The decision to demote Lewis Hamilton to third place here yesterday will long be remembered as being farcical and disgraceful by all in motor racing.
Lewis Hamilton had scored a sensational victory at Spa-Francorchamps – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat just when it seemed that Kimi Raikkonen was on course to emulate the great Jim Clark's feat of four victories in a row here after dominating the race.
Then the race stewards adjudged Hamilton to have gained advantage by cutting a chicane and gave him a ridiculous retrospective 25-second penalty, which dropped him to third and rendered the race a joke.
Hamilton led initially from pole position until he spun in the damp first corner on the second lap, handing the advantage to Raikkonen. He admitted that thereafter he pushed "every limit" in what appeared to be vain pursuit. With eight laps left to run Raikkonen had a 2.1-second lead, and Hamilton lost further time lapping Kazuki Nakajima. But then it began to rain and suddenly Hamilton was challenging the Ferrari driver after the Finn lost 1.3 seconds on the 42nd lap.
"It was an experience and a half. I could see Kimi, and after the second pit stop I was thinking, 'How did he get so far ahead?' I was just pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to close the gap. I would pull back a tenth at a time, and then he'd pull away. I was hoping that he'd catch traffic, and sometimes he got it on the straight and got a tow, and sometimes I'd get it in a corner. Going through Eau Rouge I could see clouds and I was praying, 'Please, rain, rain, rain!' I knew how to deal with it. Then I saw Kimi begin to back off and brake earlier than he normally would for turn eight, so I knew it was on."
A hitherto dull race was then brought to life by a high-speed game of cat and mouse between two of the best drivers in the world, a matter of who could control their car better on a surface like an ice rink. Going into the chicane at the end of the 42nd lap, Hamilton pulled alongside Raikkonen on the outside. And this was where the alleged incident occurred. "I was in a good position to dive inside him and he covered his spot," Hamilton said. "He braked early, so I went round outside and left him enough room yet he accelerated, or picked up more pace in the corner, and drove me as wide as he possibly could, so I had no room left. I thought, 'If I stay where I am I can try to go over the green astroturf bit and hit him, or go left.' The latter was the option I had to do, so I did it."
Hamilton inched ahead, but knew he had contravened the rules by effectively cutting the corner and gaining an advantage. "I knew I had to let him past and the team said so on the radio, so I did before we crossed the line. I waited until I saw him come by, then got back in his slipstream. "Going down to turn one he was ducking and diving left and right, and I did the same and got inside. He hit me in the apex of the corner, but I was pretty much gone by then."
But not for long. Both found themselves in trouble as they came out of turn 11. "In turn 10 we both had oversteer moments going in," Hamilton said. "I was very lucky to catch mine. Kimi was on a much wider line." Stretching the rules as far as he could, the Finn was using the grippier run-off area.
"I braked very early for turn 12, and saw Nico Rosberg ahead of me, after a spin. He was driving more towards me and I was running relatively wide towards him, so I had to turn to the left to dodge the Williams. Kimi was right with me, and we both nearly hit him. Kimi overtook both of us as I went over the grass, and I thought I had lost then, but then I saw Kimi spin ... we were chopping and changing, it was so much fun. My heart was racing more than it ever has before!"
As Hamilton regained the lead, Raikkonen's renewed efforts to counter-attack proved his undoing as he spun and crashed in turn 13, throwing eight points away as he tried to keep in play. Hamilton was almost home, if not dry, but there was still a lot of juggling to do to keep his McLaren on the track.
Further back, Nick Heidfeld, Fernando Alonso, Timo Glock, Rosberg, Nakajima, David Coulthard and Giancarlo Fisichella had all gambled on lightning pit stops to switch to intermediate rain tyres. "That didn't cross my mind once," Hamilton declared. "But it was very, very slippery, and there was no temp in the tyres. You would brake 400 metres earlier than you should normally, and still arrive at the corner unsure what was going to happen. You were just guessing where the grip was. You had to turn your senses on to full power and wait to react to every oversteer. The gap between me and Felipe went from five to 10 seconds, though, so I realised he was going even slower so I just went as slowly as I could to bring it home. I thought of Kimi coming off on the second last lap, and knew it was an awful long way to go just to throw it all away."
Hamilton's main mistake had come on that second lap, however, and now he slithered home to his fifth win of the season in one of the most exciting races in years. Until the stewards – Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatthi and Yves Bacquelaine – who took none of the risk, decided otherwise.
Belgian Grand Prix details
1 F Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:22:59.394
2 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:23:13.773
3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:22:19.933 (amended time)
4 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:23:13.872
5 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso 1:23:13.970
6 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:23:14.371
7 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso 1:23:16.033
8 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:23:41.433
9 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:23:42.133
10 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull at 1 Lap
11 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams at 1 Lap
12 A Sutil (Ger) Force India at 1 Lap
13 K Nakajima (Jpn) Williams at 1 Lap
14 J Button (GB) Honda at 1 Lap
15 J Trulli (It) Toyota at 1 Lap
16 G Fisichella (It) Force India at 2 Laps
Not Classified: 17 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren 43 laps completed, 18 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 42 laps completed, 19 R Barrichello (Bra) Honda 19 laps completed, 20 N Piquet Jr (Bra) Renault 13 laps completed.
Fastest Lap: K Raikkonen (Fin) 1min 47.930 on Lap 24
Constructors' Championship standings: 1 Ferrari 129pts, 2 McLaren 123, 3 BMW Sauber 105, 4 Toyota 42, 5 Renault 36, 6 Red Bull 24, 7 Williams 17, 8 Scuderia Toro Rosso 17, 9 Honda 14.
'We have no option other than to appeal' say McLaren
In Valencia a fortnight ago Felipe Massa was investigated for "unsafe release" from his Ferrari pit. The punishment normally would have been a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, which would have denied him victory. Instead, the stewards at the meeting later fined him €10,000 and allowed him to keep his win.
At Spa, three different stewards decided that Lewis Hamilton's transgression also merited a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, but that since the race was over he should receive a 25-second penalty which dropped him from first place to third.
A McLaren spokesman said: "We looked at all our data. It showed that, having lifted, Lewis was 6kph slower than Kimi [Raikkonen] as they crossed the finish line.
"Having passed the lead back to Kimi, Lewis repositioned his car, moving across and behind Kimi to the right-hand line and then outbraked him into the hairpin. We have no option other than to appeal."