Hamilton produces 'perfect' display
Lewis Hamilton produced a drive worthy of the greatest race track in the world to win the Belgian Grand Prix and reclaim the championship lead just one race after losing it.
The spectacular Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes mountains tests Formula 1 drivers to the limit, and never more so than in the sort of changeable conditions in which Sunday's race took place.
Two of Hamilton's title rivals, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, failed the examination. Hamilton, by contrast, was virtually flawless all weekend and this win will surely come to be ranked among his very best.
"Perfect," was the judgement of three-time world champion Niki Lauda, which seemed about right.
The foundation for the victory was a quite brilliant final lap in qualifying, with which Hamilton clinched second place on the grid despite a light shower of rain.
From there, he was in the ideal position to benefit from a slow start by pole-position man Mark Webber, and his team-mate Jenson Button, slowed by minor damage to his front wing, backing up the pack while Hamilton built his winning margin.
Rain late in the race, though, meant it was far from an easy cruise to the finish and Hamilton survived an off-course moment at Rivage, when running in the rain on dry-weather 'slick' tyres, and the tension of a re-start after a safety car intervention to win his third race of the season.
His reward is to leapfrog Webber to the top of the drivers' standings after falling behind the Australian following Webber's win in Hungary before F1's summer break.
Hamilton's advantage is only three points but there is every chance it will increase at the next race in Italy in two weeks' time. Monza is a low-downforce track dominated by straights and chicanes - just like Canada, where McLaren finished one-two - and Hamilton will head there as favourite.
Webber, by contrast, will be viewing the trip to another of F1's iconic tracks as an exercise in damage limitation before F1 heads east to Singapore, South Korea and Japan, three circuits which will suit the Red Bull far better.
After that, only Brazil and Abu Dhabi will remain.
Webber - who celebrated his 34th birthday on Friday, and knows this could be his last chance to win the title - will be a little disappointed to have finished second after starting from pole. But far more important for him is the lead he has now established over Vettel.
He is 28 points - more than a win - ahead of his team-mate with only six races remaining. It is still too early for the team to start backing one driver over another, not least because of their massive emotional and financial investment in the German, but they will have no choice if Vettel does not make up some serious ground over the next two or three races.
Spa was yet another example of Vettel's propensity to make critical - and very costly - errors. They cost him the title last year, and are looking like doing so again in 2010.
After crashing into Webber in Turkey and costing the team a victory, Vettel made a beginners' error in Hungary by slipping back too far behind the safety car, earning himself a drive-through penalty and costing himself an easy win.
With the frustration of following a slower car building inside him, Vettel was closer than ever to Button as they steamed through Blanchimont on lap 16. He had a look down the inside approaching the Bus Stop chicane, but it was soon clear that Button was defending that line, so Vettel switched to the outside. But he did it too late and too violently.
Initially, the suspicion was that his error might have been provoked by the fact that it had just started to drizzle, but Button said during the BBC F1 Forum that the track was "bone dry" at that point.
Either way, Vettel lost the rear of his car and speared into the side of Button's McLaren, taking the world champion out and ending his own hopes of victory as well. A later collision with the front wing of Vitantonio Liuzzi's Force India punctured one of Vettel's rear tyres and put paid to any remaining faint hope of points.
A driver who is chasing the world championship can normally get away with one - or possibly two - such major errors in the course of a season, but any more than that and you are making life very difficult for yourself.
Vettel closes on Button's McLaren shortly before their crash at Spa. Photo: Reuters
As Lauda told BBC F1 pit-lane reporter Ted Kravitz after the race, Vettel is "too aggressive - he has to get his act together". BBC F1 analysts David Coulthard and Anthony Davidson pointed out quite rightly that Vettel is still young and has time, in terms of his career, to iron out these rough edges. They may have already ended his hopes of winning Red Bull's first world title this year, though.
Both he and Button, who is four points adrift of Vettel, have now slipped back significantly in the championship and, as Button acknowledged, this result was a "massive blow" to their hopes. They need a big result pretty soon to ensure Hamilton and Webber do not get too far ahead.
The same applies to Alonso, the third contender whose hopes suffered a major setback at Spa.
Unlike Vettel, Alonso entered this season with a reputation for incredible consistency and making very few mistakes. Yet in his first year with Ferrari he has made almost as many errors as he had in his entire career.
Knowing he needed to score heavily in Belgium and with the car to do so, there were a number. Alonso and the team chose the wrong tyre strategy in qualifying, making his first run in the top-10 shoot-out on used tyres, and setting only 10th fastest time. He expected to move up to the front with his final run on new tyres, but a mistake and the rain shower cost him dearly.
In the race, he was blameless when Rubens Barrichello crashed into him on a slippery track at the end of lap one - although when you qualify in the midfield that is the sort of thing that can happen, as Hamilton and Button discovered at Spa last year, when they were taken out on the first lap.
But his gamble in coming in to fit intermediate tyres immediately after that failed to pay off, and he had to come in again two laps later to put on dry tyres. He chose the harder 'prime' tyres, hoping to pick up some places by not having to stop again, but that throw of the dice also failed to come off thanks to the late-race rain, in which he crashed.
Just as with Vettel and Button, it is not yet too late for Alonso to get back into the thick of the title fight but, also like them, it is beginning to feel as if this might well not be his year.