Lewis Hamilton has always maintained a commendably even strain over the post-race penalty that cost him victory at Spa two years ago, but everything in his body language this weekend spoke volumes about his determination to avenge himself. And he did that with a controlled display of driving aggression yesterday as he won a dramatic Belgian Grand Prix by 1.5sec from title rival Mark Webber.
It was an afternoon when it was all too easy to make mistakes, as Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso showed, one of Vettel's misjudgements costing Jenson Button dearly. Hamilton himself made one agonising error but just got away with it to score a crucial victory that lifted him back into the lead of the world championship.
Heavy rain was expected, so it was a surprise when there was just a light shower soon after the start. Hamilton slid wide on the final corner of the first lap, but so did everyone behind him, and in one ensuing incident Alonso's Ferrari was struck heavily by Rubens Barrichello as the Brazilian's record-setting 300th grand prix appearance ended ignominiously. Later, Alonso himself crashed.
Hamilton pulled away as the track dried, and behind him Button recovered to second place after a duffing up from Renault's Robert Kubica and Vettel. Further back, Webber likewise had work to do after his Red Bull's clutch balked at the start and turned pole position into seventh place.
"The clutch bogged on the formation lap so the crew adjusted it before the start," Webber said. "But it was even worse then. I did my normal procedure, but I was slow away. One micro moment is always massively exaggerated as the others hit their stride. I was lucky that it's only a short sprint to the first corner here, but I was still on my back foot through Eau Rouge."
He picked off Force India's Adrian Sutil and Ferrari's Felipe Massa, and settled in to a quartet comprising Vettel, Kubica, himself and Massa once Button had reinstated himself in second place.
Button's demise came on the 16th lap. His front wing had been damaged slightly on the opening lap, and he had lost ground to Hamilton but was containing the challenge as the foursome began to close in. But then Vettel got a good run at him through the fast sweeps before the final chicane. The German lost control, as Button braked at his normal point, and as his Red Bull twitched one way and then another it speared into the side of the McLaren.
"I certainly didn't brake any earlier than usual," Button said. "I suddenly felt a big bang in the sidepod, which ripped the radiator out, and then I lost drive. I've watched it on TV now, and I'd say it was a very strange incident. Clearly, he didn't do it on purpose, and I gather he's now apologised, but I have to say I've got no idea what he was doing. It's a massive blow to my world championship hopes."
"What happened, happened, and we can't change it now," Vettel said. "Obviously, I'm not proud of it. I lost the car going over the bumps as I was braking and unfortunately hit Jenson. I'm sorry for him."
McLaren's team principal Martin Whitmarsh, having watched another 15 points go out the window, expressed his displeasure. "Vettel's young and has a lot to learn. It looked like he went for the inside line which wasn't there, but I'd rather he did that with his own team-mate."
Vettel subsequently received a drive-through penalty, and then punctured a rear tyre after a tangle with Force India's Tonio Liuzzi in the chicane, prompting Whitmarsh to add: "I thought the drive-through was light punishment. It was not what I expect to see in F1; it was more reminiscent of junior formulae."
Now Kubica and Webber were fighting for second place. The Pole had no trouble staying ahead until the rain finally arrived – with a vengeance – on the 35th lap. The four leaders all swept into the pits for intermediate rain tyres, but not before Hamilton's heart had leapt into his mouth as he slid into the gravel in the Rivage corner that lap. It looked like China 2007 all over again, where he slid off the road in the pit entry lane, but he just managed to drive out and retain a reduced lead over Kubica and Webber.
"That was my biggest moment," he said sheepishly. "I made it all the way out to the wall and just clipped it with the edge of my front wing. Jeez, the Lord had his hand over me then and I was blessed to be able to get away with that one. I was very fortunate! It was so slippery, there's just nothing you can do. I felt I was braking early, but the thing just didn't want to stop.
"When you're in the lead you're the first one to arrive at whatever's ahead of you, so you've got to be very, very sharp and very much in control. Luckily, we changed tyres at the right time, and kept our position during the best pit stop we've done, so hats off to the team."
Kubica, meanwhile, was busy adjusting buttons on his steering wheel and slightly overshot his stopping point in the Renault pit, handing second to a grateful Webber.
"On days like these, it's very easy to come away with nothing, after a small mistake from the cockpit or in the pit stops," Webber said. "But everybody did their bit today, and I'm very happy with second place after the start I had."
Hamilton, too, was grateful not to let the conditions get the better of him. "After that last stop it was a matter of nursing the car home," he said, "but 10 wet laps on intermediate tyres was twice as bad as four laps in the wet on slicks here in 2008.
"We're leading the world championship again and I'm so grateful to be in this position. You can tell from my reaction how happy I am. Racing's in my blood and I missed it so much during the summer break. I can tick off Spa now, and I get to keep this one!"
Results and standings
FIA Formula One Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium (44 Laps):
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1hr 29min 04.260sec;
2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:29:05.831;
3 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:29:07.753;
4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:29:12.524;
5 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:29:13.354;
6 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:29:16.619;
7 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:29:19.808;
8 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:29:20.938;
9 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:29:28.211;
10 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:29:39.091;
11 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber 1:29:40.359; 12 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:29:44.155; 13 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:29:33.717; 14 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams at 1 lap; 15 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull at 1 lap; 16 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 1 lap; 17 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing at 1 lap; 18 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 1 lap; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at 1 lap; 20 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1 at 2 laps. Not classified: 21 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 37 laps completed; 22 J Button (GB) McLaren 15 laps; 23 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 5 laps; 24 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 0 laps.
Drivers' Championship: 1 L Hamilton 182pt; 2 M Webber 179; 3 S Vettel 151; 4 J Button 147; 5 F Alonso 141; 6 F Massa 109; 7 R Kubica 104; 8 N Rosberg 102; 9 A Sutil 45; 10 M Schumacher 44; 11 R Barrichello 30; 12 K Kobayashi 21; 13 V Petrov 19; 14 V Liuzzi 13; 15 N Hulkenberg 10; 16 S Buemi 7; 17 P de la Rosa 6; 18 J Alguersuari 3; 19 H Kovalainen 0; 20 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 0; 21 L di Grassi 0; 22 J Trulli 0; 23 B Senna 0; 24 S Yamamoto 0; 25 T Glock 0.
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Red Bull 330pts; 2 McLaren 329; 3 Ferrari 250; 4 Mercedes GP 146; 5 Renault 123; 6 Force India 58; 7 Williams 40; 8 BMW Sauber 27; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 10; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 HRT-F1 0; 12 Virgin Racing 0.