Review of the year: All hail the new king of the road

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The Independent Online

If 2007 was the most acrimonious year in recent Formula One history, 2008 marked a welcome turning point. As the FIA president, Max Mosley, found himself in the spotlight, courtesy of a sex scandal that erupted in March, Ferrari and McLaren buried the hatchet and instead indulged in a gripping sporting duel which saw the honours divided equally after a fabulous denouement in Brazil – Lewis Hamilton became Formula One's youngest world champion, at the tender age of 23; Ferrari won the constructors' championship.

While McLaren-Mercedes dusted themselves off after a bruising 2007, Ferrari regrouped in the aftermath of the Jean Todt win-at-all-costs era around a young man called Stefano Domenicali and, as a result, regained much of their old bounce, joie de vivre and respect. It was as if there was an understanding at last that you cannot win them all; a crucial factor in alleviating the spite that had been such a characteristic of the previous year.

The 2007 champion, Kimi Raikkonen, unaccountably lost his way, leaving his team-mate, Felipe Massa, to emerge as Ferrari's genuine world championship contender. Massa and Hamilton fought their duel across the tracks of the globe, each having his days in the sun (or, in Hamilton's case in Monaco and Silverstone, in the rain) until the sudden change in weather conditions in Massa's Interlagos home town saw Hamilton only just snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the most sensational championship finale in history.

But if Massa lost the battle he won the humanity war with his stoic acceptance of the cruelty of fate, and his exemplary behaviour in the post-race press conference which gained him the respect – as driver and man – that has long been his due.

Hamilton was none the less a worthy champion. Like Massa, he won a lot of races – five to the Brazilian's six. Three – Monaco, Silverstone and Germany – came in tricky situations which enabled him yet again to reveal a mastery that has convinced many observers he is the best man out there.

In Massa, Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Robert Kub-ica, however, there are at least four other drivers of similar calibre who will undoubtedly keep him honest. And there are signs of others coming through who will also leave their mark, given the right chances.

A highlight of 2008 was the superb performance of BMW- Sauber, who for the first half of the season, courtesy of Kubica, made it a three-horse title race. Subsequently Renault showed signs of awakening from their post-Alonso slumber, while Toyota could be satisfied with their progress and Toro Rosso achieved a stand-out win at Monza thanks to their rising star Sebastian Vettel.

The euphoria of the Brazilian showdown was soured a month later by Honda's shock withdrawal. The credit-crunch need to slash costs suddenly became even more urgent. Green issues have already placed the sport under an obligation to embrace ecological concerns, but there is nothing like money problems to hit where it hurts. Regulation changes will help on both the environmental and sporting fronts.

Reports of the sport's imminent collapse are widely exaggerated, but it is on notice to polish up its act.