Neither Lewis Hamilton nor Felipe Massa has won a Formula One World Championship, and on Sunday they made that abundantly clear. Both drivers have a very strong chance of clinching the title, but at the Japanese Grand Prix they made mistakes that a) shouldn’t be made at this stage of the season and b) shouldn’t be made by drivers good enough to win the world championship. You only need to look at Alonso’s race to see what is fitting behaviour for a two-time World Champion.
Hamilton had taken perhaps the most important pole of the season on Saturday and even more importantly, Massa had only qualified fifth. Even though he had a seemingly on form Räikkönen beside him on the front row, all Lewis had to do was to get round the first corner. If the ‘flying’ Finn got in front, so be it. It would matter very little to the result of the World Championship.
When the red lights went out though, they were replaced by the ‘red mist’ in the Briton’s helmet. Hamilton out-braked himself after getting a poor start and ended up pushing Räikkönen off the track. Now in seventh place and behind Massa, he tried to overtake his Championship rival going into the chicane at the end of the second lap. This resulted in the Brazilian out-braking himself and then clipping Hamilton, spinning him 180-degrees. He had to consequently wait until the entire field had passed before rejoining the race and then had to pit for tyres as he had so badly flat spotted all four on his first corner antics. As if this wasn’t enough, both drivers were given drive through penalties for their overtaking manoeuvres.
With both Massa and Hamilton’s races effectively over, Kubica and Alonso had made the most of two strong starts and were now running first and second. The BMW driver was complaining of undertseer, oversteer, and didn’t have the car underneath him which allowed Alonso to overtake the Pole during the first pit stop window. Meanwhile, Kovalainen suffered from a rare McLaren engine failure while running third and Coulthard and been touched going into the first corner sending him flying into the barriers. The accident looked fairly dramatic but the Red Bull driver merely commented that they might “need a new chassis for the next race”.
After the initial chaos the race settled down and two-time world champion Alonso, showed everyone why he is exactly that. He drove an excellent race and was clocking times, lap after lap, that were all within a tenth of a second of each other. Later on in the race Massa had the opportunity to take a couple of valuable points which he did well to do, overtaking Red Bull’s Mark Webber in a brave move going into turn one on lap 65.
Massa left Japan with another two points towards his championship bid after the manoeuvre on Webber and after Bourdais was penalised after emerging from the pits at the same time as Massa was passing on track. He did what any driver would do in that situation and defended his line, which meant that Massa ended up clipping the back of his car and spinning. Quite what Bourdais was supposed to do, I am not sure although he did say that he should have just rolled out the “red carpet” and let him past. In this day and age, perhaps overtaking or defending your line is just so dangerous that that is what every driver should do.
So a stunning victory for Alonso, a strong second for Kubica – who is no doubt lamenting the fact that BMW have focused so much attention on their 2009 car and so little on their 2008 racer otherwise he would be in an even stronger position than he is now, 12 points behind Hamilton – and a good race from Räikkönen.
Amazingly Hamilton still has a five point lead over Massa with two races to go. He may well be lamenting his words earlier in the week when he commented, “at this point of the year, I feel a lot stronger than I was last year at this point [in 2007]. Obviously, we have three races left, and I think there’s going to be a big battle until the last race, but we’re going to make sure we do everything we can as a team to ensure we come out on top.”