F1’s return from the midseason break for the Belgian Grand Prix had all the makings of a classic, with intermittent rain hampering Friday practice and persistent showers turning qualifying on Saturday into a wet-and-wild thriller.
But rain that promised so much for the latest chapter of the tight title fight between pole-getter Max Verstappen and championship leader Lewis Hamilton proved overwhelming. So severe was the Sunday deluge that a grand total of three official laps were completed behind the safety car over an event duration of three hours and 45 minutes before race control conceded the sun would set sooner than the rain would ease.
Verstappen was declared the winner, and the top 10 in qualifying order - less Sergio Perez, who had crashed on his way to the grid - were awarded half points.
To say this was a damp squib would be an understatement given the sheer volume of water involved.
Though there was little F1 could do about the weather, the outcome was nonetheless controversial for the final three laps run behind the safety car shortly before the race was called off.
The regulations state that more than two laps must be completed to meet the definition of a grand prix and achieve a final classification, and the drivers speculated afterwards that sending them out in unimproved conditions was a cynical ploy by F1 to avoid being up for a refund claim from the Belgian organisers for failing to host a race.
“Money talks, and the two laps to start the race is all a money scenario,” Hamilton told Britain’s Sky Sports after the declaration, and he later took to social media to describe the afternoon as a “farce”.
F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali rebuffed the claim, protesting that race control only followed the regulations in trying to get racing underway.
With the Dutch Grand Prix following immediately this weekend (Sept 3-5), the fallout is likely to be curtailed. The effect on the championship is anyway limited, with Verstappen closing the gap to title leader Hamilton, who was classified third, from eight points to three.
But for Williams driver George Russell, who was classified second, the furore around the race will have felt like distant background noise as he took his first step onto a Formula 1 podium.
The 23-year-old Briton has long been heralded as a future F1 great, having arrived in the sport in 2019 with three junior titles to his name and Mercedes backing, but his Williams machinery has hamstrung his results.
Indeed it took him until the Hungarian Grand Prix in August, his 48th Williams start, to score his first points for the team, ending its two-year points drought.
In Budapest Russell was emotional for having finally delivered a score for his F1 alma mater, but in Belgium he was pleased and composed. The podium had been just reward for qualifying a sensational second on a sopping-wet Saturday track and a neat underline on his growth and achievements racing quietly in the field’s lower reaches.
And while more than likely it will be his final podium for Williams, he’s unlikely to have to wait much longer for his next rostrum appearance. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted he’s made a decision on whether Russell or Valtteri Bottas will partner Hamilton next season, and an announcement is due imminently, once the other driver finalises a deal with another team.
Few expect anything other than a richly deserved promotion for Russell to the title-winning Mercedes team next season, with whom many more podiums and race victories are almost certain and by which time the bizarre circumstances of the Belgian Grand Prix will have long faded from F1’s collective memory.