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 S?bastien 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.

Up front, meanwhile, Hamilton was doing his damndest to relieve Raikkonen of his inherited lead - but could never get to closer than about eight tenths of a second of his quarry as he ran in the dirty air of the Finn's Ferrari - with Massa holding a watching brief in a slightly distant third and fourth-placed Alonso the quickest driver on the track, though losing out in the high-speed sections of the circuit.

Further back, Kovalainen was continuing to recover, moving past both Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld into the top ten, whilst Trulli went boldly around the outside of Barrichello into 14th place. Following his bright start on the intermediate rubber, Piquet subsequently lost out to Mark Webber, Kovalainen - bravely all the way around the outside of the Renault rookie at the fearsomely-fast Blanchimont corner - and Sebastian Vettel.

As Raikkonen attempted to break Hamilton's spirit with a new fastest lap of the race, Massa fell ever-further away in third and Bourdais began to slip back into the clutches of Webber's Red Bull Racing, as Kovalainen - the third-quickest man on the track behind the two leaders - closed inexorably in on the three-way battle over fifth place, going all the way around the outside of Kubica on the run down to Les Coombes for sixth.

Adrian Sutil then shot across the grass and into the gravel trap on the opposite side of the track at the Fagnes chicane, as Hamilton responded to the gauntlet thrown down by Raikkonen by setting a new fastest lap of his own on lap ten, as he kept the pressure firmly on his Ferrari adversary.

Kovalainen's charge, though, would soon come unstuck as he made a clumsy half-hearted attempt to get past Webber into the Bus-Stop, seeing him spin the RBR around and earning himself a drive-through penalty for his troubles into the bargain. That error allowed Kubica back past the McLaren again, and Heidfeld past Webber, and as Hamilton and Massa pitted together at the end of lap eleven, the former rejoined critically mid-traffic - and right behind his team-mate.

Fortunately for the Woking-based outfit, Raikkonen too was in earlier than expected next time around, and though the reigning world champion's stop was three tenths of a second slower than that of Hamilton, with the Briton still tucked up behind Kubica and Kovalainen - and if anything being backed inadvertently towards Massa - his lead was not just comfortably maintained, but even extended to almost a full six seconds.

Massa's subsequent stop at the end of lap 13 promoted Q1 star Bourdais up into second place for STR, as the rejuvenated Frenchman continued to duel it out with Kubica behind, and Piquet became the race's first retiree as he spun his Renault into the crash barriers after changing over to dry tyres at his first pit-stop.

Kovalainen rejoined all the way down in 14th spot following his drive-through, ironically right behind the second Red Bull of Coulthard, no doubt giving the Milton Keynes-based squad cause for concern that history may just repeat itself. The Finn was taking no such chances second time around, however, as Vettel brought himself into play with a long first stint that saw the STR ace run as high as fourth, before feeding out into an all-German scrap over seventh place between the one-stopping Glock and Heidfeld.

Fellow German Rosberg was also running up inside the top ten following Williams' qualifying woes [see separate story - click here], as Heidfeld went all the way around the outside of Toyota rival Glock for P8 and the final points-scoring position.

Hamilton was now pulling away from the chasing Massa but still unable to close the gap on the sister F2008 of Raikkonen in the lead, whilst Barrichello became retirement number two when he parked his Honda after a loss of sixth gear led to an over-revving engine.

As the two STRs and two BMWs disputed fifth to eighth places - with just over four seconds blanketing the evenly-matched quartet - Raikkonen was the first man to blink when the second round of pit-stops began at the end of lap 25, with Hamilton following the Finn into the pit-lane and gaining some time with a quicker stop as the harder tyres he favours were bolted onto his MP4-23.

With 19 laps remaining and rain predicted before the end of the grand prix, Hamilton began to whittle down the gap separating him from the long-time race leader, taking seven tenths away from Raikkonen in the middle sector of his 'out' lap alone. He then stole another eight tenths next time around, reducing the Finn's advantage to just 2.5 seconds with 15 laps left to run, with Massa - four seconds further in arrears but devastatingly quick through the first split - not to be counted out of the victory equation either.

A strong middle stint from Bourdais - pulling out some three seconds over the pursuing Kubica - allied to a slow second stop for the Pole enabled not only the record-breaking four-time Champ Car king to preserve his fifth place, but also let both Vettel and Heidfeld past into sixth and seventh positions respectively, dropping the second BMW to eighth, with Kovalainen just outside the points in ninth, 4.3 seconds in arrears.

With seven laps left to run and rain beginning to spit, Raikkonen led Hamilton by 1.6 seconds, with Massa a mere 3.2 seconds behind the Briton - and the tension increasingly mounting.

With five laps remaining until the chequered flag and the track becoming increasingly tricky, Hamilton had the hammer down and closed the deficit to less than nine tenths of a second as the Ferrari and McLaren started to run nose-to-tail, but once he got into the dirty air - and began to make mistakes - the gap opened up again, to two seconds as the leaders crossed the line for the 41st time.

With the rain now falling more heavily, however, Hamilton again seemed to have the greater confidence of the two men up front, as he closed down on his quarry once more, and going into the Bus-Stop chicane on lap 42 of 44 he closed inexorably in and tried to make his move around the outside.

Though that failed to succeed - the pair very nearly touching as Hamilton ran out of room and had to take to the grass and subsequently surrender the place again - the British star's advantage was such that he dived up the inside into La Source just a matter of moments later, as this time he made it stick, though Raikkonen continued to dart about in the McLaren's slipstream all the way up to Les Coombes.

Indeed, the scrap brought back memories of Michael Schumacher's inspired move on the Ferrari of Jean Alesi in similar circumstances in the dying stages of the 1995 European Grand Prix at the N?rburgring, and there was further excitement when Hamilton came across Rosberg's wayward Williams into Fagnes, having to take avoiding action across the grass as Raikkonen got back past again - and immediately spun the lead back into the McLaren star's hands in the very next corner.

With Massa catching the pair of them and the race looking likely to go anyone's way, Alonso, Heidfeld and Glock all took a punt on pitting for intermediate tyres - a gamble that would pay off richly - with eight miles remaining and the track becoming increasingly treacherous.

Coming around to complete the penultimate tour, though, Hamilton twitched going through Pouhon and then Raikkonen lost control of his Ferrari heading towards Fagnes, catastrophically spinning into the wall and leaving the Finn to trudge disconsolately back to his pit garage and doubtless admit - in the immortal words of the late Enzo Ferrari - 'addio mondiale' (goodbye championship).

That left Hamilton leading from Massa, as both continued onto the last lap barely tip-toeing around, and lapping a full half a minute slower than they had been doing earlier on in the race. Once more Hamilton and McLaren seemed to be handling the situation better, as the Briton mastered the tricky conditions to retain his advantage - though he caused his team's pit wall a brief scare when he ran wide into the Bus-Stop for the final time - and come home almost 15 seconds to the good after a race of epic proportions.

Behind Massa, Heidfeld stole the bottom spot on the podium after charging around the circuit on his intermediate rubber, going all the way around the outside of BMW team-mate Kubica on his way to P3 - and his fourth rostrum finish of the campaign - at a crucial time for his 2009 contract talks with the Munich and Hinwil-based outfit

A similarly intermediate-shod Alonso overtook two cars into the Bus-Stop for the final time to come home fourth, ahead of Vettel and Kubica, with Bourdais falling back from third place to seventh on the last lap, the distraught Frenchman - as in Melbourne - losing a whole handful of points in the very dying moments.

With Kovalainen pulling off the circuit on the final tour, Glock took the final point, as Webber, the stationary Kovalainen, Coulthard, Rosberg, Sutil, Kazuki Nakajima, Jenson Button, Trulli and Fisichella completed the finishers at the end of one of the most extraordinary grands prix of recent times.

To see the race results in full, click here