Motorsports | Photo finish

Motorsports | Photo finish

If you thought 2007 saw the greatest racing season in recent times, think again. After what was the sport’s most exciting season last year—with the championship being decided in the last race and only one point separating the top three in the final standings—the 2008 season had a lot to live up to. And it hasn’t performed poorly at all.

Like last year, Ferrari and McLaren, with their respective drivers, were supposed to be the main title contenders, bar the odd hiccup or two. And BMW Sauber had been on the fringes for a podium finish all through 2007. But while the usual suspects were expected to perform, there were some changes under the hood to account for as well.

The biggest change adopted by FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile), the sport’s governing body, this year was to disallow the usage of traction control and engine braking systems. Cars would no longer be remote controlled from the side of the pits. The drivers in 2008 had a greater challenge on their hands.

Tellingly, in the first race of the season in Australia, only seven of the 22 drivers finished the race. But as the season progressed, the drivers relished the challenge that this handicap threw at them.

Ferrari started the season with a flourish, winning four of the first five races before losing steam in the middle of the season. They are still very much on course to winning the constructors’ championship but a driver’s championship may elude them. Error-prone defending champion Kimi Raikkonen has been disappointing—he has not scored a point in five of the last six races. His only two wins came at the start of the season and after a victory in Spain he has struggled to finish well.

Teammate Felipe Massa, on the other hand, has been superb for most of the season but high pressure situations have been the bane of Massa’s drives this year. His disastrous pit stop in Singapore or the drive-through penalty in Japan are cases in point. Massa can now only hope that championship leader Lewis Hamilton will make a stupendous error in the final race.

McLaren, who came oh so close to glory last year, have been strong in the middle part of the season. Their wins in Monaco, Great Britain, Germany and Hungary and Hamilton’s nine podium finishes have meant that they are hot on Ferrari’s heels in the race for the constructors’ championship. Hamilton has been generally ruthless throughout the season—some would even argue that he overdid his aggression. Driving rashly and then being unapologetic about it has made him largely unpopular with his rivals. But will he be able to convert this aggression and points advantage into a maiden, some would say overdue, championship title? With just one race to go—and a seven point lead—Hamilton needs to finish the final race strongly, leaving no room whatsoever for error. Partner Heikki Kovalainen has done what Fernando Alonso couldn’t do at McLaren last year—play second fiddle to Hamilton. But with only one win and two other podium finishes, the Finn hasn’t done himself any favours.

The biggest gainer from the last season has been BMW Sauber. With 11 podium finishes—seven for Robert Kubica and four for Nick Heidfeld— including their maiden victory in Canada, BMW Sauber has emerged as a serious challenger. Yet the car, for all its reliability, is just not fast enough to win championships. It has struggled to qualify ahead of the Ferraris and the McLarens and the team will hope for a better platform next year.

In 2007, Renault didn’t win a single race and finished on the podium just once. Then the team missed both Fernando Alonso and a competitive car. And so far behind the leaders had Renault fallen in just 2007 that Alonso’s return alone was not expected to win them a title. Their performance in the season so far hasn’t surprised fans. The French team’s season till Singapore was lacklustre. But Alonso’s wins since at Singapore and Japan have earned them points and respectability.

In all likelihood, Toyota, in 2008, will finish in the top five for just the second time. Under pressure to perform this season, the Japanese team owe their better than expected performance to the experienced Jarno Trulli. A consistent performance in the Brazilian Grand Prix should help them to at least hold their position in the table if not better it. But in the coming seasons, nothing less than a higher position in the standings will do. And Jarno Trulli is not getting any younger.

Closer home, never was Vijay Mallya’s Force India a force to reckon with. When minnows Super Aguri exited the championship, Force India found themselves in the unenviable position of being the whipping boys. Though not much was expected of them, on at least two occasions they failed to register any points after being in dominant positions. At Monaco, Adrian Sutil was comfortably placed in fourth when Raikkonen crashed into him from behind. At Singapore, Giancarlo Fisichella couldn’t hold on to a third place position. With limited budget and years of failure behind it, Mallya will have to be patient and continuously invest enough money to make Force India even an outside contender.

What has so far been an exciting season of racing will soon draw to close. But with the title being more closely fought for than ever before, the sport is in good shape. With more races moving to Asia and the success of the night race at Singapore, no one should be surprised if more Asian teams and drivers make it to the grid in seasons to come.

Amit Panhale is a freelance writer and co-founder of iSport Bureau, a sports content agency.