FORMULA ONE has a lot going for it: Its cars are awesome technological marvels, and its fans are as passionate as any sport's. What it too often lacks, though, is good old-fashioned drama, the frequent passing and tight finishes that NASCAR produces almost weekly. Ironic, then, that on the same day Jimmie Johnson continued his inexorable march to yet another Sprint Cup title in spite of finishing a lap down in Texas (page 80), the F/1 championship was decided in a finish so close that the winner had no idea he'd won until his team told him so. "It was one of the toughest races of my life, if not the toughest," said 23-year-old Lewis Hamilton, who became F/1's youngest champ by finishing fifth.
The Brit—who is the first black driver in F/1 history—brought a seven-point lead with him to S√£o Paulo for the final race of the season, meaning that if the driver chasing him, Brazil's Felipe Massa, won in front of the home crowd, Hamilton would need to finish better than sixth to take the title. That Massa would win the race was never really in question; he led 64 of 71 laps and took the checkered flag by 13.3 seconds. Hamilton, on the other hand, had anything but a routine run.
After overly aggressive driving in last year's finale contributed to his losing the 2007 championship, Hamilton was content to play it safe and hang back in fifth. That worked fine until the skies opened with five laps to go. Hamilton and the rest of the leaders pitted for rain tires, but Germany's Timo Glock stayed out, bumping Glock up to fourth place and leaving Hamilton in sixth with two laps left.
Yet as the course got wetter, Glock's Toyota got slower. He was 18 seconds in front of Hamilton at the start of the white-flag lap, but he was puttering around the course like a matron in a beat-up Oldsmobile. All that was missing was the turn signal. Hamilton zipped past Glock in the final corner, to the consternation of Massa's Ferrari team members (not to mention 100,000 or so Brazilians in the stands), who had already begun celebrating. "I will learn a lot from it, but right now I am very emotional," said a teary-eyed Massa, who could only tip his hat to Hamilton—the best driver in what was, at least for the day, the best racing series on the planet.
GERO BRELOER/EPA (HAMILTON)
CHEERS AND TEARS Hamilton's title left Massa crying in his cockpit (inset).
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (MASSA)
[See caption above]
CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES (CAR)