And so it was the outsider once again, as it had been last time three drivers went into the Formula 1 season finale all with a chance of lifting the title, with Kimi Raikkonen coming out of almost nowhere to clinch his first drivers' crown, Lewis Hamilton seeing his championship dreams crumble into dust and McLaren - almost inconceivably - losing it all.

Raikkonen's glory was unexpected, as he had entered the weekend with only the tiniest glimmer of sealing the laurels, but having three times finished second at Interlagos the Finn was finally to enjoy his day in the sun. The 28-year-old's sixth victory of the season - the most of anyone in 2007 - would prove to be the most crucial triumph of the campaign.

With the tension mounting before the start, Hamilton appeared to be relaxation personified, chatting away with brother Nick and giving away few clues that this was quite probably the biggest day of his life. If anything, it was his father Anthony who looked more nervous, aware of the magnitude of the occasion.

There were, though, a number of variables. Aside from Interlagos' challenging nature, there were serious concerns about the durability of Bridgestone's super-soft rubber, an uphill start and the notoriously tricky first corner. Then there was Hamilton, supremely confident pole-sitter Massa who had vowed to leave the title contenders trailing in his wheeltracks, Alonso admitting to being on the same strategy as his team-mate but with an older engine in his MP4-22 and Raikkonen...well, Raikkonen not giving very much away at all.

There were precedents, too. The last time three drivers went into the final race all in with a shout of the crown, at Adelaide in 1986, the erstwhile championship leader - Nigel Mansell - suffered a tyre blow-out that shattered his title dream. It was too close to call. And then the lights went out...

...The outside line proved the place to be at the start, as Raikkonen sling-shot past Hamilton and tucked in behind team-mate Massa in perfect scarlet choreography. Raikkonen cutting in, though, forced Hamilton to momentarily lift his foot off the throttle, which allowed Alonso too to get a run down the inside of him into turn two, and the Spaniard aggressively forced his way past, the pair almost touching in the process.

Further back down the field Heikki Kovalainen tagged the back of Ralf Schumacher's Toyota and went off, while Giancarlo Fisichella would make it a dreadful opening lap for reigning world champions Renault by running off-piste a matter of corners later and rejoining the track only to be collected heavily by the unsighted Spyker of Sakon Yamamoto. Vitantonio Liuzzi also peeled into the pits for a new nose cone, ensuring it was an incident-strewn opening lap.

Turn four, though would witness even greater drama still, as Hamilton attempted to reclaim third place from Alonso, only to run wide and slip back down to eighth. Within a lap he had regained seventh from Jarno Trulli and set about chasing down the BMWs ahead, only to almost go off again when he got caught out behind Nick Heidfeld. Worse, though, far worse, lay just around the corner.

With Massa and Raikkonen pulling effortlessly away at the front and leaving Alonso fading in their wake, Robert Kubica found a way past the sprightly Mark Webber for fourth, but the major drama was Hamilton suddenly slowing as his engine cut out. With the McLaren engineers frantically on the radio to him and all looking lost, the #2 machine suddenly kicked into life again, but the Briton had lost a whole half a minute - and twelve positions - in the process.

Now a gaping 40 seconds adrift of the runaway Ferraris and 30 behind his team-mate, Lewis found himself having to rely on all his celebrated overtaking prowess - remember Istanbul last year? - and began to scythe his way through the backmarkers. Coming up behind a gaggle comprising Kazuki Nakajima, both the Super Aguris, Schumacher and Kovalainen, in a fearless display the silver #2 machine took four of them in the space of just one lap to move back up to twelfth, and when the luckless Webber dropped out of fifth and Jenson Button lost all drive in his Honda, he was back up into the top ten, with 50 laps left to run.

As the front-runners began to make their pit-stops, Massa extended his lead over Raikkonen and to everyone's surprise Alonso was the first of the McLarens to blink, further underlining the brilliance of Hamilton's qualifying lap. The rookie was in next time around, but a very slow entry into the pits saw him rejoin back down in 14th, with McLaren having taken the gamble of short-fuelling him and putting him onto the super-soft tyres when most other drivers had stuck with the 'harder' option. Now the pressure was really on.

There was action further back as Nico Rosberg and David Coulthard's squabble continued into the pit-lane, the Williams just managing to hold onto the advantage as they pulled out of their neighbouring pit boxes. There was a change, however, between Heidfeld and Trulli, as the Toyota stole away sixth place, while down towards the back of the field Adrian Sutil lost his car under braking for turn one and clattered into the side of Anthony Davidson, sending them both into a spin.

With Hamilton continuing his fightback, but seeming to struggle somewhat on the super-soft rubber, it took a mightily brave move for the Briton to force his way down the inside of Rubens Barrichello from a long way back into turn one, the Brazilian seeing the move coming and just giving him enough room.

It was a considerable risk, but one Hamilton knew he needed to take, and next he homed in on Sebastian Vettel and Schumacher, but as he found the STR a tough nut to crack the pressure was beginning to show, and the tyre lock-ups ever-more apparent.

Schumacher pitted at the end of lap 34 to make Lewis' job somewhat easier, and he now lay 15 seconds behind Heidfeld - the man whose place he would need to take if he was still to lift the crown. Thirty-seven laps remained.

The unexpected continued as Nakajima betrayed his lack of Formula 1 racing experience by knocking over one of his mechanics as he came in to make his first-ever F1 pit-stop, while further up the order Kubica threw another spanner in the works by challenging and then passing Alonso for third place, the Spaniard like his team-mate struggling in the middle stint. With Raikkonen also beginning to find some pace, all of a sudden, this was anyone's championship.

Hamilton came back into the pits from ninth place not long afterwards, but conventional wisdom said a 6.5-second pit-stop with 34 laps still to go would surely not be enough to get him to the end of the race...would it? Kovalainen then completed Renault's day of misery by crashing out heavily, while Kubica seemed to be adopting a similar strategy to that of Hamilton by pitting early for a short-fill, and with 32 laps left to run the Briton needed to somehow find a way past Coulthard, Kubica, Rosberg and Heidfeld to stand any chance of lifting the laurels.

Barrichello's dream of breaking his 2007 points-scoring duck at home went up in smoke - quite literally - as his unloved Honda lunched itself on the entry to the pit-lane 30 laps from the end of the season, leaving the experienced Brazilian with no points on the board for the first time in his 15-year career in the top flight.

Kubica now found himself having taken over Coulthard's place as the man most likely to be frustrated by Rosberg, as the Williams and BMW went at it hammer-and-tongs for sixth spot while the Scot pitted.

With Hamilton's pace not what it needed to be - indeed lapping more slowly than those ahead of him - the laurels looked like going the way of his team-mate, albeit a staggering 40 seconds adrift of the two Ferraris, with a solitary point separating all three title contenders had the race ended on lap 48.

With 21 laps remaining, Massa made the switch-over to the super-soft rubber, and the big question now was would Hamilton have to stop again? If he did, his title dreams were surely over. The Ferrari ace rejoined tucked up right behind the lapped Coulthard, and with Raikkonen carrying on for several laps - and carrying on very quickly indeed - a Magny-Cours style switchover was looking to be on the cards.

That was indeed the case, the Finn regaining the track in front, and with the McLarens' poor pace it began to look like Ferrari might just be on for a double championship celebration. Hamilton was making little in-roads on Trulli ahead in seventh, and was six seconds adrift of where he needed to be. At the end of lap 57, though, his mechanics were out in the pit-lane once again, and when the Briton pitted with 14 laps remaining, it was all over. Now it was between Raikkonen and Alonso, and the key player in that battle would be Kubica up in third. If he too had to stop again the crown would go the way of Alonso; if not, Raikkonen.

Another fearless move saw Hamilton go all the way around the outside of fellow Brit Coulthard as he suddenly found the pace he had needed earlier on. Setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 59, he set about hunting down Trulli once again, but the Italian was more than 20 seconds up the road.

Heidfeld, Rosberg, Kubica and Trulli were, indeed, running practically line-astern in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh as the race entered its final ten laps, and Hamilton's only hope was that they would run into each other. It nearly happened into turn one, as Rosberg went for it only to run wide and take Heidfeld with him, allowing the opportunistic Kubica to grab two positions in one fell swoop.

Coulthard spun whilst attempting to take Nakajima for ninth place, but more importantly, with nine laps to go the title was Raikkonen's for the taking, with Hamilton down in third. Trulli unexpectedly pitting from seventh with as many laps to go promoted Hamilton up one more place, but it still was not quite enough as his chances continued to ebb away. He was lapping quickly, yes, but ultimately not quite quickly enough.

With four laps remaining Rosberg and Kubica continued to battle away for fourth place, the young German locking his wheels as he desperately tried to find a way past to end Williams' 2007 campaign on a high. Two laps later and Rosberg was through, but up front all eyes were on Raikkonen, who laid his Brazilian jinx to rest by claiming the greatest honour of them all.

Almost unable to believe just what he had accomplished on the slowing-down lap, Raikkonen toured in alongside team-mate Felipe Massa, with a subdued Alonso relinquishing his crown in a distant third place, the feisty Rosberg an excellent fourth and Heidfeld almost catching team-mate Kubica on the line for fifth. A crestfallen Hamilton wound up a lap down in seventh on a bad weekend for British sport, with Trulli deservedly taking the final point of 2007 in eighth.



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