton himself had a similar gap over Massa. Behind them Alonso was maintaining fourth place well, and the two Toro Rosso drivers were having a great day. Bourdais was putting in easily his best performance of his F1 career, keeping the BMW of Kubica at arm's length, and Vettel right in behind Kubica. It looked likely as though the top three or four positions would remain as they were for the rest of the race.

Thankfully for the spectators though, the infamous Ardennes weather was about to have a say in the matter. Rain was predicted to fall with around 5 or 6 laps to go, with the potential to cause some real headaches for the strategists, and cause some real stress and difficulty for the drivers themselves. First things first, the second pit stops took place and the drivers all switched to the less fancied prime tyre. Immediately Raikkonen did not look comfortable on the less grippy tyre, and Hamilton began to close in on him at a rate of knots. In looked that Hamilton may even have a chance of getting past Kimi before the rain fell, as he closed the gap to around 1.5 seconds. However, Raikkonen suddenly got to grips with the new tyres and was able to stabilise the gap at about 2 secs. Any rain now would surely set up a grand stand finish for the final laps...

And so it proved! With about 6 laps remaining light spots of rain started to fall all around the track, and the track started to get visibly slippier and the lap times increased dramatically. Hamilton was again closing on Raikkonen, and as the rain worsened Hamilton got to within striking distance. On the run up to the Bus Stop Hamilton forced Raikkonen to go very defensive, and he went for a pass around the outside. He looked to have made the position, but Kimi had other ideas. He forced Lewis wide and onto the escape road. Hamilton was told on the radio to immediately give the position back, which he did very quickly. But no sooner was Raikkonen back in front than Hamilton was attacking again. He sold him a dummy on the outside and jinked to the inside to take the lead. Kimi got a little too close to comfort at La Source trying to regain the lead and actually hit the back of Hamilton. Lewis was unfazed though, and he headed off down to Eau Rouge with his lead intact.

The rain was getting worse and worse, and each and every corner was becoming a voyage into the unknown with regards to grip levels, especially for those still trying to fight for position and without the option of taking it cautiously. Raikkonen clearly wasn't giving up without a fight, and was pushing Hamilton all the way. When they reached Fagnes chicane they came across Nico Rosberg who was recovering from a spin, and Hamilton was forced wide and onto the grass, allowing Kimi back in front. It seemed a cruel stroke of luck for Hamilton as it seemed to have stolen his victory away from him. However, Raikkonen's lead was incredibly short lived as he spun almost immediately, letting Hamilton back through. Things really were getting dangerous out on track, a fact that was to be proved by Raikkonen on the exit of Blanchimont. Hamilton looked to have overcooked it slightly and ran right across the kerbing and white lines. Amazingly this didn't send him into a spin, and he was able to continue. Raikkonen wasn't so fortunate though, as he ran wide onto the concrete run off and the back snapped wide. He was then a passenger as his car skidded nose first into the barrier and was trashed, along with any realistic hope of Kimi retaining his title.

At this point many drivers chose to pit for intermediate tyres just for the final lap, but both Hamilton and Massa decided to brave it on dry tyres. It must have been the slowest final lap in history, as both drivers coasted home desperately trying to avoid an embarrassing incident. Both kept their cool and made it home safely to secure the points and make the title battle a close two horse race. Behind them all hell was breaking loose though, as those drivers who pitted for new tyres suddenly found themselves 30 seconds a lap faster than those in front. Heidfeld was the man to gain the most, as he stormed through the field to take a highly improbable podium finish, rounding off what had been a very good weekend for the German. Alonso too had an incredible final lap to take fourth place. Spare a thought though for the poor Toro Rosso drivers, particularly Bourdais. He and Vettel began the final lap third and fourth respectively, and on for the greatest finish in the team's history. However, at the chequered flag Vettel had dropped to fifth and Bourdais all the way down to seventh amidst the last lap chaos.

So going into Monza in just a week's time Lewis Hamilton has increased his championship lead over Felipe Massa, and Kimi Raikkonen's title challenge is all but over. Yet again Hamilton has proved to be the class of the field when the chips are down and the rain is falling. The McLaren may not quite be able to match the raw speed of the Ferrari at this point in the season, but if Hamilton continues this consistency and reliability the title may well be his to lose...

Race Results

1. Hamilton
2. Massa
3. Heidfeld
4. Alonso
5. Vettel
6. Kubica
7. Bourdais
8. Glock
9. Webber
10. Kovalainen
11. Coulthard
12. Rosberg
13. Sutil
14. Nakajima
15. Button
16. Trulli
17. Fisichella
18. Raikkonen ret
ret Barrichello
ret Piquet

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