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2008 F1 review

Image: Hamilton: Driver of the year delivers its review of the season, which saw Lewis Hamilton become a champion.

One thing that's certainly been true of Formula One in recent seasons has been its sheer competitiveness. Guided by a strict rulebook and fuelled by a seemingly endless stream of resources, performance differentials are now so acute that the difference between success and failure can be measured in fractions of a second. In this sense, the climax to the 2008 World Championship could represent the peak for a sport that appears to be on the brink of fundamental change: two teams spending hundreds of millions of pounds over a good 18 months to develop two cars, the difference between them only being revealed over the final few hundred yards of the Interlagos circuit. And yet this does rather overlook the sheer human drama of the season's climax in Brazil, and also misses the many ups-and-downs of a year characterised by the reversals of fortune experienced by its main protagonists. The last year brought moments of sporting inspiration, mistakes of almost comic idiocy and, as an aside, also brought Britain its first World Champion for 12 seasons.

Driver of the year - Lewis Hamilton

Bar Kimi Raikkonen, there's a case for each of the top four drivers in this year's Championship to claim this prestigious accolade. For me, it comes down to a straight fight between Hamilton and Alonso - with the World Champion getting the nod. Why? Well, beyond the obvious, it's a question of pressure. We've already outed Alonso as our 'pound for pound' Champion this season, in that his was the most obvious case of a driver outperforming his car. But Alonso was never a contender. Not only that, he was back driving for a team in which he was the undoubted top dog - a double World Champion partnered with a rookie who struggled. In other words, and if such a term can be applied to Formula One, Alonso was operating in a comfort zone: Renault could be described as his 'spiritual home' almost. The same could also describe Hamilton's relationship with McLaren Mercedes. Arguably even more so: certainly no other driver in the history of the sport has formed as deep a bond with his team at such an early stage of his career as the 23-year-old. So the support and guidance were certainly there. Even so, Hamilton was the focal point of the Championship challenge of one the sport's top two teams and, having almost taken the title in his rookie season - when the pressure was off to an extent - things were different in 2008. And yet, despite the mistakes, despite the inexperience, despite looking toothless in those closing laps at Interlagos, he delivered. What's more, at times, he delivered in breathtaking style.

Team of the year - Toro Rosso

Minardi came to the grid mid-way through the 1985 season and despite the odd nosebleed here and there (Pierluigi Martini led a lap of the 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix and qualified on the front row at the United States GP the following season) the next 20-plus years were spent propping up the grid. It's not that the team lacked talent - Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber have all driven for them. It was more a question of resources. Things changed, but not to a large extent, when Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz took over at the end of 2005, with the rechristened Scuderia Toro Rosso seen as very much as the junior outfit to Red Bull Racing. However, reaping the benefit of a loophole in the rules that allows them to use the same chassis as RBR - which they fitted with Ferrari engines - they outperformed big brother in 2008 and also beat them to a first victory. That it came at Monza must have been heaven sent for the Faenza based outfit, who became the first Italian team other than Ferrari to win a grand prix since 1957. Co-owner Gerhard Berger has since sold his half share back to Mateschitz, apparently in the belief that this is as good as it gets for Toro Rosso. Regardless, their success was long overdue and, in some ways, a victory for a different age.

Best race - Ones in which it rained

Weather-wise, 2008 brought the worst summer for a good 12 months. Obviously depressing in most respects, that fact nevertheless proved a boon during the European F1 season when, almost every other Sunday, messages along the lines of "80 percent chance of rain during the next 20 minutes" popped up on television screens and fans rubbed their hands in anticipation. Monaco, Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza all stick in the memory for much the same reasons, although we have to head to Sao Paulo for the race that topped the lot. Jack Brabham had to push his car across the finishing line at the 1959 United States GP for the fourth place he needed to take that year's title and given Lewis Hamilton's progress, or lack of, during those closing laps at Interlagos, you half-suspected something similar was in the offing. In the event, Timo Glock's Toyota was going even slower and so the stage was set for Formula One's very own version of Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor at the Crucible in 1985: last race, last lap, last corner.

Dullest race - New street circuits

The preamble for the European Grand Prix, held in Valencia, almost sounded too good to be true: a track built around a harbour front and yet which also seemed to have very little of Monaco's gaudy glamour - something that can make fans of even this most capitalist of sports wince. The circuit crossed a swing bridge, passed a fish market and, best of all, didn't have the twists, turns and narrow confines of Monte Carlo. It therefore offered the tantalising prospect of the Holy Grail for street circuits i.e. overtaking. Unfortunately what followed was a complete dirge. Singapore, F1's first-ever night race, appeared to be heading much the same way before Nelson Piquet stuck his Renault in the wall and Ferrari's botched pit stop scuppered the chances of runaway leader Felipe Massa. Both races were highly-anticipated additions to the calendar and yet both ultimately failed to live up to the hype - demonstrating once again that, in F1, 'the show' is a concept that sometimes gets misplaced between lights and flag.

Most improved driver - Felipe Massa

A tough call this, given that the second candidate, Robert Kubica, remained in contention for the World Championship until the second-to-last race, scored both his and his team's first pole position and race victory, and turned the tables on team-mate Nick Heidfeld after a difficult 2007. The Pole also enjoyed a very consistent season - something which, at times, could not be said about Massa. There were rumours that Ferrari might even replace the Brazilian after he spun out of the Malaysian Grand Prix trying to keep pace with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen. However, and to his credit, Massa pulled it together at the very next race in Bahrain, before embarking on a summer spree that brought five more wins. Yes, two such (France and Belgium) were inherited but Massa produced dominant displays in both Hungary and Singapore - and lost both due to circumstances beyond his control. The old erraticism was back with a vengeance at Silverstone (see below) and his resistance of Hamilton at Hockenheim was disappointingly meek but, on the whole, Massa heads into the 2009 season with his reputation enhanced. How much of this reappraisal is smoke and mirrors - in other words, the question of whether Raikkonen can re-assert himself at the Scuderia - is something we'll discover soon enough. Another reason for plumping for Massa over Kubica is the notion that the latter is a World Champion-in-the-making i.e. that his talent is, more or less, fully formed and now only needs honing. In contrast, you sense that 2008 might represent Massa's peak.

Best drives - Lewis Hamilton in China and Britain

The Chinese Grand Prix was so perfect for Hamilton that, despite it taking place only two months ago, the race has since been erased from the memory. But the statistics - he took pole position, the race victory and also claimed the fastest lap - speak for themselves, as does the further fact that Shanghai came just seven days after the nightmare that was Fuji. Oh how we laughed in the immediate aftermath of the race when, having just finished 12th after both a shambolic start and a collision with Massa, he announced matter-of-factly that "we'll make sure we win the last two races". It seemed like bravado at the time but, credit where credit's due, he proved himself at least half correct the following weekend. The fact that Hamilton did bounce back, and in some style, towards the end of the season - when the pressure must have been immense - places his win in China alongside that at the British Grand Prix. Yes, that was the race everyone raved about and compared with Jackie Stewart's win at the Nurburgring in 1968 and Ayrton Senna's at Estoril in 1985 and who can argue with a 68-second victory margin? Yet it all might have been different had Ferrari not decided to keep Kimi Raikkonen - who had moved right on to Hamilton's tail as the track dried - on the same set of intermediate tyres at his first pit stop. However, the rain returned, the Finn started to slither and Hamilton disappeared up the road.

Worst drive - Felipe Massa at Silverstone

Massa won six races in 2008 and, under the 'medal system' currently being pushed by Bernie Ecclestone, would have been World Champion. His victory in his home race at Interlagos - which, momentarily, appeared to clinch him the title - was admirable because it showed, for just about the first time in his career as an F1 frontrunner, that he could prosper in either wet or changeable conditions. (Although his performance didn't sway those who claimed that the second-placed driver, Fernando Alonso, could have pushed him harder.) But if there was ever a performance which shot holes in the notion of Massa as World Champion - and confirmed that of Hamilton - it was the respective ones they gave in Northamptonshire. Admittedly Massa's weekend had been a bad one even before the race: a heavy crash at Stowe corner during Friday practice was followed by a wheelnut problem in qualifying that prevented him from improving on fifth place on the grid. But what followed was embarrassing: two spins in the first two laps with three more spotted amid the gloom across the rest of the race. Having come into the weekend leading the World Championship, he ended it 13th and last in the race. Hamilton, meanwhile, was lapping up to five seconds per lap quicker than his rivals. He later claimed he could have gone even faster.

Story of the year - Cost cutting

This being a sport website, we're not minded to discuss the private life of Max Mosley, nor his emergence during the summer as an unlikely champion of the right to privacy of those in the public eye, as enshrined by the 1998 Human Rights Act. However, Mosley's profile was back up there again in October when, under his alter ego of president of the FIA, he used the global financial maelstrom as a means to once again issue the warning that steps must be taken to cut costs. Effectively unionised since the formation of the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) during the summer, the teams themselves now represented a united front - something that had hardly ever been the case in the years of plenty. But, with one eye on an impending recession (the other cast firmly upon a more favourable cut of the sport's commercial revenues) a deal was quickly struck that, next season, will see cheaper, more reliable engines, a ban on in-season testing and a restriction on wind tunnel use. That the final agreement came barely a week after Honda announced their withdrawal almost certainly concentrated minds and, let's face it, can anyone really disagree with Mosley's belief that employing "between 700 and 1000 people just to put two cars on the grid" is "unsustainable"?Arguably the biggest question now is not the survival of the sport itself - F1 has come through tough economic times before - but whether a move away from an era which has brought some frighteningly effective machinery can produce better racing.

Controversial moment - Belgium

This was the race won by Lewis Hamilton after a crazy final lap at a wet Spa Francorchamps which saw him and Kimi Raikkonen banging wheels in drunken fashion, both cars leave the track before the Finn's Ferrari finally did so in a terminal fashion at Blanchimont corner. But the controversy surrounded the decision of race stewards to penalise Hamilton for his botched attempt to pass Raikkonen at the Bus Stop chicane at the end of the previous lap. They decided that he had gained a competitive advantage in making the move, despite the fact Hamilton actually handed the lead back to Raikkonen across the start-finish line before successfully passing him once again at the next corner. He was eventually handed a 25-second 'retrospective' drive-through penalty and dropped to third place behind Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld. Opinion was predictably divided regarding both crime and punishment, with the FIA, Ferrari and Hamilton's rivals lining up against the main offender, McLaren Mercedes and just about anyone else who held an opinion. Although McLaren's appeal of the result went nowhere, the FIA has promised greater transparency in stewards' decisions next season and also made their training more rigorous. But will such measures assuage those who believe F1's governing body is biased against Ron Dennis' team?

Year to remember - Robert Kubica

BMW's stated aim for 2008 was to win a grand prix and so it proved, with Robert Kubica taking the chequered flag in Montreal. Things might have been different had Lewis Hamilton not driven into the back of Kimi Raikkonen in the pitlane but they all count and the reward was a just one for a team who have steadily gathered momentum since the German manufacturer took over Sauber ahead of the 2006 season. Although a difficult pre-season testing period was spent working to cure balance problems on the team's F1.08 car, the sweet spot they found enabled the Pole to score his and the team's first pole position in Bahrain as well as score three podium finishes (plus two fourth places) prior to the Canadian Grand Prix. Kubica briefly led the Drivers' Championship as a result, but that race proved the highlight as, with their mission accomplished, the team started to channel their resources towards 2009. However, Kubica still had his eyes trained firmly on the road ahead and three more podium finishes duly followed - a consistently impressive season (a spin at Silverstone being the only real error) leaving him clinging on to the ropes as a mathematical contender right up until the Chinese Grand Prix. After a difficult 2007 season, this was the year Kubica's 'star of the future' mantle was cast aside; assuming the team come out of the blocks quickly as regards next year's rule changes then there's nothing about their star driver that doesn't suggest a credible World Championship bid.

Year to forget - Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen's World Championship defence ended with a joint third place finish in the drivers' standings. Respectable-sounding on paper - but the holes in Raikkonen's season are glaring. Ferrari's supposed star driver finished 22 points behind team-mate Felipe Massa. He won two races in total - not a disaster when you consider that World Championships have, in the past, been won by drivers with even fewer. But it still came close to being one when you consider that Raikkonen had a car at his disposal that was, all things being equal, one of only two capable of winning a race. Surely of particular annoyance to Ferrari's management would have been the occasions, frequent during 2008, when a man on a reported retainer of $44 million sounded less-than-interested with his lot in life. Having pushed a photographer to the ground on the grid ahead of the British Grand Prix, the height of Raikkonen's malaise came during the summer, when even retirement was rumoured to be an option. Instead, Ferrari extended his contract and, from the Belgian Grand Prix onwards, an older version of the F2008 appeared to reignite his desire. Sort of. The official reason for his poor showings was an apparent inability to generate sufficient heat into the front tyres of his car. But other drivers have encountered similar problems in recent seasons - drivers who are not World Champions - and dealt with it. Luca di Montezemolo is confident the real Raikkonen will be back in 2009 but you can't help but wonder whether Ferrari's president occasionally he casts a misty eye in the direction of team 'adviser' Michael Schumacher.

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