Four Ferrari wins, a podium for Nico, and trouble for Super Aguri
The 2008 Formula One season had a hard act to follow after the controversy and drama of 2007, but it achieved it in style. The emphasis returned to the racing (rather than the courtroom), and a plethora of up-and-coming driving talent kept fans worldwide enthralled. Seven men and five teams won a Grand Prix, five of those for the first time, and the sport crowned its youngest ever champion. On top of that were two magnificent new venues, with the inaugural night race in Singapore providing a spectacle few will ever forget. Heres how a memorable year unfolded
From their testing form, McLaren and Ferrari were the pre-season favourites, with the formers new partnership of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen looking just as strong as the latters year-old line-up of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa. And a returning Fernando Alonso looked to have boosted Renault, the media keen to place him in the thick of the title race too.
The Spaniards experience would count for a lot over a season that was to see two new venues (Valencia and Singapore) and several key regulation changes - a shorter Q3 qualifying session, standardized ECUs (no more traction control), gearboxes that must last four races, and a new joker card allowing each driver one unscheduled engine change without penalty.
2008 would also see several new faces, with Sebastien Bourdais finally making the jump from Champ Cars to Toro Rosso; Nelson Piquet (son of the triple world champion) joining Renault; Kazuki Nakajima (son of Japanese F1 legend Satoru) promoted to Williams race line-up; and Toyota welcoming Timo Glock. As for the teams, Spyker became Force India, while Super Aguri announced new owners ahead of the season start. During winters cold and barren months, the seeds for a great championship had been sown.
If Hamilton had been left disheartened by missing out on the 2007 title, he doesnt show it in Australia. Describing the MP4-23 as a dream to drive, he dominates the season opener, clinching pole and victory. And despite an ill-timed pit stop, team mate Kovalainen throws his hat into the ring, taking fastest lap and fifth place.
There are smiles too at Williams, as Nico Rosberg scores a maiden podium and Nakajima finishes sixth, while BMW Sauber fulfil their testing promise with Nick Heidfeld second. Renault look like they still have a mountain to climb (despite Alonsos plucky drive to fourth) and Toyota debutant Glock is left dazed following a massive shunt.
Reigning champions Ferrari also leave Australia bewildered, after fuel pump problems, spins and engine failures eventually result in double retirement for Raikkonen and Massa. Theres heartbreak too for debutant Bourdais, whose Ferrari engine gives way as hes running fourth.
A week later, however, the Italian team put themselves firmly back in contention with a commanding performance in Malaysia. Initially Massa dominates, scoring his 10th career pole, but after he crashes out its Raikkonen who clinches victory. Having both dropped five places on the grid for blocking during qualifying, the McLarens are largely hamstrung. Kovalainen makes it onto the podium (his first at McLaren), but a wheel problem leaves Hamilton fifth. And with fortune favouring Ferrari, it is Raikkonen now extolling the virtues of his perfect car.
The Finns comeback aside, the biggest story in Sepang is the news that Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz plans to sell his half of Toro Rosso. Mateschitzs senior squad also garners attention on Friday when crash damage to David Coulthards RB4 causes the stewards to demand the team verify its suspensions structural integrity.
In Bahrain, the paddock is awash with talk of FIA President Max Mosleys tabloid exploits. On track, Robert Kubica makes the headlines, taking a maiden pole for himself - and a delighted BMW Sauber. And though the F1.08 lacks the out and out pace to take victory, the German-Swiss squad is undoubtedly the best of the rest, backing up their podiums in Australia and Malaysia with a third in Bahrain.
A relieved Massa claims the victory and finally gets his title charge underway, leading home a Ferrari one-two. Theres no such luck for Hamilton, who after a messy start slams into the rear of Alonso, loses his front wing and finishes a miserable 13th.
Despite a three-week break before the race in Spain, Formula One remains in the spotlight, as an under fire Mosley calls for a confidence vote into his presidency. Bourdais, meanwhile, crashes the new Toro Rosso STR03 on its test debut; the damage is so great that the team are forced to delay its race debut until Monaco.
As Formula One arrives in Barcelona, the FIA launches its EveryRace anti-racism campaign, while Super Aguris future hangs in the balance, with the financially-troubled team once more on the hunt for new backers. On track, the Ferrari fight back continues with Raikkonen leading another red one-two; he hails his stay in Spain as a perfect weekend.
Despite a double DNF, Renault are positive too, thanks to Alonsos front-row grid slot. Hamilton returns to the podium, but smiles are in short supply at McLaren, with Kovalainen briefly hospitalised after crashing heavily following a wheel rim problem.
Theres bleak news as perennial underdogs Super Aguri finally go under and withdraw from the championship. The grid shrinks to 20 drivers and cost reduction leaps straight to the top of everyones agenda.
In Turkey Ferrari are once again unstoppable. Massa jokes that he should ask for a Turkish passport after a third consecutive victory at Istanbul Park, ahead of Hamilton and Raikkonen. His Brazilian countryman Rubens Barrichello steps into the record books, becoming the most experienced driver in F1 history with 257 race starts.
Two weeks later at an unseasonably drizzly Monaco, Ferrari lock out the front row of the grid and threaten to reign supreme. But Hamilton quickly reminds everyone of his skills in the wet. Overcoming an early brush with the barriers and subsequent puncture, the British driver switches to a one-stop strategy, capitalizes on the safety car period (prompted by a heavy shunt for Rosberg), and ends victorious.
An over the moon Hamilton celebrates in parc ferme with a host of celebrities including hip-hop mogul P Diddy. Toro Rosso also make merry, after wunderkind Sebastian Vettel clinches fifth on the STR03s (delayed) race debut. Force India rue losing out on their first-ever points, after an out-of-control Raikkonen takes Adrian Sutil off late in the race.
So, with the seasons first phase over, the championship fight looks tight with Hamilton (38), defending champion Raikkonen (35), Massa (34) and Kubica (32) all firmly in the running. In the constructors standings, Ferrari are safely clear of the opposition, with 69 points to McLarens 53 and BMW Saubers 52.