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China 2008: Hamilton stakes title claim

19 October 2008

Lewis Hamilton has got his bid to become the youngest-ever Formula 1 World Champion firmly back on-track, as he responded to his critics of the past week and banished his unhappy memories of Shanghai 2007 in perfect style – by destroying Ferrari's challenge to consummately prevail in the Chinese Grand Prix.

In a peerless performance, Hamilton took the chequered flag comfortably ahead of the Maranello duo of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen, and as he celebrated on the podium afterwards in a rather more restrained fashion than usual, with a seven-point advantage over Massa heading into the final race of the campaign in two weeks' time, the McLaren-Mercedes star clearly knows that his destiny – and the 2008 drivers' crown – is now surely in his hands.

Before the race got underway, though, there was all manner of questions sweeping the F1 paddock. Could Ferrari overturn McLaren's advantage on race day as had been the case sometimes in the past, or would the cooler conditions hamper the Scuderia's challenge? Would the forecast rain arrive during the race? Would Hamilton crack under the pressure? Would Massa..?

Hamilton took the start on the harder tyres to both Ferraris' softer rubber, and there was to be no repeat of the pole-sitter's botched Fuji effort this time around, as the world championship leader made a textbook getaway to keep the dual scarlet threat at bay, and by the end of the opening lap he had already established a 1.1-second lead.

Behind the leading trio, a feisty Heikki Kovalainen in the sister McLaren tried to go around the outside of both Fernando Alonso and Massa, and whilst he gutsily stole fourth spot from the former, the Spaniard was in no mood to give up without a fight, taking advantage of Kovalainen running slightly wide further on around the opening lap to pull alongside again – and prove that if Renault had straight-line speed issues earlier in the year, they have now been assuredly cured, as he out-dragged the Finn down into the final hairpin to reclaim the place.

There were less good fortunes, however, for former Alonso's team-mate Jarno Trulli, whose Toyota was tagged into the first corner by the Scuderia Toro Rosso of Sébastien Bourdais, tipping the Italian into a spin and – just over a lap later – also into retirement, the right-hand sidepod on his TF108 having suffered terminal damage.

With Bourdais dropping back to 18th position following the coming-together, the two BMW-Saubers were the main winners, Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica each gaining three places to run sixth and eighth respectively, sandwiching the second STR of Sebastian Vettel, with Nelsinho Piquet and the fast-starting Honda of compatriot Rubens Barrichello completing the early top ten.

Hamilton's margin at the front, meanwhile, was 1.9 seconds at the end of lap two and 2.7 seconds a lap later still – with 4.8 seconds in-hand over Massa. Fastest lap would continue to drive home his advantage, as Kovalainen struggled further back, a full 15 seconds shy of his team-mate eight laps in as he grappled with braking issues, with smoke having been seen peeling off his McLaren on the grid.

Further back, Mark Webber was the man on the move, forcing his way past both Barrichello and Piquet and closer to the points as he endeavoured to regain ground following his qualifying penalty for an engine change, whilst ten laps in Raikkonen finally pegged Hamilton's lead, reducing the gap to just shy of four seconds as with his tyre-graining phase seemingly over, the reigning world champion looked to try and bring himself into play.

Webber became the first man to pit on lap 13, as Hamilton showed just how hard he was continuing to push with a rear-end slide, and subsequently responded with a new fastest lap to throw down the gauntlet to Raikkonen and suggest that anything the Ferrari ace could do, he could do even better.

The under-pressure Piquet went briefly off-piste going onto the back straight, allowing the impressive Barrichello – consummately staking his claim to retain his Honda seat in 2009 – to close back in on him again, whilst Massa was surprisingly was the next driver to blink and head for the pit-lane, swiftly followed in by Alonso who seemed to take on a heavier fuel load.

Hamilton made it safely into the pits at the end of lap 15, with Raikkonen following suit and the pressure on. As the pair rejoined, critically Hamilton did so ahead of Vettel but Raikkonen did not, with the raft of stops promoting Kovalainen into the lead of the race from Heidfeld, and Adrian Sutil went down as the race's second retirement as he pulled off-track in his Force India.

That meant that, 16 laps in, Hamilton had established a gap of 5.6 seconds ahead of Raikkonen, and more than eleven over Massa, with Heidfeld in next as Kovalainen motored on in the lead, finally pitting for a long-fill at the end of lap 18.

Happily for Raikkonen, Vettel made his first pit visit on the same lap, as Hamilton continued to pull away from Massa as did third-placed, and long-running, Kubica. Piquet – having hauled himself impressively into contention again much as he had done at Fuji Speedway, pitted from a competitive fifth place on lap 24, the Brazilian rookie rejoining just behind David Coulthard in the sister Red Bull Racing to that of his earlier sparring partner Webber.

Kubica also pitted for a short middle stint on lap 31, removing the threat he had briefly posed to Massa, whilst with the graining period gone once again Raikkonen was beginning to chip away at Hamilton's lead, getting the gap down to 6.4 seconds 27 laps in.

The Finn's charge, however, would be blunted somewhat by Giancarlo Fisichella in the Force India being rather more accommodating to the McLaren than he was the Ferrari as they separately came up to lap the Italian. Lest we forget, only two years ago in the same grand prix, Raikkonen and Fisichella were battling for the lead…

Webber pitted again with 24 laps to go as RBR switched the Aussie over from an initial three-stop strategy to two, whilst Nico Rosberg continued to entertain with his determined overtaking efforts in the Williams as Hamilton edged out another second over the pursuing Raikkonen.

The McLaren crew appeared in the pit-lane with 22 laps to go, but it wasn't for the race leader as the luckless Kovalainen desperately tried to fight his way back to the pits with a badly delaminated right front puncture, still the legacy of the Finn's braking problems on the grid.

Not only did the incident destroy Kovalainen's race, it also likely torpedoed McLaren's chances of claiming the constructors' laurels at season's end, and as the second round of stops approached the Ferraris began to play themselves into contention again. Massa set the fastest middle sector of anyone on his way round to the pits, but as both Hamilton and Raikkonen came in together the next time around the Briton's advantage had increased to nine seconds, with McLaren edging the pit-stop battle by one-and-a-half seconds to boot.

With Raikkonen having switched over to the softer tyres and Massa the harder rubber, the gap between the two scarlet machines on-track was visibly diminishing, down to under three seconds as Ferrari team tactics began to come into play. That much, indeed, was evinced by Raikkonen slipping some twelve seconds adrift of Hamilton with 15 laps left to run.

Raikkonen continued to head Massa eight laps from home, the Brazilian barely gaining on his Finnish team-mate despite the latter backing off significantly, until 'the switch' finally took place towards the end of the back straight. With seven laps remaining Kovalainen dived into the pits again and into retirement, his brakes spent but, crucially, his team-mate continued to lead, and comfortably so.

Fisichella disappeared off another driver's Christmas card list when he got in the way of seventh-placed Timo Glock as the German chased down the BMWs of Heidfeld and Kubica, whilst ahead of that trio Alonso was taking chunks out of now third-placed Raikkonen as the former double world champion, having re-acquainted himself with podium champagne in recent outings, clearly fancied a late sniff at the final rostrum position, getting the gap down to just 4.3 seconds with three laps to the chequered flag.

As Hamilton sped serenely on to record his fifth victory of the 2008 campaign – and potentially a vital one to his title aspirations – what was incredibly only the second fastest lap of his F1 career cemented his superiority, and ensured that the pressure is all on Massa in the Interlagos finale.

The Brazilian came home a subdued second – not looking so much like a champion in-waiting as a driver who had given his all and come up short – with Raikkonen a no doubt frustrated third, Alonso fourth and Heidfeld, Kubica, Glock and Piquet rounding out the points-scorers.

The only driver anyone was talking about once the chequered flag had dropped, though, was Hamilton, who atoned for his Japanese Grand Prix indiscretion in the best way possible. McLaren-Mercedes has not won a world championship in any form for almost a decade. That statistic could just be put to bed in São Paulo in a fortnight's time.

To see the race result in full, click here


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