This is the first of a series of posts rounding up my final thoughts on the season.
You probably don’t need to be told that Lewis Hamilton is the 2008 Formula 1 World Drivers’ Champion. At the age of 23 years and 300 days, he eclipses Fernando Alonso to become the youngest ever World Champion. He has done so in just his second season.
No matter how well-protected Lewis Hamilton has been by the McLaren team, you don’t achieve that sort of thing by luck. Hamilton is lucky in that he has always been in a great car. It is unprecedented for such a strong team to offer a race drive to a rookie. As such, the statistics flatter him.
However, it is highly questionable that this year’s McLaren MP4-23 was the best car in the field. Ferrari did, after all, win the Constructors’ Championship. Certainly, the McLaren car put in some dominant performances, most notably at Silverstone and Hockenheim. But in both races Hamilton truly overshadowed his team mate, Heikki Kovalainen.
The Finn finished a distant 7th in the Championship, a massive 43 points behind Hamilton. No other inter-team battle has been so comprehensive in its outcome — not even in Renault. Whether the gulf was caused by Hamilton’s superiority or Kovalainen’s inferiority is a matter of interpretation. I suspect it was both.
Kovalainen will point to the fact that he was always put on the more unfavourable strategy, giving him a heavy car during qualifying. This makes his pole position in Silverstone all the more special. But Kovalainen had only one race win which, let us be clear, was a fluke.
Other drivers on the grid have been more flawless. Fernando Alonso, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel spring to mind. But impressive though those drivers have been, the spotlight does not shine so intensely in the midfield. Nor were any of those drivers regularly in contention for wins like Hamilton and Massa were.
In the end, the Championship battle rightly came down to a showdown between Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. Both drivers have made their fair share of mistakes. While Massa had a few spins throughout the season (Malaysia, Britain), Hamilton had a couple of unforgivable crashes (Bahrain, Canada).
Both drivers have also had some bad luck. Ferrari’s pitlane blunder in Singapore cost Massa a sure win and was completely out of Massa’s control. Meanwhile, Hamilton found himself at the rough edge of a suspiciously high number of stewards’ decisions.
It would have been unfortunate if Massa had won the Championship for that reason alone. There is enough anger surrounding the stewards’ decisions this year that had Massa won the Championship many people would regrettably have viewed it as a tainted win. As Clive says, just like Räikkönen’s triumph last year, Hamilton’s Championship victory is the best for international relations.
In the end, I think across the year Hamilton has shown that he deserves to become World Champion. He demonstrated that 2007 was no fluke. Mind you, in a lot of ways Hamilton’s 2008 season was a great deal worse than 2007. It was certainly less consistent. Hamilton never looked even close to equalling his staggering run of nine consecutive podiums achieved in 2008. The problem with 2007 was that Hamilton’s season completely collapsed right at the end. This year the foul-ups were interspersed all across the season — and they weren’t as severe for the most part.
This is key to why Hamilton has won this year when the title eluded him last year. He could afford the odd blow here and there as long as he didn’t let the whole thing unravel at the end. His approach towards the final two races was a world away from the immature hot-head that went to China and Brazil last year. ‘Discipline’ was the keyword emanating from the McLaren camp.
Hamilton’s Championship victory was calculated. The McLaren team’s preparations were so meticulous that it all came down to a confident weather call. Hamilton did not lash out at Vettel once the German had overtaken him, as the Hamilton of old may have done. Instead, he waited for the rain to come and spoil Glock’s final lap.
It was a calculated gamble, and it almost didn’t pay off. But McLaren and Lewis Hamilton knew exactly what they were doing. What a contrast to last year’s bungle which saw McLaren leave it too long to change Hamilton’s tyres in China and Hamilton being too eager to needlessly make up positions in Brazil.
Even though Hamilton’s performance in Fuji this year caused some raised eyebrows, that looks like it was a one off. The overall picture of Lewis Hamilton this season is one that has learned from the mistakes of last year. He has reined in the impatient streak and has learnt not to needlessly go for the win.
For me, it would have been a shame for Hamilton to have lost out on the Championship for a second time, having come so agonisingly close twice. Massa showed that he has what it takes to be a Championship contender. But Hamilton has now done it twice. And even though he couldn’t make it stick in 2007, it would have been cruel to let all of his effort and now obvious talent go unrewarded for a second year.