Rivals unable to rain on Hamilton's Belgian parade
29 August 2010
Two years on from losing victory in the Belgian Grand Prix in controversial circumstances, Lewis Hamilton dominated the 2010 event to thrust himself back into world title contention.
The Briton made the most of a poor start from polesitter, and points leader, Mark Webber to lead from lights to flag at Spa-Francorchamps, surviving two rain interruptions and a trip through the gravel at Rivage to claim a third win of the season and the first for McLaren with its blown diffuser system.
More importantly, perhaps, three of Hamilton's title rivals failed to score and, while Webber bounced back to secure second, Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel, McLaren's Jenson Button and Ferrari number one Fernando Alonso all went home empty handed. The revised scoring system introduced for this season, with its increased margin between first and second, allows Hamilton to return to the head of the championship standings, now leading Webber by three points 182-179, with third-placed Vettel, who endured a ragged race, 31 marks adrift.
The race started badly for Webber who, having admitted that victory would not be determined on lap one, pretty much had his words thrown back in his face. As his RB6 lapsed into anti-stall when the lights went out, Hamilton, third-placed Robert Kubica, Vettel and Jenson Button all took advantage. Such was the world champion's start from fifth on the grid, he very nearly made it a McLaren 1-2 at La Source, and wasted little time in achieving his aim.
Having fended off the eager Vettel at La Source second time around, the pair swapping places, Button blasted back to deprive a fish-tailing Kubica of second exiting Eau Rouge, while the Red Bull took to the grass in his efforts to follow the Briton through. The conditions, however, had taken an early turn for the worst, with a rain shower causing mayhem at the Bus Stop chicane.
Hamilton ran wide before rejoining, as did the majority of the frontrunners, while Rubens Barrichello, making his 300th appearance in a grand prix, found himself left with nowhere to go when he arrived, front wheels locked up, and clattered into the side of Alonso. Remarkably, the Ferrari was able to continue, unlike its assailant, but Alonso's decision to switch to intermediates proved misguided, although the ensuing safety car period at least allowed him to change back with too much penalty.
At the restart, on lap four, Vettel claimed third at the hairpin, and quickly closed on Button who, it transpired, had damaged the left-hand endplate in his defence of third early on. While Hamilton lapped a second faster than anyone, the battle for the place immediately behind was joined, with Button clearly struggling but able to keep Vettel behind on the straights, where the Red Bull was on the limiter in its attempts to pass.
Matters came to a head at the Bus Stop on lap 15, when Vettel's attempt to gain the inside line resulted in him hitting a bump as he realised the move wasn't on and cannoning into the left-hand sidepod of Button's MP4-25. This time, the assailant came off best, with Vettel able to head to the pits for a new nose. Button, however, was out on the spot, crawling into retirement with a radiator removed and drive lost. Vettel's losses were compounded shortly afterwards, however, as the stewards slapped a drive-thru' penalty on him for causing an avoidable accident, and that only accelerated what became a bad afternoon for the impetuous German.
With the weather appearing to clear, Force India's Adrian Sutil, promoted to fifth by the Button-Vettel contretemps, headed for his mandatory pit-stop, prompting those ahead of him to follow suit over the next few laps. Webber was next in, on lap 22, with Kubica, Massa and Hamilton all in within two laps, although the order remained unchanged. Only the two Mercedes drivers, running safely in the top ten despite their pre-race penalties, and backmarkers Jarno Trulli and Lucas di Grassi had yet to stop, no doubt gambling on another rainstorm heading Spa's way.
Vettel's penalty spat him out behind the second Force India of Tonio Liuzzi, and the pair waged a hearty battle on the Kemmel straight on lap 20 before the Italian asserted his authority. The VJM03, clearly inheriting some of the DNA of its Spa pole-winning predecessor, would also show its potential as Sutil blew by the works Mercedes of Michael Schumacher at the same point five laps later, and Vettel struggled to find a way to wrest eleventh place from his opponent. Again, the Bus Stop proved to be his undoing, as another move resulted in the Red Bull clipping Liuzzi's front wing with its left rear, sustaining a puncture in the process. Vettel then had to complete another lap on the deflating tyre, going a lap down and losing any chance of points, without an act of God at least, in the process.
Throughout the race, drivers were eagerly calling for updates on the weather, determined not to be caught out on the wrong rubber when the deluge arrived. When it did come, it started lightly enough that McLaren, Red Bull, Renault and Ferrari allowed their leading runners to continue into another lap, while the rest of the field decided that it was growing heavy enough to make the switch from slicks.
While there was some confusion between calling for intermediates or full wets - with the more extreme option suffering badly within a lap - Hamilton, Webber, Kubica and Massa tip-toed their way around the longest lap of the season. Just as he was reporting that the conditions were intensifying - in the hope that his team would call him in - the leader ran out of road, carrying too much pace into Rivage and taking to the gravel trap. Fortunately, the McLaren kept its forward momentum and, with some judicious use of the throttle, Hamilton was able to rejoin, and still in front.
Unsurprisingly, the four remaining frontrunners pitted for inters at the end of the lap, but Kubica threw away his chance of second place when he overshot his crew, forcing a reshuffle as they attempted to fit the fresh rubber. Webber happily took advantage, salvaging even more from his poor start, while Massa just failed in his attempt to claim a podium spot.
The intrigue wasn't done, however, and, as Vettel pitted for a fifth time - penalty included - to take on another set of extreme wets after burning his rears first time around, Alonso lost his Ferrari at the top of the hill, the result of taking too much kerb at Malmedy. With the Spaniard stranded on the right of the circuit, and unable to resume after crunching his nose and suspension against the barriers, there was no option but to call for the safety car once again.
This time, the race was suspended for a couple of laps, with the safety car running slowly enough to cause concern to Hamilton, but the Briton had no problem at the restart, twitching a little as he exited the Bus Stop, but managing to hold off the similarly squirrely Webber. Further back, Nico Rosberg redressed the moment, on lap eleven when he not only lost out to both Renault's Vitaly Petrov and Mercedes team-mate Schumacher - to the detriment of his front wing - by forcing his way by both Kamui Kobayashi and the German to claim an eventual sixth place.
Schumacher, who had started 21st, resisted the Sauber driver to hold on to seventh, while Petrov was rewarded for a sterling drive from the back of the grid by claiming points in ninth place. Tenth should have gone to the man who lined up alongside the Russian, but Pedro de la Rosa skated off with two laps remaining, handing Jaime Alguersuari and Toro Rosso the final point, despite the best efforts of Liuzzi.
There was no such drama at the front, however, as Hamilton established a cushion of just over a second to Webber, with Kubica a similar distance back in third, as Massa fended off Sutil for fourth. The winner's delight was clear to see, punching the air in the cockpit and jumping for joy on the podium, but Webber will be happy to have taken second place from a weekend where Red Bull was not expected to shine - and especially in light of his startline drama.
The series now has a weekend off before reconvening at Monza, another venue thought to favour McLaren, and there will be much head scratching at the top teams, not only to find the best set-up for the fast Italian circuit but also whether to begin making plans to back one driver for the title showdown. While Hamilton and Webber are split by just three points with six races to run, Vettel is 31 points off the lead, with Button 35 adrift and Alonso a further four off the pace. Red Bull, meanwhile, holds a tenuous single-point advantage over McLaren.