Brazil’s 2008 F1 Championship Decider


A decade on from the famous F1 championship decider

The 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix – held on November 2nd – was a fitting conclusion to one of the most fascinating Formula 1 championship battles in recent memory.

A year-long battle emerged between McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Neither had won the title before, with Hamilton falling just short in 2007, while Massa’s highest position was third in 2006.

Back when 10 points were awarded for a win, Hamilton led proceedings by a relatively comfortable seven points, and both were tied on five wins apiece. Fifth would make Hamilton the youngest champion at the second attempt. Massa would have his home crowd on his side – a partisan crowd desperate to see a home-grown talent crowned for the first time since Ayrton Senna.

Massa was mighty in qualifying – taking his sixth pole of the season, ahead of Jarno Trulli’s Toyota – the Italian’s best grid position of the season. Outgoing champion Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) was third on the grid, with Hamilton a somewhat lowly fourth.

To add to the already-building tension, rain fell just before the scheduled start – prompting a delay to allow teams to switch to wet tyres. The top four were unchanged after the first lap. Further back, David Coulthard – in his swansong, was nerfed out the race in the opening corners and the 13-time race winner unspectacularly bowed out of F1.

The track was drying out. Force India’s Giancarlo Fisichella was the first to stop for dry tyres behind the safety car, and by lap 11 of 71, the entire field was on them. That move worked well, as Fisichella vaulted the unfancied Force India up into fifth for a short period.

At the front, Vettel traded fast laps with Massa. Timo Glock in the second Toyota made his final scheduled pitstop on lap 36, carrying enough fuel to last him for the remainder of the race. The frontrunners soon followed suit – Massa, followed by Fernando Alonso’s Renault, Hamilton (fourth after the stops) and then Raikkonen. Toro Rosso’s Vettel stopped on lap 53 but then hounded Hamilton down when he re-emerged onto the track.

And then the rain came once more. With less than 10 to go, the track became treacherous once more. All the frontrunners – except for the of Toyotas – bailed for the intermediate tyre. The rain intensified, and Hamilton made a mistake with just three laps remaining as former championship contender Robert Kubica unlapped himself – allowing Vettel through.

This was a catastrophe for Hamilton. He had lost a position to Glock, and then to Vettel. This left him in sixth place and set to lose the championship. Massa controlled the race at the front to take the most important win of his career – and one managed beautifully by a driver sometimes regarded as not being overly competent in the wet. He looked set to be champion, and celebrations began in the grandstands and at Ferrari.

However, some 30 seconds later, Hamilton – still trying to pass Vettel, came across a slow Glock. The immortal Martin Brundle commentary “IS THAT GLOCK!?” became the stuff of legend, as the McLaren swooped around the inside of the struggling Toyota. Hamilton was back in position. The Ferrari celebration came to a staggering halt, and celebrations began at the other end of the pitlane. Hamilton had done enough to secure his first championship – just.

The championship would become Hamilton’s first of five, but the only one with McLaren. He had a few near-misses, but a switch to Mercedes for 2013 would set him on his record-shattering run. He would, however, engage Massa again – in a somewhat public spat in 2011 when the two regularly made contact in a season not strong for either driver.

Massa’s career would take a different trajectory. After sustaining a head injury in 2009, the popular Brazilian would never taste such heights again. He was a huge part in the team orders scandal that surrounded Ferrari in 2010, before several further trying years as Alonso’s ‘number two’. A move to Williams for 2014 prompted some rejuvenation, before leaving at the end of 2017.

Now, Massa is preparing for his Formula E debut with Venturi in Saudi Arabia next month.