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.