Even by the standards of Formula 1, the Brazilian Grand Prix was an incredibly strange affair. It proved Murray Walker’s old adage, “Anything can happen in grand prix racing — and it usually does.” And doesn’t it just.
The first unexpected event was a short, sharp downpour coming just minutes before the scheduled start. The start–finish straight was now soaking wet, leaving the drivers stranded on the wrong tyres. The start was delayed by ten minutes. The rain stopped as quickly as it started, and the sun shone.
It looked as though the track might have been drying enough. But the river of water was running down the Senna S, making the first complex of corners tricky throughout the race. Intermediates were the right tyre to go on at first, to the disadvantage of Robert Kubica who started on dry tyres, had to pit after the formation lap and was never in contention again.
For the leaders, the start didn’t shuffle things up too much. Hamilton appeared to get a poor start, but luckily Kovalainen was his only main challenger. The McLaren team mate gave Hamilton an easy time through turn 1 and Hamilton stayed in position 4.
As the track dried out on lap 10, Massa pitted for dry tyres. The following lap all the other front-runners followed suit. But by pitting earlier, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso brought themselves into contention. By this stage, Hamilton had found himself in 6th position, behind the Force India of Fisichella.
The Italian was soon dispensed with, not just by Hamilton but by several other cars. But with Hamilton needing to finish in 5th position, things were pretty tense. It was clear that Massa had the race under control and practically had the win in the bag. The Championship situation could hardly have been closer.
Vettel’s pitstop strategy was out of sequence with the other leaders, which threw another uncertainty into the mix. Overall, though, Vettel’s strategy meant that Hamilton’s “true” position was effectively a stable fourth, which would have secured Hamilton the Championship no bother. To tell the truth, the race was becoming rather bland.
Then the rain came back. It was another spell of rain that was difficult to read. Seemingly it was pretty heavy at one point in the pitlane, but only for a short period of time. The rest of the circuit didn’t seem to be affected as badly. The front-runners came in for dry tyres, but Timo Glock was the most notable person electing to stay on the dry tyres. This propelled the Toyota driver ahead of Hamilton, placing the Brit in 5th place, back on a knife-edge.
At first, it seemed as though Glock’s decision had paid off. The drivers running intermediates were not having as much of an advantage over the grooved tyres as may have been expected and Glock looked safe in 4th.
Meanwhile, Hamilton had his mirrors full of Vettel. McLaren are usually seen to have an advantage in damp conditions, but it has to be said that Toro Rosso have even more of an advantage. Vettel made life very difficult for Hamilton in the final few laps, and when the fancied German passed Hamilton it looked like it was game over for the Brit. Hamilton was now in 6th place, with Massa still easily on for the win.
As Massa came across the finish line, he was World Champion. If memory serves me correctly, at the start of the previous lap Glock still had at least a ten second advantage over Vettel, who in turn was a second or two ahead of Hamilton. Glock’s sector 1 time was slow, but not slow enough. But obviously the dry tyres caved in through the twisty sector two. If you’re struggling in the wet, that is where you will suffer the most — and boy did Glock suffer.
At the end of sector 2, on the last slow corner of the circuit, Vettel passed Glock, and Hamilton followed soon afterwards. In the most incredible of fashions, Hamilton had won the Championship in the final sector — indeed, in the final corner.
It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theorists to suggest that Glock backed off to let Hamilton past. But I see no explanation for why Glock would do this. It seems to me that the dry tyres simply gave up the ghost. His team mate Jarno Trulli, also on dry tyres, posted a near-identical lap time on the final lap, suggesting that intermediates were the right tyres to use on the final lap.
But so unexpected was Glock’s sudden drop in performance that personnel in the Ferrari garage were still celebrating several seconds after Hamilton had crossed the finish line in 5th position. The moment when a calmer head came across to the group and said “no, no” was broadcast on the FOM world feed. It was a painful moment as you saw the smirks drop off their faces.
Seemingly, Felipe Massa had already been told he was World Champion. You absolutely have to feel sorry for Massa today. He did everything he needed to do in Interlagos, and his World Championship was snatched away at the last possible moment.
But hats off to Felipe Massa who proved that he is a good loser. He approached the situation with absolute dignity. The podium ceremony was surreal, with the national anthems of Brazil and Italy blasting out in recognition of a Felipe Massa–Ferrari win. But Massa hadn’t won. He’d lost. His face said it all. But he approached the edge of the podium to greet his home crowd in a most dignified manner. He was philosophical and respectful during the press conference.
It was a partisan crowd in Interlagos, but you wouldn’t expect anything else. Some complained about the fans jeering, but as long as it is not malicious I see no harm. It is only to be expected that Brazilians would want to see a Brazilian be crowned World Champion in Brazil. I got the impression that it was a more playful, pantomime-style atmosphere and I am sure it would be similar if it were a bunch of British fans in the grandstand at a championship decider in Britain.
All-in-all, it was quite an incredible race — perhaps the most hair-raising end to a Championship I have ever seen. The circumstances were so bizarre that it seemed as though the post-race atmosphere was subdued. Spiritual atmosphere was matched by meteorological atmosphere as the heavens had opened in the most spectacular way and the podium ceremony was held more or less in complete darkness under heavy clouds. But I doubt Hamilton will let the atmosphere get in the way of his first World Drivers Championship.