Lewis Hamilton is the youngest Formula 1 World Champion in history after the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos - but up until the very last corner of the very last lap, the crown was going the way of Ferrari rival Felipe Massa.

The McLaren-Mercedes star entered the final tour in only sixth place, and when Massa took the chequered flag to win at the end of 71 incredible laps the Brazilian was indeed world champion - but that elation would last only a matter of seconds.

With high humidity in the air and black clouds looming, rain remained an ever-present threat ahead of the start. What's more, given the tight, funnelling nature of the first corner and memories of 2007 still fresh in people's minds, tensions in the build-up to the race were running very - no, extremely - high.

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Then, the first drama struck, barely minutes before the lights were due to go out - as the rain arrived, almost with divine intervention, and with a vengeance. A delayed start was called to allow for tyre changes, but no sooner had the heavens opened than they closed up again, and the strength of the sun began to dry the track out once more - leaving the teams with quite a dilemma and, for Hamilton and Massa, a world championship at stake.

With the main straight and Senna 'S' still distinctly wet, but other parts of the circuit bone dry, knowing which tyre to choose became a real headache. As the field eventually peeled away for its warm-up lap, though, the leading contenders all did so on intermediates - with Robert Kubica in the BMW-Sauber the only dissenter, the Pole aiming to turn an unlucky 13th on the grid into a luckier finish, but rapidly changing his mind at the end of the formation lap as he pitted for a change of rubber.

A textbook getaway from the front row saw Massa lead Jarno Trulli into turn one, from Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton, with Heikki Kovalainen in the sister McLaren playing the perfect team role by slotting in as his rear-gunner just behind, though the Finn would subsequently lose out to both Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Renault later around the opening tour.

No sooner had that happened, though, than the safety car was deployed, for a smash in the middle of the pack initiated by Williams' Nico Rosberg, involving rookie team-mate Kazuki Nakajima and that removed home hero Nelsinho Piquet and - most cruelly of all - David Coulthard from the fray. In the Red Bull Racing ace's very last grand prix, it was a particularly unjust way for the popular Scot to bring down the curtain on his successful 15-year career in the top flight.

That left the order behind the safety car Massa from Trulli, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Kovalainen, S?bastien Bourdais, Timo Glock and Mark Webber. As the action resumed Massa made sure of scampering away, as Giancarlo Fisichella in the Force India pitted to change tyres onto slicks and Kovalainen and Alonso duelled energetically and entertainingly over sixth place.

As Massa began to pull clear from Trulli, Hamilton seemed to be slipping into Vettel's clutches, making it even more pivotal for McLaren that Kovalainen get by Alonso to protect the sister Silver Arrow.

At the beginning of lap eight Raikkonen began to take a look at Trulli's second place, as Williams and RBR came out into the pits - with dry tyres. Nick Heidfeld in the leading BMW moved into the top ten at the expense of Webber, as Hamilton started to get into the groove and closed in on Trulli and Raikkonen ahead.

Glock was the first member of the top ten to blink on lap eight, as Jenson Button was released from his Honda pit 'box right into the path of Rosberg, the Briton controversially keeping his foot in to exit the pit-lane ahead as the Japanese concern suffered a fire extinguisher explosion that left foam all over the ground - and left Rubens Barrichello forced to wait until it had been cleared away before making his own stop for a change of rubber.

Vettel and Alonso were in on the following tour, with Webber following suit, as Fisichella began to lap quicker than the leaders. Massa, Kovalainen and Heidfeld were in next time around - the McLaren star enduring a lengthy stop with a delay on the tyres - but Trulli, Raikkonen and Hamilton motored on. The trio were in a lap later, and whilst Raikkonen jumped Trulli, Hamilton did not - and Vettel, Alonso and Fisichella were now ahead of all three of them.

The inspired Fisichella in fact looked the raciest of the lot, harrying Raikkonen for fourth place as Massa struggled to even keep his car on the track and Nakajima spun his Williams for the second time of the grand prix. With Massa leading Vettel and Alonso, Trulli was suffering the most, as he ran wide into turn one - enabling the following Hamilton to dive past - and subsequently very nearly lost it into turn three, surrendering further places to team-mate Glock and Bourdais in the process.

That left the McLaren star just one position away from where he needed to be, and he closed immediately onto the back of the now very tardy Raikkonen and the feisty Fisichella, the latter a former winner around the Autodromo Carlos Pace, lest we forget. Up at the front, meanwhile, Vettel had no intention of letting Massa get away with 14 laps now on the counter.

As Raikkonen finally began to pull away from Fisichella, the experienced Italian was continuing to frustrate Hamilton's efforts to claim the fifth place he so desperately required - and allowing Glock and Bourdais to close in behind. Hamilton well knew the score, though, and got a superb slipstream along the main straight beginning lap 17 to boldly slice up the inside and steal the spot, Fisichella giving him just enough room before slotting in behind again.

The top three, though, were now within as many seconds of each other, as Vettel and Alonso kept up the pressure on Massa, and Raikkonen lay eight seconds further in arrears. Glock was the next man to find a way past Fisichella, as Bourdais tried every which way to do likewise in the second STR - but the Frenchman would lose out significantly as Shanghai start nemesis Trulli fired up the inside into turn one, sending the multiple Champ Car king across the grass and left to rally-cross his way back onto the track, six places down.

Of even more interest, however, was the pressure Vettel was now applying on Massa at the head of the field, as Hamilton's pace remained slower than he needed it to be - whilst team-mate Kovalainen played himself back into contention again by closing onto the back of seventh-placed Fisichella and eighth-placed compatriot Trulli.

Massa responded to Vettel's attentions with a new fastest lap, as the young German pitted early on lap 27, dropping to sixth in the process - with the delayed Kovalainen not far behind vaulting past Trulli into turn one to return to the points. One lap later and the Finn was by Fisichella too, leaving the way clear to chase down Glock, who was the real danger man for his team-mate Hamilton as the Toyota star continued to lap marginally the faster of the two.

Vettel's stop, though, promoted Hamilton to fourth place, one-and-a-half seconds ahead of Glock and with Raikkonen in his sights - albeit with increasingly worn tyres on his McLaren. With the halfway stage approaching the Stevenage-born ace finally began to match Massa's times, though the Brazilian showed he had plenty left in reserve by setting a new fastest lap again next time around, almost a full second quicker than the pursuing Alonso, the Spaniard now more than five seconds adrift.

As Massa moved onto another plane - shattering his own best efforts time and again - Toyota readied themselves for a pit-stop from Glock, the 2007 GP2 Series Champion being fuelled to the end and rejoining the track behind Barrichello, Bourdais and Rosberg, somewhat hampering his challenge for a strong points finish.

Race leader Massa pitted a lap later with a seven-second advantage over Alonso and 21 seconds in-hand over Hamilton, and he rejoined the action behind his world championship quarry in fourth. McLaren were out in the pits next, as were Renault, for Alonso and Hamilton respectively. That left the Briton sixth, but crucially behind team-mate Kovalainen, with Trulli following in seventh - and Raikkonen in the lead.

The Finn's stop with 28 laps remaining re-instated the erstwhile status quo of Massa from Vettel, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Trulli, though the latter would be displaced by Webber when he pitted for the second time. 'The pieces on the chessboard', as ITV-F1 commentator Martin Brundle underlined, were 'beginning to come into shape'.

As his final pit-stop neared, Vettel again began to ramp up the pressure on Massa, with Kovalainen staving off Glock as he continued to protect Hamilton's vital fifth position. Vettel pitted with 20 laps left to run, ceding places to Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton in the process and placing another feather in the McLaren star's bow.

With 18 laps remaining, Massa had dropped Alonso by ten seconds as he seemingly effortlessly turned the grand prix into a demonstration, whilst Vettel closed inexorably in on Hamilton to sit just 2.2 seconds behind the Silver Arrow, the British star knowing he could afford to let the STR by and - with an engine to preserve - equally knowing that he may have to.

The 23-year-old seemed, however, to have the situation under control as the laps ticked down, picking his pace up just enough to stave the young German off - as, to heap even more drama upon the already highly tense occasion, more rain was predicted before the chequered flag.

Alonso's challenge, meanwhile, was fading, as Raikkonen began to fancy making it a Ferrari one-two, and with eleven laps left on the counter the points-scoring order read Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel, Kovalainen, Glock and Trulli. As Alonso encountered traffic, Raikkonen prepared his attack, his eyes now firmly on the runner-up position - and with eight laps still to go spots of rain began to hit the ground in the paddock.

Hamilton's advantage over Vettel was a mere six tenths of a second with precipitation increasingly in the air - and nerves in the McLaren garage went into overdrive. As at Spa-Francorchamps earlier this year, Heidfeld pitted for intermediate rubber with six tours remaining - a strategy that had earned the German a podium in Belgium - and Vettel launched an assault on fourth place.

Hamilton was now walking an absolute tight-rope, as the crews came out into the pits and Raikkonen was brought in. Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel followed suit, but Massa did not - only pitting the next time around. With confusion surrounding the race order and light rain continuing to fall, Massa led Alonso and Raikkonen, with Glock having vaulted Hamilton to fourth - and the British star now needing to keep Vettel behind him.

Vettel, though, was visibly the quicker of the pair with just three laps - less than five minutes - left to go, and British and McLaren hearts pounded faster than ever. Hamilton was clearly scrabbling around for grip as he repeatedly ran wide, but then he seemed to have been saved when Kubica controversially un-lapped himself from Vettel to put some breathing space between the pair.

When the Pole did the same to Hamilton just a corner later, though, Vettel swept past too - pushing the McLaren man down to sixth, and meaning as the situation stood, Massa would be crowned world champion. It all appeared to have fallen apart for Hamilton just as it had done in the same race this time last year, and with now only two laps remaining he looked to be out of the fight - and with nothing left to give.

The only remaining question mark, though, was over whether new fourth-placed man Glock could hang on with dry rubber still on his Toyota. The German's penultimate lap was competitive enough, and with Hamilton unable to do anything about Vettel the crown looked to be heading back to Brazil for the first time in 17 years. Lady Luck, however, had one final twist in-store.

As Massa crossed the finish line to claim victory and - he clearly believed - world title glory, Vettel and Hamilton came around the last corner for the last time to find none other than Glock right ahead of them. The Toyota driver had lost a full 18 seconds over the final lap alone and was struggling even to find drive to the line, allowing both to shoot past him in the very closing seconds - thereby giving Hamilton back the very fifth place he needed.

As Massa took the crowd's applause, the looks on the faces of his family and his team suddenly turned from jubilation to despair, as recognition dawned that Hamilton had come in fifth. The 2008 F1 World Championship had been decided by an extraordinary final lap to a grand prix of truly epic proportions, and the sport had a new youngest-ever title-winner.

A distraught Massa finally let his emotions get the better of him as he sat in his car in parc ferm? afterwards, unable to believe what had happened. He was a thoroughly deserving race-winner, however, and his day will undoubtedly come. This day, though, was all about a different man.

As Button's Honda set alight once the cars had parked up - a somewhat appropriate end to a dismal season for the British ace - the fireworks were unleashed in Stevenage, as his compatriot achieved what had so bitterly eluded him in S?o Paulo just twelve months earlier and the realisation of his childhood dream - Formula 1 World Championship glory.

To see the race results in full, click here