Lewis Hamilton, World Champion

November 3, 2008

It was, without question, the most breathless and exciting end to a Formula 1 World Championship in the series’ 58-year history.  Indeed, it was probably almost the most exciting finish even technically possible.  It was a glimpse into a brave new world of sporting potential.  In the future, everybody will be World Champion for fifteen seconds.

It is completely impossible to not feel some sympathy for Felipe Massa.  He won more races in 2008 than any of his rivals and was, yet again, a class above anybody else at Interlagos.  This, his second win at home, came in altogether more difficult circumstances than his first in 2006, and is perhaps the strongest indication to date that Massa is now a complete enough package to be a future world champion.  The trouble is, I can’t help shake the feeling he may have already seen his best chance slip agonisingly away on the finishing straight of his home circuit.

This is not a reflection on Massa’s ability per se, but more a consideration of the abilities of the men who are likely to be his rivals next year.  Räikkönen probably just shades his teammate when he’s got his right head on, but both men are a little way behind Fernando Alonso – likely to start next season in a far more competitive car than he had at the start of this – and Lewis Hamilton.  Massa is almighty at commanding a race from the front and Räikkönen is probably the fastest one-lap driver in the field.  But are they able, like Alonso and Hamilton are, to be there, fast circuit or slow circuit, wet or dry, from the front or from the back, every single weekend?

It is also difficult to discount Robert Kubica if BMW’s decision to spend this year developing their 2009 car bears fruit.  Not forgetting, too, next season’s dark horse Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull Renault.  Vettel was superb yet again in Brazil, and he looks like a driver who has the quality to not be denied even by lesser machinery.

The most significant factor for all of these drivers – Massa, Räikkönen, Kubica, Vettel and Alonso – is an unknown.  How good will Lewis Hamilton be now he’s got the monkey off his back?  He’s already proved that he’s good enough to win a championship with the question mark hanging over him.  A few less mistakes next year and Lewis will probably not give his fans such a difficult time of it ever again.  He will start next year as favourite to retain his title and become only the second English driver to ever win multiple world crowns, after Graham Hill in the 1960s.

In the coming days, weeks and months, there are likely to be a number of people who will tell you that Lewis Hamilton was very lucky to win the 2008 World Championship.  This is, in the specific case of the Brazilian showdown, demonstrably true.  But it’s something that Hamilton’s doubters are going to have to get used to.  Because if there’s one thing the history of the sport teaches us, it’s that the best driver in the world doesn’t half tend to get “lucky” an awful lot.

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