Sunday, November 30, 2008

Points Mean Prizes?

In recent years, there has been a seemingly irresistible urge on the part of F1's governing body to meddle with Formula 1's rulebook. It reminds me of nothing so much as a hyperactive child who can't stop fidgeting, and as with the hyperactive child, I wonder how much of it is simply about trying to get attention.

I'm not talking about the technical regulations, which have always had to be amended every year or two, in an effort to keep one step ahead of the teams constant fight to make their cars ever faster. What I've become increasingly tired of is the constant fiddling with the format of the race weekend itself. It started in 2003, with the introduction of single-lap qualifying on race fuel and a change to the points-scoring system to award points to the first 8 finishers, rather than the first 6. Then, in quick succession, we had knock-out qualifying, the one-tyre-per-race rule, two race engines and a host of other rule adjustments which it seems only serve to make the sport more confusing (though regular readers will know that I happen to be in favour of the one-tyre rule).

The latest proposal, this time from Bernie Ecclestone rather than the blazers at the FIA, is that the points system for deciding the driver's championship should be done away with entirely and replaced with a 'medals' system, similar to that used (albeit only informally) to decide the winning country in the Olympics. My first reaction on hearing the news was that this was just Bernie floating a daft idea to get a bit of press coverage over the winter, though it now seems he's more serious about it than that. One can't help but wonder if Mr Ecclestone has been impressed by the Festival of Minor Sports' ability to extract sums from Governments to host the event that dwarf even F1's deals with such motorsporting capitals as, um, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

Bernie has claimed that his proposed system for deciding the world championship is preferable to the current points-system because it will reward drivers for going all out for the win, rather than settling meekly for a good points finish rather than risking an accident in search of victory. Too many races, he argues, become dull processions because there's little incentive for title contenders to run the risk of actually racing each other. As the idea seems to be gaining some traction, I think it's worth explaining what is wrong with it, why it is not the answer to the problem which Bernie has identified.

The first, and most glaring problem is that under Bernie's 'medal' system, all places below 3rd become an irrelevance from the point of view of the driver's title. If the title contenders are fighting over 4th or 5th places, the result will be of no consequence. The battle between Massa and Hamilton at Monza this year wouldn't have counted for anything, neither would drives through the field by the pair of them at Fuji. Far from giving drivers more incentive to really race, it actually gives them less in some circumstances.

The second problem, in my eyes, is that it utterly rules out the possibility of a quick, consistent driver sneaking away with the title in an inferior car. This year, Robert Kubica remained in the title battle until the penultimate round in a car that really had no business being there - by being consistent and by always extracting the most from what he had. Come to that, I still think Kimi Raikkonen's best season in F1 came back in 2003, when he nearly stole the title from under Michael Schumacher's nose in a year old Mclaren. He only won one race, but then in the Mclaren MP4/17, that year, it was about as much as anyone could hope to achieve. That he nearly won the title anyway, was testament to an unerring consistency in a year when all his major rivals let points-scoring opportunities slip through their fingers.

That said, it is worth noting as Mark Hughes did in Autosport last week, that prior to this year, the 'medals' system would not actually have resulted in a different driver being crowned champion since 1989, when it would have handed the title to the faster but more erratic Ayrton Senna over his slower but more consistent team mate, Alain Prost. Who would have made the more worthy champion that year? A tough call, but it's certainly not obvious that Bernie's proposed method for deciding the drivers title produces fairer, more representative results. In fact, mostly, it produces exactly the same result - it just means the championship gets decided earlier. In 2003, for example, Schumacher, rather than fighting Montoya and Raikkonen right down to the wire, would have wrapped up the title with four or five rounds to go!

I happen to agree with Bernie Ecclestone that the current F1 points system does not adequately reward victories. A Grand Prix winner takes away only two more points than the guy who finishes second. And the difference between finishing first and second is the same as the difference between finishing second and third. The solution to this, though, is not to rewrite the rules so as to disregard any finish lower than a 3rd place, but instead to change the points system so as to reward wins more. The scoring system used by the World Rally Championship for many years - of 20-15-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 would be ideal in my view. Ironically, of course, the points system used to reward race wins more in the days when a win got 10 points and a second place got 6, but that was changed in 2003 (it is widely thought at Bernie's behest) because it was felt that it resulted in the title being decided too early, after Schumacher dominated 2002 to such a degree that he had the title in the bag by early August.

Bernie Ecclestone's medals idea sounds to me like a cheap gimmick, and I don't believe it will do anything to improve the quality of the racing we see. Making overtaking easier might achieve that. Overzealous stewarding has much to answer for too. Not penalising drivers every time they go out on a limb and try to make a pass that doesn't quite come off would certainly encourage drivers to race each other. Let's hope the World Motorsport Council show sense when they meet next week and treat this idea with the contempt it deserves.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, November 22, 2008


For anyone who is wondering what has happened to Motorsports Ramblings, I'm afraid that other projects and commitments (this and this (the day job) are between them sucking up all my time right now) mean that I'm starved of time right now.

My weekly ramblings will, however, be returning in December. Thoughts on the season just gone, and winter witterings.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Top 10 Drivers - 2008

Behind Clive's list over at F1 Insight, but well ahead of the annual Autocourse list, here is the annual Motor Sports Ramblings top 10 drivers list. It's only a personal view, and I think a case could be made for any of my top 3 drivers as the being the driver of the year. Nonetheless, after much indecision, I have arrived at my list.

10. Rubens Barrichello – You’re in your sixteenth season of Formula 1. You’ve spent six years in a championship winning team, playing second-fiddle to the greatest driver of his generation. Now you find yourself in your third year with Honda, a team which, over the last couple of years, seems to determined to take great leaps backwards. It would be easy for you to become entirely demoralised, to cruise-and-collect on your way to retirement. That, though, is not what Barrichello did.

After two years of being comprehensively outpaced by Jenson Button, Barrichello fought back this year with the outclassed Honda RA108, scoring the lion’s share of the team’s points and more often than not outqualifying the younger Brit. His drive in the wet at Britain brought the team it’s only podium, and while it may have owed much to Ross Brawn’s inspired call on the tyres, it still required a driver to keep it on the road on a day when many others did not. There were times, such as at the Chinese Grand Prix, when Barrichello had the recalcitrant Honda far further up the running order than it had any right to be and, after a couple of seasons when his star appeared to be on the wane, he did much to re-establish his reputation as one of the best drivers in the business this year. In the process, he just might have finished off any chances Jenson Button might ever have had of getting a drive with one of the front-running teams.

9. Jarno Trulli – After 3 years driving alongside an increasingly bored looking Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli could easily have been caught on the hop when he found himself placed alongside a promising young newcomer, GP2 champion Timo Glock. Glock’s performances in the Toyota were impressive, but over the course of the season, it was Trulli who got more out of the car. His standout performance came at Magny Cours, when he out-paced the Mclarens, the BMWs and the Renaults to pick up Toyota’s first podium in over 2 years. Other drivers might have scored unexpected top 3 finishes this year, but Trulli’s was one of the relatively few which were the result of pace rather than luck.

He may continue to have a reputation as a one-lap specialist, but to my mind, that still reflects his phenomenal qualifying abilities, rather than any lack of race pace. If you’re really quick over a single lap, you will find yourself having to keep quicker machinery behind you on race day. So it proved again this year. Only towards the end of the season was the Toyota anything like a front-running car really, yet he more often than not made it through into the top-10 shoot out in qualifying, and outqualified team mate Glock 13-4. He racked up a good number of points too – all important when a team’s FOM money is dependent on its constructors’ championship position. Unless Toyota make a quantum leap forward under the new regulations next year, he’ll probably never be world champion, but there were more than a few flashes of the pace Trulli showed back in 2004 when he gave Alonso an awful lot to think about at Renault before he fell out with the team and his confidence went to pieces.

8. Nick Heidfeld - Ok, so in comparison with his team mate, ‘Quick Nick’ didn’t really live up to his epithet this year, he could be seen as a bit of a disappointment. After all, this was a man who had been de facto team leader last year, but just as Robert Kubica struggled with last year’s oversteery F1.07, so Heidfeld couldn’t extract the most from this year’s car. Only at Spa and Shanghai did he simply look quicker than Kubica.

In light of the press coverage, it would be easy to forget that Heidfeld actually finished the championship with a very impressive haul of 60 points, not many fewer than Kubica and more than Kovalainen was able to score with the more competitive Mclaren. He was on the podium four times (again, more than Kovalainen could manage in the Mclaren) and impressed in the wet at Silverstone on a day when his team mate flew off the road. In Spa he called it absolutely right in coming in for wet tyres 2 laps from the end, against the advice of his team, and while he may not have future world champion written all over him the way his young team mate does, he proved to be a very capable number 2. Last year, I suggested he might make an excellent partner to Hamilton at Mclaren, and what I’ve seen this year leaves me wondering if Mclaren might have picked up the constructors’ championship had they followed my advice.

7. Kimi Raikkonen - It was a disappointing year for the reigning world champion. There can be little doubting that the Ferrari was a potentially title winning car, but for whatever reason, the Finn never really seemed to get on with it. For much of the middle of the season, especially at Hungary, Hockenheim and Valencia, he appeared lacklustre and out of sorts, to the extent that more than a few observers were rather surprised when the Scuderia announced the renewal of his contract.

Raikkonen, though was the victim of more than his fair share of bad fortune this year, not to mention having to contend with a team mate who is almost certainly far better than most of the paddock is willing to give him credit for. He may have struggled to get the best out of the Ferrari over a single lap, but his race pace was, when he was in clear air and got the chance to demonstrate it, frequently very impressive. Hence all those fastest laps. In Sepang, he was outqualified by Massa on a heavier fuel load, but the Brazilian could do nothing about him on race day, and ended up flying off the road in frustration. In Spain he had the measure of Massa, and in Canada, where it seemed Ferrari had no answer for BMW, let alone Mclaren, he was a serious contender for victory before Hamilton ploughed into him in the pits. He dominated the French Grand Prix until a cracked exhaust slowed him, would have won at Spa had it not began to rain just a couple of laps from home, and comprehensively outpaced his team mate at China when the Brazilian was meant to be making his bid for the title. It was a mixed year for the quiet Finn, but that mid-season slump aside, he did a better job than his results might suggest.

6. Mark Webber Another year in which the Aussie’s undoubted talents were wasted in a sub-standard Red Bull. It must be to his immense frustration that Renault fell so far behind in the horsepower war (you know, the one that is supposedly not being fought) that the works team were more often than not outpaced by the old Minardi guys running their car with a Ferrari engine. Webber made the most of what he had, and picked up an awful lot of 6th, 7th and 8th place finishes. David Coulthard, in the other Red Bull, rarely managed to get the car anywhere near the points. Another man with an unfair reputation as a qualifying specialist, it’s simply easier to transcend the limitations of your machinery over a single lap than over a whole race. All the same, how on earth did he get the RB4 on the front row at Silverstone? He’s doubtless still kicking himself for throwing it off the road on the first lap.

It was one of very few mistakes that Webber made all year. His finest drive? His pace in Barcelona was particularly impressive, and staying on the road in horrendous conditions in Monaco ensured his best result of the season but to my mind one of his great, largely unnoticed drives came at Spa. The Renault-engined version of the Red Bull chassis showed little pace, yet Webber nonetheless got himself up to 7th on the grid, and ran well in the early stages only to be punted off the road by Heikki Kovalainen. From there, he kept his head down and finished an unheralded 8th. It was a drive typical of his year – getting the most out of an underperforming car in difficult circumstances and largely unnoticed.

5. Sebastian Vettel – The cheerful German youth became the youngest man ever to win a Grand Prix at Monza in September. He couldn’t have done it in finer style either. OK, so the Red Bull is a very forgiving car in the wet, and the Ferrari engine is exactly what you would want for Monza’s long straights, but even so… a Toro Rosso winning from pole position, never seriously challenged? You’d have got long odds on that before the start of the year, and much of the credit must go to Vettel.

He began the season impressively, breaking through unexpectedly into the top 10 run-off in Melbourne, but thereafter, seemed to fade away for a while, retiring from each of the first four races, getting caught up in silly little incidents. Then, in the conditions you would have thought most likely to induce unforced errors, the torrential rain at Monaco, he put in a fine, consistent drive to finish fifth behind Mark Webber. From there, his season began an upswing that really took off in Valencia, when he and the Red Bull looked really at home on the Spanish dockland circuit. There followed good points finishes in Belgium and Singapore, and of course that fairytale win at Monza. Just to show he really knows what he’s doing in the rain, he rounded off the year by nearly snatching the world title from Hamilton’s grasp with a fine drive to 4th in Brazil. At the start of the year, I wondered whether the wunderkind could live up to the hype. I’m beginning to think he really can.

4. Fernando Alonso – It may have been an on/off year for the Spanish double world champion, but if I were a team boss, I’d still have him at the top of my shopping list, no matter how difficult he might be. He was always quick, the only driver to outqualify his team mate at every race, but at times, especially in the first part of the year, he was rather erratic, losing good points with silly errors in Monaco, Canada and Germany. There were times when he looked like a quick, but overenthusiastic youngster unable to rein in his urge to push a car that wasn’t truly on the pace. Outside the car, in the first part of the season, overenthusiasm was not a problem Renault were faced with. Rumour has it, he skipped team debriefs, unable to summon up the commitment to deal with a car which was far from competitive.

Then Renault turned a corner and the old Fernando Alonso was back. In the last third of the year, Alonso racked up more points than either of the two title challengers, in a car which was far from the fastest in the field. The Singapore win might have owed much to luck, but the same could not be said of his Fuji victory two weeks later. His drive to fourth in a car which team mate Piquet struggled to get into the points was in its own way equally impressive, and he nearly succeeded in his stated ambition of helping Massa beat old rival Hamilton to the title in Brazil with another fine drive in difficult conditions to take 2nd. There were two Fernando Alonsos this year. The one who looked petulant and unpredictable for much of the first half of the year would barely scrape into this top 10, but the one who beat Michael Schumacher to the world title in 2006 in an inferior car, and who made a reappearance towards the end of the year, would be my driver of the year.

3. Felipe Massa - Despite my long-held scepticism about the little Brazilian, I think I might finally have to concede that Felipe Massa really is the real deal. He clearly established himself as Ferrari’s main title contender, ahead of his World Champion team mate Kimi Raikkonen. There were times when he was absolutely inspired – at Hungary, in Turkey, a track he has really made his own, and most notably at his home race in Brazil where he made his final, desperate bid to wrest the World title from Lewis Hamilton. Other good, solid wins came at Valencia and Bahrain, and for all that he was hardly a worthy winner at Spa, he did at least keep his car on the road, when others did not.

Had his Ferrari been more reliable (there were engine failures in Australia and Hungary and pit-stop bungles in Canada and Singapore) he would have won the world title easily. However, he must shoulder his share of the blame for failing to take the title in what was probably the fastest car in the field. Before the engine failure in Melbourne, there had been not one but two spins, and then two weeks later, he spun out of a safe second place in Malaysia and was a no-score. He looked

positively amateurish in the wet at Silverstone, finishing 13th and last and there were other races where he just looked lacklustre. He had no answer for Raikkonen’s pace at Spa, Magny Cours or at the vital race in Shanghai. At Fuji, he pushed Hamilton off the road in a clumsy move that left him with a penalty which cost him a possible podium finish, and the way he practically rolled over and invited Hamilton past in the closing laps of the German Grand Prix left not a few of us wondering if the Brazilian was really world champion material. This was undoubtedly the strongest season from the Brazilian yet, and he is almost unrecognisable as the fast but wildly unpredictable youngster who debuted with Sauber in 2002. All the same, I can’t help but wonder whether his best shot at the driver’s title may now lie in the past.

2. Lewis Hamilton – A controversial thought, but was Lewis Hamilton a slightly less complete driver this year than he was last season? Had he actually taken a bit of a step backward, under the increased pressure of being seen as a title contender from the start. He got things off to a great start at Melbourne, with a dominant win, and he did well to recover some points from a Malaysia weekend when everything seemed to wrong for him. Things took a turn for the worse, though, with a scrappy, error-strewn and ultimately point-less weekend at Bahrain. He fumbled his start, and then compounded his error by running into the back of Alonso.

It wasn’t the only time he would throw away points with silly, basic errors. There was his infamous moment of brain fade when he ran into the back of Kimi Raikkonen in the pitlane in Canada, and his entirely unnecessary banzai approach to the first corner at Fuji. Come to that, his failure to hand back a place he had gained unfairly at the expense of Sebastian Vettel in France almost certainly cost him points too. So why do I place him ahead of Massa in my top 10?

In short, because when he was good, he was truly astounding. His comprehensive domination of the British Grand Prix, winning by over a minute in atrocious conditions that would leave many floundering, was to my mind one of the all time great race drives. Two weeks later, he was again in dominant form in Germany, passing Massa on the road on his way to victory (one of very few overtaking manoeuvres between the title contenders which didn’t take place on the opening lap). In the wet at Monaco and – for a while – at Monza, he again showed a degree of car control which none of his rivals seem able to muster. In the end, he gets the nod from me over Felipe Massa because while Massa was frequently impressive, I always had the impression the Ferrari was ultimately the quicker car this year, and yet in spite of this, and in spite of a couple of very dubious stewarding decisions, Hamilton still just came away with the title.

1. Robert Kubica If one thing is clear, it is that nobody was perfect this year. All the leading drivers made mistakes and had off-days over the course of the season. To my mind, though Poland’s Robert Kubica had fewer than any of his rivals. How else to explain that, in a BMW Sauber that was never any match for Ferrari or Mclaren, and which by the end of the year struggled to stay on terms with Renault or Toyota, he was still in with a mathematical shot at the title after Kimi Raikkonen had fallen by the wayside, with two rounds to go?

He frequently transcended the limits of his car, pitching it onto pole at Bahrain and keeping Kimi Raikkonen honest on the way to a podium finish, and again staying right on the pace of the Ferraris and Mclarens in Spain. The win in Canada might have owed much to luck, but on the other hand, had Lewis Hamilton not been very lucky with his enforced pit-stop early on at Monaco, which just happened to land him on exactly the right strategy for the conditions, Kubica would probably have won round the streets of the Principality. Less noticed, but equally impressive were the occasions on which Kubica dragged a car which was far from truly competitive much further up the order. The Hungarian Grand Prix, where the BMW proved so slow that Nick Heidfeld couldn’t drag it out of Q1, for example. Or Valencia, where again the car looked miles from the pace in the hands of his team mate, but where Kubica got himself amongst the Mclarens and Ferraris while Heidfeld struggled to hold off the Toro Rossos and Renaults.

Kubica’s season wasn’t perfect. He threw away the lead of the World Championship with an (admittedly understandable) mistake in the rain at Silverstone, and he was curiously lacklustre at Spa and at Shanghai, where Heidfeld appeared better able to get to grips with the BMW. To my mind, though, he came much closer to perfection than anyone else this year, and frequently overcame the limitations of a car which was not truly a race winner. If, as everyone expects, Ferrari ditch Massa or Raikkonen at the end of next year, they face an interesting dilemma in choosing between double world champion Alonso and BMW's new Polish star.

The Rest

Of all those who haven’t made the top 10, the most glaring omission, I think is Toyota novice Timo Glock. The German GP2 champion might not have made quite the kind of impact that his forerunner as GP2 Champion did, but after a slightly disappointing start to the season, he came on increasingly strong towards the end. Rarely able to match Trulli in qualifying, he was often as strong come race day, and in Hungary, really wasn’t far behind race winner Kovalainen. He looks to have a strong future in the sport.

Heikki Kovalainen is the only race winner not in my top 10 this year. Again, I think a case can be made for his being in the lower reaches of the top 10, and he certainly had more than his share of bad luck over the course of the year, but the blunt truth is that he finished only seventh in the title race with a car which his team mate was able to take to the title. To be fair, while his Hungarian GP win relied on luck, but for misfortune, he might have won in Turkey and at Fuji. It is also worth remembering that, while he never had the race-pace of Hamilton, he frequently matched Hamilton on fuel-corrected qualifying pace in the first part of the year, which suggests that fundamentally the pace may be there. It will be interesting to see if he can be more of a factor at Mclaren next year.

This year’s Williams was a major disappointment. Nico Rosberg picked up a couple of podiums with it at street circuits, to which it seemed more suited but made too many mistakes this year – notably at Monaco and Canada where he might otherwise have picked up points, and generally failed to transcend the limitations of his car. Sometimes, he struggled even to out-pace rookie team mate Kazuki Nakajima (though to be fair, it is worth pointing to Autosport’s analysis of the difference in outright pace between drivers as measured by fastest lap of the weekend – which put Rosberg further ahead of his team mate than any other driver. Nonetheless, I found him slightly underwhelming this year. Nakajima was not as much of a disappointment as I feared he might have been, and seems to have more pace than his Dad, but did nothing to suggest he will break the mould and become Japan’s first Grand Prix winner.

What of the other men in their first Grand Prix season? Sebastien Bourdais came into F1 with 4 Champ Car titles, and seemed to pick up the lion’s share of Toro Rosso’s bad luck – failing, for instance, to get off the line from the second row in Italy, inexplicably being stripped of his seventh place in Fuji for being run off the road by Felipe Massa and getting losing what would have been a fine fourth place in Spa on the final lap. Contrary to what some have said, he looks to me like he belongs in F1 and deserves another year, though, on the other hand, he doesn’t really look like a future champion.

Nelson Piquet Jr, on the other hand, was a crashing disappointment. In the early part of the season, he was miles from the pace of his team mate, which is perhaps understandable given his team mate was Fernando Alonso. More worryingly for him, though, he made the Renault look like a tail-end car. There were occasional flashes of the kind of talent that enabled him to win the British F3 championship and fight Lewis Hamilton all the way for the GP2 title in 2006, but more often than not he seemed to collapse under the pressure, especially in qualifying, where he seemed unable to access the kind of pace he could sometimes show in free practice. He also went off the road a lot. To be fair though, he kept everything together to pick up a solid second place in Germany when a fortunately timed safety car left him in the pound seats, and even beat Alonso without help from the safety car in France (albeit Alonso was heavily compromised by a fuel strategy seemingly geared around Saturday afternoon glory-hunting.)

Jenson Button must have been frustrated to find himself stuck in a hopelessly uncompetitive Honda for the second year in a row. Perhaps the sheer disappointment goes some way to explaining why, unlike last year, he never seemed able to rise above this, and was generally out-paced by his veteran team mate Barrichello. Honda, for all that they made a complete mess of 2008, might be wondering why they were paying quite so much for their lead driver. His performances were at least generally more impressive than those of David Coulthard whom, I think, stayed around in the sport for a year too long. He never looked like getting on terms with the pace of team mate Mark Webber, and seemed to spend much of the year getting caught up in collisions. By staying out of trouble in Canada, he did however pick up one last podium in a long and generally successful career.

Last, and, to be honest, least, Force India crept close to the pace this year, but still didn’t make the leap required to actually pose any kind of threat to anyone else on the grid. Giancarlo Fisichella, after three years with front-running Renault, somehow maintained enough interest in the job to out-pace Adrian Sutil most of the time, which suggests that the German was rather over-hyped last year. There were odd flashes from both drivers through the year – Giancarlo Fisichella’s 12th place on the grid at Monza and his solid run in the top 5 for a good part of the Brazilian GP (only for the team to fumble a pit stop) and Adrian Sutil’s impressive but ultimately fruitless drive in the wet at Monaco and (much less noticed) his race at Spa which saw him mixing it with the Hondas and Williams for much of the race. In the end, though, the team must be hoping that their deal with Mercedes will see them turn the corner, because they are fast filling the role left vacant by Minardi as perennial tail-enders. A shame for a team which, as Jordan, made a semi-serious bid for the title just ten years back.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,