China Flashback '08 - Shanghai push nudges Hamilton towards title 13 Apr 2009
Rather than the third race of the season, as this weekends Chinese Grand Prix will be, the 2008 event was the penultimate round of the championship. And with both the drivers and constructors titles still up for grabs, it had all the ingredients to be one of the most exciting contests of the year.
For McLarens Lewis Hamilton, Ferraris Felipe Massa and BMW Saubers Robert Kubica, the Shanghai race had the potential to be career defining, all three still in the running for the crown. It followed, however, hot on the heels of a contentious Japanese Grand Prix, where all three had been outperformed by two-time champion Fernando Alonso in the Renault.
Indeed, while Kubica had impressed with his second place at Fuji, Massa and Hamilton had scored just one point between them after being hit with penalties, leaving the Englishman atop the standings on 84, the Brazilian on 78 and Kubica a distant 72. Despite the pressure, all three were calm as the action got underway in China on Friday.
Hamilton was so comfortable, in fact, with his MP4-23s balance that he finished top of the timesheets in both morning and afternoon sessions, and was the only driver to break the 1m 36s barrier. Massa and Kubica were both pleased with their preparations, although Alonso was probably more satisfied with the pace of his car than they were with theirs.
In Saturdays final practice, BMW Saubers Nick Heidfeld pipped Hamilton to the top, but the British driver was just 0.074 seconds slower. The Renaults also continued their excellent form, and while the Ferraris of Massa and team mate Kimi Raikkonen slipped to 12th and 13th, the times very close all the way down to Timo Glock in 16th for Toyota. For Red Bulls Mark Webber there was misery, when his engine broke. Having already used his joker change, he subsequently received a 10-place grid penalty.
If Hamilton had looked good in practice, he looked even better in qualifying, taking a dominant pole position, ahead of Raikkonen and Massa, after an almost perfect lap. High track temperatures affected most of the teams, but Kubica was the biggest loser, managing just 12th, while team mate Heidfeld finished seventh before taking a three-place grid penalty for impeding Red Bulls David Coulthard.
Alonso was pleased with his performance, which clinched him fourth on the grid, and the chance of taking a third consecutive victory, while Toro Rossos Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais were thrilled with their P6 and P8 placings, once Heidfelds and Webbers penalties were taken into account. Williams, Honda and Force India blamed balance and grip issues for their low positions.
Could Hamilton complete his faultless weekend on Sunday with a win to seal the title? The answer was yes - and no. After a textbook start, the British driver kept P1 and the Ferraris behind, and stayed out in front for most of the race (pit stops aside) to take his fifth victory of the season. But his title hopes werent secured, with Massa finishing second. Despite the Brazilian running in third for most of the race, second-placed team mate Raikkonen conceded the place for the good of the championship on Lap 49, so the title-sparring duo left China with Massa on 87 points to Hamiltons 94.
As the race progressed Alonso pushed Raikkonen hard, but eventually settled for fourth, ahead of Heidfeld and then Kubica, who finished in sixth and thus saw his own title hopes die. Alonsos team mate Nelson Piquets eighth place secured Renault fourth in the constructors championship, while Toyotas Timo Glock used his one-stop strategy to great effect to take seventh. The only other one-stopper, Williams Kazuki Nakajima, fared less well and finished 12th behind Vettel, Coulthard and Hondas Rubens Barrichello.
The only major accident came at the start when Bourdais made contact with Toyotas Jarno Trulli, which relegated the Frenchman to 13th and Trulli into retirement. The other retirees were Kovalainen, whose McLaren suffered from first understeer, then a puncture and finally - and irrevocably - a hydraulic problem, and Adrian Sutil, whose Force India succumbed to gearbox troubles on Lap 14.
After the chequered flag, Ferrari may have bemoaned their lack of pace relative to McLaren, but Massa was relieved to have kept his title chances alive. The weekend, however, belonged to Hamilton. After silencing his critics with an excellent performance in a car he described as phenomenal, he could look ahead to the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix with a seven-point lead and the championship all but his.