The 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix - The Miracle in Sao Paulo
The incredible story of Lewis Hamilton's maiden championship.
A certain Bernie Ecclestone once said that the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix was the most iconic moment in Formula 1 history, and it's easy to understand why. Enriched with tension throughout, the championship swayed between the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa from when the lights went out to the chequered flag. The ever-changing conditions throughout the race left the fans with little certainty as to who would claim the grand prize of being a Formula 1 world champion. One statement that can be said with full certainty is the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix will forever be remembered as one of, if not the, greatest title decider of all time beating the likes of Adelaide 1986 and Abu Dhabi 2010.
Heading into the final race of the season Lewis Hamilton looked set to win his first ever world championship at the age of just 23. He carried with him a 7-point lead over the Brazilian of Felipe Massa after an arduous season that saw Hamilton take on the two Ferrari drivers head on. In order for Hamilton to seal his maiden championship he would need to finish 5th or higher even if Massa won the race. If they tied on points Massa would steal the championship away from the Brit due to his race win tally outweighing that of Hamilton's. This was redemption for Hamilton having lost the championship a year earlier in his rookie season to Kimi Raikkonen against all the odds. Hamilton entered that race leading the championship by 4 points over his teammate Fernando Alonso and 7 points ahead of Raikkonen. However, he picked up gearbox issues and stumbled home in 7th place causing him to lose the championship by one point. Understandably Hamilton is now hungrier than ever to finally win the championship. If Hamilton were to win, he would become the youngest ever F1 world champion surpassing Alonso who claimed the record back in 2005 by winning with Renault. In terms of Felipe Massa, if he were to win the championship it would be only the second world championship won on home soil in the history of the sport. The only other time being Italian Nino Farina in the inaugural F1 season in 1950 when he won at Monza. However, if Massa were to win the championship with Ferrari, he would become etched into Italian motorsport folklore, following in the footsteps of Michael Schumacher, Niki Lauda and Juan Manuel Fangio to name a few.
Heading into qualifying Felipe Massa was looking blisteringly fast, going quickest in all practise sessions, and showing promising pace over one lap. This speed correlated to Massa claiming pole position for the sixth time that season in front of his passionate home fans. Hamilton however had a poor outing and lined up in fourth after a suspected overloading of fuel that would explain the gap of half a second between him and the pole sitter. The two drivers separating them were Toyota's Jarno Trulli in second and reigning world champion Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari in third. Hamilton would need to drive a safe race and maintain the all-important top five finish to claim the title.
When race day came the heavens decided to open causing the track to have damp conditions. All cars on the grid opted to start with intermediate tyres apart from BMW's Robert Kubica who chose to swap to dry tires last minute resulting in him starting from the pitlane. The forecast for the next 71 laps is anything but predictable with ever changing conditions playing a crucial role in the team's strategies.
The lights go out and it is a clean getaway for the top 5 with Massa shooting off into the distance while Hamilton struggles for positions. By the end of the first lap the top 5 remains the same with Massa in the lead followed by Trulli, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Kovalainen. The safety car is however released as Red Bull's David Coulthard - in his last ever race in Formula 1 - is tipped into a spin by Williams' Nico Rosberg. This safety car period causes some such as Fisichella to pit for dry tyres in the hope of an increasingly drying track.
The track is beginning to dry and Massa, Vettel, and Alonso head into the pits to change to slicks. Hamilton however opts to wait an extra lap to pit in the hope of leapfrogging the cars ahead. This was poorly timed however and results in him losing out to both Alonso and Vettel. After the first round of pit stops Hamilton now lies in sixth place, handing the championship to Massa.
By the mid-way point, Hamilton clawed back to fifth place after a bold move on Fisichella while Vettel pits from second and gives Hamilton fourth place back. Hamilton is back in a title winning position. Massa however is spurred on by his local fans and has built a seven second lead ahead of Alonso. The Toyota of Timo Glock pits from seventh in the hope of going the rest of the race without another pit stop.
The front runners come in for the second round of pit stops and the top five remains Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel. Massa comes out and continues to build the gap ahead of Alonso, it now stands at over 12 seconds. However, it’s not all plain sailing yet as more rain is forecast in the next 10 laps.
The rain begins to return and running on dry tyres is becoming increasingly challenging. This causes many drivers such as Raikkonen to pit for intermediate tyres along with Alonso, Hamilton, and Vettel. Timo Glock - who is running in 7th place - decides to stay out on dry tyres in the hope of finishing which promotes him to 4th. Hamilton now stands in 5th place, which is all he needs to win the title, be it by one point.
Massa pits on lap 69 and inherits the lead once again while Hamilton remains in 5th. However, Sebastian Vettel - running in 6th - is acclimatising to the wet conditions well and is challenging Hamilton for the overtake. As Hamilton leads Vettel going into turn 12, Hamilton is thrown off by the backmarker of Robert Kubica and goes wide which allows Vettel to swoop through and take the position. Hamilton is now running in 6th and the title leaps back into the grasp of Felipe Massa who by now is started the last lap of the race.
If Hamilton wants to reclaim the title, he would need to overtake Sebastian Vettel. As they cross the line to start the final lap Hamilton is trying to find any way past the Toro Rosso while wrestling the car in the wet conditions. Desperation starts to creep in for Hamilton as they reach the final sector of the lap. However, Timo Glock who decided to stay out on dry tyres is struggling and as Hamilton approaches the final corner, he can see Glock hustling his Toyota and sweeps past him. As the drivers cross the line millions of people are holding their breath, gazing at the scoreboard as the driver's positions are revealed; 1st - Massa, 2nd - Alonso, 3rd - Raikkonen, 4th - Vettel, 5th - Hamilton. Hearts sink in the grandstands while arms go in the air back in the UK as Hamilton claims 5th place, he wins the championship by one point.
It's redemption day for Hamilton after being robbed of his first championship the year before to Kimi Raikkonen. In doing so he becomes the youngest ever world champion at the age of 23 years and 300 days. This championship is also the first for a British driver since Damon Hill in 1996 and the first championship for McLaren since Mika Hakkinen in 1999. This subsequently meant Ferrari missed out on consecutive drivers’ championships, something they hadn't achieved since Michael Schumacher in Ferrari's hay days earlier in the decade. Nonetheless, Felipe Massa displays true sportsmanship as he pounds his chest in front of his home fans thanking them for their support throughout the season. Sadly, for Felipe, this win would prove to be his last ever in Formula 1, however he continued to battle for Ferrari for the next few years until retiring in 2017. Lewis Hamilton stayed at McLaren for four more years claiming countless more wins before moving to Mercedes in 2013 where he would add to his first championship by winning six titles in seven seasons for the German team.
Throughout the history of Formula 1 Interlagos has played host to countless iconic moments such as Senna's emotional and long-awaited home win in 1991 or the similarly tense title showdown of 2012 between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. However, few can argue that these moments eclipse the extraordinary events of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. Pulsating with tension from beginning to end and leaving viewers with no fingernail unbitten the 2008 title showdown will have an everlasting legacy not just in British motorsport but in the history of sport itself.