Sunday, 19 October 2008

Chinese Grand Prix: Hamilton Edges Closer To Title With Supreme Performance

Lewis Hamilton edged closer to winning the 2008 Formula One World Driver's Championship with a flawless performance in the Chinese Grand Prix. From the very first practice session on Friday morning Hamilton was a class apart from the rest of the field this weekend, and rounded off a superb weekend with a disciplined performance from start to finish in the Grand Prix. The title race is still very much alive however, as Felipe Massa claimed second place after being gifted the place by his team mate Raikkonen. It wasn't a great race, and in truth was pretty uneventful, but that is exactly what the doctor ordered for Hamilton after the turbulence of Japan last week, and his nightmare race here last year.

With the threat of rain seemingly dissipated by the start of the race the conditions looked perfect for racing. Hamilton was surrounded by threats on the grid from two Ferraris and a Renault, but he looked totally calm and relaxed as he prepared for the race, as he has looked all weekend. The same couldn't quite be said for Felipe Massa who has looked a bit on edge all weekend, particularly since his disappointing showing in qualifying.

After all the drama and controversy of the opening laps in Japan many were predicting something of the same here. It wasn't to be though, as Hamilton got an inch perfect start and led fairly comfortably going into the tricky first corner. The two Ferraris were in close company but not close enough to attempt any kind of move. Birthday boy Heikki Kovalainen got a good start and was able to squeeze around the outside of Fernando Alonso through turns one and two. This was exactly what was required of Kovalainen after his poor showing in qualifying yesterday, but he couldn't keep it up. Alonso was able to power past again down the back straight after a small mistake from Heikki in the previous corner. There was clearly no sign of Renault's supposed horse power deficit here. The only real drama at the start was a coming together between Trulli and Bourdais, which resulted in Trulli's retirement due to extensive damage to his side-pod.

During the first stint Hamilton was able to consolidate his lead at a rate of one or two tenths of a second per lap consistently. It was perfect race driving from Hamilton; every lap in the first stint was faster than the preceding one, eventually resulting in the fastest lap of the race on lap 13. The Ferraris had no answer to McLaren's pace as Raikkonen dropped ever further back from Hamilton, and Massa fell consistently behind Kimi. Alonso and Kovalainen had no answer to the pace of the top three.

The main players all came in to pit around the same time showing that there was no advantage for anyone in terms of fuel loads. There were a few back markers to contend with as they emerged from the pits, in particular Giancarlo Fisichella was being a bit of a pain for the leaders. Raikkonen especially lost time behind the veteran Italian, and made his feelings very clear with an uncharacteristic hand gesture to the Force India driver as he eventually made it past. It was pretty un-professional driving from Fisi, and I'm not entirely sure what he was hoping to prove or gain, but in the end I don't think it made any difference to the result.

The only moment of significant drama in this phase of the race was a right front puncture for Heikki Kovalainen. It just about summed up the way his season has gone. Just about everything that could go wrong HAS gone wrong. After an extremely rare engine failure last race, his puncture relegated him to the back of the field. Just to compound his miserable birthday, he was then forced to retire with a brake failure. This was bad news for McLaren in terms of the constructor's championship, but they will be thankful that at least the bad luck was befalling Kovalainen and not their title challenger Hamilton.

Raikkonen was starting to close on Hamilton by the end of the second stint, but he was nowhere near close enough to challenge for the victory. Inevitably, after the second and final round of pit stops Raikkonen dropped off the pace to allow Massa to close and pass him for second place and a vital two extra points. It's not great to see from a racing perspective, but it is the only sensible decision in terms of the title race. Also, Raikkonen was not in a position to complain after he won the title last year in Brazil due in no small part to Massa yielding to him in the closing stages. Both Ferrari drivers looked completely embarrassed by the whole experience in the post-race press conference; Massa clearly knew that he was out classed by Raikkonen all day long, but will be grateful for the points gifted to him. Whether that kind of behaviour is strictly legal or not is up for debate, but you won't see McLaren protesting as they may need to do something similar in Brazil next race.

From then on it was plain sailing to the finish for the top drivers. Hamilton clearly eased off the pace knowing that the engine he used today needs to last him for the full weekend in Brazil. Massa and Raikkonen were too far back to challenge Hamilton so just cruised to the finish to end what was in truth a pretty dull Chinese Grand Prix. Fernando Alonso took fourth place with a decent performance, but was unable to get close to the podium places. Heidfeld and Kubica came next, with Kubica able to make up several places due to his extremely long first stint. It wasn't enough to stop his title dream disappearing for at least another year though. He will be disappointed with his own performance, particularly in qualifying, and it is a shame to see his title challenge end with a bit of whimper. However, even if he had performed to the best of his ability here he would not have had an answer to the pace of Hamilton in the McLaren. Glock and Piquet rounded out the points finishers, Glock in particular having a good race today after a poor qualifying yesterday.

So going into the final race of the 2008 season Lewis Hamilton holds a seven point lead over Felipe Massa. This is exactly the same lead he held over Alonso going into Brazil last year, so the Championship is by no means a foregone conclusion yet. However, if McLaren and Hamilton show the same kind of pace, consistency and crucially maturity that they showed here, then the title should be his. Hamilton can afford to let Massa win his home Grand Prix and still be able to wrap up the title with a top 5 finish. Today Hamilton looked every bit the World Champion in waiting, and Ferrari and Massa had absolutely no answer to his dominance.

Race Result

1. Hamilton
2. Massa
3. Raikkonen
4. Alonso
5. Heidfeld
6. Kubica
7. Glock
8. Piquet
9. Vettel
10. Coulthard
11. Barrichello
12. Nakajima
13. Bourdais
14. Webber
15. Rosberg
16. Button
17. Fisichella
ret Kovalainen
ret Sutil
ret Trulli

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