2008 Belgian Grand Prix report


Let us begin with a simple fact – a simple fact this particular week, anyway. The penalty for almost causing a collision in the pitlane is a drive-through penalty. This we know because Bruno Senna was thus punished in Saturday’s GP2 race at Spa, and it cost him the race.

In the following day’s Belgian Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton drove a quite brilliant race, scoring his fifth victory of the season, and moving himself into a commanding lead in the World Championship, with five races to go.

After the race, though, those dreaded words appeared on the TV screens in the press room: ‘Incident involving cars 1 and 22 under investigation’.

This referred to Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari and Hamilton’s McLaren, which had been locked in battle all afternoon. “I’d been pushing and pushing,” said Lewis, “but four laps from the end I thought, ‘I can’t catch this guy’. I was praying for rain, because I knew it was my only chance to pass him. When I started getting spots on my visor, my hopes were raised – and when I saw Kimi start braking earlier, I knew it was on…”

On the increasingly slippery surface, Hamilton swiftly closed on Räikkönen, and as they approached the right-left chicane at the end of the lap, with two laps to go, he jinked left of the Ferrari, as if to pass it on the outside. Kimi, Lewis said, had braked very early, and that had presented this opportunity. Side by side into the turn, though, Räikkönen was not ready to cede, and Hamilton, keen to avoid a touch, went over the corner, in the process momentarily taking the lead.

Told by his team to let the Ferrari by again, Lewis did as bidden, but into La Source he immediately wrong-footed Räikkönen, and went by once again, there to stay. Whereupon Kimi, fighting harder than we have seen for a very long time, spun off into a wall on the penultimate lap.

The matter under investigation, apparently, was whether, although he allowed Räikkönen to re-pass, Hamilton had ‘gained an advantage’ from the manoeuvre as a whole. “I did not do anything wrong,” Lewis said, “and if we get a penalty there’ll be something wrong, but we know what they’re like, so…”

We do indeed. But even as he murmured the words, we wondered at the wisdom of it. Free speech is hardly encouraged, after all, in the Formula 1 of today.

A couple of hours later came the verdict of the FIA stewards – and perhaps we should have expected nothing else. Hamilton was indeed adjudged to have ‘Cut the chicane, and gained an advantage’, this despite the fact that Räikkönen was clearly ahead once more as he and Hamilton began their penultimate lap. It was hardly Lewis’s fault that Kimi made a novice’s mistake at La Source, and left the door wide open.

The punishment for Hamilton’s offence, the stewards decided, was a drive-through, but this – given that the race was long over – was somewhat difficult to administer, so the stewards instead added 25 seconds to Lewis’s elapsed race time, which neatly moved him from first to third, and made Ferrari’s Felipe Massa the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix. Instead of leading Massa by a comfortable eight points, Hamilton suddenly found himself a scant two points ahead.

I ask the reader now to consider the opening paragraph again, the one dealing with Senna’s drive-through penalty in the GP2 race. In Valencia, two weeks before, Massa’s Ferrari was involved in an identical incident, and after the race it was announced that the incident was ‘under investigation by the FIA stewards’.

Open and shut, surely. The penalty for almost causing a collision in the pitlane is, as we saw from the Senna incident, a drive-through penalty, and if it is applied after the race, that equates to a 25-second penalty, right?

Well, not exactly. Or at least not always. That was the punishment if you were Senna at a race in Belgium in September, but if you were Massa in Spain the previous month, it was a fine – for his team – of 10,000 Euros, which Ferrari found themselves well able to pay.

What a lucky fellow Massa is. A 25-second penalty in Valencia would have dropped him from first to third, as with Hamilton in Spa, but as it was he kept his Spanish win – and inherited a Belgian one.

This is no longer, happily, the era of Jean Todt, and we may believe Stefano Domenicali when he says that at no stage did Ferrari enter any sort of protest: rather, he pointed out, he and his driver were summoned by the stewards.

Whatever, one marvelled yet once more at this sport’s unrivalled ability to shoot itself in the foot. What we saw on Sunday afternoon was a magnificent motor race, utterly compromised and belittled by a post-race decision most considered obscenely unjust. But… perhaps we should have expected nothing else.

Massa won the Belgian Grand Prix, then, although at no point did he threaten the chief protagonists. For 40 of its 44 laps, the race was a relatively mainstream affair, with Räikkönen and Hamilton running first and second, rarely more than a couple of seconds apart. There was no lack of tension, but, as Lewis said, the closer he got to the Ferrari, the more difficult his McLaren became to drive: the old ‘dirty air’ problem which has plagued motor racing for more years than we care to remember.

At around the 25-lap mark, though, it had been announced that ‘Rain was expected in 20 minutes’, and on this occasion the forecast proved uncannily accurate. On lap 38 Fernando Alonso, running fourth, radioed the Renault pit to reports ‘drops of rain’ at one particular point on the circuit, and a couple of laps after that it began to come down rather harder, and over the entire track. That was when Sunday afternoon at Spa came truly alive, and when Hamilton did the work that won him – or should have won him – the race.

Joining Hamilton and Massa on the podium was Nick Heidfeld, and although the BMW driver had qualified well for once, you wouldn’t have put much on his finishing as high as third (which became second, of course), for he was turfed off the road by Heikki Kovalainen at the first corner, and spent the afternoon playing catch-up. At the start of the last lap, indeed, he was in eighth place.

Ah, but Nick had made a smart move. “When it began to drizzle,” he said, “I thought no one would have the balls to change tyres – so I thought I would. I went onto intermediates, and they were perfect…” They were indeed. So treacherous were the conditions by now that in the course of the last lap Heidfeld passed Bourdais, Kubica, Vettel and Alonso.

If, over the last few races, the World Championship appeared to be distilling to a fight between Hamilton and Massa, as big a talking-point, as Spa approached, was the fall from grace of Räikkönen – the reigning World Champion, lest we forget. In Ferrari circles the belief, while not publicly aired, is that for some time Kimi has done justice neither to himself nor to their car, and this they find vexing, not least because he is paid approximately five times as much as team-mate Massa.

Stefano Domenicali insisted there was no crisis involving Räikkönen, no suggestion that his motivation was not what it should be, but still, in assessing Kimi’s form, state of mind, whatever, the Belgian Grand Prix was thought crucial, for Spa is the purest of driver’s circuits – and a place in which Räikkönen has traditionally excelled. If he were to fall short here, of all places, there really would be cause for serious concern – and not only because, at two million dollars a race, he is a pricey item on any team’s budget, Ferrari included.

Through qualifying Kimi was always thereabouts, but never there, and as usual it was Massa who took the fight to McLaren.

In the race, though, Räikkönen began to drive like Räikkönen again, for the first time in months, and looked very settled in the lead, apparently heading for his fourth consecutive victory at Spa, a record which would have equalled that held by the late Jim Clark. In the end, though, it all came to nought, and Kimi was not in a great frame of mind as he left the circuit – with first practice at Monza only five days away.

Before the race Hamilton, the man on pole, was asked if he had any worries. “Not really,” he said, “although if it’s a wet race the white lines are going to be slippery as hell…”

Not only the white lines, some wag said on Sunday evening.

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