For half a magical Sau Paulo minute, Felipe Massa was the 2008 Formula One World champion. He drove a flawless race to finish first, and the Brazilian was just getting used to the deafening, exultant roar of the native crowds when the Toyota of Timo Glock mysteriously slowed down -- almost as if soliciting Pussycat Doll attention in his hotel room later in the evening -- exactly enough to let Lewis Hamilton through for a lucky, lucky 5th place. 38 seconds after Massa crossed the line, pumping his fists in victory.
Suddenly the Massa family stopped jumping, and the Hamiltons took over. Justifiably, of course, since Lewis, at 23, became Formula One's youngest ever champion. Wow. Congrats there, kiddo.
It's that youngest-ever tag that brings us to my beef. Formula One is changing, and with two years having passed since God gave up the sport and the scarlet car, this was the season where Formula One cut out the traction control and a few other driver aids, promised us that we'll get to see genuine wheel-to-wheel bareknuckle racing, and the champions separated from the chaff: the men from the boys, as they say.
What 2008 did end up showing us, however, was the tragic fact that current motorsport is dominated by boys -- none of whom can really drive like men. The pitlane cameras, which used to showcase gorgeous girlfriends and wives egging on their drivers in the most glamorous sport on earth, now focus routinely on fathers Hamilton and Massa, watching their kids clash and spurn, each gleefully goofing up on track.
An old motorsport adage is that a champion is allowed one mistake a year. One unforgivable driver's error can yet be reined in by supreme consistency and flawless drives, and these singular mistakes are what the titles rested on when Alain Prost battled Ayrton Senna or Mika Hakkinen duelled Michael Schumacher.
How did these lads do?
Well, Massa spun into Coulthard in Australia; spun off while leading Monte Carlo and gifting Ham the win; embarrassed himself with no less than six off-track excursions in a rainy British Grand Prix; produced the season's finest start to overtake both McLarens in Hungary, but retired with an engine failure while leading the race; and had the pitstop catastrophe of the year in Singapore, going from an assured victory to zero.
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton messed up Qualifying in Malaysia and earned a five-spot penalty; crashed into Fernando Alonso's Renault in Bahrain; became the only World champion in history to drive into a stationary car when he rammed into Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in the Canadian pitlane; cut a chicane and was penalised in France; spun out in Belgium as early as lap 2 and cut yet another chicane; and all but threw his championship hopes away with a wild first-corner lunge at Kimi in Japan.
Were any of you keeping count? Don't bother. Sure, it's been a close season. Simply because these two kids have been trading blunders all year long. Yeah, World Titles really aren't what they used to be.
Who has been good then? Well, first and foremost there's Robert Kubica. The Polish driver drove an excellent season with unmatched consistency, and most evenhanded commentators would agree that he has been the year's best driver. Had his BMW another three-tenths of a second in sheer speed, he'd have been giving the title contenders serious nightmares.
And then there's Fernando Alonso, who -- after a lacklustre first third of the season -- was the only driver this year to really man up. His Renault isn't the stuff of victories, and yet he blindingly won a couple of races, spending the entire season outclassing his young rookie teammate. In fact, if you look at the last eleven races of the year, both Massa and Hamilton scored 50 points apiece. Alonso, in a car nowhere near as good as the Ferrari or the McLaren, scored 51.
As for the two title rivals, it comes down to bloody mindset.
Felipe Massa was all but written off at the start of the season. Clearly considered a number two driver to World Champion Raikkonen, pundits wrote Massa off for his inability to race in the wet, his lack of consistency, the way he seemed to keep crumbling under pressure. Surely this man, they scoffed, couldn't lift the World Championship?
On the other hand, the Hamilton raves were deafening. The British press had found a hero and -- in an affirmative-action way that virtually suggests any criticism of Lewis is racist -- they martyred him through the headlines, playing up his wins, calling him the new maestro of the wet track, and drawing oh-look-I'm-bleeding attention to his penalties, each of which was justified. Surely this man, they extolled beamingly, was born to be the Champion to beat all Champions?
What happened over the year, though, was quite fascinating: the two drivers traded places. And I'm not just saying that because Massa ended the year with a stunning victory in the rain while Lewis Hamilton was overtaken by the Toro Rosso of Sebastien Vettel at the one time in his career that he needed to just hold position.
Hamilton 'The Unflappable' was constantly and significantly perturbed throughout the season, coming up with excuses and headline-friendly bites full of bitter sarcasm. The ruthless aggression is a fantastic part of the Hamilton style, but like when he ploughed into a stationary Raikkonen in Canada -- deliberately swerving to avoid Kubica's BMW to hit the Ferrari instead -- this now seems misplaced and shortsighted. And now, after almost losing the World title despite a comfortable lead two years in a row, we realise pressure makes him behave like a cookie.
Add to this the fact that he has the single most unsavoury attitude on the grid today, a constant air of superiority and self-aggrandizing arrogance, and it gets harder and harder to like him. When Alonso beat Schumacher fair and square, the achievement was legendary, but his ludicrous press statements eroded his fanbase. The same seems true for Lewis, who, in the battle of the kids, is clearly the mollycoddled brat.
Felipe Massa, however, has really come of age. Despite being a longtime admirer of the Brazilian -- largely because I identify with his erratic, emotional style -- I never truly believed him capable of a Championship. This year, he's stepped his game up dramatically. Massa has both piled on and soaked up the pressure with a startling grace, and with a testy car that happens to be one of the toughest drives in the history of Ferrari: Schumacher's gone on record to say that, but you could just ask Kimi, who took virtually the entire season to get a hang of it. Even as Massa won more races than any other driver this year.
It is a sportsman's attitude that seperates the talented from, well, the Tendulkar -- and Felipe Massa's been exceptional in this regard. He's done his talking on the track instead of press conferences, and when every driver around was taking verbal potshots at Lewis Hamilton's driving style -- everyone from Mark Webber to Kubica to Alonso, not to mention a slew of team owners and acerbic journalists -- it was this Brazilian, the most popular man on the grid, who sprang to Lewis' defence, saying that it was that attacking competitiveness that made Hamilton special.
While the Hamiltons were drowning each other in champagne, Massa smiled at the post-race press conference after a weekend of absolute flawlessness. He congratulated Hamilton saying that he deserved the title with more points, even as Ferrari fans around the globe were thinking that Glock's telemetry data needed to be looked at for having lost 13 seconds in the last lap. But Massa knew he'd won our hearts. 'I know how to lose, and I know how to win,' he said. Pure class, that.
He might not have started the season as the better driver, but by the time he took his last brilliant win, he sure ended it there. World Championship or not, Felipe Massa is motorsport's new man.