Felipe Massa brought Brazil's 13-year wait for a home winner at Interlagos to an end with an imperious performance in the final grand prix of 2006, but it was the fortunes of title rivals Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher that held the capacity crowd enthralled.

Even though the Spaniard went into the Brazilian Grand Prix needing just a point to clinch a second world title, and Schumacher started only tenth on the grid, there was still tension in the air as the 71 laps got underway, and the atmosphere remained to the end, despite Schumacher's afternoon not going to plan.

There was a sense of deja vu as the grid formed up, with two future team-mates lining up alongside each at the front of field. Three years ago, Kimi Raikkonen was the man staying put, and gridded alongside McLaren-bound Juan Montoya. This time around, with the Colombian already forging a career in NASCAR, it is the Finn on the move, ready to join poleman Massa at Ferrari.

The feeling of 'seen it all before' continued as the pack filed into turn one. Although Massa, Raikkonen and, more importantly, Alonso, made it through safely, there was confusion further back, as a Toyota and BMW rubbed sidepods, causing those behind to take avoiding action or check up earlier and harder than expected. Among those caught out was Mark Webber, the Australian jumping on the anchors and promptly being walloped up the rear by Williams team-mate Nico Rosberg.

The pair continued minus rear and front wing respectively but, where Webber made it back to the pits before being retired, Rosberg under-estimated the damage to his car and smacked the wall at the final corner. One year ago, the two white-and-blue cars made contact on lap one, on the start-finish straight, innocent victims of a lunge by David Coulthard....

Rosberg's impact was enough to warrant the safety car, although the driver himself appeared relatively unhurt. However, despite five laps at reduced pace while the course workers cleared up the mess, the incident was to have deeper consequences.

The field was released again on lap seven, with the leading order much the same as it had been on the grid. Massa, having made a textbook start, headed Raikkonen, with Jarno Trulli heading Alonso in a repeat of row two. Giancarlo Fisichella had gotten the better of Rubens Barrichello to slot in behind his Renault team-mate, but already had Schumacher breathing down his neck, the German clearly possessing more pace than many of those around him.

Temperatures on race day were some four degrees higher than had been expected, and that was thought likely to play into the hands of the Bridgestone runners, especially as some of the leading Michelin-shod cars had based their choice of rubber on the cooler conditions of Saturday. The early running, however, did not bear out the theory, with only Massa, Trulli and Schumacher running strongly for the Japanese brand.

Barrichello held seventh on the restart, just ahead of Honda colleague Jenson Button - already up from 14th on the grid - Ralf Schumacher and the BMW pairing of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, the two Germans having been those to make contact on lap one.

Having already annexed four places in two racing laps, Schumacher Sr wasn't hanging around, and soon lined up Fisichella as his next victim. The move came at the start of lap nine, Ferrari diving to the inside of Renault into turn one, having previously lined it up on lap eight. The red machine, however, twitched noticeably as Schumacher braked to complete the move, and Fisichella was back through in a flash. Things were clearly not right with Schumacher's mount, the seven-time champion snaking slowly out of the Senna S, its left-rear deflating rapidly.

Initial speculation suggested the two cars had made the briefest of contacts as Fisichella attempted to defend, but later examination showed that the cut in the tyre had been made by debris left over from Rosberg's off. Whatever the cause, however, Schumacher was left to limp almost the entire 4.3km distance back to the pits with his tyre disintegrating. The entire field had passed by the time he made it back to the pits, but the prolonged tour had been worth it as the Ferrari was hardly damaged. The team took the opportunity to refuel as well as fit fresh rubber, leaving Schumacher out of sequence with his rivals, and adding a new twist to a championship battle many expected to have been extinguished.

It remained a tall order for Schumacher, with Alonso apparently comfortable in fourth, and still 19 cars for the German to get through if he was to keep his side of the equation and win the race. His task was eased almost immediately, however, as both Toyotas pulled in to retire within a lap of each other, the victims of identical rear suspension problems.

The sudden exit of the white-and-red machines elevated Alonso to third, with Fisichella, Barrichello, Button, Kubica and Pedro de la Rosa completing the scoring positions, the latter having disposed of Heidfeld. Further back, the Toro Rosso pairing of Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi were running respectably, both ahead of David Coulthard and Robert Doornbos, with Super Aguri's Takuma Sato and Spyker's Christijan Albers mixing it with the Red Bull cars. DC was not long for the fight, however, complete a quintet of early retirements when he, too, pulled in, this time with gearbox problems that left him without fourth.

Surprisingly, that was it in terms of retirements until eight laps from the end, when Heidfeld's first lap brush with Ralf Schumacher finally caught up with him, suspected suspension failure pitching the BMW Sauber into the tyre wall at turn one. With no-one else stopping ahead of him, Schumacher Sr had his work cut out if he was to even sniff an eighth world title...

He may have been retiring at the end of the afternoon, but Schumacher was determined to go out in style. Even if he continued to publicly deny his chances of another individual crown, a constructors' title for Ferrari was something close to his heart, and he set about his recovery with gusto. The lesser lights proved no match for the German, although some made it a little too easy for him, including the BMW Saubers, and he quickly reduced the 70secs+ deficit to his team-mate, who continued to lead - to the delight of the partisan home crowd.

Such was Massa's pace out front, that he was 7.5secs up on second-placed Raikkonen five laps after the restart and continued to pull away, a string of fastest laps only interrupted by his equally fired-up team-mate. The Brazilian was among the first to pit, but held his place, eventually emerging ahead of de la Rosa when the cycle played out. The Spaniard, for the record, had opted for a one-stop strategy having started twelfth, and was to drop back to a more representative position mid-race.

As one Spaniard pitted, so another took his place as pursuer-in-chief to the fleeing Massa, Alonso having run later into the race than many of his front-running rivals. A solid stop by the Renault crew turned the champion-elect around in quick enough time to get him out ahead of Raikkonen, who subsequently lost another place to the charging Button, whose Honda was nicely hooked up on the sweeps of Interlagos and showed just what a setback his traction control problems had been in qualifying.

The Briton even had the temerity to take a look at passing Alonso for second into the same first turn that had proved so lucrative against Raikkonen, but was rebuffed as the Renault driver did his bit to maintain a firm hold on both championships.

That was lap 35, just short of half-distance, and, while Alonso was coming under pressure, his title rival was still clawing his way back up the order. One lap later, Schumacher passed Heidfeld for eighth, and took only four more to catch and pass the second BMW of Kubica. Again, however, the Ferrari twitched, causing many to catch their breath fearing a second puncture, but the moment was merely a case of Schumi pushing a little too hard and, having had to cede the place back to his Polish opponent, made short work of claiming it back on lap 41.

The chase was halted briefly by Schumacher's final pit-stop on lap 48 but, having crucially emerged ahead of de la Rosa - who had earlier gathered quite a train in his wake - the German set about claiming more victims. His first flying lap out of the pits established a new fastest lap, some half second under Massa's best to that point, and he was soon past Barrichello for sixth.

Massa, meanwhile, was some 27secs to the good on Alonso as the second round of pit-stops began and, as the pair traded almost identical times while being serviced, the race to the flag resumed with little difference being made to the gap. The Spaniard, however, was being kept honest by Button, and responded in the closing stages to avoid an embarrassing tangle that could have let Schumacher through to an unlikely crown.

The Ferrari man - who would undoubtedly have benefited from a Massa 'problem' should he have found himself in second spot - was doing all he could to put himself in position to reap from any fall-out, catching and passing early nemesis Fisichella on lap 63, despite another bobble a couple of laps earlier that had given the Italian unexpected breathing space. Schumacher's pressure eventually proved too much for the Renault man, however, Fisichella out-braking himself into turn one and taking to the grass, allowing Schumacher free passage into fifth.

The German's pace was relentless, and Raikkonen had little to offer as the red car loomed larger in his mirrors. The figures of Ferrari present and future ran nose-to-tail for a couple of laps, Schumacher even trying an audacious outside pass at Mergulho, before the older man pulled off one last trademark move, diving late into turn one and braving it out as the gap between rival and wall closed.

The top three were just too far ahead for any more heroics, leaving Schumacher to chase an even faster lap on which to end his illustrious, if occasionally ill-starred, career. Fourth was no good to him in terms of an eighth title, and the puncture -like his Japanese engine failure - had done little to aid Ferrari's constructors' championship bid, but Schumacher did his best to redress the balance, eventually helping the Scuderia to close the gap by four points in the final reckoning.

That gap would have been bigger, however, had it not been for the equally stunning performance of the local hero, a driver born not far from the Interlagos estate, Massa had been in imperious form all weekend, claiming pole for Brazil on Saturday, but always wondering if he would have to give best to his retiring team-mate come race day. Instead, he was able to succeed where others - notably one Rubens Barrichello - had failed over the past 13 years, becoming the first Brazilian winner of the Brazilian Grand Prix since the late Ayrton Senna in 1993.

Victory ensured him of third place in the drivers' championship, and a performance such as this will stand him in good stead for the battle with the incoming Raikkonen next season. It was just a shame that Sao Paulo 2006 will always be remembered as Michael Schumacher's farewell.

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