The French Grand Prix could have been worse for Lewis Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen, arguably the man most likely to beat him to the title, could have won. Instead, victory went to his team-mate Felipe Massa, who became the fourth driver in four races to take over the lead of the World Championship on a day when 10th place following a controversial penalty left the Englishman with his second consecutive finish outside the points.
This was always going to be a difficult weekend for Hamilton, who was obliged to start 10 grid places lower than his qualifying position thanks to the punishment from Canada where he eliminated himself and Raikkonen. That meant 13th place after he qualified third behind Raikkonen, on pole, and Massa.
The two Ferraris sped straight into the lead, while Hamilton charged his way up to ninth place after 12 laps. But then he was informed that he had been adjudged a drive-through penalty for "gaining an advantage" over Sebastian Vettel on the opening lap when he overtook the German but missed a chicane.
McLaren team principal Ron Dennis argued with race director Charlie Whiting that Hamilton had completed his move before running wide. "I think he was past him," he told ITV after the race. "I don't think he got any track position. That's my opinion; obviously it's not an opinion held by other people. There's really nothing to be gained from saying anything else."
Later, Hamilton told BBC Radio Five Live: "I did everything I needed to do to stay out of trouble, and drove what I thought was a fair race and just missed the points.
"There were four people abreast in front of me, and I was able to overtake a few of them in Turn Five. I thought I did it reasonably fairly into Turn Seven. I don't particularly think I did anything.
"I believe I was ahead on the outside, I couldn't turn in on the guy from there and lost the back end on the marbles and went over the kerb. I continued, and I don't believe I overtook by going over the kerb, I actually did it before that."
The drive-through marked the end of any real chance of scoring points, and as Hamilton dropped back to 13th place, Raikkonen was leading Massa by four and a half seconds, with Toyota's Jarno Trulli heading lightweight qualifier Fernando Alonso and Canadian victor Robert Kubica. The race began to unfold in the Brazilian's favour when Raikkonen's car began to fade around the 33rd lap. "The engine just lost power," the Finn reported. "Sometimes it lost it all, then it came back. I was slow in a straight line and out of the slow corners. It was a little bit like having a bad traction control.
"Luckily I went fast enough in the beginning to pull away from the others. But a few more laps and we wouldn't have finished the race. The car was almost stopping over the last three laps." The gap to Massa shrank from 6.6 seconds to less than a second, until the Brazilian swept by on the 39th lap and immediately began to pull away to his third win of the season.
"Sometimes you need a little bit of luck," he conceded. "Kimi [Raikkonen] had a very quick pace and it would have been very difficult for me to pass, so that was a nice present. I ran two laps longer on the fuel, but in two laps you can't be three-tenths [of a second] slower, you need to be within a tenth. So he had great pace, and maybe a little bit better balanced car. Second was already gonna be a great result, but first is even better."
Massa's sole problem was a brief flurry of rain towards the end, which made the track slippery in places.
"That was very difficult because sometimes there were coming some drops and you could see straight away that the track was not the same any more. I was slowing down more than I needed to, as I had a very good gap over Kimi. But it was not raining very heavily, so we certainly weren't thinking of changing the tyres or anything."
Raikkonen clung on for second place, and got as close to waxing philosophical as he ever can in his staccato style. "It's disappointing," he said. "We had a good car all weekend, I got the pole, and I was dealing with the race quite easily, but unfortunately it happens this way sometimes. In one way I was still lucky to finish the race, and I still take the eight points and I'm in a more comfortable position in the championship. It was just an unlucky situation." Luck is always relative, of course.
Massa's 10-point haul moved him to first place with 48 points ahead of Kubica whose relatively undramatic fifth place in a BMW Sauber that, for the first time this season, appeared to lack bite, left him second on 46, three clear of Raikkonen. Hamilton, stranded on the 38 points he had garnered up to the Montreal race, trails as he heads into his crucial home circuit in two weeks.
At a time when there is as much talk about moving the French Grand Prix to Paris as there is of revamping its current home, Magny-Cours did itself no favours thanks to a crushingly dull race which was really only enlivened in the closing stages as Trulli battled to fend off Hamilton's McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen. The Finn got a run on the Italian on the penultimate lap and was alongside when Trulli took his line for the upcoming curve and they rubbed wheels.
Dedicating his podium finish to the late Toyota rally star and former team principal Ove Andersson who died last week, Trulli added: "I did my job and kept a decent line. I didn't want to lose a position. Everybody knows me, I am hard to pass and fight to the end."
Massa's triumph makes him the first Brazilian since the late Ayrton Senna after the Monaco Grand Prix in 1993 to head the world championship points table. "My dream is not just to lead the championship but to win it, and I'm gonna do the best I can to achieve that," he said. "But for sure it's a nice feeling."
Magny-Cours race details
1 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1hr 31:50.245 sec
2 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari +17.984sec
3 J Trulli (It) Toyota +28.25sec
4 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren +28.929sec
5 R Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber +30.512sec
6 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault +40.304sec
7 N Piquet (Br) Renault +41.033sec
8 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +43.372sec
9 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault +51.072sec
10 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren +54.521sec
11 T Glock (Ger) Toyota +57.738
12 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +58.065sec
13 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber +1:02.079sec
14 R Barrichello (Br) Honda +1 lap
15 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota +1 lap
16 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota +1 lap
17 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1 lap
18 G Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari +1 lap
19 A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari +1 lap
Retired: J Button (GB) Honda 54 laps completed
Fastest Lap: Raikkonen, 1:16.63sec, lap 16.
1 Ferrari 91pt
2 BMW Sauber 74
3 McLaren-Mercedes 58
4 RedBull-Renault 24
5 Toyota 23
6 Williams-Toyota 15
7 Renault 12
8 Honda 8
9 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 7
10 Force India-Ferrari 0
11 Super Aguri-Honda* 0
*Super Aguri-Honda have withdrawn from the 2008 Formula One championship