SHANGHAI, China – Lewis Hamilton is on the cusp of something Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Fernando Alonso never achieved – winning the Formula One drivers’ title in a rookie season.
Hamilton heads into the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend with 107 points, including a 12-point lead over McLaren teammate and two-time defending champion Alonso. Hamilton will become the first rookie to clinch the title if he finishes ahead of Alonso in Shanghai, or maintains at least an 11-point margin with only the Brazilian Grand Prix to go. “From the very beginning, my approach is the same like I did the first race,” Hamilton said. “After the first race, I got my first podium out of the way. From then on, everything else was just a learning experience and you just have to enjoy it. I am trying to keep my feet on the ground and keep on enjoying it.” However, Hamilton learned Thursday the F1’s governing body is investigating his role in an accident during his victory in the Japanese Grand Prix last week. FIA said it was looking into “new evidence” concerning Hamilton’s driving behind the safety car in the rain-soaked race at the Fuji Speedway. Hamilton is said to have sped up and slowed down, causing Red Bull driver Mark Webber and Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel to collide behind him on the 46th lap. FIA is expected to announce its decision Friday. Hamilton could be penalized grid positions in Sunday’s race.
Hamilton has overcome adversity to get to this point. Not only was he a rookie toiling alongside Alonso, but his team was fined $100 million and disqualified from the constructor title. Relations with Alonso have been rocky. In Hungary in August, Alonso took extra time in a pit stop during Saturday qualifying, causing Hamilton to miss his final opportunity to beat Alonso’s time.
In the aftermath, Alonso and team boss Ron Dennis had an argument and the driver threatened to go to the sport’s governing body, the FIA, with e-mails showing he knew about Ferrari technical data that was illegally obtained in an exchange between former Ferrari and McLaren employees.
Dennis called FIA President Max Mosley and the resulting new evidence led to a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council, the fine and loss of team points for the McLaren team. Both Hamilton and Alonso were spared penalties because they gave evidence.
Now Hamilton has a chance to become the youngest winner of the world title at 22 years, nine months. Alonso was 24, two months when he first won in 2005 for Renault.
Alonso’s first title came in his third full season in F1, while Schumacher needed four to win his first of seven in 1994. Prost won four titles but needed six years to claim his first.
Hamilton, the first black driver in Formula One, moved within grasp of the title after winning the Japanese GP. Alonso crashed out and Hamilton increased his lead from two to 12 points in a race that featured cars bumping, spinning and crashing.
He’ll need to adjust to the Shanghai track this weekend.
“The last two races of this season are at tracks that I have not ever been to before,” Hamilton said. “I don’t see that as a problem, as this has been the case on four occasions already this season, at Melbourne, Montreal, Indy and Fuji, and I was on the podium at all these races.”
Hamilton set a rookie record with nine consecutive podiums to start the season and needs one more win for a rookie record for total victories in a season. In Japan, he tied Jacques Villeneuve’s record of four rookie wins set in 1996, although the Canadian was older and more experienced before entering Formula One.
Alonso has mixed feelings about the approaching race.
“I won once and finished second last year, so I have always good memories from this track and good times,” Alonso said. “But being 12 points behind in the championship with two races to go is not the perfect position.”
Ferrari has won two of the previous three races here.
If Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa were to finish first and second for Ferrari – and if Alonso and Hamilton follow third and fourth – there would be still be an unassailable 11-point gap between Hamilton and Alonso after the race.
Raikkonen, with a slight chance to win the title, is third in the standings with 90 points while Massa has 80.
Raikkonen and Alonso must rely on Hamilton being nearly scoreless in the last two races to have a chance to win the drivers’ title. Hamilton has finished out of the points only once this season.
McLaren and Ferrari have won all 15 races so far, with four wins each for Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen.
“This year, I won four races and maybe four is not enough to become champion,” Alonso said.
Practice will be Friday and Saturday morning on the 3.4-mile Shanghai International circuit. The race Sunday is 56 laps.