Jenson Button sealed a second win of the season by the first turn of the 2012 FIA Formula One Belgian Grand Prix, with Sebastian Vettel still far behind after a stellar comeback and Kimi Raikkonen following.
But the Spa classic opened with a hail of carbon fiber. As the field launched down to the tight La Source corner, Romain Grosjean clipped the tire of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, and the two went on to take out Sergio Perez and World Championship points leader Fernando Alonso.
The immediate safety car period saw Jenson Button leading out of his pole spot, and Spa experts Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher considerably moved up the order.
But Button was not to be caught, driving a superb race on just two sets of tires, changing only after twenty laps of the fast, high hills of Spa-Francorchamps. His first win since the season opener in Australia and the first truly dominating performance of the year was made all the better by the history and scenery of the circuit.
"To get a victory here from lights to flag is very special," Button told celebrity interviewer Jacky Ickx. "Especially as it's not been the easiest year for me."
Despite starting from 10th on the grid, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel followed the McLaren having persistently and methodically overtaken all ahead and running mostly on over-worn tires.
Lotus’s Raikkonen fought tooth-and-nail throughout, even overtaking Schumacher in the harrowing entry to Eau Rouge on the way to 3rd place.
Nico Hulkenberg was once as high up the order as 2nd, but that was not to last with both Raikkonen and Schumacher--and the experience of a combined ten wins in Belgium--directly pursuing. Still, he managed 4th, compounding Force India teammate Paul di Resta's final-point grab.
With all the attention of Maranello on him after Alonso's crash, Felipe Massa turned in a solid 5th-placed drive ahead of the other Red Bull--Mark Webber--in 6th.
Michael Schumacher did not achieve a desired result on his 300th Grand Prix, having lost the vital sixth gear on a slow descent from the podium positions due to tire woes.
"It looked pretty reasonable at the start," he said, having catapulted up the order in Turn 1. "And we were following our one-stop strategy. In the end though, it did not quite work out so we decided to go for fresh tyres and attack with them. If we had not done that, I might have ended up further back. But then I lost sixth gear and there was no way to attack.
Jean-Eric Vergne led fellow Toro Rosso Daniel Ricciardo home to 8th and 9th, respectively.
But the big story of the race was the first 30 seconds. As Maldonado jumped the start, Romain Grosjean careened across the track and just clipped the front tire of Hamilton's McLaren. The two went straight on as cars ahead began to turn into La Source, and Sergio Perez was surprised with a Lotus ramping off the back of his Sauber and then rolling across the nose of Alonso's Ferrari. Kamui Kobayashi drove calmly beneath the aerial destruction, but not without sustaining some minor damage and a slow puncture, ruining the Japanese's promising race that he started in 2nd.
"This is a terrible race result after we had been doing so well in qualifying," Kobayashi said. "There was nothing I could do when a car came flying into mine after the start."
By the time the crash fully unfolded, Button was already headed to Eau Rouge and following cars avoided most of the carbon bits and flying McLarens on their left. The need for any penalty to Maldonado was negated by his pulling off-track at Les Combes with prior damage.
Officials later ruled that Grosjean had caused the crash, and have banned him from the next race, as well as fining him 50,000 Euros.
"The stewards regard this incident as an extremely serious breach of the regulations which had the potential to cause injury to others," a statement from officials stated. "It eliminated leading championship contenders from the race."
With two top championship contenders eliminated almost instantly, the points standing were thrown open for any opportunistic survivors. Vettel eventually took the 2nd spot behind Alonso and is now just 24 points behind. Webber lies a further eight behind his teammate with Raikkonen preying a single point below him. Button's win only brought him within 63 of the lead Ferrari.
In the Constructor's standings, Red Bull still leads McLaren and Lotus.
The next round, in just one weeks time, is at the famous Monza Autodromo, and promises as much, if not more, excitement than any of the thrilling races this year.