The cloud that threatened rain for Lewis Hamilton's world championship parade finally blew away late last night in a wind of farce that came close to making the sport's governing body a laughing stock.
The 22-year-old Englishman, leader of the points table after 15 of the 17 races following a stunning victory in Japan last weekend, faced trial by YouTube after the Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost drew the FIA's attention to a Japanese fan's amateur video of the incident in Fuji when Hamilton braked to avoid running into the safety car, and triggered an incident in which Red Bull's Mark Webber also had to slow down and was tailgated by his Toro Rosso stablemate Sebastian Vettel. At the time the stewards in Japan, led by Briton Tony Scott Andrews, ruled that Vettel was the guilty party and handed down a 10-grid-place penalty for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix.
Before the stewards finally decided to take no further action Hamilton, who has experienced a rollercoaster ride in his first season in Formula One that has been riddled with polemics, said: "It's just a shame for the sport and if this is the way it's going to keep going then it's probably not somewhere I really want to be. Formula One is supposed to be about hard competition and that's what I've tried to do this year, just be fair.
"If I've been in the wrong, I've been the first to put my hand up, or apologise at least, and I don't mind being given a penalty but there's been some real strange situations this year where I'm made to look the bad person, or by the looks of it this weekend could be given a penalty.
"I had a good weekend [in Japan], I don't think I put a foot wrong and I didn't do anything to harm anyone else or put anyone else in danger but I've come away to China and no doubt I'm going to be punished for something. I just think it's a real shame for the sport."
As his own team-mate questioned his tactics of continuously accelerating and then braking hard in the final section of the Fuji Speedway, Hamilton explained his actions. "If you look, I did it every lap, that's the line I raced on because it was the dry line and that's probably why I won. There was less water there but I always caught the pace car up.
"I pulled up alongside him, obviously I can't overtake him so I braked which was also giving me more heat in my brakes and my tyres. I waited for him to go away and all of a sudden Mark appeared up alongside me, I decided to accelerate and the next thing I hear is a big thud. He's allowed five car lengths behind me, I don't know why he was so close."
Tost, whose team lost a likely podium finish in Japan, had argued: "You could see quite clearly that Hamilton slows down quite unexpectedly. Sebastian would have had to have gone between the cars [Webber and Hamilton] and there was no chance.
"It was totally unexpected. It looked like Hamilton was stopping, that is why I went to the stewards."
His complaint sparked a fresh controversy as the video – subsequently withdrawn at the behest of Formula One Management – was said to implicate Hamilton in the incident. The FIA yesterday expressed surprise that it had attracted such worldwide interest, amid suggestions that the whole thing had carefully been leaked by spin doctors.
The controversy occupied minds all day in Shanghai, and it was not until the evening that the FIA's race director, Charlie Whiting, reportedly told the drivers in their briefing: "We have seen tens of drivers doing similar things behind safety cars. It is up to you to sort out how you behave."
Shortly afterwards, Hamilton, Webber and Vettel were summoned before the stewards again. The YouTube film was played before Webber and Vettel left, whereupon the stewards then played it again, together with further footage, so that Hamilton could offer his explanations again. The stewards subsequently decided that the new footage offered little meaningful insight and stood by their Japanese ruling that Hamilton had no case to answer. However, they reduced Vettel's penalty to a rap over the knuckles.
"I am very pleased that the stewards reached this decision and I am now looking forward to focusing on this weekend and the rest of the world championship," a relieved Hamilton said.
On the track yesterday, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, Alonso, and Raikkonen's team-mate Felipe Massa were separated by a mere 0.023s as they traded fastest times. On his first visit to the venue, Hamilton was little slower in fourth place.
"Both sessions went pretty smoothly," he said. "I was able to get a good handle on this circuit, the sixth new one for me this year, and completed the planned programme for today. It is a nice track, and the car felt good to drive. I am looking forward to the rest of the weekend where I expect that we have every chance for another strong result."
So long as Raikkonen doesn't win, all Hamilton has to do to clinch the title on Sunday is to finish ahead of Alonso.
Chinese Grand Prix (Shanghai) First free practice: 1 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1min 37.024sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) McLaren-Mercedes 1:37.108; 3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:37.128; 4 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:37.210; 5 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:37.707; 6 R Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber 1:38.055; 7 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:38.208; 8 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:38.217; 9 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1:38.270; 10 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber 1:38.445; 11 H Kovalainen (Fin) Renault 1:38.551; 12 R Schumacher (Germany) Toyota 1:38.661; 13 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault 1:38.700; 14 J Button (GB) Honda 1:38.942; 15 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:38.945; 16 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 1:39.238; 17 V Liuzzi (It) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.497; 18 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 1:39.535; 19 A Davidson (GB) Super Aguri-Honda 1:39.539; 20 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.898; 21 S Yamamoto (Japan) Spyker-Ferrari 1:40.126; 22 A Sutil (Ger) Spyker-Ferrari 1:40.149. Second free practice: 1 Raikkonen 1:36.607; 2 Alonso 1:36.613; 3 Massa 1:36.630; 4 Hamilton 1:36.876; 5 Trulli 1:37.151; 6 Webber 1:37.450; 7 Schumacher 1:37.524; 8 Coulthard 1:37.617; 9 Rosberg 1:37.646; 10 Fisichella 1:37.970; 11 Kovalainen 1:38.062; 12 Button 1:38.205; 13 Barrichello 1:38.304; 14 Kubica 1:38.379; 15 Heidfeld 1:38.388; 16 Wurz 1:38.531; 17 Davidson 1:38.975; 18 Liuzzi 1:39.065; 19 Sutil 1:39.224; 20 Sato 1:39.360; 21 Vettel 1:39.404; 22 Yamamoto 1:40.051.