Sport had rarely witnessed such hyperbolic overdrive. Lewis Hamilton needed to finish only fifth to clinch his maiden world title. There are no racing certs in F1, but in a 2008 McLaren the title was his to lose.
There were factions, however, who wanted him to do just that – and the headlines became more bizarre by the day. In Spain, there was a sustained internet campaign to inflict a voodoo on Hamilton, while a couple of Brazilians hijacked one of the Englishman’s pre-race PR appearances and chucked him a toy black cat – a symbol of misfortune in Brazil, but less so in Stevenage.
One year beforehand the Brazilians had embraced F1’s bright-eyed young starlet, but back then he’d been fighting Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen for the world title. Now he was up against one of their own, Felipe Massa, who was so local that he’d once worked as a food delivery boy at Interlagos.
Why Massa would have made a worthy champion
Pole positions: Massa 6, Hamilton 7 (Massa won the battle 10-8 overall)
Wins: Massa 6, Hamilton 5
Fastest laps: Massa 3, Hamilton 1
Laps led: Massa 361, Hamilton 296
Massa took pole, as he had in 2007, while Hamilton qualified fourth, half a second shy of his rival. So far, so good – but an uncertain weather forecast promised an extra element of complication for Sunday.
Rain before the race
A huge thunderclap struck an hour before the scheduled start, but the rain held off until the final few seconds, triggering a 10-minute delay to allow teams to fit Bridgestone wets. Most did just that, although BMW left Robert Kubica on dry rubber… against his wishes. He would be in at the end of the final formation lap to make a belated switch.
Massa made a clean start to lead from Jarno Trulli (Toyota), Räikkönen and Hamilton, but the race was swiftly neutralised: in his final F1 start, David Coulthard was bundled off the road after being hit by both Williams drivers, while Nelson Piquet Jr cannoned into the tyres at Turn Three. Force India took one of its traditional gambles during the interruption, putting Giancarlo Fisichella on slicks, and within minutes of the restart the Italian began posting the race’s briskest laps to date.
That triggered a glut of tyre stops, although McLaren was cautious and left Hamilton out for a couple of laps too many. That put him back to seventh, although he soon recovered to fifth, as required. It was a most untypical Hamilton drive, though – juggling the percentages rather than flirting with fire. That would be his motif for much of the afternoon.
Massa continued to lead and made his final scheduled stop on the 38th lap of 71, resuming ahead of Fernando Alonso’s Renault, Räikkönen, Hamilton and the ever-impressive Sebastian Vettel, in his final drive for Toro Rosso before taking the Red Bull seat vacated by Coulthard.
Last lap change
It looked fairly straightforward: Massa was on the cusp of another memorable home victory (he’d won here in 2006, but had to cede the following year to support Räikkönen’s successful title tilt), while Hamilton continued to pursue a tactic of adequate stealth. And then, with 10 laps to go, the rain returned.
Gradually, the leaders peeled in for wets – but Toyota threw a curve ball by leaving both its cars out. Massa continued to lead from Alonso and Räikkönen after the stops, but Toyota’s gamble elevated Timo Glock to fourth, ahead of Hamilton and the fast-closing Vettel. With two laps remaining, the German passed the McLaren… and handed a crucial advantage to Massa. “I didn’t know what position I was in,” Vettel said, “and had no idea I might be influencing the championship.”
Conditions had remained merely greasy thus far, but the final lap coincided with a proper Brazilian deluge. It began with Hamilton 0.754sec adrift of immediate target Vettel… and 13.144sec shy of Glock.
Everything looked cut and dried for Massa – and that was the initial response in some parts of the Ferrari pit, as the leader took the flag. The Brazilian’s own celebrations were tempered, though, and he raised only a cautious fist while awaiting further news of events in his slipstream. Some of his team were too engrossed in their own elation to notice a crucial detail down at Junção, the left-hander prior to the long, uphill drag to the finishing line.
Vettel and Hamilton were closing fast on Glock, whose tyres had by now lost all purchase, and both passed the Toyota in the season’s closing seconds. Fifth was Hamilton’s once again and the balance of power had transferred somewhere in the middle of a ball of spray.
Ron Dennis spoke afterwards about McLaren getting its tactics right, but that honour belonged to Toyota (whose gamble, after all, had promoted Glock from seventh to sixth). If McLaren had left Hamilton on dry tyres, chances are that the last-minute drama might have been avoided completely.
This was a title success born of providence rather than strategy, but the dignified, tearful Massa accepted his misfortune with remarkable grace. “When I crossed the line the positions meant I was going to be champion,” he said, “but then I was told Lewis had passed Glock. That’s racing, though. There are always explanations for what happens in life and if things worked out like this today, it’s just the way it was meant to be.”