In the last couple of years, Formula 1 races have acquired a not necessarily undeserved reputation for being little more than two hour-plus processionals; a battle between the haves and the have-nots – the technological and financial titans who win with monotonous regularity and the smaller, upstart manufacturers with no hopes of winning whatsoever. But for a series so often derided as boring, Sunday’s season finale was anything but dull.
Lewis Hamilton was the points leader coming into the final race and needed just a fifth-place finish to win the title regardless of whether closest rival Felipe Massa won in front of his home town fans in São Paulo, Brazil (which he did.) To cut a long story short – and it really was a compelling race – Hamilton was in fifth with two laps to go but Sebastian Vettel overtook the young British contender with a lap and a half to go, knocking Hamilton down into sixth place and out of contention for the title. With less than a lap to go, it looked as if Massa would win the title prompting the SPEED Channel commentator to utter this great line: “If they are still ringing the church bells at Maranello for a Ferrari victory then they have their hands on the ropes now…” (Maranello is the home of the Ferrari plant).
But it wasn’t over just yet, as first Vettel and then Hamilton (both on wet-weather tires) overtook Timo Glock on dry-weather tires at the tail end of the very last lap. The pass pushed Hamilton back up into fifth place and enough for his first World Championship. Hamilton becomes the youngest ever to win one at just 23 years of age, following in the footsteps of the nine other British F1 champions: Mike Hawthorn, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.
Perhaps the same SPEED commentator said it best as Hamilton crossed the line to confirm his championship: “The racing gods …” he said breathlessly, “They’re playing with us!”
50 up for the Car of Tomorrow
With the completion of the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway this past Sunday, the CoT has now racked up a grand total of 50 starts. It was introduced at Bristol Motor Speedway last March, when Kyle Busch won the inaugural race and climbed out of the car in victory lane only to promptly announce (with his usual consummate grace) that NASCAR’s new baby still sucked.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s been pretty much downhill from there. The “new” car was run 16 times in 2007, primarily on courses of less than cookie-cutter (1.5-mile) size, but also on the high banks at Talladega and the two road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Initially the plan was to use 2008 as another testing year (running the old car in conjunction with the CoT) but the decision was made to bring forward the full-time launch of the new vehicle to this season.
To put it mildly, the jury is still out on the overall performance of the car, especially on those 1.5-mile tracks – but one area no one has complained about is safety, especially after witnessing some of the hard impacts we’ve seen this season, particularly Michael McDowell’s dramatic barrel roll in qualifying in Texas.
At the end of the day, despite the intensity and the seriousness of the prize, NASCAR is still entertainment, a diversion from our regular lives, and if the new car helps protect drivers better, that has to be considered at least one positive for the much maligned new ride. 50 races is a small sample size, true, but it’s clear that NASCAR needs to look at making changes sooner before the stultifying single-file racing we’re seeing on the cookie-cutter tracks eradicates and alienates any more of the already-disgruntled fan base.
It’s super close for 35th place in the Owner Standings
Has there ever been a more important season in the history of NASCAR to be locked in for next year’s Daytona 500? I doubt it. Given the parlous state of the economy and the associated sponsor woes, cars that are locked in for the first five races on the 2009 slate will have a monster head start on those that aren’t.
Not surprisingly, then, the race for those final few guaranteed spots is heating up and creating an arguably more exciting battle than the pseudo-fight at the very top end of the standings. With two races to go it looks like the battle has come down to Robby Gordon (34th place, +16 points), Scott Speed in the No. 84 (35th place) and Marcos Ambrose in what was the No. 00 but is now the No. 47, some 44-markers back. Barring a miraculous couple of weeks, Sam Hornish Jr. is out of it, 100 points in arrears, but still not mathematically eliminated. It should be very interesting to watch this race play out in Phoenix and Miami – and don’t be surprised if we see a few desperation moves before the season is done and dusted.
It’s even closer for seats at the banquet
Last year’s change in the composition of the Chase field from 10 to 12 drivers (the “Get Dale Jr. in the Chase at all costs” alteration), also included a new wrinkle. Said wrinkle was that the 11th- and 12th-place drivers now miss out on the chance to bore their fellow competitors and industry professionals rigid with a speech at the Championship Banquet in New York
In 2007, it was Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. that didn’t make all the assorted thrills and spills of the Big Apple. This time around, the race is very tight with the bottom five drivers separated by just 38 points. The top seven in the current standings are safe, so it looks like it’s two from the following five that will miss out on New York:
8. Matt Kenseth 5973 -393
9. Tony Stewart 5962 -404
10. Kyle Busch 5938 -428
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5937 -429
12. Denny Hamlin 5935 -431
Looking at that list above from a purely speech making perspective, here’s hoping Kenseth and Denny miss out (Yep, it’s got to that stage of the season…).
It’s all about the trophy
It was an impressive effort from Carl Edwards on Sunday, who did all he could to rein Jimmie Johnson back in. It is, however, in the opinion of this writer a case of too little, too late. Even if Edwards does exactly the same in Phoenix and then again in Miami, it’s still odds on that the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy will take the big prize for the third straight year.
Yes, there are still some battles to be settled (such as 35th place) but for the most part over the last two weekends, it’s all about racing for the trophy which is, when you think about it, why these guys got started in the first place.