Drivers, racing, politics, penalties and economics – Ben Evans surveys them all in his verdict on 2008.
The final five minutes of the 2008 Grand Prix season were as an exciting few moments as the sport has ever seen, with the destiny of the world championship changing hands three times in as many laps.
For the mammoth audiences watching at home this was what F1 was all about, wheel to wheel dicing (admittedly weather assisted) with everything on the line. In short, this was the essence of motor racing. If only the rest of the season had been that way.
F1 in its 2008 guise was at times as good as the sport has ever been, unfortunately it also had some truly dire moments.
The title battle
Lets start with the good. The championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa went down to the wire in the most dramatic of circumstances, a contest all the more entertaining because neither driver is flawless or, arguably, the most complete in F1.
The Hamilton-McLaren package was week-in-week-out the quickest out there, particularly once Hamilton had transferred the cars’ qualifying bite into race-long pace. There were moments of genius – Monaco and Silverstone were outstanding. But also instances of Hamilton’s prime weakness – over-aggression towards his machinery and fellow competitors.
Japan was the most widely reported incident but, for me, the nadir of the season came at Monza when Hamilton put Timo Glock on the grass for no apparent reason. However Lewis has developed an uncanny ability to salvage points from a black day, something his main championship rivals could not do.
Felipe Massa had his best season of F1 and, as before, on a track he likes he is utterly invincible. The Brazilian is dominant at Interlagos in a way that Ayrton Senna never was. Unfortunately when Massa is bad, he is turgid. His British Grand Prix was a poor as Hamilton’s was good, and there remains some impatience to his wheel to wheel dicing. Massa also got the rub of the green more than once – more on that later.
Stars of the season
Behind the championship duo the season were the three drivers of the season – Robert Kubica, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
Kubica was the early season championship leader, and had the BMW developed at the pace of the McLaren’s and Ferrari’s he could have been there at the year’s end. As the season wore on the BMW’s inability to generate front wheel grip on demand cost the Pole several times in qualifying, hampering his chances for a good race. His sole mistake of the year came when he skated off at Silverstone, an incident which effectively quashed any chance of the title. However Kubica is surely a champion of the future and could well ruin the predicted era of Hamilton dominance.
Hamilton’s ex-team mate Fernando Alonso returned to Renault, where he found a car not half as effective as the one he’d left 12 months earlier. Vilified or beatified depending on your allegiance the Spaniard is arguably the most complete driver in F1 at present. Whereas many drivers faced with the 2008 Renault would have only have gone as quick as the car, Alonso worked to make the car go as quick as him. The Singapore win may well have been Safety Car-aided, but doubling up in Fuji days later showed his class.
Sebastian Vettel was the rookie revelation of the year and his lights-to-flag win at Monza delighted the entire pitlane. If Hamilton can be accused of being a young man living in his own PR, Vettel is widely acknowledged as one of the friendliest and most outgoing drivers in F1. Making the Toro Rosso unreasonably quick from the outset it was no surprise when he was snaffled by Red Bull mid season, though the wisdom of that move for Vettel remains in question.
Of the other drivers to catch the eye – Timo Glock was consistently impressive in his debut year in the Toyota, whilst not drawing the headlines he regularly brought the car home in the points and quietly got on with the job of learning how an F1 car works. Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber both give the impression of being quicker than their machinery but both are yet to produce a Vettel-esque breakout performance. When the Williams worked Rosberg flew, when it didn’t he was often out-paced by Kazuki Nakajima, who was perhaps less concerned about ending his race in the wall. Webber, meanwhile, saw off another team mate and was, as ever, stellar in qualifying, but he’s yet to have a race day where all the stars align in his favour. Giancarlo Fisichella also had a strong year pushing the Force India to 100% all the time when others might have coasted.
…and the rest
Unfortunately driver disappointments may well have out-weighed the successes. Both Heikki Kovalainen and Sebastian Bourdais failed to fly as may have been predicted, but both suffered the similar predicament of being drafted into teams that became increasingly centred on their young superstars. Kovalainen often punched above his weight with heavy qualifying loads but couldn’t convert his grid slots into consistent enough race performances. As the team, understandably, shifted in Hamilton’s favour the Finn was perpetually saddled with the heavier qualifying load. Given an empty tank early in the race Kovalainen could well figure at the front more frequently.
Bourdais, meanwhile, had the early edge on Vettel but once the new car was rolled out the Frenchman became mired in the midfield. On his day, however, he produced some extremely strong performances, and given the performance of others in 2008, could consider himself extremely unlucky to exit F1 over the winter.
For Nelson Piquet Jnr 2008 was a year to forget. Yes, he got on the podium in Germany and was strong occasionally elsewhere, but too often the Brazilian reduced the Renault to a pile of mangled component parts, often trying to make up places from a lowly grid position. Renault have, against the odds, kept him on for 2008, but the clock is ticking and poor performances in the early races could well lead to a P45.
Surely the greatest disappointment of the year was the reigning champion as Kimi Raikkonen seemed to lose interest mid season and never looked like winning again. In the early exchanges the Finn was unstoppable, but when he failed to put the Ferrari on the front row he seemed content to plough around in whatever position he entered the first corner. When given the opportunity for a dice, such as in Belgium, he rose to the challenge, but the Spa shunt was the last we saw of a front-running Raikkonen.
Politics and penalties
Unfortunately, once again, it was external factors that ruined the season. The year quickly descended into a cloud as Max Mosley hit the front pages, leaving the FIA President effectively impotent (at least in racing matters). With a fortitude that bordered on the incomprehensible Mosley held onto his post, but the damage incurred in the process could bite in future years. Once the News of the World had been vanquished, the appetite for stubbornness and controversial decisions wended its way down the FIA food chain.
Spa was the key incident as post-race Lewis Hamilton was slapped an un-appeal-able penalty for gaining an advantage from an off track excursion. Yes, the penalty was harsh, but this was also an example of Hamilton’s impetuosity. By immediately retaking Raikkonen into La Source he left himself open to the accusation that he had gained an advantage. By holding off for one or two corners, maybe sliding through on the run to Les Combes, Hamilton would have got the win and had no risk of a penalty. Yes Hamilton is a racer, but to be a multiple champion he needs to exercise the grey matter as much as the right foot. In the event McLaren and Hamilton felt hard done by and, for the second year in a row, as the championship moved on to Monza McLaren appeared to be the FIA’s favourite scapegoat.
The Bourdais/Massa incident was arguably an even more shameful example of race stewardship. Bourdais, exiting the pits, held his line all the way down to Turn 1 where Massa sliced across his bows, making contact and spinning out. Quite what Bourdais could have done to avoid a collision, except for waving the car he was racing for position through, is unclear. In the event Massa got the place he lost through the spin back when Bourdais was demoted after the race.
Here comes the credit crunch
Both incidents were hugely dramatic, but more concerning for the F1 chiefs was whether anyone was there to watch them, and who will pay for them in the future. Although official figures are not available, I suspect 2008 has had the lowest trackside attendance of any season in recent years. The Bahrain, Malaysian, Turkish and Chinese Grand Prix were all played out in front of worryingly sparse crowds, whilst expected draws such as the Valencia street race failed to sell out. Furthermore the historic French Grand Prix and the popular Canadian race have both dropped from the calendar in 2009 as they have cannot afford to continue to do business with FOM. Without a corporate rethink it is not beyond the realms of possibility to see the calendar shrinking over the next couple of years as countries decide they can no longer afford to host races.
Coupled to this is what must surely be an impending sponsorship crisis. F1 is due for a double whammy hit – manufacturers suffering falling sales will not have the cash to pump into their race teams, and industry sponsors (RBS, ING et al) are unlikely to pour in the 100’s of millions they currently do. The next 12 months are poised to be perilous for F1, and I would say that by the end of next season, barring a U-turn on customer cars, that we will see 14-16 car grids, as teams begin to withdraw.
It is at this point that we could see a pincer movement. The manufacturers and the blue chips will only stay in the sport if they can see real value between advertising and revenue. The 2009 calendar as it stands doesn’t really make that link an intuitive one. Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, Singapore and Turkey are not core markets, whereas the unrepresented North America (Canada and the USA) and under-represented Europe are. To continue to move races away from the European core of the sport could well kill F1.
2008 has been a good season of F1, but not a great one. Most races have had moments of interest and excitement and the final race of the year was a cracker. However this must be tempered with the facts: some meetings were snooze-fests (China), the cars were ugly and uninspiring, and that the FIA once again conspired to overshadow much of the season. For 2009 it will be all change, lets just hope it’s interesting.