Lewis Hamilton laid out his Formula 1 World Championship credentials in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps today, by mastering truly treacherous conditions in the closing laps to secure one of the greatest victories of his fledgling career in the top flight – as Kimi Raikkonen assuredly kissed his title hopes goodbye.
With the track surface wet but the sun trying to break through the clouds in the Ardennes region an hour ahead of the start, memories of the 1998 first lap pile-up still fresh in everyone's memories, Ferrari having struggled in the rain at Silverstone and in practice this weekend and both Hamilton and Felipe Massa encountering problems on the way around to the grid, a thrilling race was forecast. The fans would not be disappointed.
As the entire field – with the exception of Jarno Trulli – took things very gingerly at the start, pole-sitter Hamilton held onto his advantage when the lights went out, but behind him all chaos let loose.
Trulli was the biggest mover, vaulting through the field like a rocket from his eleventh grid spot, and was into fifth position by the first corner until he got a hefty whack from behind from Sébastien Bourdais, sending the Toyota slightly wide and the pursuing drivers scattering in all directions. Heikki Kovalainen was arguably the biggest loser, dropping back ten places to 13th as he ran wide through La Source.
Further around the opening lap, however, all eyes were on the Ferrari pair of Massa and Raikkonen as the two scarlet machines ran literally side-by-side along the Kemmel Straight towards Les Coombes, with Raikkonen squeezing his team-mate out to move ahead into second place – and no doubt send out a warning to his employers that the fire inside him, curiously dormant for much of the middle part of the 2008 campaign, has far from been extinguished.
Behind Massa, Fernando Alonso was another fast-starter up in fourth, with Trulli fifth, the impressive Bourdais sixth and Nelsinho Piquet – the only driver to take the start on intermediate tyres rather than slicks – up five positions already to seventh.
As Hamilton began to break away at the front with the seemingly reborn Raikkonen in hot pursuit, the next drama came when Trulli spun away his good start into the Bus-Stop chicane at the end of the opening tour – almost taking Williams' Nico Rosberg out into the bargain.
That, however, was of relatively little significance compared to Hamilton spinning away his lead at the beginning of lap two, as the following Raikkonen had to take avoiding action around the outside of La Source and kept his foot in all the way along the Kemmel Straight to seize P1 – giving the lie to his McLaren rival's pre-race assertion that he will never again allow himself to be overtaken around the outside.
As Giancarlo Fisichella pitted in his force India for a new front wing resulting from the first corner fracas
, David Coulthard ran wide in his battle with Rubens Barrichello – one that would run for much of the race, with attack and counter-attack as the two F1 veterans clearly enjoyed themselves out on the greatest drivers' circuit on the sport's calendar.