F1: Round 18 – Interlagos, Brazil – Sun Nov 2

Lewis Hamilton grabbed the F1 driver’s title in the last corner of the last race of the season, in the most dramatic championship decider F1 has ever seen – leaving race winner Felipe Massa in tears on the podium.

As if the showdown between Hamilton and Massa – on Massa’s home turf – wasn’t climactic enough, all the preparation and planning went to hell in a handbasket when it started to rain just seconds before the start of the formation lap. And when it rains in Interlagos, it rains and within seconds it was clear that starting on slicks would be suicidal. The race was delayed by ten minutes to allow the teams to change to intermediates.

And naturally the rain cleared up, the sun came out, and large stretches of the track never even got damp. But on that pit lane stretch it was clearly too wet to start on slicks or you’d go flying off at turn 1, and that meant that everyone would be starting on intermediates but that they would have to change very early in the race.

At ten past the hour, the formation lap finally got off the grid, and two minutes later everyone was staring at the red lights coming on. Here it was, finally – do or die.

Massa got away perfectly in the lead and Jarno Trulli and Kimi Raikkonen slotted in behind with no problem. Lewis Hamilton was more circumspect but Heikki Kovalainen had his back, shielding him from Fernando Alonso and Sebastien Vettel but suffering for it a few laps later when both those drivers got passed him.

Then the race went full course yellow: David Coulthard had been tapped by Nico Rosburg into turn 2, spun and got hit by the other Williams of Kazuki Nakajima, doing a lot of damage to DC’s Red Bull car on his final outing in F1. With Nelson Piquet spinning in a separate incident at the same point, a safety car was needed to facilitate the clean-up. Giancarlo Fisichella took the opportunity to come in and change to slicks, but it was clearly too soon and he was a good two seconds a lap off the pace of those still on intermediates.

At the restart, it took Massa a time but gradually he started to pull away from the others, with Raikkonen all over Jarno Trulli and both of them pulling away from a rather sluggish Hamilton in fourth. Behind them, however, all eyes were on Fisichella’s Force India: it was now only 1s a lap slower. And now it was matching the best times. And now it was setting purple sector times (fastest of the race) – Fissi was charging. The tipping point had been reached and suddenly slicks were absolutely mandatory. Who would react quick enough?

The dam broke on lap 10 when Sebastien Vettel and Fernando Alonso both came in for slicks. The next lap, Felipe Massa followed suit, and then Jarno Trulli, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton all piled in as well. But it was the drivers who had been bold and come in early that benefitted the most, and after the pit stops worked their way through by lap 14, it was Massa still in the lead but now followed by Vettel, Alonso, Raikkonen, Fisichella(!!!), Trulli and then Hamilton in seventh. And Hamilton had to finish fifth or better …

Hamilton managed to get past Truli who was struggling with the slicks and strayed onto the kerbs, wobbled and lost two more places to Timo Glock and Sebastien Bourdais shortly thereafter. But that still only put him in sixth place, and it took a ballsy move on Fisichella going into turn 1 that finally put him up into that magic position.

But all was not well with the lead McLaren, seemingly not able to find the pace in these conditions that it had shown earlier in the weekend. Now he would come under pressure from Glock and Bourdais who had both made short work of the fading Fissi. Lewis had to keep his nerve, trust the team, not make any mistakes – and hope to God that nothing went wrong, because there was no safety margin for the Brit anymore.

Up in front, Massa couldn’t have run a more perfect day. He did absolutely everything required, never put a tyre wrong all day – and if the title were decided by the performance in this one race then he would be the runaway winner. Raikkonen had one of his better performances in a disappointed 2007 series, doing the little required to support his team mate and running a strong third, but unable to dispatch Alonso ahead.

Vettel dropped out of the top three when it was revealed that he hadn’t taken any fuel at the tyre stop and so was running light. He pitted on lap 28 and emerged in sixth, behind Hamilton (now in 4th) and Glock. Hamilton now had two fast-looking cars right on his tail, and he couldn’t afford to cede even a single spot.

Glock was next to pit at the end of lap 36, and it was a long stop – 14s, clearly enough to get him to the end of the race. With fuel consumption lower than expected because of the initial rain and the fact that the rubber had been washed from the track (leading to lower lap times) making the distance just within reach, and with the wet weather voiding the normal requirement to have a stint on the soft option tyres, the strategists were clearly changing their tactics and going for a very long final stint. That was picked up by all the leaders, leaving Vettel (with his very early stop) the only one still needing an additional pit stop in the final half of the race.

Massa pitted for his final stop on lap 39, Alonso and Hamilton pitted a lap later, Raikkonen stayed out as long as lap 44 – not altogether a great move as he emerged only just in front of Lewis. But he was able to hold the position and quickly move away.

By lap 50, therefore, things appeared settled: Felipe Massa led from Sebastien Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Timo Glock, Jarno Trulli, Mark Webber, Nick Heidfeld, Jenson Button who had just made a great overtaking move on his team mate Rubens Barrichello who was a spot back in 12th; and then Nico Rosburg, Sebastien Bourdais, Kazuki Nakajima, Robert Kubica (who had started from the pit lanes after trying to start on slicks and realising the stupidity – he never recovered from the miscue), then Giancarlo Fisichella back in a familiar 17th after his brief glory on the early change to slicks and his team mate Adrian Sutil.

It was starting to look like this was it. The positions seemed fairly settled, and when Sebastien Vettel came in for that pit stop and emerged back on the track just behind Lewis – promoting Hamilton to 4th – it looked that despite Massa’s excellent efforts at the front, Lewis Hamilton had done what he needed to and would be the world champion.

This was it. Settled. Unless it happened to …

Rain.

The satellite pictures were clear: the rain was incoming, and it would hit some 3-4 laps before the end of the race. Depending on exactly when, and how hard, it could throw the race into turmoil. A lot of anxious faces looked skywards, especially from the Ferrari and McLaren pits.

The rain started in the paddock with 6 laps to go, but it was very light and not enough to trouble the cars just yet. But the clouds overhead looked dark and dramatic, and we’d already seen from the start how it could go from bright and sunny to torrential rain in a matter of seconds. Everyone held their breath …

With four to go, the rain was sufficient for BMW to pit Heidfeld from 10th place for one last throw of the dice. And a lap later the rain spiked and virtually everyone – led by Massa – thundered into the pits.

Glock was alone among the leaders not to pit, and that meant that he jumped up into fourth behind Massa, Alonso and Raikkonen. Crucially it demoted Hamilton to 5th, the absolute lowest position he could afford to finish in. If the rain didn’t substantially increase, then Glock was going to finish a comfortable 4th place well ahead of Hamilton and Vettel. It was the one possibility that the cerebral McLaren team, still confident of securing 5th and the title, hadn’t seen coming:

“Who would have thought Glock would stay out on dry tyres? We were just looking at it in the last two laps thinking; ‘Do we fight for the position with Vettel, or do we let him go, and how’s it going to happen?’ said team boss Ron Dennis. “Boy I tell you that was one hell of a call.”

And Hamilton was really struggling back on the intermediates; and he had Vettel all over his rear. Would Vettel decide to stay out of the way and not get involved in the championship battle? Well, he was running a Ferrari engine, so what do you think?! He wanted through at almost any price and to hell with Hamilton’s title chances. And quite right too – that’s what he’s paid to do.

His chance came when the duo found themselves overtaken by Robert Kubica, a lap down but at last finding the BMW’s true pace. As he went past Hamilton, Lewis slid wide – and Vettel took the advantage. Hamilton was now down to sixth with only a single lap to go: he was about to lose the championship all over again.

He had to get back past Vettel. But it wasn’t happening, the wily Vettel easily holding the place and seemingly faster off critical turns than the oddly underpowered McLaren. Try as he might, Hamilton wasn’t going to get the position, and everyone knew it. As Felipe Massa flashed past the chequered flag, the Ferrari pits – and the Brazilian grandstands – erupted into a ecstasy: Massa has taken the world championship!

Except – he hadn’t.

The timing screens were telling a different story. The TV pictures were showing Hamilton passing a shockingly slow Timo Glock: Glock’s gamble to stay out on dry tyres hadn’t worked and he lost some 17s on the final lap (or had he run out of fuel? Or did he decide to throw the race to give Hamilton the title because of some nefarious backstage deal? So the rumours started to fly.) “I was on dry tyres at the end of the race when it was raining quite badly and it was just impossible on the last lap,” said Glock. “I was fighting as hard as I could but it was so difficult to just keep the car on the track and I lost positions right at the end of the lap.

All that meant Hamilton finished fifth.

And fifth meant: Hamilton finished as world champion.

It was an extraordinary, breathless, adrenaline-soaked ending. If you weren’t buzzing at this point, you were dead; and even cadavers would have found the thrill hard to resist. The abrupt freeze that hit the Ferrari pits and the packed grandstands was shocking to behold; and then the storm arrived in full fury, with a torrential downpour arriving at the same moment the media pack descended upon the McLaren pits with hurricane-like force.

Massa, having been told he was world champion over the crew radio, now had it snatched away from him in the cruellest way possible. Never have you seen a man who has just driven a flawless race and won his home Grand Prix look so utterly gutted and depressed on the top spot of the podium. In some ways this was payback for 2007 when Hamilton should have won the title but lost it at the final moment. This time it looked to be slipping away again, but instead the luck fell on the different side of the fence; at least Ferrari convincingly secured the constructors’ championship with this result.

Sadly, the crowd took their disappointment out by booing the McLaren team and anyone connected with the Hamilton family. It was a sour, nasty end to what had been a fabulous event and a truly stunning end of the 2008 season, a sporting event that will surely live in legend for years to come.

And it gives us Lewis Hamilton: the youngest ever F1 world champion at just 23. That he’s also the first black F1 champion (or indeed the first black driver in F1) seems utterly irrelevant to even mention, because the raw truth is that black or white, young or old, he has simply confirmed what we’ve known since his debut in Formula 1 less than two years ago: that this is a simply extraordinary talent. A driver who even Michael Schumacher concedes might break all the records he himself set just a few years ago.

But forget the future, consider the now: whatever the politics, controversies, arguments, and concerns for the future, the fact was that F1 had produced one hell of a show here tonight.

And one hell of a champion.

The Brazilian Grand Prix
Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil;
71 laps; 305.909km;
Weather: Wet and dry and wet

Classified:

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Massa         Ferrari               (B)  1h47:00:000
 2.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  +    13.298
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    16.235
 4.  Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +    38.011
 5.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +    38.907
 6.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +    44.368
 7.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +    55.074
 8.  Trulli        Toyota                (B)  +  1:08.433
 9.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +  1:19.666
10.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +     1 lap
11.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +     1 lap
12.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     1 lap
13.  Button        Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
14.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +     1 lap
15.  Barrichello   Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
16.  Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +    2 laps
17.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +    2 laps
18.  Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:13.376

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Piquet        Renault               (B)    1
Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault      (B)    1

World Championship standings, round 18:                

Drivers:                    Constructors:            
 1.  Hamilton      98        1.  Ferrari               172
 2.  Massa         97        2.  McLaren-Mercedes      151
 3.  Raikkonen     75        3.  BMW Sauber            135
 4.  Kubica        75        4.  Renault                80
 5.  Alonso        61        5.  Toyota                 61
 6.  Heidfeld      60        6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     34
 7.  Kovalainen    53        7.  Red Bull-Renault       29
 8.  Trulli        31        8.  Williams-Toyota        26
 9.  Vettel        30        9.  Honda                  14
10.  Glock         30      
11.  Webber        21      
12.  Piquet        19      
13.  Rosberg       17      
14.  Barrichello   11      
15.  Nakajima       9      
16.  Coulthard      8      
17.  Bourdais       4      
18.  Button         3
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  1. Seb

    Wow – that was just a tad exciting, wasn’t it.




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