It ain’t over, as they say, until the fat lady sings – and she seems reluctant to sing for British racing driver Lewis Hamilton.
Like compatriots Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill before him, he seems destined to have to do it the hard way. Both men had the ultimate prize in motor sport in their grasp and lost out, before finally clinching their respective world titles.
Hamilton is lucky in that he does not have to wait another year, as Hill and Mansell did, to try again. This weekend in Brazil, he has that rarest of things in sport – a second chance.
The 22-year-old, bidding to become the first driver in Formula One history to win the world title in his debut season, had a marvellous opportunity to close the deal in China two weeks ago, with a 12-point lead over his rivals and just two races to go. It was motor racing’s equivalent of an open goal.
But fat ladies were thin on the ground in Shanghai. Instead, Hamilton skidded out while leading the race on worn tyres. It was a head-in-the-hands moment, because the McLaren team had ample evidence that his car had become undriveable on its exhausted wet-weather tyres. Yet rather than bring him into the pits, they hesitated for three laps because they thought it might rain again.
That was sheer folly. The worst that would have happened to Hamilton had he come in early would have been a third-place finish, but he would probably have done better than that anyway. Third place and six points would have sent him into tomorrow’s season finale with only his team-mate Fernando Alonso as a rival, and the Spaniard would have needed victory, with Hamilton not scoring, to rob him of the glory.
Instead, we have a tense three-way title fight, involving Hamilton, Alonso, (who is four points behind) and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who trails the Briton by seven points.
There are many possible permut-ations. It is true to say that only Hamilton has the matter in his own hands. If he finishes second, regardless of what the other two manage, he is world champion. Other permutations will work out for him too, but he risks everything should he have another setback like Shanghai.
Hamilton insists the failure there has made him stronger and, perversely, he feels less pressure this weekend than he did in China. “It [the Shanghai incident] took the pressure off my shoulders and I came out even stronger,” he said at the Interlagos track in São Paulo on Thursday. “I thought it would knock my confidence. Instead, I am now stronger. Coming here, I feel very different. In China the pressure was building up and I didn’t have a great weekend. Now I feel positive.”
It has been an intense season for the rookie Briton. He has learned the hard way that what happens off the circuit in F1 can have as much, if not more, influence on results as what happens on it. McLaren’s record fine of $100m for sporting espionage has cast a shadow on this title race. Many people feel this will be a tainted championship for whoever wins it.
The dispute rumbles on. Max Mosley, president of the Féderation Internationale de l’Automobile, motor racing’s governing body, is threatening the team with further sanctions should they not pass a detailed inspection of their 2008 car ahead of December’s FIA World Council meeting.
For Mosley, a McLaren world title would be tainted. He argues that having decided that the team were guilty of taking a competitive advantage from material allegedly sent to their chief designer by a disaffected Ferrari employee, the FIA World Council should have disqualified both drivers as well. But he was outvoted.
Others disagree as well. Sir Jackie Stewart, the former F1 world champion, contends that the penalty did not fit the crime. He argues that a $100m fine for a sporting infringement is hard to justify when one considers that in 2005, oil company BP received a fine of $21m for safety violations following an explosion at a Texas oil refinery that cost 15 lives and injured many more.
Hamilton has had to rise above all of this and focus on a duel with his vastly more experienced team-mate Alonso, the world champion of the past two years, which became personal as early as March. The two men have much in common: they are both fast, hugely ambitious and ruthless on the track. They are so similar that there is not room in one team for both.
In the first part of the season, Hamilton was reined in on occasions by the team in favour of Alonso. But he kept going faster than the Spaniard and by the halfway stage he was 12 points clear of Alonso, whose mental game plan seemed to be falling apart in the face of this unexpected threat to his hegemony.
Alonso, however, has rallied impressively in the second half of the season, outscoring Hamilton by 10 points in the last eight races. And as tomorrow’s title deciding race approached, the pair appeared easy and relaxed in each other’s company at a press conference.
“Many things are said about our relationship which are not true,” said Alonso. “We are in a competition – we love competition and we enjoy this battle when we are here. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, this is how real competition should be.”
There have been hard words and deeds passing between Alonso and McLaren boss Ron Dennis, to the point where it seems inconceivable that the Spaniard will see out the remaining two years of his contract. His options, however, are thin on the ground for 2008. Most in the paddock believe that he will do some kind of deal with Renault, his former team with whom he won the 2005 and 2006 titles.
But Renault are looking for a lengthy commitment. Alonso’s idea is to fill in somewhere for a season before joining Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2009.
Most in F1 were surprised to learn this week that the Italian team had renewed Felipe Massa’s contract to the end of 2010. Ferrari boss Jean Todt’s move seems designed to kill speculation of Alonso joining the team. He and Alonso are known to have fallen out in 2000 over a test-driving deal.
Meanwhile, the bumpy Interlagos circuit should tomorrow slightly favour the McLaren package, their car having won all the races in which Bridgestone has offered the soft and super-soft compound tyre options.
There have also been suggestions that Interlagos may suffer storms and we will hear the rumbling of thunder again this weekend. Hamilton will be hoping that it is just the fat lady warming her tonsils.
James Allen is ITV Sport’s lead F1 commentator