For a few desperate moments, Felipe Massa had the world championship trophy in his grasp after a perfect race in tricky conditions. As he crossed the finish line the winner, he thought he had done enough. Back down the road Lewis Hamilton had lost the fifth place he needed to Sebastian Vettel, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Then, in sight of the flag, fourth-placed Timo Glock slowed sufficiently to lose two places, and suddenly Hamilton was, after all, the 30th and youngest world champion in history.
Rain in the closing stages had prompted the first five – Massa, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel – to pit for intermediate tyres on laps 66 to 67. Crucially, the Toyota driver Glock, running sixth, did not. Massa, Alonso and Raikkonen all resumed without losing their positions, but Hamilton and Vettel fell behind Glock. That was still good enough for Hamilton, fifth was all that he needed. But then, under pressure on the 70th lap as the BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica unlapped himself, Hamilton made a crucial error and slid wide. It was all Vettel needed and the Toro Rosso driver pounced. Hamilton fought back, but was losing the battle as Vettel began to pull away. When Massa crossed the line, Hamilton was only sixth and the Brazilian was the new champion.
Vettel and Hamilton slammed out of the final corner, ready for the run to the finish line and came upon Glock's Toyota struggling on its dry tyres, and both swept past their gripless rival. From the jaws of defeat, the crown was back in the British driver's hands in a denouement so startling that it would have been derided as excruciatingly corny in any Hollywood movie. But this time it was real, one of the most dramatic title deciders in history as they beat Glock to the line.
The tension had gripped from start to finish, from the moment Bernie Ecclestone scuttled for cover with 10 minutes to the off as a thunderstorm swept across the circuit. It ended as quickly as it began, but its legacy was a wet track and a myriad of questions for the teams as the start was delayed by 10 minutes. By 3pm, the original start time, the sun was back, but this was one of those days when it was capricious as it slid in and out of dark clouds. Massa made the most of the start, with Jarno Trulli beating Raikkonen as Hamilton slipped into fourth ahead of his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, who was soon dispatched by the fast-starting Vettel and then Alonso.
This was David Coulthard's last grand prix, and it lasted just a few hundred yards. Nico Rosberg the Scot tapped into a spin, which then collected Rosberg's team-mate, Kazuki Nakajima. "This," Coulthard said heavily, "was not the way I envisaged my racing career ending."
That brought out the safety car for four laps as the debris was cleared away. Until lap 11, Hamilton was in the fifth place he needed, but then a rash of pit stops as drivers switched to dry tyres dropped him to seventh with Massa in the lead after his own switch.
Hamilton disposed of Trulli and closed on Giancarlo Fisichella, who was running fifth, having been the first to stop for dry tyres. Fisichella might be past his sell-by date, but the Force India's Ferrari engine and the slipperiness of the track through the Senna S frustrated Hamilton's pursuit.
Hamilton slipped ahead of the Italian on lap 18, and all he had to do was bring his McLaren home in one piece. He was 15 seconds adrift of Massa, but that did not matter.
Lap after lap Vettel gave Massa no respite, the gap between them rarely more than a second as they traded fastest lap. It was not until lap 27, when the German refuelled, that Massa was able to nurse a 4.2-second lead over Alonso. He soon gave the Spaniard a spanking, and by the time he refuelled on the 38th lap had built that advantage to more than seven seconds.
Alonso and Hamilton stopped on the 40th lap and, to his relief, Hamilton was able to rejoin ahead of Trulli. Kovalainen stopped for fuel on the 42nd lap, elevating Hamilton to the fifth place he would need when Raikkonen's stop would hand the lead back to Massa.
Vettel, meanwhile, used his lighter fuel load to monster Massa, until his next stop on the 51st lap dropped the Torro Rosso behind Hamilton.
Soon the German was on the Briton's tail, but the lap times showed Hamilton was having a stroll. There was no need to fight. Fifth would be enough, especially as Kovalainen was riding shotgun in sixth.
This one still had a sting in the tail. The skies grew darker from the 60th lap and it began to rain again. The stage was set for the most dramatic of finales.
"We need to congratulate Lewis because he did a great championship," said Massa. "He scored more points than us, so he deserves to be champion."
Boy racers: Title firsts
*The French-Canadian racer Jacques Villeneuve won the World Championship in his second season of Formula One, driving for the Williams-Renault team in 1997, so Lewis Hamilton's achievement yesterday is not unique.
But at the age of 23 years and 300 days the Englishman created one important bit of history by becoming the sport's youngest title holder. He takes that accolade from his arch-enemy Fernando Alonso, a former McLaren team-mate. In 2005 the Spaniard held the record at 24 years 58 days.
Before that, Brazil's Emerson Fittipaldi set the mark when, at 25 years and 273 days, he lifted the title for Lotus in the 1972 Italian Grand Prix.
Hamilton's heritage: Britain's champions
*MIKE HAWTHORN 1958 (Ferrari)
*GRAHAM HILL 1962 (BRM), 1968 (Lotus)
*JIM CLARK 1963, 1965 (both Lotus)
*JOHN SURTEES 1964 (Ferrari)
*JACKIE STEWART 1969 (Matra)
1971, 1973 (Tyrrell)
*JAMES HUNT 1976 (McLaren)
*NIGEL MANSELL 1992 (Williams)
*DAMON HILL 1996 (Williams)
*Lewis Hamilton 2008 (McLaren)Reuse content