If, and it remains a massive if, Lewis Hamilton wins the F1 title this year, then his first Belgian Grand Prix win should be counted as a massive step on the road towards the glory.
In a typically chaotic Spa race the 2008 champion gave a controlled, almost flawless, performance leading every one of the 44 laps around the legendary circuit. However, the drive at the front of their field was only a tiny part of story as what fell from the sky and who fell off the track made the 25 points Hamilton scored even more important – moving to the top of the points table by three points over Mark Webber.
Through two safety car periods and several short, sharp and costly (for others) rain showers Hamilton was unbeatable, the only blip in his day a bump across the Rivage gravel trap as he tip-toed around a wet track on slicks during the final bout of rain. Even off the track Hamilton remained in control, corralling the car mere inches from the tyre barriers and rejoining the track, still in the lead such as the margin he had built up over the then second-placed runner Robert Kubica.
Perhaps Hamilton got lucky. Wary of being bitten by a shower so short it failed to change conditions his McLaren team had told him not to pit until intermediates were the only safe option. Hamilton ignored the warning sign of running wide at the bus stop chicane, passing up the safety of a pitstop to follow his orders. His obedience could easily have cost him the race.
Hamilton had taken the lead from the start, pole sitter Webber making an appalling start that dropped him back as far as seventh – Button, Vettel, Massa and Adrian Sutil, joining Hamilton and Kubica to swarm past the Australian in the opening corners.
But the rain would soon make its first appearance as the field entered the braking zone for the Bus Stop chicane at the end of the first lap. Suddenly faced with far less grip than expected the first five all skated wide, and already recovering Webber the first man to keep inside the white lines and he was duly rewarded with fifth place at Massa's expense.
Rubens Barrichello found the brakes on his Williams practically useless on the wet road, the Brazilian – making his 300th GP start – arrowing into the right-rear of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari in a dramatic impact. Barrichello was forced to retire immediately, the recovery of the Williams' remains the cause of the first safety car, while Alonso, somehow, continued with seemingly little damage. However it was the beginning of a race he – like many of the other championship rivals – would prefer hadn't happened.
Already at the back of the field Alonso opted to pit, fitting new intermediate tyres only for the rain that caused his accident to stop and for the track to quickly dry out, prompting a second stop just a few laps later to switch back to slick Bridgestones.
The delays dropped the Spaniard into the ranks of the new teams, but he was quickly past them and began mounting a comeback that could potentially match his drive in Melbourne under not dissimilar circumstances. Free, thanks to his needless foray onto grooved tyres, of the need to use both dry compounds he made steady progress, making it as high as eighth by the second rain shower when the recovery came to an end.
Back on intermediate tyres he ran fractionally too wide exiting the Malmedy right hander, dropping his left-rear tyre onto the astroturf and instantly spinning the Ferrari into the barriers tearing off the front wing and mangling the front suspension. Alonso abandoned the car in the middle of the track, scrambling the second safety car and an ultimately largely uneventful three lap sprint at the end of the race – Jarno Trulli's terrifying looking spin the only late drama, the Lotus man very fortunate those behind avoided his as he rotated across the track.
If Alonso's threatened comeback drive brought to mind Australia then Jenson Button should have been Hamilton's nearest challenge, and for a time he was. The Mclaren's took the first restart 1-2 but damage to Button's front wing allowed Hamilton to gallop away as Button slipped into the clutches of Sebastian Vettel.
But rain and the Bus Stop was to be the site of more incident. Clearly faster Vettel lined up Button for a move down the inside under braking for the corner only for the Briton to take the most defensive line possible, hugging the inside line and forcing Vettel to jerk out of the slipstream to avoid mounting the rear of the struggling McLaren, but Vettel was to be caught out by the rain.
Vettel's move proved to be too sudden for the slippery track. He lost control and the RB6 spun back its nose drilling into the left sidepod of Button's McLaren bringing forth an angry plume of steam from the concealed radiators. Button, needless to say, where Vettel was able to drive straight into the pitlane for a new nose.
Already beginning his own recovery Vettel was given a drive through penalty, a little harshly given the changing wet conditions were at least partly to blame for the crash, the German's trip through the pits bringing forth and phalanx of silver clad McLaren mechanics to glare at their rival.
It would not be Vettel's last incident. Trying to pass Tonio Liuzzi (the man he had been behind when he came in for his penalty) Vettel tried to complete the pass too hastily, sliding into Liuzzi's path at the Bus Stop, wiping off the Force India's front wing and puncturing the Red Bull's left-rear tyre. Forced to complete more than a lap with the puncture – Vettel not able to make a late dive to the pits a second time – he pitted for new tyres with surprisingly little damage. Another eventful day for Vettel ended, pointless, in 15th.
The drama behind made Webber's start look like a text book getaway and the retirement of Button and the delays for Vettel gave him third place though he was unable to make any impression on Kubica's Renault – the Pole continuing to overperform in a season where Renault have been rehabilitated after a year of crisis – both Red Bull's bouncing shrilly off the rev limiter when they should have taking advantage of the slipstreams available.
Kubica, like Hamilton was almost faultless, but his one fault proved crucial. After Hamilton had escaped the gravel the top three (Hamilton, Kubica and Webber) pitted together but while the two title rivals were in and out cleanly Kubica overshoot his pit box enough to send his crew scampering for cover before readjusting themselves to change to intermediate tyres as if nothing had happened. The error, however, was enough to mean that Webber had done in the pits what he couldn't on the track – take second place.
Kubica maintained third (3.4 seconds down on Hamilton) for a third podium of the season. Felipe Massa finished an almost silent fourth ahead of Sutil – Force India showing the same sort of pace on the low downforce tracks as last year. Mercedes men Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher finished sixth and seventh, swapping positions in the final lap in the final exchanges of a battle that earlier cost Rosberg a small element of his front wing to contact. Kamui Kobayashi took more points for Sauber in eighth and Vitaly Petrov and Liuzzi rounded out the points scorers, the latter taking tenth from Pedro de la Rosa when Spaniard made his own trip over the gravel.