Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Disappointing but Satisfactory End to the Formula One Season.

So it was not to be for Lewis Hamilton. His first Formula One season and a possible championship win disappeared on Sunday with a brief 40 seconds of gear box trouble and perhaps a hint of over zealousness on the first corner. Coming after England’s rugby defeat on the Saturday evening there was a strange sense of familiarity. Just not quite good enough? Falling at the last hurdle? Or not?

No-one can deny Lewis Hamilton has had a fantastic season. His six pole positions and his four race wins have marked him out as a very serious contender for the future. And for anyone who has watched his meteoric rise and exhilarating driving skill surely the question has to be, (to quote a politician), not if but when.

All last weekend, the sports news in the UK simmered with expectation. Perhaps some of us suspected England might come up short against the solid and organised Springboks. Yet we consoled ourselves with the thought that even if Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking could not deliver the Webb-Ellis trophy there would always be Sunday and Interlagos. Lewis was sure to come good. But such is the intensity and smallness of the margin for error in Formula One that the GO and sudden rush for the first corner sent hearts into mouths. Tucked in behind Felipe Massa, Hamilton appeared to have the line. Then came Kimi Raikkonen on the outside with a smart pass only for Lewis to have, seconds later, Rafael Alonso pull a similar move on his inside. Fifth place was all that was needed; he was still in fourth. Yet Lewis decided to fight back. Challenging Alonso’s move he temporarily lost control, was forced wide and back into eighth place. Perhaps a more experienced driver would have sat tight. Calculated the odds. But then that is what we have come to love and expect of Lewis Hamilton. He does not shy from the challenge, from the daring move and he wants to win not just on the averages but with daring and glory. And watching, you could not help but feel that Lewis wanted desperately to satisfy all those countless fans. He wanted to pull the move and finish if not at the top of the field then as far up it as he humanly could. He wanted to vindicate their belief in him.

So we sat tight. He would make the ground up. His drive was far from finished. He still only needed the three places. There was his considerable skill, his willingness to push and the knife edge calculations of stop strategy, fuel loads and tyre changes. It was then disaster struck. Having climbed back to sixth, seven laps after his mistake, hearts jumped again into mouths. The McClaren number two’s MP4-22, so reliable all season, appeared to slow almost to a standstill. For a dreadful 40 or so seconds, it seemed he was going to be out there and then. Stranded on the circuit as competitor after competitor flew past him. You could not help but to think his race was over. You could almost hear the groans from in front of countless TV screens. And yet he kept the car going. Possible gear box problems the race commentators shouted and then reminded us of his recovery from a similar setback last season when driving GP2. He was not yet out. He pushed. He drove hard. Coming from P 18. Cutting through the pack. Pit-stopping on lap 23 for softer tyres, taking Barrichello spectacularly on lap 28, setting a fastest laptime on 58. Yet it was not to be. By lap 64 Hamilton was in seventh place, 17 seconds off Heidfeld in sixth and a full lap off the race leaders.

So it was, that 13 laps later Kimi Raikkonen crossed the line, the race leader and new world champion. Rafael Alonso finished third and Lewis Hamilton seventh. Felipe Massa was second. The Championship positions were Raikkonen, Hamilton and Alonso as one, two and three.

In a season that has seen Formula One marred by the Ferrari – McClaren ‘spying’ scandal it would perhaps have been the dream finish for Lewis Hamilton to have lifted the world championship with a winning drive. On a weekend when England’s rugby 15 was denied by a disciplined and well organised Springboks it would have assuaged many people’s expectations. But then that is perhaps what we are dealing with here; the high expectations. The England rugby team reached the World Cup final by a late and spirited surge in a tournament of which the opening stages had seen them very much placed outside the favourites. That they did so says much of their determination and courage. Lewis Hamilton started the season as a rookie. I think many last March would have thought one grand prix win and a demonstrable ability to hold his own at the top would have been considered a more than satisfactory ending to the season. That he came so close to winning the World Championship says much of his abilities. It says bucketfuls about his potential.

It would be unfair to say he fell at the last hurdle. It would also be unfair to say he ‘bottled it’ when the pressure was on. He is competing at the highest level and against the best of drivers. Winning a world championship is about maturity and experience as well as skill and daring. It requires the cream of engineering skill. It also requires that small but invaluable element of luck. It was not to be for Lewis Hamilton on Sunday. It surely ‘will be’ in seasons to come.

Lewis Hamilton has whetted our appetite. He lost a race yesterday but in no way dented his standing as serious contender. Congratulations are in order for Kimi Raikonen and Ferrari. No-one should take from Kimi’s achievement, especially after stepping into the difficult position vacated by Michael Schumacher. He drove a canny and near perfect race on Sunday.

For fans of British motor sport the season may not have ended perfectly but it has ended well. We should not so much console ourselves on what might have been but remind ourselves on what is surely to come.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Oct 2007