Written by Jacob Awcock, Edited by Meghana Sree
As Formula One headed into the 18th and final round of the 2008 FIA Formula One Championship, there were a mere seven points separating the top two in the standings. Lewis Hamilton knew that finishing fifth or higher would secure him his maiden World Championship. Brazilian driver Felipe Massa had to win his home race and hope that Hamilton finished sixth or lower, essentially implying that Hamilton would have to be extremely unlucky and Massa incredibly lucky.
That luck nearly went Massa’s way, had there been one less corner on the circuit.
Massa started the weekend off in the best possible way; taking a commanding pole position for the race ahead of Jarno Trulli in the Toyota, by nearly half a second. Massa’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen and championship rival Hamilton would line up third and fourth respectively on the grid. As the fans, mostly wearing red Ferrari merchandise, filled the Interlagos circuit, so did the rain clouds. A wet start was inevitable and all drivers would start the race on the wet weather intermediate tyres.
With a damp track and cold tyres, grip would be at a minimum going into Turn One and that was clear as the drivers carefully pulled away from the start and approached the first corner. The front four kept in the same order and began to pull away from the rest of the pack.
Yet further back in the field there was carnage. In his final professional race, David Coulthard had been hit from behind and on a wet track, spun the car into the barriers, eliminating himself and Nelson Piquet Jr from the race. The Brit who had had an illustrious career to his name hadn’t even managed to make it past the first corner in his final race.
The safety car was released so the marshalls could remove the stricken Renaults from the track, but it wasn't out for long and was withdrawn after just three laps. As the field streamed across the start finish line, Massa extended his lead from Trulli and Raikkonen. Massa was doing everything right, yet so was Hamilton, running comfortably in fourth place; and provided he stayed where he was, he would be the 2008 World Champion.
However, it was not going to be that simple for the young Brit, as the rain had stopped a few laps ago and a drying track meant it would be down to the strategists as to when it’d be the perfect time to get rid of the wet tyres to replace them with the quicker dry-weather tyres.
Massa was the first to make the move and on lap ten, the Brazilian surrendered his lead for the quicker dry-condition tyres. He may have lost the lead but as he exited the pit lane he was flying, and the front three of Trulli, Raikkonen, and Hamilton knew they all had to respond otherwise Massa would gain time on them.
All three pitted the next lap for dry tyres yet for Hamilton this was where his race began to truly unfold. Needing to keep at least fifth place in order to secure the title, he lost positions to Fernando Alonso, Giancarlo Fisichella, and Sebastian Vettel – dropping him down to seventh while Massa was in the lead. All three of these drivers were already on dry tires. Hamilton had a mission on his hands in order to move up the field and salvage his title hopes.
Hamilton’s charge began not long after the pit stops. Just one lap after pitting, Hamilton had reeled in Trulli. But the Brit was still a long way behind the Toyota and wouldn't be able to make a move for a few more laps it seemed.
However, a crucial mistake from Trulli going into the first corner gave Hamilton a golden opportunity which he took, and he claimed sixth place. But he needed more and just five laps later he was at it again, breezing past the Force India of Fisichella and into fifth place. The World Championship was his, at the moment.
With a 21 second advantage over Hamilton, Massa opted to pit for a new set of dry tyres and to refuel. The Brazilian lost the lead to Alonso but had a monumental speed advantage over him and quickly closed the gap to him once out of the pits. Hamilton chose a different strategy and didn't pit until lap 40 hoping to go to the end of the race with the current amount of fuel he had onboard. But drama was about to strike again, this time in the closing stages of the race.
With just six laps to go the clouds began to darken over the circuit and the heavens opened. First a small amount of rain came down, but it was big enough to make a difference. With just five laps remaining, Hamilton made the call to pit for intermediate tyres but Massa didn't.
Hamilton dropped down the order, and the question was whether it would rain heavily enough for the intermediate tyres to work. Hamilton thought so and so did Massa who came into the pits one lap later for the intermediates as well. Unfortunately for Hamilton, it was like driving on an ice rink while still in fifth place with the championship in his hands, yet it was far from over.
Vettel, who had been running quietly behind Hamilton, began to close the gap. Slowly putting on the pressure, the German closed nearly half a second per lap and was soon right up behind Hamilton. Hamilton was eight seconds off Timo Glock in fourth place so there was little to no chance that he would catch him unless Glock had a mechanical failure. He had to keep Vettel behind to win the championship. But the pressure got to him. At the final turn, Hamilton lost control of his car, running off the racing line and leaving a beautiful gap for Vettel to manoeuvre his car through and speed into fifth place with just three laps to go. It seemed that this was it. Hamilton had lost the championship in the closing stages.
Up front Massa had done all he could and he crossed the line having completed a commanding victory. The Ferrari garage erupted, and it seemed that there was no hope for Hamilton, with Massa having won his first ever World Championship, that too at his home race; the dream for a motor racing driver. But it's never over until it's over in racing.
As the cameras focused on Hamilton desperately trying to find a way past Vettel, a slow car was upfront. At first it seemed like a lapped car. But no.
“Glock. Is that Glock going slow!” exclaimed Martin Brundle, and on the dry tyres on a wet track, the German struggled for grip and skated off the track, letting Hamilton through– handing him the World Championship at the very final corner of the race.
The shift in emotions across the circuit and in garages was polarising. As Ferrari slowly realised what had happened, it dawned upon them that their celebrations had been premature. Massa may have won the race but he'd lost the title fight.
Meanwhile at Mclaren, it was pure ecstasy for the team celebrating Hamilton’s maiden title. In just his second year in Formula One, he had taken the field by storm and was a thoroughly deserving champion, with many more to come his way.