Brits on Pole returned from a wet week in a tent on Exmoor to find that Lewis Hamilton had also been playing in the rain and now stands a hair’s-breadth away from making history following the Japanese Grand Prix.
The McLaren rookie needs only to finish ahead of main rivals Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen next weekend at Shanghai in order to become the first debutant to win the F1 championship since its inaugural season.
Even if he fails to make it to the end of the first lap he will still lead the championship by at least two points going into the final race at Interlagos.
Hamilton survived one of the wettest races in recent F1 history – and a full-blooded side-swipe from BMW’s Robert Kubica – to win from pole. The race began in the rain under the safety car and stayed that way for the first 20 or so laps.
Unlucky pitstop timing dropped Alonso from second to the back of a multi-car traffic queue and he ended his day early by slamming into a wall, while Raikkonen recovered to finish third after dubious Ferrari tyre tactics put him at the back of the field.
Afterwards, Hamilton called it the longest race of his life: “It seemed to go on and on and on.”
He said: “The last few laps, the team was telling me to slow down, that I was a second faster than anyone, and I was saying that I was going as slow as I feel comfortable doing. In the last couple of laps I took it easy because it was so wet and my tyres were getting old, and we were aquaplaning. But I’m thrilled to take it home.
“There were lots of thoughts going through my mind – driving in the wet and leading and doing the last lap and thinking of some of the races that Senna was in, and Prost, sort of made me feel that I’m on my way to achieving something similar to them.”
He said drivers had doubted the wisdom of racing in the weather: “I think there were so many times during the race where it went through all of the drivers’ heads that we should stop the race. It was sometimes very tricky, and then there were some times when it was easier to drive.”
The race began in controversy as stewards made a late ruling that all teams should start by using the full wet tyres, but Ferrari claimed not to have received the email and began by using intermediates. This would have given them an advantage if the track dried.
The cars were brought in under threat of penalty to change the tyres, relegating both drivers to the back. Raikkonen later called it “unfair” and the FIA apologised, but other teams were quick to point out that no-one else had failed to spot the email.
For most of the race Hamilton was untroubled at the front, allowing the incidents to work themselves out far behind him.
The two Red Bull teams were heading for a day to remember, with Mark Webber second and Sebastian Vettel third for the junior Toro Rosso squad. But the day turned memorable for the wrong reason when Vettel rammed Webber under the safety car following Alonso’s accident, putting both drivers out.
On the final lap both Ferraris were involved in desperate struggles for position.
Raikkonen overtook Renault’s Heikki Kovalainen but couldn’t make it stick, losing the place back as his countryman recorded his best-ever finish. Felipe Massa, who was running third until a mysterious and unexpected pitstop let through team mate Raikkonen (and several other cars) indulged in an arcade-style crash-and-bash with Kubica in which the Pole was unable to hold onto fifth place as the cars bounced off each other through corner after corner.