Monday, October 20, 2008

Chinese Grand Prix, a Look back at the Race

Lewis Hamilton again moved to a brink of becoming Formula 1's youngest ever world champion with a textbook victory in China, while Felipe Massa heads for home in a fortnight's time with it all to do.
We look back at how the race unfolded and ahead to the Interlagos decider; explaining how Hamilton and McLaren should be in better shape to wrap it up this time and why Massa can't afford to give up on his hopes yet. Lewis Hamilton dominated not just the race, but the entire Chinese Grand Prix weekend.
The only track session he did not finish in first place was Saturday morning practice, when Nick Heidfeld did a low-fuel flier in preparation for qualifying while Lewis carried the fuel he would be using in Q3.

In control
This was a disciplined drive by Hamilton, as perfect as Fuji was flawed.
The only moment of doubt was just before the lights went out, simply because of what had happened in Fuji.
But he got the car going better than Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari next to him and took the lead into turn one, never to be seen again.
Felipe Massa’s expression said it all afterwards.
He had not had the pace to challenge Hamilton all weekend and now he heads to Brazil with a seven-point deficit – which means he has to win the race there, but it’s out of his hands.
Hamilton will be world champion if he finishes fifth or higher, regardless of Massa’s result.

A clear focus
By a curious twist of fate, that was also the points situation relative to Raikkonen going into last year’s race and yet Hamilton managed to lose.
This year there is a very significant difference though. He does not have to worry about Fernando Alonso in the sister car.
It was the Spaniard last year who dominated Hamilton’s thoughts at the finale after a season of bitterness and recrimination.
Alonso felt that he could have won the title if McLaren had just restrained Hamilton a bit, and he’s right.
Going into that last race, Hamilton was four points ahead of Alonso and seven up on Raikkonen, who went on to win in Brazil.
Hamilton wasn’t really thinking about him and yet he emerged the champion.
This year Hamilton’s mind is clear; he knows that he will have a harmonious and serene atmosphere in his team all weekend and that he can focus all his attention simply on having a strong race, as he did here.

The Interlagos challenges
For me the only real points of concern will be his engine reliability and the start of the race, which is highly risky in Brazil, because of the way the first two corners flow with 20 cars arriving at speed with cold brakes and tyres.
I’ve seen some huge shunts there over the years and plenty of contact, spins and bits of bodywork knocked off.
Last year it started to get away from Hamilton at the start in Brazil and then his race was finished off by the gearbox gremlin which cost him 40 seconds.
Ferrari had a significant performance advantage over McLaren in Brazil last year, which it doesn’t look like they will have this year.
And just to make sure McLaren have been developing a special ‘Interlagos pack’ for the car, to give Hamilton the best shot at doing well there.
As this season winds to a close, Renault have made great progress to be the third fastest team in the field but are still not fast enough to get involved in the fight at the front – so in a normal weekend, Hamilton can expect to finish at least third and be champion.
The other thing to keep an eye on is the engine.
Heikki Kovalainen lost an engine which was on its second race in Fuji and prior to Singapore he had had to change his engine because there was a reliability issue there.
Hamilton will use his Shanghai engine again in Sao Paolo and even though he was able to turn the revs down in the final 10 laps or so today, it will still be a mild concern because of what happened with Kovalainen’s unit.
And as Michael Schumacher found in 2006, an engine failure at the end of the championship can happen, even to the most reliable of teams.

Massa's moment
Massa’s task in Brazil is clear: do what he has done the last two seasons and dominate the race.
He looks like he has his head down a bit now, after being outpaced not only by Hamilton but also by Raikkonen here.
He’s amazing at Interlagos and will no doubt be inspired by his home crowd, but there will be a bitterness about the experience too.
He knows that there is a very real possibility that this will be his only chance to win the world championship.
You never know when a chance is going to come and you have to take it when it does.
He was presented with this chance because his team-mate had major problems getting on with the 2008 Ferrari, but the team has set out an intensive test programme for 2009 which will see Kimi doing 9,000 kilometres of testing to make absolutely sure that he has a car he can challenge with in 2009.
And as a motivated Kimi is stronger than Massa, this could be it for the little Brazilian.
He looks back on the engine failures in Australia and Hungary and on the pit lane cock-up in Singapore and sees over 20 points gone begging which would otherwise have made him world champion today.
So the whole of Brazil will be at his shoulder but he’ll know that it is very hard for him to deliver, and that will have its own unique pressure.
He needs Hamilton to hit problems to give him the title. His mentor Michael Schumacher’s motto was always ‘don’t give up’ and Massa will no doubt follow it, but with some heavy doubts.
You can always look back on a season and think of what might have been.
Massa had those technical failures I mentioned, but Hamilton will point to Spa, where he was docked four points for cutting the chicane and Massa picked up an extra two points for being awarded the win. Without that penalty Hamilton would be champion tonight.

Final thought
Another behind-the-scenes story, which contributes to the outcomes we are seeing, is the Bridgestone tyre selection this season.
Because the McLaren and Ferrari cars use their tyres quite differently, one team is always going to get a slight advantage from the compounds Bridgestone bring.
Basically the softer the compounds are the better it is for Ferrari, the harder they are it helps McLaren.
As a rule the Ferrari works the tyre less over a 20-lap stint and thus is faster in race conditions, whereas the McLaren uses up its tyres more quickly.
Ferrari’s boss Stefano Domenicali compared this race to Hockenheim where Hamilton’s McLaren was surprisingly dominant, and it is interesting that the choice of tyres there was the same as here, medium and hard. Ferrari would have liked them to be a step softer.
The same could well be true in Brazil where last year they took super-soft and soft and Ferrari dominated. This year Bridgestone has nominated soft and medium, which will play more to McLaren’s strengths.

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