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Monday, October 1, 2007

Hamilton reigns supreme in rain-swept Fuji thriller

Championship lead grows to 12 points as Alonso crashes out

It started as possibly the worst race of the season, in treacherous wet conditions, but ended as arguably the best - so long as you were Lewis Hamilton, that is, or a fan of motor racing. For behind the Englishman, who took his fourth win of the season in brilliant style, Heikki Kovalainen held off Kimi Raikkonen by a whisker for second place as they duelled wheel to wheel.

And further back Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa rubbed wheels, pushed each wide and passed and repassed in a spirited sprint to the line for sixth reminiscent of Dijon 1979 and the battle between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. Massa got the verdict by a hair.

If you were Fernando Alonso, however, it was a day of disaster. Blown off by Hamilton, he slipped way back after his first pit stop, had several off-course excursions, collided with Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel at one stage, and then did the job properly by crashing heavily in Turn Six.

Hamilton thus leads the title chase with 107 points to Alonso’s static 95, while Raikkonen is now up to 90 points. Massa, on 80, is now officially out of the title chase with two races remaining.

This was a strange one, for sure, running under the safety car for the first 19 laps as the heavy rain refused to abate. But after that slow start it erupted into a humdinger. Both Ferraris had to make early stops after starting on standard wet tyres against official rulings that everyone should go to the line on extreme wets. Jean Todt claimed they weren’t informed, but everyone else knew.

Thus it was fast-starting Sebastian Vettel who chased the McLarens initially, with Mark Webber’s Red Bull right behind his Toro Rosso. Both the German and the Australian (laps 29 to 31 and 32 to 35 respectively) had turns leading the race after the initial pit stops, but after Alonso’s crash on lap 41 the safety car came out again and Vettel ran into the back of Webber and took them both out.

That left the way open for Kovalainen to push up to second in Hamilton’s wake, and to drive the race of his life to keep the spirited Raikkonen at bay. Behind them, David Coulthard took a strong fourth for Red Bull, having kept Raikkonen at bay for many laps. In the second Renault Giancarlo Fisichella drove unobtrusively to fifth, ahead of the scrapping Massa and Kubica, who both benefited when Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber stopped right at the end.

That retirement also opened the door for Tonio Liuzzi to score Toro Rosso’s first point of 2007. The Italian started from the pit lane in the spare car after his dry settings gamble in qualifying backfired spectacularly, exploited the team’s solid strategy, and, as a key, made up no fewer than four places as the race restarted after the second safety car period. He had a couple of offs trying to pass Spyker’s Adrian Sutil, but finally made it stick after a worthy drive.

Sutil was ninth after a decent run, while Rubens Barrichello inherited tenth from Honda team mate Jenson Button, whose car stopped on the final lap after the Briton had pitted early on to replace a nosecone damaged in a brush with Heidfeld at the start. The final finishes were Sakon Yamamoto in the second Spyker, and Jarno Trulli for Toyota.

The other retirements were Williams’ Alex Wurz who spun in Turn One and got clobbered by Massa, the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, and Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota.

Now everyone heads immediately to Shanghai for the penultimate race, and more than ever it seems that the title will be heading Hamilton’s way.