Not even the rains of Fuji, where James Hunt had angrily denounced his McLaren team's pit-stop strategy in 1976 before he could be convinced that he had indeed won the world championship against all odds at the Japanese Grand Prix, could compare with the confrontation in Brazil this year that finally crowned his fellow countryman Lewis Hamilton. His fight with Felipe Massa in the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix was the greatest championship climax in Formula One's illustrious history.
The dice had seemed so firmly loaded in Hamilton's favour. Massa, the local hero in the Ferrari, had to win. But Hamilton, with a seven-point advantage, merely needed fifth place and McLaren's conservative strategy reflected that. But there were sown the seeds that blossomed into such a fabulous sporting moment in the last seconds of the last lap.
Rain before the start provided some window dressing, but soon Massa settled into a brilliant drive and crossed the finish line 13.2 seconds ahead of a duel between Fernando Alonso's Renault and his own team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, the outgoing champion. The fans saluted Massa's peerless drive, but the world's eyes were on Hamilton. In what seemed a subdued performance, he sat in a comfortable fourth place until a sudden storm in the closing stages blew all the cards off the table.
Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel all dived into the pits between laps 66 and 67 for intermediate tyres. Toyota's Timo 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. But then the BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica unlapped himself on the 70th of the 71 laps and as he passed the McLaren, Hamilton lost momentum. That was all Vettel needed to pounce. Suddenly, the championship had swung in Massa's favour.
Panic broke out in the McLaren camp. It was 2007, when Hamilton was pipped for the championship by Raikkonen at Interlagos, all over again.
In agonised disbelief, Anthony, Linda and Nic Hamilton, and Lewis's high-profile girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, watched as the great dream veered perilously towards nightmare. When Massa crossed the line he was virtually world champion, for Hamilton was still only sixth with no hope of repassing Vettel. In the Ferrari pits, Massa's father, Luis Antonio, and brother, Eduardo started to celebrate. "I was told I was champion as I crossed the line," Massa said, "and then I was told that Hamilton was fifth after all, so it was a day of mixed emotion."
In the dying moments Lady Luck chose after all to smile upon Hamilton. As he chased Vettel out of the final corner, ready for the flat-out blast to the finish line, they came upon Glock. The German had lost 18sec in one lap and was struggling helplessly in the monsoon on his dry tyres. First, Vettel slammed past the Toyota, then Hamilton. The Briton was now fifth, clinching the championship literally yards before the end of the last race of the season. It was a denouement that defied belief, as the television cameras poignantly captured the elation at McLaren and the dawn of bitter realisation for Ferrari.
On the podium Massa took the greatest disappointment of his life with a dignity that epitomised the valour of great sporting endeavour. He wanted to weep; instead he behaved with the majesty of a king without a crown. As the Brazilian explained how he knew how to lose as well as how to win, and praised his rival's success, Hamilton smiled with genuine relief. It was not until the next day, he admitted, that it really sank in that he had, at 23, become the youngest world champion in history.
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