Hamilton entering Brazil confident; Massa has home crowd with him

Lewis Hamilton is on the cusp of his first title in only his second season. AP Photo/Oliver Multhaup

INTERLAGOS, Brazil -- In a way it is, as Yogi Berra would have said, déjà vu all over again.

But then again it's not.

Like last year, Lewis Hamilton heads into this weekend's season finale Brazilian Grand Prix with a seven-point lead over a Ferrari driver in the Formula One World Drivers' Championship.

On the other hand, the dynamics and momentum surrounding Hamilton are considerably different and much more in his favor in 2008 than they were in 2007.

"In 2007, things didn't end up too well for me," Hamilton said. "I went to Interlagos with the title battle still up in the air and all my emotions just bubbling up and down. It was a very emotional time because I knew it would end with either great success or huge disappointment."

A year ago, Hamilton and the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes made a royal mess of the Chinese Grand Prix (the race just before Brazil) and threw away a victory and 10 points. This year they won in China.

"It is quite a bit different compared to last year," Hamilton said at Sao Paulo's Interlagos track prior to the first practice session for the Brazilian Grand Prix. "Last year I had more pressure, and it got to me. This year I feel that it is just another race. It looks positive."

A year ago, Hamilton's Brazilian Grand Prix and championship hopes ended in disappointment. While he did have an off-track excursion, it was a momentary gearbox glitch that cost him enough points to lose the title.

"Things didn't end up too well for me," he recalled. "But I still went out and partied with the team to get over it."

Kimi Raikkonen won last year's race in Brazil in his Ferrari, and that earned him enough points to snatch the championship by a single point over Hamilton and his McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso.

Raikkonen also went out and partied after last year's race. He was seen at dawn still going strong.

Last year, it was Raikkonen who trailed Hamilton by seven points before the final showdown. This year, it is Raikkonen's Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa who has a seven-point deficit.

While the Ferrari wasn't as quick as the McLaren Mercedes in the recent Chinese Grand Prix, Massa does bring his own momentum into his home race.

Massa has started from the pole in Brazil the past two years. He won in 2006 and would have won in 2007, but he moved over to let Raikkonen win and gain maximum points.

"You get extra motivation and energy racing at home," said Massa.

Nearly all 70,000 grandstand seats have been sold, so Massa will have plenty of fans cheering him on.

"I think our car can be quite strong here," he said of the Ferrari.
"In the past we were strong here, and I don't think that because China was not a great performance for us that it will be the same here."

Raikkonen isn't sure yet if the balance of power will tip toward McLaren or Ferrari this weekend.

"We have to wait for Friday's practice sessions to see what our chances might be this year," he said. "It will be very hard with McLaren in qualifying."

If Massa becomes champion, he will be the first Brazilian to win the crown since Ayrton Senna in 1991. Massa was 10 years old at the time and recalls how Senna was a god for the Brazilian fans.

Fellow Brazilian drivers Nelson Piquet and Rubens Barrichello have said that they will do nothing to interfere with the championship battle between Massa and Hamilton. And Hamilton is not expecting any foul play from any of the other 19 drivers in the race.

"I believe that every driver here is a great sportsman," Hamilton said.

A few weeks ago Fernando Alonso caused a stir by saying that he would prefer if Massa won the championship, and that he'd do what he could to aid Massa.

"When I said that I prefer to see a Ferrari win rather than McLaren, it was coming from last year," Alonso said.

He was referring to his one unhappy season with McLaren in 2007. He and the team parted far from the best of friends. So naturally he would prefer if Ferrari won.

"But there is nothing wrong with that," Alonso said. "I don't know how this comment had such repercussions everywhere because when I see tennis match I always prefer one player win rather than the other one.
When I see a soccer match, I prefer [one team] winning. And when I see McLaren/Ferrari, if I say I prefer that Ferrari wins, I don't know why that is such a surprise."

As for "aiding" Massa, Alonso merely meant he hoped his Renault would be fast enough to finish ahead of Hamilton and thus take points off him.

BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica was in contention for the championship until the Japanese Grand Prix. Now he has to fend off Alonso to hold on to third place in the points. Kubica doesn't care who wins the championship, and he has no plans to alter his race depending on if Massa or Hamilton is ahead of or behind him.

"I race for myself and my team," he said. "I want to do the best for us."

Red Bull's David Coulthard is retiring after this race. He believes Hamilton will become champion.

"With a seven-point lead, Lewis is most likely to be champion," said Coulthard, whose F1 career began in 1994 when he took over the seat at Williams following Senna's fatal accident. "He has led the championship for the majority of the season, and it should be a formality. But to me, Felipe is the most improved driver of the season."

As Massa and Hamilton waited to attend the official FIA news conference at the Interlagos circuit on Thursday, Hamilton looked more relaxed while Massa seemed tenser.

In the news conference itself, however, Hamilton was quite wooden.

On the other hand, journalists who have been following Massa around all the PR and media functions he has been doing around town the past few days say he seems relaxed and energized by the huge outpouring of support from the fans in Sao Paulo.

The McLaren team has done its utmost to keep the pressure off Hamilton between the races in China and Brazil.

"We just want him to chill out and not worry about anything because there is absolutely nothing to be gained by thinking about anything,"
McLaren boss Ron Dennis said after the Chinese Grand Prix. "All he has to do is turn up in Brazil in very good condition and do all the normal things we do to combat jet lag and prepare mentally. And then we will just get on with it and do our job.

"If there is a challenge for Brazil, it is what sort of pace should we have in the race? Do we race with the engine turned down? Do we consciously come third? What do we do? We'd rather be in that situation than the one our competition is in.

"We went to Brazil last year with a points advantage and lost the championship, so we are under no illusions."

Massa says he has less pressure than Hamilton because he, Massa, has only one goal: He has to win to have any realistic chance of overcoming the seven-point gap on Hamilton.

But Hamilton is laid-back about it all.

"It is just another race," Hamilton said. "We don't have to win, so that is a pressure off my shoulders. It is not do-or-die. We can afford to finish behind Felipe."

So who will be champion?

Alonso says wait until the checkered flag.

"Anything can happen," he said. "Remember Budapest, when Massa had the race in the bag and his engine failed with three laps to go? Until the checkered flag is waved anything can happen and just because there are seven points between Hamilton and Massa. But needing just a fifth place in Brazil, it's clear Hamilton is in a very good position to win it."

On Sunday afternoon F1 will have a new champion. And that can happen in a number of different ways.

Hamilton will be world champion if:

  • He wins.

  • He finishes second.

  • He finishes third.

  • He finishes fourth.

  • He finishes fifth.

  • He finishes sixth and Massa is second or lower.

  • He finishes seventh and Massa is second or lower.

  • He finishes eighth and Massa is third or lower.

  • He fails to score and Massa is third or lower.

Massa will be world champion if:

  • He wins and Hamilton finishes sixth or lower

  • He finishes second and Hamilton is eighth or lower

If the pair is tied on points on Sunday afternoon, Massa would win the title by virtue of more victories (six to Hamilton's five) or second-place finishes (three to Hamilton's two).

If Hamilton loses the championship in Brazil this year it will be déjà vu all over again.

If either Massa or Hamilton wins the title, it will be something the victor can savor for the rest of his life.

"When you win it is a dream come true for your life," said Alonso, who won the championship in 2005 and 2006. "If you are a racing driver you want to race in F1. If you are in F1 and you become world champion then that is the maximum. You can do whatever you want with the rest of your life … you are still a world champion in F1."