Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Comedy of Errors

I've remarked in the past on the eerie similarities between the 2007 title battle and the fight for the 1986 World Championship. The fierce rivalry between two team mates who had the best car. The outsider who went into the final round with little chance of the title, but who ended up snatching it away from those feuding team mates. Maurice Hamilton even got a book out of it.

This year's championship fight, by contrast, reminded me of nothing so much as the 1999 World Championship - the title it seemed nobody wanted to win. The 1999 championship was a fight between Mclaren's Mika Hakkinen and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine. However, such was their wild inconsistency that towards the end of the season, it really looked as though the steady, reliable Heinz-Harald Frentzen in a Jordan Mugen-Honda which was far from truly competitive, might sneak in between them and steal the title. Of course, in the end, Frentzen's Jordan fell too far from the pace, and it was Mclaren's Mika Hakkinen who finally got his act together to win the title.

Substitute Jordan and Frentzen for BMW Sauber and Robert Kubica, Irvine for Massa and Mika Hakkinen for Lewis Hamilton, and we saw a near identical story play out this year. The first of Massa's mistakes came at the very first corner of the first race of the season. Too early onto the throttle on a dusty track, he spun to the back of the field. He would later collide with David Coulthard and lose more time before an engine failure finally put paid to his race. There were more blunders at the next round in Malaysia. Hamilton lost valuable points with a bungled pit stop, but Massa recorded his second straight non-finish when he spun out at turn 8, seemingly frustrated by having been outpaced by team mate Raikkonen.

Massa made amendments in Bahrain, while Hamilton made an utter mess of his race. Starting from the front row, he blew his start and then compounded his error by running into the back of his old rival, Fernando Alonso. It ensured that he would take no points away from the Middle Eastern round. In Canada, Lewis Hamilton made an inexplicable error in the pitlane, slamming into the back of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari and eliminating both of them on the spot. A problem with Ferrari's refuelling rig - something which would become something of a signature problem for them - ensured that Massa wasn't really able to capitalise on Hamilton's mistake.

Hamilton got a 10-place penalty in France as a result, and failed to score after compounding his error with a dubious pass on Sebastian Vettel which earned him a drive-through penalty. A week later, it was Hamilton who drove a flawless race in the wet at Silverstone, while Massa looked like he had no business being in F1 at all, spinning four times on his way to finishing 13th and last. His failure to keep Hamilton behind him in the dying laps of the German Grand Prix two weeks on from his Silverstone embarrassment seemed the hallmark of a man who couldn't live with the pressure of being a title contender, but things turned around in Hungary.

Perhaps the finest drive of his career, Massa pulled a move on Hamilton at the start which could, I suppose, be described as Hamiltonesque, and coped well with immense pressure on a track at which Mclaren were expected to dominate, only for his engine to give out just 3 laps from the end. No mistake from Massa here, but Ferrari, for the second time in 2008, cost Massa points with engine problems. Strange, given the two race engine rule and the engine freeze had succeeded in making engine failures exceptionally rare in F1, and, combined with Raikkonen's engine blow-up in Valencia, it was enough to leave some wondering whether Ferrari were gaming the engine-freeze rules which allowed teams to make modifications only for reliability purposes. Massa drove another great race in Valencia, but was lucky not to pay the price for another Ferrari pitlane blunder. He was released into the path of Adrian Sutil at his first stop, but inexplicably was not penalised, with the team being handed only a fine for their mistake. It was the only time I've ever known an unsafe release not to warrant a time penalty, but perhaps after the engine failure in Hungary robbed him of victory, FIA were imposing karma by fiat.

The race in Singapore again saw pitlane mistakes from Ferrari cost Felipe Massa valuable points. He was comfortably the fastest man around the bumpy street circuit, but when the team released him before they'd removed the fuel hose from his car, they cost him an almost certain victory. A subsequent penalty for unsafe release helped to ensure there was no chance he would score any points that weekend.

In Japan, the teams made no mistakes, but both drivers seemed determined to lose the title. Lewis Hamilton, needing only a safe haul of points, made a kamikaze run at Raikkonen into the first corner, scattering the front runners and allowing Robert Kubica into a comfortable lead. Felipe Massa then drove Hamilton off the track trying to fend off the Englishman as he fought his way back up the field. Both men earned drive-through penalties for their antics (the case against Massa was rather more clear-cut, it must be said, but the stewards were a law unto themselves this year) and Massa scraped just 2 points, while Hamilton failed to score at all.

In the end, of course, even a small slip in the final laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix which let Sebastian Vettel through into 5th place was not enough to prevent Lewis Hamilton becoming the youngest world champion in history. Hamilton is undoubtedly a real talent, perhaps the fastest man in the sport right now, but I can't help but feel that he didn't actually drive as well as he did last year. There were times when his pace seemed otherworldly - Silverstone, Monaco and Germany spring to mind, but one can't help but feel he made an awful lot of mistakes this year. Too many to stand a chance of winning the title in any normal season. This year though he was helped by the fact that only Massa and Ferrari were any serious threat to him in terms of pace, and while Massa may have made fewer errors, Ferrari made more, comprehensively blowing the reputation they had built up over the Brawn/Todt/Schumacher years in the process.

Mark Hughes, in an agreeably contrarian spirit, wrote a piece for Autosport the other week arguing that Massa was the man who deserved the title this year. I'm not entirely convinced. For all that the Ferrari was less reliable than Hamilton's Mclaren, and his team made more errors, I can't help but think any disadvantage Massa suffered from this was more than cancelled out by the fact that the Italian car was, fundamentally, faster.

So, all in all, it was an interesting season, and if neither of the title contenders put in the kind of flawless performances that, for example, Alonso managed when he took the title from Schumacher in 2006, that shouldn't detract from what turned out to be a very hard fought battle between two brilliant, flawed drivers that ended in the most dramatic fashion I've ever seen in all the years I've been following the sport. It was the first time that a championship has changed hands on the last lap of the last race since Jim Clark suffered engine failure on the last lap of the Mexican Grand Prix of 1964, handing the title to John Surtees. Let's hope that the rule changes next year don't ruin what has been one of the most open and competitive seasons F1 has known in a long time.

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Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Robert Kubica is 12-1 for next year's World Championship at PaddyPower. Might be worth a punt...

10:25 AM  

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