Thursday, October 23, 2008

Conclusions From The Chinese GP

Monday 20th October 2008

The World Championship is now Lewis Hamilton's to lose.
Problem is, it was last year as well...

Felipe Massa Is Delusional
"I was strong enough to catch and pass [Raikkonen] and that was the best part of the race for me."

Next he'll be accusing Lewis Hamilton of bumping him off the track on the first lap in Japan when the reality was that he out-braked himself.


Hang on...

Hamilton Has Set Himself Up For The Title. Or A Horrible Fall
For a driver who apparently can't cope with pressure, Lewis Hamilton didn't do badly in Shanghai.

His performance was a study in motor-racing perfection. After a statement of intent on Friday, when he finished both sessions in first place, the McLaren driver made good on his promise by taking P1 in all three qualifying sessions and then registering a lights-to-flags victory that included, for only the second time this season, the fastest lap of the race to complete the sweep. Look up 'comprehensive' in the F1 dictionary and the words 'Hamilton - China, 2008' should feature prominently.

A Hamilton victory tends to be a dramatic, controversial event; this was simply a masterclass in superiority. Ferrari's plan was to disrupt him off the line. Problem was, they couldn't get near him. Dominant, flawless and mature, Hamilton even succeeded in earning a respectful and volunteered handshake from Fernando Alonso and silencing his hitherto vocal army of critics.
But only for now.

They will not be completely muted until - if - he wins the World Championship in Brazil in two weeks' time. His own celebrations in Shanghai were low-key, presumably muted in the knowledge that, although a critical step had been taken, he is still to cross the line and, in sport, the final mile is often the hardest.

"This is another step to the Championship and towards my dream and towards my team's dream," he remarked. But after last year's calamitous nightmare, there will be plenty of sleepless nights ahead before that dream can be realised.

It's Still Hamilton's Title To Lose
Just as it was last year. And in 2008, as in 2007, he enters the final race with a seven-point lead that makes him the outstanding favourite but still leaves him vulnerable to a catastrophe.

One advantage Hamilton does have this year compared to last is that he need only concern himself with Felipe Massa (it is now mathematically impossible for Robert Kubica to claim the title, just as Kimi Raikkonen statistically relinquished his title of World Champion in Japan last weekend). Twelve months ago, he was so preoccupied with finishing ahead of Fernando Alonso that Raikkonen was able to sneak in under the radar ahead of both and claim one of the strangest titles in F1 history.

Next Sunday, 'all' Hamilton has do is ensure that Felipe Massa does not finish seven points ahead of him. Easier said than done, of course. Hamilton's title prospects would be so much more secure if only the first corner in Brazil was a soft, gradual curve - like Turn One in China - rather than the sort of sharp left-hander that is fertile ground for disaster.

Heikki Makes Hamilton Look Special
The question posed but unanswered by Rob Smedley, Felipe Massa's race engineer, during his post-race interview on ITV was whether McLaren now boasted the best car on the grid.

Hamilton's display suggested as much, but the argument to the contrary was the pathetic performance of Heikki Kovalainen in the sister McLaren. Was Hamilton very good or was Heikki very bad? The truth is probably - as it generally is - somewhere in the middle. The McLaren is not necessarily a faster car than the Ferrari but Hamilton was at the peak of his powers this weekend and out-drove every one of his competitors in a piece of machinery flattered by the circuit's characteristics.

Kovalainen, on the other hand, has proved himself a second-rate driver with more excuses than skill or pace and one utterly undeserving of his seat.

The Finn may have been unlucky in suffering a puncture but at that stage of the race he was already 30 seconds behind his team-mate. Incredibly, Fernando Alonso now heads his replacement at McLaren in the Constructors' Championship despite spending the first six months of an eight-month season in a mishandling and underpowered Renault. There's no way to judge Hamilton the fastest driver on the grid in the absence of any sort of meaningful team-mate comparison.

Kovalainen's inadequacies are not just a talking point. Its most profound affect is the likelihood of Ferrari being crowned the Constructors' Champions in Brazil (they now lead McLaren by 11 points). He might yet cost Lewis Hamilton the Drivers' Championship as well because it would be foolish in the extreme of the Englishman to expect his team-mate to provide the sort of points-paying support in Brazil hat Raikkonen provided for Massa this weekend (and Massa provided for Raikkonen a year ago for the Finn to win the title).

Nor is it actually outlandish to state that had Kovalainen risen to the occasion last weekend in Shanghai then Hamilton would already be the World Champion. After all, if one McLaren driver can qualify in pole position, it is not unreasonable to expect his team-mate - especially one out of the title race and who has less reason not to sacrifice race strategy - to line up alongside him. Had Kovalainen done so, the mayhem of the first corner would surely not have occurred and there would be no reason to suspect that Hamilton would not have collected the points haul necessary to make the result in Brazil academic.

Heikki's Failure Makes Alonso Worth The Hassle
There's an element of tragedy to Fernando Alonso's year at McLaren. The loss has been threefold: his own, the team's and F1's. If there is one thing better than a two-way fight in the final race then it is a three-way battle.

Courtesy of Renault's late-season revival and his back-to-back wins in Singapore and Japan, 2008 hasn't been a complete disaster for Alonso. In his absence from F1's top table, his reputation has risen in stock and the general consensus is that he is driving better than ever. Yet the season has still represented a waste of talent.

When Ferrari and McLaren reflect on their errors this season, and they have made plenty, they should both consider the advantages they would have gained from employing the Spaniard. The point worth emphasising is that even if there is a case for arguing Raikkonen should be replaced by Alonso, there is an even stronger argument for stating that he ought to be in Kovalainen's place.

When Damon Hill was asked to envisage himself as team boss and given the pick of the entire field from which select his preferred driver line-up, he nominated Hamilton and Alonso. "Put them back together and try again," was the gist of his explanation.

The hassle may have been considerable, but that would have been a price worth paying for two championships.

The Stewards Remain Consistent In Their Inconsistency
The punishment of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen at the Malaysian GP after being judged by the stewards to have impeded Nick Heidfeld during qualifying: five grid slots.

The punishment of Nick Heidfeld at the Chinese GP after being judged by the stewards to have impeded David Coulthard during qualifying: three grid slots.

Ferrari's Defence Is Flawed
"You don't remember what happened in Germany and no one has complained, between Kovalainen and Hamilton? I know why you are asking that question so I am saying the same thing" - Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali.

It's not unreasonable for Domenicali to plead precedent in defending Felipe Massa's move past Kimi Raikkonen but his memory is as mistaken as his comparison is flawed. While Kovalainen did indeed let his team-mate past in Germany, the difference was that Hamilton caught him; in China, it was obvious that Raikkonen had to slow down in order for Massa to take second.

That is not to say Ferrari or their drivers ought to be punished for what occurred in Shanghai, because what occurred was a world away from events in Austria in 2002 and nobody is bothered by the use of 'team orders' in the penultimate race of a season, but for Domenicali to accuse McLaren in his own team's mitigation was desperate and shoddy.

Pete Gill
Source : Planet F1

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