Formula One: A year to remember

A dramatic final lap in the final race provided a thrilling ending to a Formula One season overshadowed by uncertain economic times and an embarrassing sex scandal involving the president of motor racing’s governing body.

Lewis Hamilton became the sport’s youngest-ever and first black champion with an overtaking move around the final corner of the last lap at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix.

The 23-year-old McLaren driver finished in the absolute last spot he could—fifth—to deny Ferrari’s Felipe Massa the overall title by one point after the Brazilian driver had won his home race.

Still, only a month after that incredible finale, the sport was reeling from the global credit crunch as Honda’s surprise pull-out showed F1’s inflated costs were jeopardising the series’ future.

“To win the season on a high and to win the championship you kind of forget about all the other things and you move on,” said Hamilton, who overcame the disappointment of losing the title at Interlagos last year to capture what could be the first of many titles.

Hamilton, the first British champion since Damon Hill 12 years ago, opened the season with a win at the Australian GP, but only really kick-started his campaign at the Monaco GP, where a masterful performance in the rain—after he clipped his rear tyre off the wall—saw him take the F1 classic.

There were notable victories at a rainy Silverstone, Hockenheim and finally in China, in the penultimate race, to pad his narrow lead moving into Interlagos.

“It’s amazing how many different things happen in a year, but all we particularly think about is how we can continue in the sport and continue to put on a good show and how we can move forward and continue to win as a team,” Hamilton said.

But erratic decision-making also nearly cost Hamilton.

He crashed into the back of Kimi Raikkonen in the pit lane at the Canadian GP and had a victory in Belgium revoked after an illegal overtaking manoeuvre. An irate Hamilton promised to “hit ‘em hard” after another penalty at the French GP, going on to score consecutive victories that kept him in the top two until the end.

“There were some great pressures this year that were character-building, and we ended up on the top, but without all of those difficult times or highs and lows we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Hamilton said.

Massa took advantage of the penalties to win six races—one more than Hamilton—and become Ferrari’s main threat as 2007 champion Raikkonen failed to win another race after the Spanish GP in April.

Massa’s own setbacks probably cost him the chance to be the first Brazilian champion since Ayrton Senna in 1991. His engine blew out while leading with two laps to race in Hungary, and a gaffe in Singapore dropped him out of contention after dragging the fuel hose down pit lane with his car.

“I know how to win and I know how to lose,” Massa said after Ferrari claimed its seventh constructors’ title in nine years.

In 2008, seven different drivers and five different teams won races for the first time since 2003.
Four different drivers led the championship, while six took pole position and 15 led races.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who returned to Renault after a tumultuous season at McLaren, scored more points than anyone else over the last six races, with victories in Japan and F1’s inaugural night race in Singapore. The Spaniard was named driver of the year.

Three drivers stood at the top of the winner’s podium for the first time: Sebastian Vettel of Toro Rosso won the Italian GP to become the youngest-ever race winner at 21; BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica won the Canadian GP a year after a spectacular crash at the same circuit; and Heikki Kovalainen won the Hungarian GP for McLaren.

Vettel will take David Coulthard’s seat at Red Bull, with the 37-year-old Scot retiring after 15 years and 13 victories. Rubens Barichello’s season at Honda appears to have been his last, with the Brazilian driver leaving a record 271 GPs behind.

Seedy twist
Off the track, F1’s glamorous image took a seedy twist.

Max Mosley, the head of governing body FIA, was embroiled in scandal after a British tabloid exposed his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex session with five prostitutes. Video of the incident was there for all to see on the tabloid’s website in March.

Still, the 68-year-old Briton won a vote of confidence in June to see out his fourth mandate until October 2009, and has been able to push through cost-cutting measures following Honda’s exit.

Super Aguri pulled out in April after four races, while Honda’s departure has left the sport analysing its long-term viability with the starting grid down to 18 cars. Honda driver Jenson Button’s future is also uncertain, with Japan’s second-largest car manufacturer looking for a quick sell so the team can be at the season-opening Australian GP on March 29.

Sweeping measures introduced for 2009 include longer-lasting engines, limits on expensive testing and cheaper, off-the-shelf engines for smaller teams. Changes to be introduced from 2010 are expected to be even more radical, with races shortened to save money and refuelling banned—which could dramatically alter the spectacle for fans.

Slick tyres will return but the KERS energy recovery system, which Mosley has championed as the future of F1, is not mandatory and only BMW Sauber is likely to use it.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone wants to change from a points-based system to a medal tally from next season, although teams are not enthusiastic about the idea. Under that system, Massa would have won the title this year because he won more races than Hamilton.

Ecclestone also allowed two races to fall from the 2009 calendar—the French GP and Canadian GP—because they could not afford the high fees. Organisers in Germany and China have also been warned that their ability to host races in the future is in doubt with hard economic times ahead.—Sapa-AP

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