/ 29 October 2008

Hamilton gets second shot at the title

For the second year in a row, Lewis Hamilton heads to the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix heavily favoured to win the Formula One title, and this time he plans to return home with the trophy.

Hamilton left Brazil empty-handed in 2007, squandering the seven-point lead he held over Kimi Raikkonen and handing the title to Ferrari’s Finn after a botched first-lap attempted pass, and a gearbox problem in his McLaren later in the race.

The young British driver returns to Brazil again with seven points to spare atop the drivers’ standings. This time it’s Raikkonen’s Ferrari teammate, Felipe Massa, who will try to spoil Hamilton’s bid for his first title.

”I know we didn’t have the pace to win last year, but things could be very different this season,” the 23-year-old Hamilton said. ”I’m really looking forward to getting out on the track at Interlagos and seeing where we stand.”

For Massa to win the title in front of his home crowd, he needs to win the race and hope Hamilton is sixth or worse. If Massa comes second, he would need Hamilton to finish eighth or out of the points.

If the drivers finish tied on points, the title is decided on a results countback: most firsts as the initial criteria, then most seconds, thirds etc. Currently they both have five wins and two second placings this season, but Hamilton has three third placings to Massa’s two.

”I don’t need to win the race, but that won’t stop me from going into the weekend looking to be as strong as possible,” Hamilton said.

In the previous 17 races, the British driver has finished worse than fifth only five times. But it happened twice in the past four races — he was seventh at the Italian Grand Prix on September 14 after a rain-affected qualifying session, and 12th at the Japanese Grand Prix on October 12 when he and Massa collided, and Hamilton received a pit drive-through penalty for a first-corner incident.

Hamilton couldn’t get past seventh place in last year’s Brazilian GP after dropping to the end of the pack because of the miscalculated pass attempt in the first lap and the subsequent gear-box failure. He entered the race with a four-point lead over Renault’s Fernando Alonso and the seven-point advantage over Raikkonen.

”In 2007, things didn’t end up too well for me,” Hamilton said. ”I went to Interlagos with the title battle still up in the air and all my emotions just bubbling up and down. It was a very emotional time because I knew it would end with either great success or huge disappointment.”

The first black driver to race in F1, Hamilton missed a chance to become the first rookie to win the drivers’ title. But he can still become F1’s youngest champion at 23, beating Alonso’s effort of winning the 2005 title aged 24. Hamilton could become the first British driver to win the championship since Damon Hill in 1996.

McLaren, looking for their first drivers’ title since Mika Hakkinen’s victory in 1999, will have to be extra conservative with Hamilton’s equipment on the difficult 4,3km anti-clockwise Interlagos track.

Hamilton goes into the race with the same engine he used in the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks ago, while both Ferraris will have new power. Teams are obligated to use the same engine in two consecutive races.

”We’ll be looking at the possibility of running Lewis’s engine in a safer setting so it has a bit more margin than normal,” McLaren chief executive Martin Whitmarsh said. ”It’s something we do throughout the season but, clearly, there’s a greater need to be safe this weekend.”

Hamilton will also be using the same gearbox for the third straight race, although McLaren has not shown any vulnerability with gearbox reliability this season.

Hamilton took an easy victory in last week’s Chinese GP, where he achieved the combination of win, pole position and fastest lap for only the second time in his career.

The victory in China was his fifth of the year, and ninth of his two-year career.

Massa was second in China after teammate Raikkonen let him by so he could earn extra points. The Brazilian won his home race in 2006 and was second last year, when he was the one who allowed Raikkonen to move ahead so he could clinch the title.

Despite last year’s disastrous experience at Massa’s home track, Hamilton said he feels comfortable racing in Interlagos.

”I love this circuit,” Hamilton said. ”Everybody’s always happy to finish the season in Brazil. There’s a real party atmosphere in São Paulo on the Sunday night and it’s a perfect place to end such a great season.” — Sapa-AP