19 October 2008
China 2008: Hamilton stakes title claim.
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.
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