John Watson has suggested the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix last weekend will 'go down in the annals of history' as one of the most extraordinary sporting occasions of all time - and praised Lewis Hamilton as 'the rightful world champion' at the end of a thrilling Formula 1 campaign.

Hamilton defeated Felipe Massa by just a single point at the end of the race around Interlagos' Autodromo Carlos Pace, with rain just before the start, again right at the end and a nigh-on unbelievable final few laps - when the Ferrari star won and subsequently lost the title in quick succession - leaving drivers, teams and spectators alike all right on the very edge of their seats.

"I've never seen the likes of it," five-time grand prix-winner Watson told Radio. "[The rain just before the start] was pretty tough for everybody on the grid. I think the sudden realisation that 'we haven't run in the wet at all this weekend, and now we're going to have to run a car that hasn't got a wet set-up' meant they had to think what to do with the wings and the brake balance and so on and so forth.

"They were very, very difficult circumstances in a normal situation, but particularly for Lewis on the second row of the grid, with on his left Kimi Raikkonen, directly behind him his nemesis Fernando Alonso, and of course Jarno Trulli on the front row as well.

"Lewis needed to be careful; the difficulty that he faced was changing his style from his normal attacking style into something that was much more reserved. That's not really something you want to do very often, because you go against the flow of your normal style of driving.

"He did a good job; he did what he had to do, running in fourth or fifth place pretty much throughout the race. It was only in those last six laps when the rain came on again that the cards were thrown in the air and suddenly it could have been anybody's race.

"Any one of the top six drivers could have fallen off because the rain was unpredictable. It was horrendous; the race was just turned on its head. Up until that point Lewis was safe in fifth place, but when the rain came he struggled in his car, [because] clearly he didn't have the grip.

"One of Lewis' qualities is that he has got the ability to put energy into the car in difficult conditions, but he struggled in Brazil. He was literally hanging on by his finger tips. He was pressing the throttle pedal with such delicacy, because he couldn't afford to have the back end snap away. He had to be so gentle. Everything was a transition from where he would normally like to be.

"Sebastian Vettel in the Toro Rosso was able to get the better of Lewis - another young man at just 20 years of age; it's unbelievable, these kids today - then basically in the penultimate corner [they came across] Timo Glock, who had stayed out on dry tyres thinking 'if I can sneak through I can maybe pick up some points'.

"It was working for him, but the pack ran him down and ultimately Glock ran out of grip which allowed Lewis to slip through, take fifth place - and the world championship. I think every driver afterwards would have been mentally exhausted - forget about the physical side, just mentally drained."

Whilst full of enthusiasm for Hamilton's triumph and contending that the best man won, Watson admitted he was also able to feel a good deal of compassion for Massa, having similarly gone into a title showdown with Keke Rosberg at Las Vegas in 1982 needing to win with the Finn taking the chequered flag no higher than sixth. It was a tall order, and whilst Rosberg came in fifth, 'Wattie' was only second - meaning he was able to feel the Brazilian's pain.

"I feel sorry in some respects for Felipe Massa," the Ulsterman confessed, "because he won the race, he did what he had to do - and when he crossed the line probably Lewis was in sixth place. The team celebrated; you could see Felipe's family - his mother, his father, his wife - were all absolutely euphoric, and suddenly someone said 'no, Lewis has finished fifth' and they all dived around the screen and you could see their faces. It was as if somebody had pulled the plug.

"It was terrible for the Massa family. Ferrari and Massa did a stunning job in Brazil; they did what they had to do in winning the race. Lewis didn't have to do that - he had the luxury and the cushion of not having to win. There's an element of empathy from me to Felipe Massa, but Lewis Hamilton is the rightful world champion. There's no doubt about that.

"This world championship could have been won before we got to Brazil, and it ought to have been won a little bit earlier, but for a variety of reasons - sometimes technical, sometimes sporting - that wasn't the case. What great tension it provided, though. We saw a sporting occasion that was unparalleled in my knowledge of motorsport.

"The rollercoaster of emotion is probably unequalled. I can't think of any other sporting occasion like it. I think that race will be remembered and that final lap will go down in the annals of history in sport - not just motorsport. Either on the race track or watching from an armchair, I've never known anything that can match that - the tension, the highs, the lows, the depression over the last couple of laps - and then suddenly the euphoria when he won the world championship.

"There's so much that motorsport has shown the world and it was a great advertisement for Formula 1, and what a great ambassador Lewis will be for the sport. I think he will be the world champion in the sense that other world champions previously have been much more withdrawn and not outgoing people. Lewis is outgoing; he will love this, and the world will love Lewis. I don't want him to do that again in the future, though, because too much of that kind of thing isn't good for my generation of drivers!"

The former Penske, Brabham and McLaren ace - whose own title battle, like that of Hamilton, was fought with the Woking-based outfit - also suggested that now he has done it once, the sport's new youngest-ever world champion can go on to lift the laurels again. He will face stiff opposition, though, Watson warned, from predecessors Alonso and Raikkonen, not to mention Massa - who truly came of age this year with his challenge for glory.

"It's a very early stage in his career," the 62-year-old racer-turned commentator underlined on the subject of Hamilton. "He's only two seasons into it, but clearly the title challengers for the future are going to include Lewis Hamilton. Once you get to win one world championship, you understand what it takes to win a world championship, and that's what someone like Fernando Alonso for example had when they were partners at McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen has that experience too.

"For sure Lewis has got the chance to back that up with another world championship in 2009, but Massa will be up there too, absolutely, there's no doubt. Felipe has done a great job this year. He also was let down by some failures, like his engine failure in Hungary and the re-fuelling issue in Singapore, [but] Felipe has done something which nobody ever really thought he had the capacity to do.

"We've got a new aerodynamic and technical package coming in [for 2009], so it's going to be a level playing field and we may get a few spikes coming through in the results, but inevitably the championship is going to be fought between the teams that we've seen fighting for it this year."

by Russell Atkins