All Hail Hamilton, The Champion

By BASN Wire Services
Updated: November 3, 2008

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Lewis Hamilton of McLaren became Formula One’s youngest champion on Sunday, making a pass on the final turn of the last lap to finish fifth in the Brazilian Grand Prix and win the title by one point over Felipe Massa.

Ferrari’s Massa won the race in front of his home crowd, but it wasn’t enough to erase the seven-point lead Hamilton held entering the season-ending race.

Just one year after Hamilton lost the title by one point after starting the final race with a seven-point lead over eventual champion Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari, the 23-year-old Briton passed Toyota’s Timo Glock on the last lap to win the championship. Fernando Alonso was 24 when he won the title in 2005 for Renault.

Hamilton fell to sixth place after being overtaken by Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel with two laps to go. After Vettel passed Glock, Hamilton also moved up one spot and finished the season with 98 points.

“I am speechless,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a long journey in which I had the support of many people. My team did a fantastic job during the entire year and we sacrificed ourselves a lot. I am happy for having achieved this for all of us.”

Massa won the race in 1 hour, 34 minutes, 11.435 seconds at the 4.3-kilometer (2.6-mile) Interlagos track. Alonso was second for Renault 13.298 seconds behind, and Raikkonen took third 2.937 back from Alonso. Vettel was fourth.

“I think it was the most incredible race I ever saw in my life,” Massa said. “So many things happened. It was a crazy race.

“Unfortunately we missed by one point, but that’s racing. We need to be proud. The race was just perfect, we did everything just fantastically.”

Hamilton, the first British F1 champion since Damon Hill in 1996, was sixth until the final turn, but Glock’s car was still on dry tires. That forced him to slow in the pouring rain, allowing Hamilton to make his move.

“It was just impossible on the last lap,” Glock said. “I was fighting as hard as I could but it was so difficult to just keep the car on the track, and I lost positions right at the end of the lap.”

For a few moments, it wasn’t clear whether Hamilton or Massa had won the championship with both pit teams celebrating. Massa said he didn’t know the final result until he was told on the team radio on the back-stretch.

“They kept saying, ‘Wait a second,”‘ Massa said. “When I was getting to Turn Three they said (Hamilton) passed Glock.”

Hamilton had a long embrace with his father, Anthony, and both were apparently crying. He then kissed girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, a singer with The Pussycat Dolls pop band.

He said he didn’t know if he had won the championship when he crossed the finish line.

“I was shouting, ‘Did I win? Did I win?”‘ Hamilton said. “Then they told me when I was on the corner and I was ecstatic. It’s a dream.”

Massa, who started from the pole position and was trying to become the first Brazilian champion to win the F1 title since Ayrton Senna in 1991, wept profusely on the podium.

Cautious from the start, Hamilton avoided the problems that cost him the title in Brazil last year, putting together a consistent run that kept him in the top five during most of the race.

He fell to seventh at one point, but quickly recovered, at least until the rain began to fall with five laps to go, forcing most of the leading cars to change into wet tires.

Hamilton’s pace slowed considerably, as other drivers were able to keep pushing.

“I was very comfortable before it started raining,” Hamilton said. “Then it began drizzling and I did not want to take any risks. Then he (Vettel) passed me and I was told I should stay in front of him. I could not believe it. Then, in the last corner, I passed Glock.

“I can only thank God. It was one of the most difficult races of my entire life.”

For the second year in a row, Hamilton arrived at the Brazilian GP with a commanding lead in the drivers’ standings. In 2007, he had a four-point lead over Alonso and a seven-point advantage over Raikkonen.

But he missed a chance to become F1’s first rookie champion after a mistake trying to pass in the first lap and a gear box problem to finish seventh in the race and second in the standings, also by one point.

It began pouring Sunday in South America’s biggest city less than five minutes before the race was to start, forcing F1’s governing body to delay the start by 10 minutes. The rain soon stopped, but the track was wet and most teams changed into wet tires.

All the front-runners made it through the first corner without a problem, with Massa leading and Hamilton in fourth. But a first-turn crash involving Red Bull driver David Coulthard, who is retiring, forced the safety car to come out.

Massa still led when the safety car left the track in the fourth lap. He had a comfortable lead over Toyota’s Jarno Trulli and Raikkonen when the front-runners came into the pits for dry tires in the 10th lap.

Hamilton was slowed by Trulli coming out of the pits, falling to seventh place. He quickly moved up to sixth after Trulli spun in front of him, and then passed Force India’s Giancarlo Fisichella on lap 17 to get back to fifth.

The Briton maintained his position after the second round of pit stops. With Vettel out of sequence after choosing to put on dry tries earlier than other drivers, Hamilton moved up to fourth again and was in a safe position until the downpour.

It started raining lightly with 12 laps to go, and more strongly with seven left. Hamilton came into the pits with five laps remaining, and Massa a lap later.

Hamilton tried to stay close to Vettel after being overtaken with two laps to go but was unable to make a move. Glock was struggling to stay on the track and had to slow down considerably to finish sixth.

No McLaren driver had won the title since Mika Hakkinen in 1999. The team still remains without a win at Interlagos since Juan Pablo Montoya’s victory in 2005.

Despite the drivers’ title, McLaren finished second to Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. The British team hasn’t won the constructors’ title since 1998.

McLaren trailed Ferrari by 11 points coming into the race. Ferrari secured its second consecutive championship — and eighth in the past 10 years. Renault won consecutive titles in 2005 and ’06.

About 70,000 Brazilian fans packed the Interlagos track, most of them dressed in the red colors of Ferrari. Many carried banners wishing bad luck to Hamilton. There was a football-like atmosphere, with fans chanting “Ole, Ole, Ole … Massa, Massa!”

Massa was trying to become the first driver to win a title in front of his home crowd since the inaugural F1 season in 1950 — when Italy’s Giuseppe Farina won at the season-ending Italian GP. The Brazilian also had a chance to be the first non-European driver to win the title since Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve in 1997.

Massa, who replaced Michael Schumacher at Ferrari after the 2005 season, also was seeking his first F1 title. He won his home race in 2006 and was second last year.

“For a Brazilian to win the race in Brazil is already very special,” Massa said. “So it’s a day to remember.”