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Raikkonen puts Ferrari back on top at Spa

30 August 2009

Two races after Lewis Hamilton completed McLaren's resurrection of sorts in Hungary, Kimi Raikkonen returned Ferrari to the top step of the podium in the Belgian Grand Prix - but the Finn was made to work for victory by the surprise package of Giancarlo Fisichella and Force India.

Behind the leading pair, who proved evenly matched throughout the 44 laps, the championship battle swung one way then the other, as each of the main contenders ran into problems, before Sebastian Vettel came through to take third place and reignite his challenge to Jenson Button.

With the Ferrari only sixth on the grid, KERS could only do so much for Raikkonen off the line, but the 2007 world champion nevertheless moved up to second place - aided by what appeared to be deliberate route through the La Source run-off - as Fisichella maintained the advantage of pole position.

Behind them, the usual turn one chaos was mild in comparison to previous years, but Force India's afternoon was tempered as Adrian Sutil spun, perhaps distracted by Jarno Trulli running into the back of Nick Heidfeld ahead of him. Fernando Alonso, pinned to the inside wall, had little room to try and avoid Sutil, the Renault's front left wheel riding over its rival's wing.

There was worse to come as the field attempted to file into the Les Combes chicane, with Heidfeld taking to the grass and Raikkonen getting a little out of shape, although both managed to keep going. What happened in their wake, however, was to have a defining effect on the outcome of the race, if not necessarily the championship battle.

With team-mate Rubens Barrichello already relegated to the back of the field as his Brawn lapsed into anti-stall mode - not for the first time - as the lights went out, Button appeared to have made a positive start to the race, gaining further places from Sutil's rotation and Lewis Hamilton's slow start, he was threatening Heikki Kovalainen on the run from Raidillon.

Unable to quite get the move done by Les Combes, the Briton tried to maintain the outside line into part one, but found his right rear being tagged by rookie Romain Grosjean, pushing the Brawn into a spin that led to an expensive chain reaction that also accounted for the Frenchman, Spain's Jaime Alguersuari and fellow Briton Lewis Hamilton. The McLaren man, caught out by Button's wobble, left Alguersuari with nowhere to go, as all four cars piled into the tyre wall. With no option but to retire, the quartet is currently awaiting a stewards' decision on where the blame should lie...

With carbon fibre and car parts littering the track, the stewards' first action was to call for the safety car, and it was this decision that affected the destiny of the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix. Although Fisichella managed to get the power down sufficiently out of the Bus Stop when the field was finally released after four paced laps, Ferrari's KERS technology paid off as the leaders crested Raidillon, allowing Raikkonen to cruise past Fisichella into Les Combes.

While many expected the Finn to then disappear into the distance, however, Fisichella kept him honest, never dropping more than 1.5secs behind the Ferrari as the race quickly boiled down into a double-hander between F1's rich and poor.

Trulli, Barrichello - who also took a trip down the escape road at Les Combes - and Sutil all took the opportunity to visit the pits at the end of the opening lap, altering their strategies, but emerged behind the second Ferrari of Luca Badoer, preventing the Scuderia from book-ending the remaining runners until Trulli was forced to call it a day on lap 21. The Toyota man had been unable to pass Badoer, complaining that the Ferrari was simply too fast on the straights, and eventually succumbed a lap after a pit-stop blighted by a problem with his fuel feed.

Team-mate Timo Glock had already lost a potential points finish when the team had to switch fuel rigs during his lap twelve stop, removing Toyota's hopes of a solid result at a stroke. With Robert Kubica stopping at the same time as the German, first and second were left in race of their own, with Mark Webber having benefited from a fast start to be running fifth in the opening stages, ahead of the delayed Heidfeld, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg. Barrichello had recovered to twelfth by the end of lap ten, with Sutil behind him, both having disposed of Badoer and Kazuki Nakajima.

The leaders both stopped for the first time on lap 14, rejoining in the same order - and with a similarly small gap between them as Force India matched Ferrari all the way. At the same time, however, Webber's race unravelled as Red Bull released him into the path of Heidfeld, impeding the German and earning their charge a drive-thru'. The penalty was almost rendered academic, however, as Webber's pace immediately dropped away, allowing not only Heidfeld, but also Barrichello and Sutil to pass the Australian, while Rosberg and Glock both gained places while the RB5 trundled down pit-road.

Fernando Alonso had risen to third as Renault followed a one-stop strategy but, for the second time in three races, his hopes evaporated with a wheel problem, probably the legacy of his brush with Sutil on lap one. A potential podium was already lost by the time the Spaniard was released after 35 seconds, but the race was up when he was recalled to park up a lap later.

Having regained the lead on Rosberg's first stop, Raikkonen continued to hold sway at the front, but Fisichella refused to be shaken off, belying Force India's minnow status to dog the Ferrari's wheeltracks through to the second round of stops. Indeed, the Italian was the faster of the two, albeit marginally, but could not get close enough to worry the leader before they both stopped - again at the same time - for the second and final time.

Once more, the pair exited line astern, order unchanged, but with Ferrari - and its KERS - having allowed Raikkonen to eke out a slightly bigger advantage by the end of their out-laps. When Vettel completed his second stop, the battle was once more for the lead, but never boiled into the sort of showdown that the rain of 2008 produced, handing Raikkonen his first win in 25 races and completing a hat-trick of podium results as he again picks up his form towards the end of a campaign.

The Finn remains the only driver in the current field to have win at Spa - Hamilton crossing the line first in 2008 notwithstanding - while Fisichella ended his own personal drought with his first points since Japan 2007, and the first ever for Force India. The Italian is still being touted as a potential team-mate for his conqueror at Monza, although no-one was prepared to comment on the chances of him finally being seen in scarlet overalls.

Vettel showed what might have been for pre-weekend favourites Red Bull by overcoming the BMW Sauber challenge for the final podium position, while Kubica - despite losing partof his wing against Raikkonen's car on lap one - and Heidfeld finished in close proximity for the Germano-Swiss team, which continues to seek a buyer for 2010. Kovalainen, having somehow survived being pincered in the Button-Hamilton incident on lap one, came home in an anonymous sixth, but seventh remained in doubt to the flag.

That was because Barrichello, having tigered his way back into the points, began to see smoke from his engine as the laps wound down. Warned to back off from the pursuit of Kovalainen, the Brazilian dropped into the clutches of Rosberg and Webber, but managed to negotiate the final two laps to take a couple of points towards his title challenge. Rosberg duly kept Webber at bay for the final scoring position.

Remarkably, despite his qualifying misfortune and ensuing first lap exit, Button only saw his championship advantage cut by two points, with his team-mate remaining the closest threat. Webber non-scored for the second straight race, allowing Vettel to move back into third spot, now 19 points off the lead as the series heads to the scene of his famous first victory, with Toro Rosso, a year ago.


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