Similarly to this year the 2008 season would see two teams lead the way, Lewis Hamilton leading the charge for the Mercedes powered McLaren team with a young Finn in a supporting role (Heikki Kovalainen). Ferrari would have a young gun in Felipe Massa lead the charge with Kimi Raikkonen close but not quite able to match his results.
While now we have Red Bull playing the role of spoiler, back in 2008 it was the BMW-Sauber duo of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld who most often provided the thorn in the side of the leading teams.
After the disappointment of seeing the title slip away from him in his rookie year, Lewis had started 2008 on a positive note, victory from pole position in the season opening Australian Grand Prix showing he was determined to rise above the disappointment in his quest for the driver’s title that cruelly eluded him the year before. But the pendulum swung Ferrari’s way over the next few races, with Massa and Raikkonen grabbing a pair of wins each, with a pair of 1-2 finishes for Ferrari in Bahrain and Spain showing they were very much up for the title battle, if unclear on which of their two drivers would lead the charge at that stage.
Around the tight streets of Monaco victories don’t come without a dose of luck so when the chance for victory arises it has to be grabbed with both hands. Lady luck abandoned Ferrari and sided with Lewis Hamilton in 2008, and he took full advantage of a bit of Monaco luck to grab his first Monaco Grand Prix victory and regain the lead in the drivers championship from the Ferrari duo, with a scintillating drive between the barriers in slippy conditions.
Things had looked rosy for Ferrari after they locked out the front row in qualifying, with Massa taking pole. The McLaren-Mercedes drivers locked out the second row, Lewis ahead of team-mate Kovalainen, while Robert Kubica lurked menacingly in fifth place, with Nico Rosberg a fine sixth in his Williams-Toyota.
While qualifying was dry, rain fell before the race began, with almost all the field starting on the standard wet tyre rather than the extreme wet.
Fortune deserted Ferrari right from the get go, with Kimi Raikkonen’s mechanics not getting clear of his car on time on the grid, which would lead to a penalty for Raikkonen during the race. There was misfortune for McLaren too, Kovalainen stalling on the grid, and effectively removed from contention as he was pushed to the pit lane to start his race from the back of the pack.
When the lights went out Massa got away cleanly in the lead, but Lewis shot through into second place past a slow starting Raikkonen. Despite his great start Lewis chances of victory seemed to disappear on lap 6. With poor visibility and water on the track, Lewis lost control of his McLaren and hit the barriers, puncturing his right rear tyre. As his tyre came off, he was lucky to get back to the pits without damage, where he took on fuel and fresh standard wets before getting back out in fifth position.
Luck seemed to swing back in Hamilton’s favour shortly after his stop. Fifth place became fourth a few laps later as it was the turn of the Renault of Fernando Alonso to make contact with the barriers and have to pit for repairs, and Hamilton’s deficit to the leaders was wiped out as the safety car came out after Sebastian Bourdais Toro Rosso collected David Coulthard’s Red Bull as both went into the barriers at Massanet.
For Ferrari the misfortune of the safety car was compounded by Raikkonen having to come in to serve his drive through penalty from second position after the safety car pulled in, dropping him back behind Hamilton, who was now up to third. Kimi’s penalty freed up Kubica, who looked to close on Massa and started to apply pressure as the conditions worsened. The pressure told on lap 16 when Massa ran too deep at St Devote, managing to avoid the barriers as he went up the escape road before spinning his car around and rejoining, but he had ceded first place to the Polish charger. Still, with the track more and more slippy Hamilton, fully loaded with fuel was unable to keep pace with the leading duo, and started to drop back. Kubica pitted from the lead on lap 26, and Ferrari’s misery continued as he emerged from his stop. Hamilton’s McLaren flashed past Kubica as he exited the pits, but while Raikkonen also surged past on the straight, when Kubica came around the corner to rejoin the track after Ste Devote Raikkonen was no-where to be seen! The Ferrari had gone off at Ste Devote just like Massa had earlier on, only this time Kimi had not been able to avoid the barriers, and he would have to pit for a new nose after a slow lap with a wobbly front wing.
While Raikkonen’s hopes were sinking without trace, Massa was now back in the lead, and he managed to get the jump on Kubica in the pits by staying out on track until lap 33. So, was Ferrari’s luck turning? The answer would be no. First of all, Lewis Hamilton was actually in the lead on the road after his enforced early stop. To counter this Ferrari made the call to load up Massa with fuel to get him to the end of the race and put him out on the standard wet tyre, but the weather gods were not smiling on the Scuderia – the rain stayed away and the track began to dry out. It was at this point in the race that Lewis Hamilton simply smashed the field, his McLaren lighter now and he set a blistering pace in the tricky conditions, extracting the maximum from his McLaren and opening up an amazing lead over Massa, who was struggling in the drying conditions with his heavier Ferrari.
By the time the track had dried sufficiently for slick tyres, Hamilton had pulled away from Massa and Kubica by over half a minute! Kubica came in first for slicks on lap 54, with Hamilton following a lap later, taking on slicks and fuel to see him to the end of the race. Massa delayed his stop for slick tyres until lap 56, with the result that Kubica, who had been harrying him relentlessly as the track dried, nipped past into second place as Massa came out of the pits.
But you can never take anything for granted around the streets of Monaco, and just when it looked like job done for Lewis, there would be more drama, another safety car caused by Nico Rosberg’s Williams launching over the kerbs and smashing into the barriers at the swimming pool, leaving debris scattered all across the track. This time it was Hamilton whose lead would be nullified by the safety car. The race would resume on lap 67, with Hamilton leading from Kubica, Massa, the Force India of Adrian Sutil and Kimi Raikkonen. With all the time the safety car spent on track the race would run to the two hour limit, and on the restart there was just over 11 minutes to run.
If Ferrari were hoping they had caught a lucky break with the safety car they couldn’t have been more wrong! As the safety car pulled in Lewis Hamilton got away cleanly from Kubica, while behind Kimi Raikkonen lost control of his Ferrai coming out of the tunnel and slalomed into the back of the Ferrari powered Force India of Adrian Sutil – cruelly ending a brilliant drive by Sutil in Force India’s debut season, and while Kimi would be able to continue after stopping for yet another new nose, he would drop outside of the championship points.
Up front Hamilton was untroubled, well by Kubica and Massa anyway. Massa was unable to make any headway on Kubica, and the trio held station to the end of the race. Hamilton had delivered a stunning performance to take the Monaco Grand Prix and strike a blow against the Ferrari duo in the battle for the 2008 drivers title, but his victory was not without one last piece of Monaco luck – McLaren realizing after the race that Hamilton had picked up a another puncture towards the end of the race – and with the time limit of 2 hours having cut the race by 2 laps, it possibly saved him from losing a race that he had taken by the scruff of the neck and thoroughly deserved to win.
In Monaco, it’s simply never enough to be good, you always need luck on your side!