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September 7, 2008

F1: Belgian Grand Prix

Qualifying

The big surprise in Q1 was Sebastian Bourdais going to P1 in a Toro Rosso – faster than anyone else. Didn’t notice which tire compound he was running. In Q2 Heikki Kovalainen (soft tire) was fastest followed by Lewis Hamilton (hard tire) and Kimi Raikkonen (soft). The Toro Rossos were still 7th and 8th I believe.

In Q3 it was Hamilton on pole followed by Felipe Massa, Kovalainen, and Raikkonen, the usual four suspects from McLaren and Ferrari. Though Raikkonen still seems to be struggling somewhat with qualifying.

Race

This one will probably go down as a classic. It was a damp start but the rest of the 4-plus mile track was dry. Hamilton and Massa made good starts. Kovalainen’s was dreadful. Raikkonen rocketed around Massa at the first turn (La Source hairpin) and used the run off area to get around. It looked like perhaps a planned move. There’s a bunch of room out there and the grip is probably pretty good. Then Raikkonen edged Massa to the grass on the long straight after Eau Rouge as he took second place.

Fernando Alonso was up to 4th and Nelson Piquet gained about 6 spots. Jarno Trulli was spun around by Bourdais. Shortly after the start Bourdais was up to 5th!

At the start of the second lap Hamilton spun at La Source and Raikkonen was able to pass him on the straight after Eau Rouge and began to pull away. This was the Kimi we are used to seeing. His lead increased to as much as 6 seconds through the course of the race.

A lot of people were probably wondering if either Ferrari engine was going to let go in light of their recent engine failures. The first round of pit stops saw Hamilton stop first. He was held up by traffic (including his own teammate) for several laps.

But after the second pit stops, Hamilton seemed to have made up a lot of ground on Raikkonen. Massa was 3rd much of the race, and then Piquet stuffed it into the tires on his own bringing out a local yellow. Bourdais ran as high as 2nd before pitting. Sebastian Vettel did well too, running as high as 4th. The Toro Rosso team has shown tremendous pace recently.

Anyway, with just a few laps to go rain started to fall and Hamilton tried to pass Raikkonen at the Bus Stop chicane. Raikkonen defended vigorously and Hamilton ended up straightlining the chicane and passing, something that is against the rules. He then backed off to allow Raikkonen to retake the position. Then at the very next turn (La Source) he managed to go around the outside of Raikkonen, and the two made light contact.

It was nose to tail all the way down the straight to Les Combes with Hamilton closely followed by Raikkonen. Both went off and used the run off several corners later (Pouhon?) when they came upon Kaz Nakajima coming back ON the track from his own off track excursion. Hamilton went far left off the track to avoid him, while Raikkonen went less left to do the same, and regained the lead.

But not long after he spun and Hamilton went by. I think there were two lead changes in that section alone. Unfortunately, Raikkonen then hit a wall and ended his day. It was a fantastic and chaotic battle enhanced by rain and changing conditions.

Hamilton won the race, followed by Massa and Nick Heidfeld in third for BMW. BMW made a great call putting Heidfeld on intermediate tires for the rain and he went from something like 7th to 3rd in the space of a lap or two. Outstanding.

Unfortunately, and make no mistake I am a Raikkonen and Ferrari fan, long after the podium ceremony was over the stewards decided to strip Hamilton of his win and demote him to third place by way of a 25 second penalty for his first pass on Raikkonen in the chicane, the one he gave back. This handed the victory to Massa, and second place to Heidfeld.

I don’t see any justification for it and I think it is another case of manipulation of the championship so that we’ll have a closer season finale, and there is the ever present specter of Ferrari favoritism. That’s not sport. Hamilton won it fair and square, and McLaren has rightfully appealed the decision.

The other aspect that makes the championship less exciting is the point system itself. There’s only a 25% difference between first and second place (10 vs 8 points). With the old system there was a 67% difference (10 vs 6 points). What the old system rewarded was winning. The new system makes it possible for the points leader to “cruise” (relatively speaking) for points finishing second or third. It rewards consistency more than winning.

In either case though, it seems there are consistent late-season FIA legal shenanigans to manipulate the championship and take it to the last race. After last season’s ending it would be a shame to have a repeat of such silly things when the on-track action is so good.

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