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Button victorious, after shattering start at Spa

2 September 2012

Whatever the hopes and dreams of the drivers at the front of the starting grid for the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix - from championship front-runners Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton to the likes of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez, two of the more unexpected occupants of the front two rows - many of them would rapidly end amid a cloud of carbon fibre shards and debris, just 60 metres off the start line

As the lights went out, the initial attention was on front row man Kamui Kobayashi whose brakes were sending out an alarming amount of smoke into the air and seeming to be on the verge of catching fire. Maybe that put him off the start procedure, because he was slow to get away and was swallowed up by the field. Meanwhile Pastor Maldonado had the opposite problem from the third row of the grid, pulling off the most blatant jump start of recent times.

All of that was quickly forgotten by what ensued. Starting from eighth position, Romain Grosjean tried pulling his Lotus right across the track to try squeezing Hamilton into conceding the position. Hamilton had little time to react and didn't deviate his line or his speed, but wheels touched and after that the accident which followed was a matter of pure physics as cars were flipped up and over one another at the entry to La Source. (See the Spa crash in our special picture gallery.)

By F1 terms it was a low-speed accident; but that didn't make the in-car footage from Fernando Alonso's car any less frightening as a Lotus car literally flew over no way and slid across the front of the Ferrari just inches away from Alonso's head. Alonso was slow to get out of the car and looked understandably a little shaken when he finally emerged, and a precautionary trip to the medical centre was deemed appropriate, but Alonso was soon back in his pit garage looking fortunately no worse for wear.

Hamilton meanwhile had stalked his way back to pit lane carrying a piece of the debris from his own wrecked McLaren car, but not before having words with Romain Grosjean - words unheard, but the body language making it clear that it was along the lines of "why don't you watch where you're going?" Also out of the car was Sauber's Sergio Perez, while there was further scary footage from his team mate's in-car camera although in Kobayashi's case he was somehow able to continue running despite obvious damage.

As the safety car came out to allow the track workers to literally picked up the pieces, several cars needed to come onto pit lane for running repairs, checks and tyres: Kamui Kobayashi was lucky to be in any sort of state after being caught up in the thick of the accident, while Pastor Maldonado and Pedro de la Rosa were also in.

The chaos of the start presented drivers who had fared poorly in qualifying on Saturday with the ideal opportunity to redeem themselves. While Button and Kimi Raikkonen led at the restart, third place went to Nico Hulkenberg who had started outside the top ten. Paul di Resta was up to fourth, but Michael Schumacher had jumped all the way up to fifth place ahead of the startling sight of the Toro Rosso duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne in the top ten ahead of Bruno Senna, Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen. Even the formerly forlorn Nico Rosberg was back up to 13th with everything to play for. However, there would be no comeback for Maldonado who immediately pulled off at Les Combes with front wing damage after clashing with Marussia's Timo Glock at La Source.

The jumbled running order indicated there would be a further shake-out to come after the race restarted on lap 5, but it went nothing like anyone was expecting. Raikkonen proved no match to Hulkenberg, one of the few cars to have started the race on the harder prime tyres; Raikkonen couldn't even hold on to third place in the face of an assertive move from Michael Schumacher on lap 12.

Mark Webber demonstrated that the Red Bull was lacking in straight line speed at Spa, hitting the rev limiter as he tried to pass the Williams of Bruno Senna down the Kemmel Straight. Eventually Vettel caught up to the back of his team mate after dropping to 12th under the safety car, and put a seriously muscular move on the Australian through the Bus Stop to get ahead before Webber decided enough was enough and made a move onto pit lane. Vettel also pulled off assertive moves on Felipe Massa and later Bruno Senna at the Bus Stop in his determination to take advantage of the absence of many of his chief rivals for the 2012 championship.

Pit stops started to factor in at this point, with di Resta coming in shortly after being embarrassed by Daniel Ricciardo lasting past him with ease to steal fifth place. Ricciardo himself was in soon after, comprehensively scrambling the running order once again. Caterham caused a panic in pit lane on lap 16 when they released Heikki Kovalainen from his pit box right into the path of incoming Narain Karthikeyan and there was minor contact between the two cars.

One thing that didn't change was the race leader: Button was having a fine old time way out in front and had no need to pit yet, pulling out over 15s on Schumacher who also stayed out after the Force India of Hulkenberg peeled off into pit lane. Also opting for the long initial run was Sebastian Vettel, who was boosted into third place as a result, with the next six cars in line led by Raikkonen all having been in for their first stops.

Schumacher and Vettel almost crashed on lap 20 when Vettel tried his trademark move into the Bus Stop but coming form a long way back and locking up his tyres in the process. Complicating matters still further was Schumacher needing to come onto pit road at the same time, and two two came within inches of taking each other out, an incident race stewards said they would look at in more detail after the race.

Firmly on line for a one-stop strategy, Button pitted next time around and still came out more than a second over Vettel, who came in himself on the following lap. That left Button with an eight second lead over the two-stopping Raikkonen and Hulkenberg, with Webber and Massa also ahead of Vettel when the world champion returned to the track - but he had fresher rubber and was soon past the Ferrari for the second time today on lap 24.

Almost for the first time so far this afternoon, the race settled down into something like a period of normal, calm running. No one could be happier about that than Jenson Button, for whom the more boring and uneventful the rest of the race was the better. The worst scenario for him would have been a second safety car closing up the field and wiping out his huge lead, but none came: after the high attrition rate at the start of the race, the only car to retire after Maldonado's exit on lap 5 was Narain Karthikeyan on lap 32, when the HRT's left wheels strayed onto the dirt on the run into the Paul Frere curve and spun off into a heft hit with the tyre barriers.

A quieter second half to the Grand Prix was also very good news for Vettel, as the road in front cleared when the two-stoppers including Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Webber started to come in for their second stop. Webber's stop seemed co conclude with the team releasing him right into the path of the incoming Massa, but Webber showed more awareness of the situation than many a driver in the same situation as he held off the throttle and ran through the McLaren pit box in order not to run into the Ferrari.

As the race entered its final dozen laps, Button still maintained a huge lead of over 14 seconds over Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher, with Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Webber falling in behind them and ahead of Massa, Senna, Rosberg and Ricciardo. The best battle of the bunch was undoubtedly between Schumacher and Raikkonen for third place, with Raikkonen forcing his way around the outside of the Bus Stop on lap 32 only to then be blown away by the DRS-assisted pace of the Mercedes down the Kemmel Straight.

Two laps later, and Raikkonen tried the almost insanely brave move of sweeping around the outside of Schumacher at the 185mph Eau Rouge. Somehow the Finn managed to do it without flying off the circuit, and since the move had been accomplished after the DRS activation line, Schumacher had no DRS response to play with and almost lost a second place to Nico Hulkenberg, who did.

It was still a thrilling battle, with Webber and Massa following close behind to pick up the pieces if any of this dicing ended up in an accident. But Mercedes realised that Schumacher's second set of tyres were fading too fast to allow him to cling on for much longer, and so at the end of lap 36 they abandoned the one stop strategy and brought him in for new rubber. Schumacher wasn't alone: his team mate Rosberg was also suffering by this stage, succumbing to challenges from Vergne and Ricciardo through Les Combes on consecutive laps, before Rosberg had to follow his compatriot's lead and pit on lap 37.

The Toro Rosso duo carried on their formation flying, this time closing up on the back of Bruno Senna for eighth place. Verge went past on lap 40 on the run up the hill to Les Combes, and Ricciardo didn't even wait for the next time round before finding his own way to blast past the Williams as well. Senna accepted defeat, and like Rosberg before him he withdrew to pit lane for fresh tyres to see what if anything could be salvaged from the failed pit strategy.

Given how disastrous the tyre wear was going for several of the teams as the race approached its conclusion, it was all the more amazing that Button and Vettel were sailing serenely on at the front without a care in the world. True, Vettel was unable to do anything about Button's lead, but at the same time he had pulled out an equally massive lead over Raikkonen in third place and showed none of the drop off in performance that had beset Schumacher and the others.

Button almost had time to stop for afternoon team as he rounded Blanchimont for the final time and found the chequered flag flying for him, his first career victory at the historic Spa-Francorchamps in F1. It's a huge fillip for him in the 2012 drivers' championship, but the man with an even bigger boost in the title race was Sebastian Vettel cruising home in second place with Raikkonen holding off a looming Hulkenberg for the final podium position making it a hat-trick of world champions on display.

The dramatic start might have ended many a driver's hopes for the weekend; but for Button himself it had surely gone even better than he could have dared dream - and deservedly so, after a flawless afternoon's work saw him lead the Belgian Grand Prix from lights to flag without a single interruption. Fittingly historic stuff for such a historic circuit, which had once again delivered the goods in terms of an afternoon's entertainment.


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