For a period in 2008 – and a fairly lengthy period at that – Robert Kubica
looked capable of pinching the world championship crown away from under the noses of favourites Hamilton and Massa, as the BMW-Sauber ace routinely out-performed the equipment at his disposal in the shape of the Munich and Hinwil-based concern's F1.08.
Though race day ultimately ended in retirement, the Pole's maiden front row grid slot in Australia proved to be a precursor to a truly magnificent season, one in which he invariably had the beating of swift and experienced team-mate Nick Heidfeld, who would indeed not succeed in out-qualifying the man from Kraków until the British Grand Prix in July.
From Malaysia to Canada Kubica would finish no lower than fourth, with his first pole position in the top flight in Bahrain and – most notably of all – his breakthrough victory in Montreal, the scene of his terrifying accident only twelve months earlier that had seen his car somersault sickeningly through the air and from which he had emerged dazed but, thankfully, largely unscathed.
That success – leading home Heidfeld in a BMW
one-two – vaulted the 23-year-old to the top of the drivers' title chase, but it would prove, sadly, to be something of a false dawn. As McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari
continued to develop and progress, BMW
found they had perhaps peaked too soon, and struggled to accelerate into the necessary higher gear that would have maintained Kubica's push for glory. Though he remained in the hunt for the majority of the rest of the campaign, with just three further podiums from the last eleven races he was never again any more than an outsider, and his challenge fizzled out altogether in China, where for only the second time all year he failed to make the top ten on the starting grid.
That was arguably more a reflection on how far BMW
had fallen than on its star driver's performance, and though he was perhaps too outspoken at times – making little secret of his belief that the team had spent too much time focussing on resolving Heidfeld's qualifying troubles rather than backing his own bid for honours – Robert Kubica
remains very much the real deal.
2. Lewis Hamilton
Having already smashed all rookie records during his breathtaking maiden campaign in the sport in 2007, Hamilton went one better in 2008 in completing the job he had threatened to pull off twelve months earlier – that of becoming F1's youngest-ever world champion. But boy did he make it hard work for himself.
Whilst the Lewis Hamilton
of 2007 had been the very model of consistency and composure – albeit until the final two grands prix of the season in which he seemed to lose his head under the immense pressure of it all – the 2008 version seemed to display significantly more rough edges, with almost as many slip-ups along the way as there were sublime performances.
The qualifying 'block' in Malaysia cost the 23-year-old dear, whilst his elementary error in striking the back of former team-mate Fernando Alonso's car in Bahrain did so even more. That, though, was nothing when compared to his mistake in clattering into Raikkonen's stationary Ferrari
in the Montreal pit-lane during the Canadian Grand Prix – denying both what could have been a possible victory, and leaving the Briton to walk away red-faced and empty-handed.
France, too, was a disastrous performance, and Hamilton's desperate first corner lunge in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji – endeavouring to atone for a poor getaway by leaving his braking dangerously late, and sending the field scattering everywhere in his wake – was lucky not to ultimately cost him the crown. It didn't, though, thanks to impeccable triumphs in Australia, Monaco and China, and truly mesmerising drives to lift the trophy in front of his throngs of home supporters at Silverstone
and just a fortnight later at Hockenheim, after McLaren's audacious pit-stop strategy had left the Stevenage-born ace with a tall order to accomplish. Spa-Francorchamps should have been another one to add to that list as well, but for the stewards' contentious and much-debated post-race intervention.
Though he again tried to throw the title away in conceding fifth place to Vettel in the dying stages of an uncharacteristically over-cautious performance in the season finale in Brazil, in the end the right man did claim the championship – just. If he is to repeat the feat in 2009, however, Hamilton is well aware that he can ill-afford to be as inconsistent again.
1. Fernando Alonso