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14/03/2008 No.37
Dan Roebuck
Friday March 14, 2008
Lewis Hamilton may have been pipped to the formula one title in his debut season but the McLaren driver breathed life into a moribund betting market. A year ago, the rookie from Stevenage was freely available at 25-1 to win the title, ahead of the opening grand prix in Australia, with few interested in gambling on the sport.

But after Hamilton kicked off his career with eight podium finishes by the time the British grand prix came around in July, William Hill were able to accurately predict a £10m gamble on the race - 10 times the normal amount.

Ultimately Hamilton, who with just two races to go was 17 points clear of the eventual champion, Kimi Raikkonen, and trading as short as 1-33 to win the title, threw away what had looked an unassailable lead. How much the spying row between Ferrari, who are 4-7 (general) to land the constructors' crown this year, and McLaren, 9-4 (general), affected Hamilton no one knows, but there could be reverberations from it far into 2008, with the general consensus that it will hinder Ron Dennis' team's progress one way or another. Which prompts the question: is Hamilton a value bet at 11-4 (Totesport) to go one better than last year?

The money gambled in recent weeks suggests punters are happy to back McLaren's No1 driver at short odds. "Hamilton is by far the best backed driver to win the world title this season," said Hill's spokesman Rupert Adams, whose firm cut Hamilton from 11-4 to 9-4 two days ago.

Winter testing suggested that the Ferraris of Raikkonen, rated 6-4 with Sportingbet to retain his title, and Felipe Massa, 5-1 (Betfred and Sky Bet) to win it, are not as quick as the McLarens driven by Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, who is 14-1 (Sportingbet) to head the standings in November, but the Ferraris have perhaps the greater consistency and reliability.

Much has been written of Hamilton and "second season syndrome" when a sportsman follows a sparkling debut year with a campaign that falls flat. While some British drivers have suffered in the past, Hamilton has already pointed out that in 2002 he finished third in Formula Renault before winning the series in 2003. Then, a year later, he finished fifth in his first season in Formula Three Euroseries and followed up by winning the championship in 2005.

The biggest factor in deciding whether Hamilton will win this year will surely be the form of Raikkonen. Despite taking the opening grand prix of 2007, the Finn evidently needed nearly half the season to get used to driving the Ferrari on Bridgestone tyres and did not win his second race of the term until July. If he starts this campaign as he finished 2007 - he won three of the last four races - Raikkonen will be big odds-on for the title by the time the bandwagon rolls into Europe for the fourth grand prix of the season in Barcelona. So the advice is to back him now.

In the betting without the Ferrari and McLaren drivers Nico Rosberg, at 9-2 (Bet365 and Ladbrokes), looks terrific value to upset the 2-1 (Coral) favourite, Fernando Alonso. The son of the 1982 champion, Keke Rosberg, he drove brilliantly to claim fourth place in Brazil last year. With the Williams impressing in testing, he can expect to be competitive against the Renault and BMW cars, the latter having reportedly gone backwards after winning the constructors' title without the big two last year. Alonso, in fact, could struggle all season in the Renault, which has been sluggish in testing and the former double world champion Spaniard, 12-1 (general) to win the title, should be backed to win fewer than 62 points at 5-6 (Paddy Power).

Raikkonen rates as the 11-8 (Blue Square and VCBet) favourite to win the Australian opener, with Hamilton 3-1 (general). But Massa has attracted most interest having been clipped to a best price of 4-1 (Sportingbet) from 5-1. Raikkonen is 9-4 (Blue Square) to grab pole position with Massa 3-1 (general) and Hamilton 10-3 (Coral). The Super Aguri duo of Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato are the joint favourites to be first to retire in Melbourne.

Fernando Alonso to win fewer than 62 points at 5-6 (Paddy Power) *****
Nico Rosberg to win the drivers' title without Ferrari and McLaren at 9-2 (Bet365 and Ladbrokes) **
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