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The 2008 Season Review - Part Three 13 Nov 2008

Race retiree Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari crosses the track.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 7 September 2008 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Scuderia Toro Rosso celebrates on the podium 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Italian Grand Prix, Race, Monza, Italy, Sunday, 14 September 2008 Adrian Sutil (GER) Force India F1 VJM01 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Singapore Grand Prix, Qualifying, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore, Saturday, 27 September 2008 Race winner Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Japanese Grand Prix, Race Day, Fuji Speedway, Japan, Sunday, 12 October 2008 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren celebrates the World Championship with the McLaren team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 2 November 2008

The final third of the 2008 Formula One season had everything - tension, drama and controversy. Sebastian Vettel became the sport’s youngest winner, Fernando Alonso scored surprise back-to-back victories, and Singapore awed fans and drivers alike with the sport’s first night race. The biggest story, however, was Lewis Hamilton. Stewards penalised him and fellow drivers criticised him, but he fought back to clinch the title in a season finale that kept fans the world over on the very edge of their seats, even after the chequered flag…

Two-thirds of the season gone and thoughts are already turning to 2009. Toyota announce that team manager Richard Cregan will be leaving to spearhead preparations for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, while Toro Rosso test GP2’s Sebastian Buemi and ex-Super Aguri star Takuma Sato as possible replacements for Red Bull-bound Sebastian Vettel.

On track at the Belgian Grand Prix it’s Lewis Hamilton who takes control in qualifying, scoring pole from Felipe Massa with three-tenths to spare. In the race, however, Kimi Raikkonen is set for victory until late rain sees the McLaren and Ferrari tangle in an epic battle. With Raikkonen crashing out, Hamilton wins ahead of Massa and a brilliant Nick Heidfeld, whose late change to wets sees him pass four cars in a lap.

But as the paddock packs up, the stewards hand Hamilton a 25-second time penalty for cutting a chicane during his battle with Raikkonen. Thus Massa inherits the win, Hamilton relegated to third behind Heidfeld. McLaren lodge an appeal, arguing that race control told them Hamilton had acted within with the rules.

But with the Italian Grand Prix just days away - and both titles still up for grabs - there is little time to reflect. As is traditional at Monza, Ferrari confirm their line-up for the following year, the retention of Raikkonen and Massa laying to rest rumours of the former’s retirement. At the same time the Scuderia admit they’re struggling to get to grips with their 2009 KERS system.

Red Bull lighten the atmosphere with a party and photo exhibition celebrating David Coulthard’s 15-year career. His 2009 replacement, Vettel, soon steals the headlines, becoming F1’s youngest pole sitter after a qualifying session shaped by wet weather. The 21 year-old’s success is a warning shot to McLaren (with Hamilton only 15th), Ferrari (Raikkonen 14th), BMW Sauber (Kubica 11th), though not even Vettel believes he can win the race. But with more rain on Sunday, a start behind the safety car and some unrivalled driving, strategy and pit work, the German does just that - clinching a historic first win ahead of Heikki Kovalainen and a one-stopping Kubica .

As Ferrari set to work on remedying their lack of wet-weather pace in testing ahead of Singapore, McLaren have the distraction of their Spa appeal hearing. The appeal is ultimately deemed inadmissible, so the Belgian result stands and a philosophical Hamilton vows to concentrate on the rest of the season.

And the twofold challenge of the Singapore Grand Prix demands concentration. Not only is Friday practice the first time the drivers sample the circuit, the race is the first to be run in the dark. Night owls Red Bull relish the challenge with characteristic vigour and take advantage of the paddock’s pledge to stay on European time with a nocturnal beach party.

As in Valencia, it’s Massa who’s quickest to get a handle on the Singapore street circuit, taking a convincing pole ahead of Raikkonen and Hamilton. But an almost certain victory for the Brazilian evaporates during a bungled pit stop when he is given a green light too early and leaves with the fuel hose still attached. He receives a drive-through penalty for being unsafely released, before a puncture renders his race ruined and he finishes 13th. Luck also deserts team mate Raikkonen, who crashes out of P5.

Hence Ferrari leave Singapore pointless, but there is some solace for the Italian team, as Hamilton fails to capitalise. Instead, victory falls to Renault’s Fernando Alonso, who benefits from the safety car, ironically prompted by team mate Nelson Piquet’s crash, and leapfrogs most of the field. It’s the Spaniard’s first win since Monza 2007 and the team’s first since Japan ‘06. A jubilant Rosberg also celebrates a career-best second place and awed by the atmospheric new venue, the paddock bids a fond farewell to Singapore.

Having lost the constructors’ championship lead to McLaren, Ferrari target one-two finishes in the final three rounds - just as reigning champion Raikkonen publically laments the ‘dark period’ that has seen him fail to score in four races. The Italian team also confirm they are to revert to a conventional lollipop for pit stops in light of the Singapore debacle. Elsewhere, the driver market, usually awash with rumours by now, is surprisingly settled, with Williams and BMW Sauber sticking with their existing line-ups for ’09.

Bridgestone make a splash as the Japanese Grand Prix weekend gets underway, supplying green-grooved tyres to publicise the FIA’s Make Cars Green environmental campaign. Hamilton secures the Fuji pole on the unusual-looking rubber, before throwing it all away on Sunday. Ruffled by a slow start, he out-brakes himself at Turn One and slides wide, forcing leader Raikkonen off track and losing several places. The result is a drive-through penalty. Massa is also in the stewards’ bad books after he pushes Hamilton into a spin on the second lap, prompting an identical punishment.

The Brazilian fights back more strongly. As Hamilton finishes a lowly 12th, Massa’s energetic drive to seventh reduces his rival’s championship lead to just six points. It’s Alonso who again makes the most of the leaders’ tangles to score a second consecutive victory ahead of Kubica and Raikkonen, the latter slipping out of title contention. The reenergized Alonso describes Renault as the grid’s ‘third strongest team’.

With the title battle so closely pitched, much rests on the season’s penultimate race, the Chinese Grand Prix just a week later. Hamilton refuses to let memories of Shanghai 2007 haunt him, clinching pole and an emphatic fifth season victory. Massa looks ill at ease for much of the race, but on Lap 49 Raikkonen concedes second-place to his team mate, who becomes Hamilton’s only title challenger as Kubica drops out of the running, the Pole left locked in a battle for third with Raikkonen.

Just four points (and a very determined Massa) now stand between Hamilton and the drivers’ championship. McLaren, however, have a far bigger mountain to climb in the fight for the constructors’ crown, with Ferrari leading by 11 points.

There’s a two-week break before the Interlagos showdown and meetings between the FIA and the teams continue to seek a more cost-effective future for Formula One. A standardized engine is one proposal mooted by the governing body, but there are widespread murmurings of opposition, largely voiced behind closed doors.

With the prospect of the first home champion since Ayrton Senna in 1991, the atmosphere is electric as the paddock arrives in Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Grand Prix. Local hero Massa must win or finish second to overcome his seven-point deficit, while standings’ leader Hamilton needs only fifth place to be assured of glory.

In the eye of the storm, Massa looks calm under pressure, qualifying on pole for the third consecutive year, to the delight of his vocal home crowd. Hamilton only manages fourth with Raikkonen and Toyota’s Jarno Trulli getting a jump on his McLaren in the closing stages of Q3.

The tension is raised a notch higher when a short, sharp shower arrives just prior to Sunday’s formation lap and with the start delayed by 10 minutes, teams dash to change to wet tyres. When the race finally gets underway, the cautious frontrunners make a clean getaway with Massa leading. At the back, however, Coulthard’s final Grand Prix ends at the first corner, where contact with Rosberg’s Williams sees the ‘gutted’ Scot spinning into the gravel and out of Formula One racing.

With the track quickly drying, most follow Giancarlo Fisichella’s lead and swap to dry tyres. Hamilton emerges from his stop down in sixth, but a gutsy pass on Fisichella’s Force India moves him back into title contention, despite a brilliant Massa steadfastly holding on to his lead.

However, the 2008 championship has one more dramatic twist up its sleeve. Rain in the concluding stages prompts most runners, including the first five (Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel) to pit for wet tyres. Only Toyota’s Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli risk staying out on dries. Fast work from the McLaren pit crew keeps Hamilton in fifth, only for a hard-charging Vettel to force his way past, demoting him to sixth.

As Massa cruises to victory ahead of Alonso and Raikkonen, the title looks to have slipped from Hamilton’s grasp for a second successive year. Massa’s family start to celebrate in the Ferrari garage, but the race is far from over. Glock, his dry tyres struggling for grip on an increasingly wet track, slows - and Vettel and Hamilton sneak past into fourth and fifth. It gives the British driver the championship by a single point.

A heartbroken Massa graciously accepts his winner’s trophy on the podium, taking some comfort from his key role in Ferrari’s historic 16th constructors’ title. But it’s Hamilton, his family, and the McLaren team who are truly celebrating. After a thrilling end to a thrilling campaign, Formula One crowns its youngest-ever champion, aged just 23. What a season!