Brazilian Grand Prix: Reliving Lewis Hamilton’s first world title 10 years on

CNN  — 

Ten years ago, on a rain-soaked afternoon in São Paulo, Lewis Hamilton claimed the first of his five world titles to become the youngest Formula One champion in history.

In 2008, the Brazilian Grand Prix was the 18th and final race of the season and, in theory, should have been a victory procession for the Briton who needed only to finish fifth.

It turned out to be anything but and is now remembered as an enthralling, nail-biting title decider.

02:52 - Source: CNN
Lewis Hamilton reflects on first world title

“I just got a chill up my spine because it was an amazing experience,” Hamilton later told CNN as he reflected on that first title win.

A late tropical deluge delayed the start of the race and set the scene for an outcome so dramatic, even Hollywood’s best script writers would have struggled to imagine it.

From last-lap drama to internet conspiracy theories, it was the race that produced everything.

“Unquestionably the most dramatic (of Hamilton’s wins), he didn’t know he was world champion until the last quarter of a mile,” F1 author Maurice Hamilton tells CNN.

“It was arguably one of the most dramatic finales to any world championship … I can never remember one as dramatic as that. Up until the last lap you didn’t know which way it was going to go.

“It’s in the top two or three of the most amazing grands prix I’ve seen.”

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Déjà vu?

Hamilton boasted a seven-point lead over Ferrari’s Felipe Massa heading into the race at Interlagos, but memories of the previous year’s capitulation were very much still at the forefront of his mind.

Just 12 months earlier, Hamilton again led the drivers’ championship going into the final race – four points ahead of McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso and seven ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

After the McLaren pair almost took each other out on lap one, Hamilton went on to suffer car problems and the “Iceman” was able to snatch the title in his first season at Ferrari.

“The events in 2007 made him (Lewis) very nervous, no question,” said Maurice Hamilton.

“They should have won that championship and because Hamilton and Alonso were at each others’ throats, they finished joint second and Kimi came through the middle and took it.

“The team were very nervous. I’m sure it would have been playing on his mind, he did admit on the last lap he was a complete bag of nerves and driving on adrenaline.”

Two torrential downpours tested the drivers to their limits.

In 2008, Massa qualified on pole with Hamilton fourth and the opening 63 laps passed largely without incident for the two main protagonists.

As the skies cleared and the track dried, every driver in the field switched to dry tires.

Hamilton bounced between fourth and fifth, both positions good enough to win him the title, while a faultless Massa led throughout.

Just as it was looking like Hamilton would cruise through the final eight laps, black rainclouds again began to loom menacingly overhead.

The rain was light at first, little more than a few spots, but just two laps later it was coming down hard enough to convince McLaren that Hamilton needed to pit for the wet-weather tires.

By lap 66, every car had pitted to make the same changes – except two.

Toyota had decided to keep its two drivers, Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli, on dry tires and kept their fingers crossed the rain held off enough for them to not lose the time gained from choosing not to pit.

The decision initially proved a success for Toyota as Glock rose from seventh to fourth and left Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel fighting it out for fifth.

The young German – at that time driving for Toro Rosso – was all over the back of Hamilton’s McLaren.

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‘I only prayed’

Lewis Hamilton crosses the line in fifth place to win the title.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Polish driver Robert Kubica unlapped himself on the inside of the final turn on lap 68.

Shaken by the surprise overtake, Hamilton took a wide path that allowed Sebastian Vettel past. All of a sudden, the 2008 world championship was in Massa’s hands.

“Well I never give up, so I kept pushing,” Lewis Hamilton told CNN soon after the race. “Right until I got to the line and up until the second to last lap I was world champion pretty much.

“But it’s never over until it’s over and then I lost position. I only prayed that I could get it back and I couldn’t catch this guy (Vettel) and I got to turn 10 of 12 on the last lap and I hadn’t overtaken him.”

On the final lap, with time and track rapidly running out, it seemed all of Hamilton’s prayers were answered. The heavens opened, making is almost impossible for Glock to find any grip on dry tires.

Out in front, almost 30 seconds ahead of the unfolding drama, Massa had taken the checkered flag with a flawless drive on home soil.

His Ferrari garage celebrated wildly, as did tens of thousands of fans in the grandstand who thought they were celebrating the first Brazilian world champion since Ayrton Senna.

But on the 71st and final lap, with the track now sodden after the torrential downpour, Glock had slowed so much both Vettel and Hamilton had been able to make up a 15-second deficit.

“He (Lewis) didn’t know what was going on,” Maurice Hamilton said. “The team were shouting at him that he had to try and catch Glock and he didn’t know what they were talking about.

“He had been trying to get past Vettel, that was his focus. All this is panning out in front of him and he’s trying to keep the car on the road because it’s wet.”

With just one corner remaining, Hamilton edged his way past on the inside of Glock, who by this point was struggling to just keep the car on the track.

“I wasn’t close enough to get him (Vettel) by turn 12,” Lewis Hamilton recalled.

“It just so happened that it was wet, another guy was going very slow and I managed to get past him,” he said, pausing briefly as if to relive that moment.

Conspiracy theories

The realization of what had happened gradually permeated through a jubilant Ferrari garage, causing one mechanic – in now infamous television scenes – to smash his head against the wall in anger.

As the sad reality finally set in for the team, the crowd and Massa’s family, the McLaren garage spilled out onto the pit lane to celebrate with Hamilton.

“It was hugely dramatic and could have gone either way,” Maurice Hamilton says. “If the shower of rain had come a minute later, he wouldn’t have been world champion, Massa would have won and he wouldn’t have passed Timo Glock.

“It hinges on details like that … there has been nothing like that since, even in his fights with (Nico) Rosberg and the others there’s never been anything as dramatic as that.

“I don’t think many world champions will tell you they had a finale like that.”

In the immediate aftermath, a confused Glock swatted away questions in the mixed zone suggesting he had deliberately allowed Hamilton to pass.

The pair had been friends coming through the ranks in GP2 and that only served to fuel conspiracy theories that Glock moved aside for Hamilton to win the title, though they are allegations the German has refuted on several occasions.

“It’s all over us again … it’s 10 years ago and it seems it’s bigger than ever. Lots, lots of Feedback … at least not all negative,” Glock posted on Instagram earlier this month.

“Still as a little reminder for those who still think I did it on purpose (still some out there) … there is the on-board of the whole last lap on YouTube. At least you can see the difficulties I faced! Enjoy ….”

In what was undoubtedly the most brutal moment of his career, Massa remained gracious in defeat and earned universal praise for the way he conducted himself after the race.

Tears filled his eyes as he stood atop the podium, proud but heartbroken.

“That was so impressive,” Maurice Hamilton said. “To think for about a minute that you’re world champion at home with all that emotion, you’ve won the race and done everything you can.

“He drove a brilliant race, faultless and then to have that happen at the end – he was very, very dignified. It was quite emotional on the podium, it must have been very, very tough to take.

“You don’t often see that and it was a tremendous display of sportsmanship considering the terrible disappointment … and of course he would never get his chance again.”

Indeed that would be the closest Massa ever got to winning a world title and he retired from the sport in 2017, the same year Hamilton collected the fourth of his five championship wins.

The 33-year-old has never been pushed so close in any of his subsequent victories, and fans may be left waiting a while longer to witness another grand prix as dramatic as Brazil 2008.