Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bedlam in Brazil

By Mitchell

Despite the well-known predilection in some blog circles for NASCAR, we're going to look today at the true world motor sport - Formula One - and the breathtaking conclusion of this year's season last Sunday at the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo.

Granted, Formula One is a kind of acquired taste. The courses are far-flung, stretching from Australia to China to Hungary to Britain. (The United States Grand Prix was run for the past several years at Indianapolis, but will not be on the schedule in coming years.) Drivers often have unpronounceable names and challenging accents (there are no American drivers at present in F1), the cars are incredibly sophisticated, and, truth be told, there isn’t always that much action on the track. (Passing is difficult and rare; barring mechanical problems, the pole winner is the overwhelming favorite to win the race, and attrition – particularly the first-lap crash that is often a feature of F1 races – is often the surest way to move closer to the top) But the circuits on which the races are run are frequently breathtaking, from the cosmopolitan drama of Monoco, where the street course hosts probably the world’s most famous race, to Monza, the hilly, tree-lined home of the Italian Grand Prix and the fastest, most exciting circuit in F1. So, as I say, Formula One racing is an acquired taste. I acquired it at an early age, but it was the 2007 season that truly rekindled my interest.

2007 had been the most dramatic F1 season in years: it was the first without the legendary seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher, who had retired at the end of the 2006 season. There was an espionage scandal, in which McLaren Mercedes was found guilty of accepting stolen information regarding their archrival Ferrari, which resulted in McLaren losing all their team championship points (their two drivers were not punished) as well as being fined the unheard-of amount of $100 million. And, for the first time in over twenty years, the season came down to a three-way battle for the title, and the lines couldn't have been more clearly drawn.

There was the charismatic young Brit Lewis Hamilton, known at the start of the season (if at all) as F1's first black driver, who had grabbed the season lead early on and was now trying to become the youngest World Champion ever, as well as the first rookie champ. There was Fernando Alonso, the two-time defending champion and Hamilton's teammate at McLaren Mercedes, who had spent most of the year overshadowed by his young teammate and resented it plenty. And there was Kimi Räikkönen, the F1 runner-up in 2003 and 2005, who had moved this year to Ferrari in order to give himself a better chance at the title.

Entering the final weekend, the title appeared to be Hamilton's to lose. At the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks before, he had appeared to have it all but wrapped up. Sporting a 12-point lead over Alonso, his nearest competitor, all he needed was to finish ahead of the Spaniard and the crown would be his. Racing in rainy conditions similar to those in Japan the week before, where Hamilton had dominated in a brilliant win, the Brit seemed well in control when he was plagued by a blistering tire. Coming into the pits, Hamilton briefly lost control of his McLaren, which slid into a gravel trap and became stuck. Suddenly, Hamilton was out of the running. Räikkönen raced to the victory to keep his slim hopes alive, and Alonso's second-place finish meant he was a mere four points behind Hamilton heading for Brazil. Räikkönen, seven points behind in third, remained "mathematically alive" at seven points behind, but could only hope for an improbably combination of events to put him on top: he needed to win, first of all (not unlikely; he’d already won five races, leading all drivers in that category), but then he had to hope that Hamilton finished no better than fifth, Alonso no better than third. A possible, but remote, scenario.

Sunday was sunny and hot, with temperatures hovering near 100. The enormous crowd was almost beside itself with excitement, befitting a country where auto racing is almost as big as soccer. The signs seemed to auger well for Hamilton; in a style of racing where one's qualifying position meant everything, his second-place spot on the grid appeared to put him in the catbird's seat (the Brazilian Felipe Massa had won the pole in a Ferrari; Massa himself ran fourth in the standings, having won three races, but was too far behind to catch Hamilton): a second place finish, no matter where Alonso or Räikkönen finished, would win him the championship.

However, there's a reason why races aren't run on paper, and Hamilton's race started to unravel almost immediately. As soon as the green flag fell he was passed by Räikkönen, then by Alonso. Had the race ended with the drivers holding these positions - Massa, Räikkönen, Alonso and Hamilton - Hamilton still would have won the title. But, in what was perhaps a rookie mistake, Hamilton aggressively tried to pass Alonso and went off the track. He recovered, fought his way back near the top, and then suffered a mechanical breakdown that brought his car to a virtual stop. He was able to keep it rolling and it eventually fired back to speed, but Hamilton's day was essentially done. He was unable to climb back above seventh, and as the laps dwindled down, so did his chances at the championship.

Massa and Räikkönen, in the blood-red Ferraris, literally raced away from the field, opening up a half-minute lead over Alonso. This alone wouldn't have been enough for Räikkönen - he needed to win to have any chance at the title himself, and it looked as if his teammate Massa, racing in his home grand prix, was nearly unbeatable. But here is where the supremacy of the team comes to the fore in F1 racing - once Massa himself had been eliminated from the championship, the orders came down from Ferrari that he was to put himself in a secondary role, that of doing whatever was necessary to help his teammate Räikkönen capture the championship. So it was an open secret that, should the race continue in this fashion, Massa would yield the lead to Räikkönen. He couldn't just drop out, though: were Alonso to finish in second place, he would garner the eight points that would put him ahead of Hamilton and keep him ahead of Räikkönen, giving the Spanard his third consecutive championship. In addition, racing rules dictated that Massa couldn't simply pull over and let Räikkönen pass him; to do so would violate F1's dictates and lead to punishment for both drivers. So despite the fact that there didn't appear to be much going on down there on the boiling track (where temps on the asphalt were in excess of 140 degrees), the mind boggled at the possibilities.

The decisive moment of the race occurred following the last round of pit stops; since each team shares a pit crew for its two drivers, coordination is imperative. Massa was first into the Ferrari pits, and was out almost as quickly in a brilliant stop. Räikkönen pulled in a few laps later and was even faster; merging back onto the track just ahead of Massa for the lead. And that would be it for the race winner. Unless something catastrophic happened, Massa would settle into a protective mode, making sure Räikkönen stayed out front. (This isn’t to suggest he simply handed Räikkönen the win; the Finnish driver had been masterful all day, turning some of the fastest laps in the race, and once in the lead it was apparent nobody was going to catch him, no matter how well they drove.)

All was not secure for Räikkönen, however. There was still Alonso to worry about – even though he was now nearly a minute behind the two Ferraris, should anything happen to Massa he would slip into second, giving him enough points for the title. And you couldn’t discount Hamilton either; although he was too far behind to get up into fifth place himself, a crash on the twisting circuit could easily take out enough cars to propel Hamilton high enough to hang on to his points lead.

Neither of these things happened though, and as the checkered flag fell, the most unlikely outcome had been the one to occur. Räikkönen had won his second straight race and sixth of the season, and edged out Hamilton by one point for the championship. Alonso, finishing third in the race, would tie Hamilton on points, but lose the tiebreaker and finish third in the overall standings as well.

The stoic Finn allowed himself a couple of smiles in the post-race press conference, but otherwise maintained the calm demeanor that had allowed him to come through in the final two races to claim the World Championship. For Hamilton, the disappointment at losing his lead so late in the season was mitigated by what everyone was saying was the start of an undoubtedly brilliant career. Alonso, disgruntled with his team and his teammate, was though to be preparing a move to another team (McLaren already having indicated they’d be only too glad to give him his release if he so requested).

As I said, a magnificent ending to one of the most eventful, exciting F1 seasons in years. True, it will be a tough act to follow. The sport has to overcome the McLaren espionage scandal, and it truly is a shame that there is no American race in the foreseeable future (thanks in large part to a raceday fiasco several years ago that soured a lot of people on F1), However, thanks to the brilliant work of Speed, the network that covers F1 here (and, for my money, the team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Peter Windsor and Steve Matchett, is hands-down the most enthusiastic and best in motor sports), and some of the world’s best drivers, Formula One is a sport with which more Americans should become acquainted – starting five months from now, with the 2008 season opener in Australia.

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