Lewis Hamilton won the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship through a combination of skill, luck, McLaren-Mercedes' expertise and having 'the perfect wingman' alongside him in the form of team-mate Heikki Kovalainen - that is the view of grand prix legend Niki Lauda.

Hamilton became the sport's youngest-ever title-winner when he passed Timo Glock in the second-to-last corner of the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos earlier this month and went on to cross the finish line fifth, dramatically depriving Felipe Massa of the laurels on the Ferrari star's home turf. It was, acknowledges Lauda - a driver well-versed in close finishes, having won the 1984 crown by just half a point over McLaren team-mate Alain Prost - quite something to behold.

"It was one of the best [seasons] that I can remember," the Austrian told the official F1 website. "Three races to go and we still had four drivers in the championship game - from three different teams. That's pretty unique. The final decision was all about keeping cool on the driver side and, on the team side, having a car that delivered just at the right time. All I can say is hats off to everyone!"

With McLaren and Ferrari having duelled right down to the very last lap of the very last race for both drivers' and constructors' honours, Lauda contends that the final outcome was what it should have been, as Hamilton broke new ground and the Scuderia proved that - even in the absence of Jean Todt - it remains a formidable F1 force.

"Both teams had to work very hard to face changes and complex situations," underlined the 59-year-old, who drove for both McLaren and Ferrari during his own 13-season career in the top flight from 1971 to 1985. "In the end, the spy scandal was more of a budget and reputation situation for McLaren, as they were able to go back to daily work and continue to concentrate on the performance and reliability of the car.

"Ferrari had to concentrate on avoiding a gap in leadership. Stefano [Domenicali - team principal] was in charge of team management even before Jean Todt left, so he had to make sure the team held on to its performance. In the end both teams secured a world championship, Ferrari the constructors' and McLaren the drivers'.

"The right candidate is the one who has accumulated the most points at the end of the season - and that was Lewis Hamilton. History has shown that it is not necessarily the one with the most wins or the most competitive car. Hamilton had the right package, and as a result he is world champion.

"It is the right package that counts, and all of these points together - skill, team and luck - enriched with the right sense of caution, are what makes a world champion. You have to know when it's the time to bet high, or to just hold on to what you have.

"Situations like [Ferrari's disastrous pit-stop in Singapore] happen in the heat of the race and have not been done purposely against Felipe. The team has to learn from such mistakes and make sure they never happen again. Of course, without these mistakes Felipe might have been world champion, but it does not make any sense to argue over spilt milk. Felipe and Ferrari will try again in '09, that is for sure.

"Kimi [Raikkonen] was just not able to maintain last year's performance. Added to this was the fact that Felipe improved very much and was able to put himself into the number one driver position. At a certain point it became very clear that Kimi would have to support Felipe to get the drivers' championship. As to whether this is a sign of burn-out, I cannot tell.

"Heikki Kovalainen showed some very strong moments this year, and he also improved his performance and consistency. He is a perfect wingman for Lewis. At Ferrari it is always the case that the team concentrates on the more promising driver, and then when you have two strong drivers - as they had this season - you will be able to get the constructors' world championship."

Another squad in the battle for constructors' laurels for much of the campaign was BMW-Sauber but, following Robert Kubica's breakthrough victory in the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal, the momentum seemed to slip, to the point that come season's end the Munich and Hinwil-based concern had been indisputably overtaken by a resurgent Renault - and particularly the R?gie's talisman driver and former double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso - as F1's third force.

"BMW-Sauber had a very strong package at some races," Lauda mused, "and were able to translate the performance and reliability of the car - combined with their drivers' skills - into results on the racetrack, but you could also see that they were unable to do this on tracks where their car showed a weakness in pace.

"Overall, though, you can see that they are on the right path in their development, and they can probably be as strong, or even stronger next season. I do not think that they had a problem with their sudden success, as the team has a very high grade of experienced personnel and they should easily be able to cope with success.

"For Renault it was probably a wrong direction of development, which always takes half of the season to correct as there are so many factors that have to be fixed once you go wrong. What we have seen there is that they must have found the mistake and, together with Fernando's driving qualities, they were able to win again."

Toyota spent much of the year looking odds-on for fourth spot in the constructors' battle themselves, and though the big-budget Japanese manufacturer and drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock produced consistently solid performances throughout, the team could not match Renault's improvement and ultimately fell back into the clutches of Scuderia Toro Rosso, for whom Italian Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel proved to be one of the stand-out drivers of the season, fairly embarrassing 'parent' outfit Red Bull Racing.

"Both drivers did a good job this year," Lauda remarked of Toyota, "and Timo Glock was able to improve his learning curve and translate this onto the racetrack. The team itself now has to prove that they are able to maintain this performance and be able to score more points and some podiums next season.

"Congratulation to Gerhard [Berger] and the team (STR) - they did a fantastic job. Sebastian was able to finish races without any mistakes and was constantly pushing to get the most out of his car. This is what it takes to be a world champion - and this is what got him to the top spot of the podium in Monza.

"It is very important for him now to get into a car that is able to win more races - frequently. With his departure to Red Bull Racing he will face a new challenge, as the team has to prove that they are able to give him a competitive car. For sure he is now on the radar to achieve a world championship sometime in the future.

"For sure the engine is a crucial point in the performance of the car, and the Ferrari engine was way better integrated into the [STR] chassis because of its dimensions. Red Bull Racing suffered from this fact with the Renault engine. As a result, the drivers from Red Bull Racing had problems getting to the front in qualifying, and were involved in accidents at the back of the grid too many times. Sebastian [Vettel] was able to get the most out of the car, so he could concentrate on not making mistakes and bringing points - and a win - home."

As to those teams largely bringing up the order in 2008, finally, Lauda suggested that Williams has the 'winning ability' to be able to bounce back, Honda 'still have a long way to go' and Force India is in for another learning campaign in 2009.

"[Williams] must have gone down a wrong road in the development phase of their car, which they were not able to correct during the season," the 25-time grand prix winner contended. "They have very experienced people that have proved their winning ability in the past, though, and the team's facilities are state-of-the-art. For them it is now very important not to suffer from the same mistakes next season.

"They have taken the decision to run a combination of young, promising drivers over a more experienced line-up, so there was a relatively high risk that driver mistakes could also affect their results at the end of the season - and this is what happened.

"[Honda] just couldn't get their car to the front in qualifying, and couldn't keep up with the race pace of their competitors. In my eyes they still have a long way to go, and now the question is how long will it take Ross Brawn and the team to do it?

"[Force India] had to overcome a lot of changes during the last couple of years. So far the team does not seem to have a clear structure, as the latest reshuffle shows. Now it is very important to get the best development out of their budget and find a way to show that they are able to create a stable package of driver qualities, reliability and speed. Next year they will again start with a completely new package, with which the team will have to familiarise itself, so another learning phase will start and this will also take some time."

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