Lewis Hamilton gave the best possible answer to his circling critics by defying a rain-soaked Silverstone on the way to a dominating British Grand Prix victory.
Swooping from fourth on the grid at the start, he briefly poked his nose ahead of team-mate Heikki Kovalainen then tucked in behind him until lap six when he passed for the lead.
After that, he was barely troubled on his way to taking the chequered flag more than a minute ahead of nearest rival Nick Heidfeld as all over the wet track rivals slipped, span and slid over the grass and gravel traps.
Biggest losers were Red Bull – who suffered a disastrous first lap in which David Coulthard was eliminated and Mark Webber dropped from second to almost last – and Ferrari, who proved unable to cope with the weather.
Felipe Massa span early and span often, finishing last, while Kimi Raikkonen’s race was destroyed by a strategic blunder in the first round of pit stops when the team decided not to change his tyres but send him out again on his worn inters.
Until then, he had been running second and looking threatening. Afterwards, as the rain picked up, he was no match for Hamilton’s fresher tyres and was rapidly caught by the rest of the field. A late fight-back gave him fourth.
By contrast Ferrari’s former strategist, Ross Brawn, and driver, Rubens Barrichello, combined for a near-perfect race that claimed an unlikely third place. Only an extra pit stop caused by a malfunctioning fuel rig prevented second place.
With both Massa and Robert Kubica – another victim of the wet – out of the points, and Raikkonen underperforming, Hamilton now leads the world championship by tie-break. He and the two Ferrari drivers have 48 points each, with Kubica just two points behind in fourth.
The pattern of the race was set on the first lap – while Hamilton looked confident and as aggressive as the conditions would allow, his team-mate and pole-sitter Kovalainen seemed under immediate pressure, while Massa and Webber both span – in the Australian’s case, finding himself travelling at almost full speed backwards on the racing line staring into the eyes of oncoming traffic through the murk.
Fernando Alonso was fast early on, making up ground on the leaders and dragging team-mate Nelson Piquet with him, but his team made the same tyre mistake as Ferrari and his challenge for the front faded. Piquet continued to drive with confidence and skill until lap 36 when he lost it into the gravel.
By that time, what teams expected to be a brief shower had turned into a deluge and cars were pirouetting and sliding off the track everywhere – Timo Glock, Hamilton, Kubica, both Ferraris and Webber all survived off-road adventures, Massa sending a hare fleeing as he ploughed towards it through gravel.
The Hondas found themselves queueing nose-to-tail in their pitbox as Barrichello’s fuel rig refused to work – unlike the full wet tyres that he, almost alone in the field, went out on. With blue sky visible in the distance and the ever-present danger of a safety car, everyone else stuck to inters and the Brazilian was able to unlap himself and set off scorching through the field on his way to a podium finish.
Three laps later Hamilton and the two BMWs pitted and gambled on a fresh set of inters. Although Kubica quickly lost control and crashed out, the success of the other two as the rain ended and a dry line appeared in some parts of the track showed the worst of the weather was over.
Standing water remained a constant danger – Nico Rosberg rammed the back of Glock and had to pit for a new front wing, while Glock himself went on to spin out of a points-paying place on lap 45. A few laps earlier Jenson Button had simply vanished from the race, unseen by the cameras and without explanation.
But Hamilton remained unruffled ahead, driving confidently and safely to maintain a lead of just over a minute, with Barrichello overtaking Heidfeld for second before pitting for fuel and a set of inters and dropping back to third.
Behind them Kovalainen spun to let Raikkonen and Alonso past and set the scene for a tense late-race battle for fourth place through to ninth that was not finally settled until the last lap when Jarno Trulli sneaked past Kazuki Nakajima to steal seventh.
By then, Raikkonen was safe in fourth and Kovalainen had taken fifth back. Alonso ended up sixth, ahead of Trulli, Nakajima and Rosberg. The final finishers were Webber, Sebastien Bourdais, Glock and Massa.
Celebrating his victory, Hamilton said: “It is by far the best victory I have ever had. I think it was one of the toughest races I have ever done and I was thinking as I was driving that if I win this, it definitely goes down as the best race I have ever won.
“Not only because of its history and it’s my home ground, but because I probably drove one of the best races I ever did.
“I was coming to the last lap and I could see the crowd starting to stand up and I was praying ‘just keep it on the track, just finish’ and you could not imagine the emotions going on inside. I wanted to push, I just wanted to get it round and we did.”
David Coulthard’s final British Grand Prix ended without him completing even a single lap, when he shunted his likely replacement Sebastian Vettel off the track and into the gravel at Priory, forcing both into retirement.
He admitted afterwards that he had deviated from his planned strategy of holding position safely during the early dangerous laps because he thought a Vettel mistake had created an opening.
He said: “The strategy there was to try and keep out of trouble initially, as the visibility was incredibly bad. But I was very close to Sebastian after Abbey where he had a wobble coming out, and there was a clear gap down the inside and unfortunately that was closing.
“I’m sorry for him that we made contact, and obviously sorry for Red Bull that two of its cars went out in one hit.
“The worst thing there was keeping the tyre temperatures; the intermediate requires a bit of movement to get the heat. You need to survive the first few laps then that settles down, but unfortunately today that didn’t work out.”
Jenson Button said: “It was a crazy race today with the conditions changing all the time. We had some good pace on the wet tyres for the first part of the race before the heavy shower which brought both Rubens and I into the pits for extreme wets on lap 35.
“Shortly after that stop, I hit standing water at Bridge which caused the car to aquaplane off the circuit. I tried to spin the car round but there was another car coming so I had to get out of the way, couldn’t get the car round far enough and ended up trapped in the gravel.
“There’s always a bit of luck involved in this type of race and unfortunately it wasn’t my day for luck today. Congratulations to Rubens on his third place and first podium for the team.”