Lewis Hamilton one race from glory
In the end, the cards did not quite fall Lewis Hamilton's way in China yesterday. He needed to score six more points than world championship rival Felipe Massa to clinch the title, and he came away with only two after the Brazilian trailed him home.
But a seven-point lead going to the final race in two weeks' time was just reward on a day on which he did everything perfectly. Some things might have been beyond his control, but he did not put a wheel wrong as he handled everything that wasn't with masterful ease.
Quite simply, nobody saw him for dust as his fifth victory of the season saw him equal Massa's tally while issuing a beating that left his rival glum-faced.
There had been a remarkable air of calm at McLaren all weekend, and it was still there on the grid as Hamilton relaxed with his father, Anthony, and team chief Ron Dennis took time out to make jokes and talk of eating spoonfuls of wasabi sauce while winning a bet with test driver Pedro de la Rosa.
At the start Hamilton made no mistakes, and immediately took the lead from Kimi Raikkonen and Massa, while team-mate Heikki Kovalainen sparred with Singapore and Japanese GP winner Fernando Alonso.
A string of fastest laps saw Hamilton ease clear of Raikkonen, and it was soon obvious that this day, when he most needed it, Massa did not have the pace to stay with his Ferrari team-mate. As the first pit-stop window approached, it was Massa and Alonso who stopped first, on the 14th lap. A lap later, Hamilton and Raikkonen, separated by five seconds, refuelled for the first time. That put Kovalainen into the lead for three laps until his own stop, whereupon Hamilton resumed control of a race that was clearly his to lose.
"It was quite straightforward," Hamilton said. "I managed everything right on the formation lap and had a great start, probably one of the best this year, which was needed. I went into Turn One quite clear, took it easy for the first few corners, then pushed the gap. The car was very consistent and there were very, very few errors. I was able to create a gap and from there it was pretty smooth sailing."
Raikkonen pushed very hard for a spell during that second stint, narrowing the gap from 7.2 seconds on the 23rd lap to 6.1sec by the 29th, but then he lost 1.5sec when backmarker Giancarlo Fisichella got in the way, and thereafter Hamilton put the hammer down and opened out his lead to 8.9sec by lap 37.
That period of the race gave him his only moment of concern. On lap 35 Kovalainen had fallen from fifth place as his right front Bridgestone tyre delaminated, forcing him to run slowly back to the pits. In the McLaren camp there were immediate concerns about Hamilton's tyres, especially after the right-front problems he experienced in Turkey last year and this, and the puncture that dropped him from second to fifth place in Hungary. In the cockpit, however, Hamilton could feel that all was well and made it to his pit stop on the 38th lap without mishap.
Now Ferrari were in a quandary. Clearly Raikkonen was not going to challenge Hamilton, and it was Massa who needed the extra points for second place in order to revive his flagging world championship chances.
Bit by bit the gap between the two red cars shrank. By lap 46 Hamilton was 14sec ahead, but now Massa had closed what was once an eight-second gap to Raikkonen down to two, and clearly it would not be long before the Brazilian "somehow" found a way past. Sure enough, on the 49th lap, as
braked for the Turn 14 hairpin, Raikkonen almost made it look like he wasn't cruising. "We have to do what is best for the team," the Finn had said after qualifying, and clearly this was it. Team orders were banned a long time ago after some of the silly stunts that former team chief Jean Todt forced upon Rubens Barrichello to help Michael Schumacher, but you can't stop a team-mate doing the decent thing to help his partner.
So now Hamilton was more than 16sec ahead. Raikkonen closed right in on Massa in the closing laps as he felt the heat from Alonso, and perhaps symbolically, passed him just after they crossed the finish line. Hamilton, however, had already crossed it 14.9sec earlier.
"I didn't have a good start, with some wheel spin, and then we just stayed in the same positions," Massa said. "We saw that Lewis was a bit stronger, all the way through, and that made his race much more comfortable. We were driving on the limit trying to reduce the gap and it was not possible. Unfortunately he had the better car."
The race did signal the end of one title contender's hopes. After beginning only 11th on the grid, Robert Kubica made a great start and drove superbly to sixth place for BMW Sauber, but his three-point reward left him on 75 points, 19 adrift of Hamilton with only 10 up for grabs in Brazil.
So Hamilton couldn't quite clinch the title this day as nothing untoward happened to Massa in the closing stages, but a seven-point lead going into the final race was comforting. The Fat Lady might not have warbled her final note, but she was warming up her vocal chords. And as he stood atop the podium, watched by Anthony Hamilton and his wife Linda and their other son, Nicholas, Lewis knew that he had exorcised the ghosts of Fuji with a perfect drive that laid just claim to the champion's crown.
"After my second stop I was pretty much cruising," Hamilton said, "looking after the tyres and engine, just bringing the car home. It was inevitable Kimi would let Felipe by, so I just had to keep it under control. It was not tough at all. When you are out front and know you can push if you need it, it's comforting.
"It is just that one step closer, and we still have a tough race ahead of us in Brazil," he said, "but I'm really looking forward to it." Last year he went to Interlagos with a seven-point lead and still lost; this year you sense it will be a different story.
Road to maiden crown
How Hamilton can win
*Lewis Hamilton, with a seven-point lead in the championship, will win his maiden Formula One title in Brazil if he finishes in fifth place or higher there. If the Briton comes sixth or seventh, Massa must win the race to take the title. If Hamilton finishes eighth or out of the points, Massa will take the title by finishing second.
*If both drivers finish level on points, the driver with the most race wins during the season takes the title (both have five wins each after yesterday's race). If this does not break the tie, the most second-place finishes comes into contention (two each), followed by third-place results (Hamilton has three to Massa's two) and so on.
Race details from Shanghai and standings in the championship
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 31min 57.403sec
2 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:32:12.303
3 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:32:13.803
4 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:32:15.703
5 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:32:26.303
6 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:32:30.603
7 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:32:39.103
8 N Piquet Jnr (Br) Renault 1:32:54.003
9 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:33:01.703; 10 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault 1:33:12.203; 11 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:33:22.403; 12 K Nakajima (Jaapan) Williams-Toyota 1:33:28.203; 13 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:33:28.803; 14 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 1:33:29.803; 15 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota + 1 lap; 16 J Button (GB) Honda + 1 lap; 17 G Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari + 1 lap.
Not classified (did not finish): 18 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 49 laps completed; 19 A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari 13 laps; 20 J Trulli (It) Toyota 2 laps.
1 Hamilton 94pts
2 Massa (Br) 87
3 Kubica 75
4 Raikkonen 69
5 Heidfeld 60
6 Alonso 53
7 Kovalainen 51
8 Vettel 30
9 Trulli 30
10 Glock 22
11 Webber 21
12 Piquet Jnr 19
13 Rosberg 17
14 Barrichello 11
15 Nakajima 9
16 Coulthard 8
17 Bourdais 4
18 Button 3
1 Ferrari 156pts
2 McLaren 145
3 BMW Sauber 135
4 Renault 72; 5 Toyota 52; 6 Scuderia Toro Rosso 34; 7 RedBull 29; 8 Williams 26; 9 Honda 14.