On this day 15 years ago, Lewis Hamilton produced one of the most spectacular performances of his burgeoning career up to that point – and one that remains at the sharp end of the list – with an utterly dominant display in a severely rain-hit 2008 British Grand Prix. To mark the occasion, we sat down with his team mate that season and weekend, Heikki Kovalainen, to tell the story from inside the McLaren camp, and how it was the Finn who held the advantage before the weather conditions changed…

    Following a 2007 campaign full of flashpoints on and off the track, once Fernando Alonso had returned to Renault after a stormy single season at McLaren, it was the up-and-coming Kovalainen who filled the McLaren void for 2008 alongside Hamilton – who was determined to make up for the world title he had recently and agonisingly missed out on.

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    It would be the biggest test yet for the World Series by Nissan champion, GP2 Series runner-up and former Renault F1 racer, with the task of going up against one of the sport’s most highly-rated prospects and proving that he had what it took to be mentioned in the same bracket.

    Cue a rollercoaster ride that began with the high of being in contention for victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix before plummeting to the low of a terrifying accident in Spain that left him in hospital – the hurdles coming thick-and-fast, and all while trying to keep up with the talent on the other side of the garage.

    Kovalainen finds out what he’s up against

    “Throughout winter testing, I was a little bit behind Lewis,” says Kovalainen, as he dips into the memory bank. “I remember he was a few tenths quicker all the time, but I felt pretty good and we knew that we had a really good car; we knew that we were going to be competitive.

    CLASSIC SPANISH GP - 2008 - Kovalainen
    CLASSIC SPANISH GP - 2008 - Kovalainen

    “Going to Australia, Lewis was on pole, but I qualified third, so it was a pretty good start. Then I was pretty close to winning that race, had the Safety Car not come out when it did. It could have started with the jackpot. After that it kind of flattened, Lewis started to get the hang of it properly and I… I wasn’t far off, but I guess I struggled to match him a little bit.

    “Then the Barcelona thing happened: the left wheel came off – it wasn’t actually a puncture, but a wheel nut was loose. When the tyre was put on, it hadn’t fully tightened and all the way through the first stint it was little by little getting loose. I had a couple of laps of fuel left and the last thing I remember is [my engineer] Mark Slade telling me: ‘It’s important times, so flat-out and everything we have.’

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    “The next thing I realised was [that I was] in a hospital – until the memory started to come back and the brain started to work again. Luckily, it was a concussion but nothing else broken, so actually two weeks after that I was able to get back in the car and qualify on the front row in Istanbul. It was quite good signs, things were going quite well.

    “Then at Silverstone, when we arrived there, I was quicker than Lewis [from the start of the] weekend. It was probably one of the only weekends ever that I had more pace than him. In [all three] practice sessions I was faster than him.”

    Taking the fight to Hamilton at his home race

    With Kovalainen holding the upper hand on the track, there would be a tricky situation to navigate off it for McLaren – especially team chiefs Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh – surrounding which of their two drivers would be given less fuel for qualifying. That was due to the system at the time seeing drivers navigate Q3 with their race start fuel loads added in.

    Heading into the event, Hamilton was McLaren’s main hope in the drivers’ standings, sitting 10 points behind leader Felipe Massa, with Robert Kubica and Kimi Raikkonen between them, while Kovalainen featured back in sixth, holding just over half of Hamilton’s tally.

    “McLaren had a policy since winter testing that even if a driver is quicker in Friday practice, they look at the situation of the season as a whole, and then whoever as a whole has been faster and stronger will get the fuel advantage for qualifying – so having one or two laps less fuel for Q3,” Kovalainen explains.

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    “All the way through the weekend I was quicker than Lewis. Still, for qualifying, the plan was that Lewis will get the advantage, so he will have less fuel than me in Q3, and there was a huge fight… Flavio [Briatore] was my manager at the time, and Flavio’s guys had a huge argument with Ron and Martin in the paddock, and they demanded for me to have the lighter car.

    “I’d been clearly faster that weekend and, in the end, McLaren gave in – they gave me the lighter car. But it caused a bit of a scar… That was the first big scar in our relationship, I think.”

    Kovalainen gets the job done in qualifying

    With that fresh wound yet to heal, Kovalainen made sure to double down on his practice performances when qualifying arrived, pumping in the only lap in the 1m 19s in Q1, going toe-to-toe with Hamilton in Q2 and then delivering when it mattered in Q3, where the aforementioned race start fuel loads also came into play.

    All the way through the weekend I was quicker than Lewis. Still, for qualifying, the plan was that Lewis will get the advantage, so he will have less fuel than me in Q3, and there was a huge fight…

    Heikki Kovalainen

    But it was not all down to that slightly lower level of fuel, for while several rivals – including Hamilton – slipped up during their decisive runs amid blustery conditions, Kovalainen kept it neat and tidy to emerge more than half a second clear of Red Bull’s Mark Webber, bagging his maiden F1 pole in the process.

    Hamilton, on the other hand, had to settle for fourth, sandwiched by Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld, leaving him plenty of work to do on race day.

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    “Q3 was actually quite tricky conditions, it was quite windy, and a lot of people made some mistakes,” says Kovalainen. “I remember crossing the line and it didn’t feel like a super-good lap, then to be on pole by half a second… My radio guy said, ‘You’re on pole by a mile’, or something like that, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s really strange.’

    “Lewis made a mistake coming out of Bridge, at the next left-hand corner [at Priory]. I think there was quite a big gust of wind that caught him out, I think there was even some evidence in the data, but he suddenly got like a massive front load on the car and lost it there.”

    Kovalainen left with ‘no option’ but to win

    With qualifying – and the heated pre-session exchange – done and dusted, was there any tension between Kovalainen and the McLaren chiefs when they reconvened in the motorhome?

    Heikki Kovalainen takes pole at 2008 British Grand Prix
    Heikki Kovalainen takes pole at 2008 British Grand Prix

    “I remember, especially with Lewis, he wouldn’t have any issues... He didn’t have any issues for me having a lighter car, he thought that actually, that weekend, I’d been quicker than him up to that point, and he thought, ‘Fair enough’,” Kovalainen makes clear.

    “Obviously for Martin and Ron, Lewis was the main championship contender for them, so I think they quietly thought that we would accept that. But I think the mood was still good, I think everybody was generally happy.

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    “[Managing Director] Jonathan Neale, I think, came to me after qualifying and said, ‘Okay, you know what to do now. This is the argument that we had… Well, basically deliver the win now.’ I did sense that everybody was happy, but they do now want me to go and win the race to justify that big argument. I knew that there was no other option but to win the race.

    “Then Sunday came, and it started raining…”

    The heavens open and flip the weekend on its head

    For Kovalainen, it was not just that weather that had changed overnight. With a capacity crowd in attendance despite the poor conditions, he noted how Hamilton returned to the track with a renewed drive and determination to deliver for his home fans.

    “I remember just thinking before the race, the crowd… The circuit was packed, and I felt somehow his body language looked like he might be tough to beat today!” recalls Kovalainen. “We drove the cars to the grid and then went to the back of the garage, had a little chat with the engineers, had a drink there – and just looking at him, I thought there was something about him… He looked different to other races.

    “I guess now, looking back, he was probably more determined than ever to win. It was his home race, it was his home crowd there, they’ve all come to see him do some great things, and he probably decided that day that he was going to do some great things.

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    “Still, I didn’t believe that was going to be an issue before the race. We had a great car as well, I was on pole, I was the one who was ahead at that moment, it was in my hands. I just focused on the start, getting the start, getting the first corner, and I had a good chance. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I could see that he was very determined to be the best that day.”

    Kovalainen and Hamilton lock horns

    That was evident from the very first seconds of the race, with Hamilton charging his way through from fourth – past Raikkonen and Webber – to challenge Kovalainen into the sweeping Copse corner, where they dramatically went wheel-to-wheel and so nearly collided.

    Kovalainen survived a slide and a wiggle at the exit – reminiscent of the many talented rally drivers from his home nation – to nose back ahead and maintain his lead through the first lap. But the intra-team battle that Kovalainen had led so positively in the dry would soon go Hamilton’s way on a now very slippery track…

    2008 British Grand Prix race start
    2008 British Grand Prix race start

    “Initially I had a decent launch, but I also saw that Lewis had a good launch and he straight away thought of having a go into the old first corner,” Kovalainen says of the start. “I sort of left him a bit of room, but I thought, ‘I’m going to try and hang in there and try to stay ahead.’ We almost touched and I had a little twitch mid-to-exit of that corner.

    “But after a lap or two, half a lap, [even] just a few corners, I could feel like, ‘S***, I’m on the ropes here!’ He was too comfortable, I could see him in my mirrors too comfortably, and I knew that there might be trouble coming. Once he made a move, the next time I saw him was actually when he lapped me!”

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    As Kovalainen referenced, Hamilton’s move for the lead came just a handful of laps in, the Briton closing through Maggots, Becketts and Chapel, tucking into the slipstream along the Hangar Straight and diving up the inside as they reached Stowe for the fifth time – prompting a huge cheer from the poncho-filled grandstands and grass banks.

    Hamilton was more than five seconds clear when Kovalainen went for a spin at the Abbey chicane on Lap 11, allowing Raikkonen through for second, with the reigning world champion proceeding to close on Hamilton as the weather improved and the track dried up.

    Hamilton moves into a league of his own

    With eyes still on the weather radar, the first round of pit stops would prove decisive, as while Hamilton took on a fresh set of intermediate tyres, Raikkonen stayed on his original set – playing into the home favourite’s hands when the rain returned a few laps later.

    From there, Hamilton did not look back, dancing his way into the distance in the treacherous conditions and at times lapping around five seconds quicker than those behind. A trip across the grass during another downpour was the only blot on an otherwise faultless copybook as he underlined his prodigious talent to the F1 world.

    His winning margin? A remarkable 1m 08.577s over Heidfeld, with Honda’s Rubens Barrichello – who had bolted on extreme wet tyres to deal with the standing water – the only other driver on the lead lap.

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    For Kovalainen, the race had a similar feel to the Japanese Grand Prix held at the Fuji Speedway just a few months earlier – towards the end of his debut F1 season with Renault – where he followed Hamilton home in persistent, heavy rain.

    “That was similar conditions,” says Kovalainen. “[At Silverstone] it started raining at some point very heavily and the cars were aquaplaning, and there were a couple of tracks to follow just where the racing line was. You had to stay on those tracks, a bit like rally cars, when the ruts form.

    “It was, I guess, to a lot of the guys, not just myself, hard to keep up with Lewis. I tried for a few laps, made a couple of mistakes, I had a spin just before Bridge corner at the chicane, and [other] people were spinning off the track.

    Classic Overtake: Hamilton's daring move past Kovalainen
    Classic Overtake: Hamilton's daring move past Kovalainen

    “Everybody was trying to keep up with Lewis and nobody could. Still, we were having a go. You think, ‘If he can do it, I’ve just got to stretch a bit.’ I think they were nice conditions, in a way, that really can show the skill of the driver, if you like.”

    The intriguing details in Hamilton’s data

    It begs a simple question. What was Hamilton doing throughout that race that the others in the field could not replicate?

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    “I remember some of the data that we looked at after the race, where he was particularly good,” Kovalainen jumps in. “It was in the high-speed sections, and he was able to drive some of the high-speed corners with some little throttle overlapping, basically brake and throttle, so he had a lot of front-end in his car, a lot of front grip.

    “If I had as much front grip in my car, the rear would be too unstable, I would be just too out of control in these conditions. I always liked good front grip, but in those conditions I felt that I needed a more stable rear, whereas he was able to have a lot of front grip and still in the high-speed corner, when his rear was about to go, he would just leave the throttle open.

    “He never lifted fully in the high-speed corners, but just left the drive open and had like positive torque. It was something that when I saw the data I thought, ‘Hmm, s***, that’s hard to do, that’s really hard to do.’ In those conditions, it was really impressive – it was quite clear where the difference was coming from.

    Spins galore at the very wet 2008 British Grand Prix
    Spins galore at the very wet 2008 British Grand Prix

    “It feels like when I see what he’s done… I could probably do that, but I don’t know if I could stay on the road for whatever, 50 or 60 laps – I don’t know if I could repeat that so many times. I guess that’s the difference between someone that is as good as he is, and someone like myself.

    “In F1 there are a lot of good guys, then you have some of these super-special guys like Lewis, Max Verstappen and Fernando, and Kimi and Mika Hakkinen to some extent, Michael Schumacher… All these great names just have something extra.”

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    How Hamilton differed to other legends

    At this point, Kovalainen opens up on some of the traits McLaren had seen with their various star drivers over the years, as well as the other key areas in which his driving style and set-up deviated from Hamilton’s.

    “I felt that actually, in the dry conditions, my high-speed [cornering] performance was always pretty good [compared to] Lewis,” Kovalainen points out. “It was usually braking and the low-speed corners that was very hard for me to match.

    “I remember even the McLaren guys, the engineers, commenting that all the Finns that had been there – Mika, Kimi and myself, and even Fernando – our driving styles were kind of similar. In the high-speed, we all carried a lot of speed into the corner, and it seemed to be like a trend for Finns and Fernando as well.

    In F1 there are a lot of good guys, then you have some of these super-special guys like Lewis, Max Verstappen and Fernando, and Kimi and Mika Hakkinen to some extent, Michael Schumacher… All these great names just have something extra.

    Heikki Kovalainen

    “Whereas Lewis, he wouldn’t necessarily be super-outstanding in the high-speed corners – he’s still very good – but then in the low-speed corners, especially in the braking areas, he was able to brake later and harder and somehow stop the car and still turn it, and not lose the exit.

    “He was usually running the car quite stiff at the front and quite soft at the rear, and that was very good for braking stability, I guess that helped his braking performance as well, why he was always so good on the brakes. But he was able to run a lot of front wing to override the understeer in the high-speed.

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    “I couldn’t run that kind of combination in any conditions. Then in the wet conditions, especially, I felt that I cannot run as much aero grip at the front as he is running, and it was quite a different set-up of the cars that we had.”

    Hamilton gets inside Kovalainen’s head

    Indeed, Hamilton’s performances over the first half of that season, and particularly his drive in the wet at Silverstone, sparked the first questions in Kovalainen’s mind over his potential – having racked up a host of wins and titles on his way to the top echelon.

    While Kovalainen would follow up his first F1 pole with a first F1 win in an incident-packed Hungarian Grand Prix a couple of races later, it was Hamilton who mounted a title challenge and ultimately emerged with the crown after a dramatic season finale.

    “I guess it’s not easy to get your head around,” says Kovalainen of going up against Hamilton. “I was still at that point obviously full of confidence in myself, just looking forward, and [thinking] I can get this thing working, I can become a champion here and win races.

    “When you see that kind of data you sort of, maybe not doubt yourself, but it gives you some little feeling in your head which you might not need at that point. It’s just a little doubt, a tiny little doubt, even if you don’t want to accept that. In the back of your mind, you think, ‘Ah, damn, I’m not sure.’ That was one of the first times I saw some genius, I guess, from him.”

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    With Hamilton collecting a whopping 103 race wins over the years, and pushing to increase that number even further, there are plenty of fine efforts to choose from when it comes to his all-time list.

    Kovalainen, though, believes Hamilton’s drive at Silverstone in 2008 has stood the test of time.

    “It’s hard to say if it is his best drive ever – he has had a lot of very good drives, and it’s hard to put them absolutely in the right order – but I think it’s right up there,” says Kovalainen, who spent one more season alongside Hamilton before joining F1 'newcomers' Lotus Racing.

    “I remember even after the race in the debrief, the McLaren guys, everybody, they were kind of speechless, like, ‘What just happened there?’ He nearly lapped everybody and looked like he was on different conditions, a different circuit to anyone else. Sometimes, with these super-good guys, you see those kind of performances, and that was one of them.”

    'The best victory I've ever had' - Lewis Hamilton reacts to his 2008 British GP win
    'The best victory I've ever had' - Lewis Hamilton reacts to his 2008 British GP win

    The lasting effects of being Hamilton’s team mate

    And, having touched on the determination that Hamilton displayed in the build-up to race day – with a burning desire to bounce back from his qualifying mistake and give the home fans something to shout about – it’s this personality trait that Kovalainen holds onto above the rest.

    “There was just an unbelievable amount of willpower,” he says. “Sometimes, in my career, when things are not going as I expected or wanted, it’s probably for me easier to get down and feel down, whereas I never saw him properly down. I saw him disappointed, but I could immediately see he was figuring a way to find a way out of that hole and bounce back.

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    “It’s something that I’ve always, since being his team mate, tried to remember and kind of like learn from him. There was no option for him to give up or accept that he can’t do it. With these great drivers, that’s one of the qualities that they all have – the super-great drivers.

    “I was able to witness it very close, it was nice to see that, and I’m very happy that I was his team mate. I’ve never been afraid to compare myself against the best and, when I was team mate with him, clearly he was one of the best of all time.”

    Missed Hamilton’s epic drive the first time around or want to watch it again ahead of this weekend’s visit to Silverstone? Relive the 2008 British Grand Prix in full via our F1 TV platform today.

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