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There can be only one

If this was a Hollywood script, it would have been thrown out on the grounds of implausibility. And yet last night, in suitably foreboding gloom – five minutes after the chequered flag, Interlagos was shrouded in blackness – the battle for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship hinged on an overtaking move on the penultimate corner of the final lap of the final grand prix of an absorbing 2008 season.

The catalyst was a rain shower with five laps remaining, which caused many to pit for intermediate tyres. But the key players in the drama were effectively bit-part extras: first Robert Kubica and then Timo Glock.

With two laps left, Lewis Hamilton was clinging on to the fifth place he needed to guarantee the title, but he had Sebastian Vettel climbing all over him. Enter the BMW of Kubica, faster at that point than both Hamilton and Vettel, but a lap down. The Pole unlapped himself, but in allowing him past Hamilton appeared to run wide on the ‘marbles’ off the racing line, allowing Vettel to slip by too.

All of a sudden a safe fifth was a desperate sixth, and with Felipe Massa leading comfortably, it appeared the British driver’s title hopes were gone. Clearly at his car’s limits, Hamilton tried to haul Vettel back in, to no avail. It was only after Massa had crossed the line – cut to shots of a jubilant Ferrari garage, who believed their man had just secured the title – that it became apparent that Glock, who had leapfrogged Vettel and Hamilton by staying out on dry-weather tyres and started the final lap 18 seconds ahead of the pair, was struggling to keep his car on the rapidly dampening track. To the disbelief of the millions watching around the world, Vettel swept past the crawling Toyota as they approached the final corner, followed in rapid order by Hamilton, regaining the all-important fifth place that put him back ahead of Massa.

At 23, Hamilton becomes the youngest F1 champion ever, five months younger than former team-mate Fernando Alonso when he won the first of his two titles. It’s a wonderful feat, doubly so given the pressure he was under having capitulated in a similar position last year.

It was, however, desperately hard luck on Massa, who had driven superbly through the second half of the season, eating away at Hamilton’s advantage and ultimately winning one more race (six) than the Briton.

Both drivers can lay a strong claim to being the better driver over the course of the season. Each drove impressive, dominant races, but also made major mistakes: Massa most notably an error-strewn drive in the wet at Silverstone; Hamilton a no claims bonus-losing shunt in the pit-lane in Canada. At some races, Ferrari had the dominant car; at others, McLaren. Massa will point to three races (Australia, Hungary, Singapore) where mechanical or team failures cost him dearly; Hamilton’s car was bulletproof but dubious stewards’ decisions in Belgium and Japan robbed him of valuable points.

However, the standings do not lie. Hamilton, 98 points; Massa, 97: the same margin by which Hamilton lost the title last year.

There can be only one winner, and in 2008 that is Lewis Hamilton. He scored more points than any other driver, and is therefore a worthy world champion.

However, without taking anything away from Hamilton’s achievement, by his actions both on and off the track Massa has also proven that he merits consideration as a future champion. In previous seasons, I have dismissed him as fast but erratic, lacking the necessary steel to sustain a season-long tilt. But over the second half of 2008, his focus, consistency and outright speed have been hugely impressive, despite a mechanical failure in Japan and a pit-crew error in Singapore which cost him certain wins and would have demoralised a lesser driver.

In the most difficult of circumstances last night, Massa conducted himself impeccably, thanking both his team and the home crowd for their support, and completing the podium ceremony and post-race press conference with dignity.

(Incidentally, how stupid is Formula 1 that the new world champion, by virtue of finishing outside the top three in the race, does not get to appear on either the podium or in the press conference?)

In those brief minutes the disappointment was, understandably, written all over Felipe Massa’s face, but in his darkest moment he also looked every inch a team leader and future champion.

There can be only one winner of the ultimate prize each season. And yet yesterday I’m sure I saw two champions.

One final note. In the cold light of day, it’s easy to dismiss Hamilton’s championship win as lucky. Yes, he made mistakes throughout the season. Yes, it ultimately required someone else’s misfortune to hand him the championship. And yes, he’s no Michael Schumacher (at least not yet).

However, it’s easy to forget that the Schumacher who won the first of his seven titles in 1994 was no Michael Schumacher either, hitting a wall mid-race in the Adelaide title-decider and only securing the title thanks to the most dubious of manoeuvres on Damon Hill. Domination of a sport only happens over a long period of time, and Lewis Hamilton is just at the beginning of that particular journey. It will be fascinating to see whether he takes the next step in 2009, and how strongly Felipe Massa (and others) will respond. Roll on next season.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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