SAO PAULO, Brazil – Three drivers, one race to go.
One of the most thrilling and wild Formula One seasons in decades will come down to the last event of the year – the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday.
Rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher replacement Kimi Raikkonen each enters the finale in Brazil with a shot at winning the title in a season marked by twists and turns from the start.
There was a spying scandal that culminated with a $100 million fine, an internal team dispute reminiscent of the rifts between the greats Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s, and the tightest race for the championship since 1986.
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Hamilton, trying to become the first rookie to win the title and the youngest champion ever, has a four-point lead ahead of McLaren teammate Alonso, and a seven-point advantage over Ferrari’s Raikkonen.
The last time three drivers entered the last race with chances of winning the championship was in 1986, when Prost edged Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet.
Hamilton has the points lead this year, but Alonso may be in the most comfortable position for the race at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo.
Though Alonso has to win the race and hope Hamilton finishes third of worse, the Spaniard has experience and history on his side in his quest for a third straight drivers’ championship. He clinched both of his previous titles at the Brazilian GP, winning the 2005 race and finishing second last year.
“Interlagos has a lot of great memories for me, having won both of my two world championships at the circuit,” Alonso said. “They were both quite different races, but that is a characteristic of the track.”
Hamilton, on the other hand, has never raced at Interlagos, and the rookie will likely be a step behind the other drivers getting up to speed at the demanding 2.6-mile track.
“It is another new circuit for me, and there has been a lot of talk by other people about how it is tricky to drive,” Hamilton said. “That’s why I see it as a special challenge.”
In another historical statistic favoring Alonso, the last eight times in which three drivers entered the last race with a chance to win the championship, the second-place driver in the standings came out on top in four occasions. The points leader won three titles and the third-place driver won one.
Raikkonen has the tiebreaker advantage this year because he won five races, one more than both Alonso and Hamilton. After that, the number of second-place finishes will be counted, with Hamilton leading with five. A win is worth 10 points, and second through eighth are 8-6-5-4-3-2-1.
Raikkonen, twice runner-up in the drivers’ championship, is the hottest driver entering the race in Interlagos after winning two of the last three races, including the Chinese GP two weeks ago.
Hamilton, trying to become the first Englishman to win the title since Damon Hill in 1996, is coming off a disappointing performance in China, running off the track in a mistake that cost him the chance of clinching the title.
Alonso was second in that race, and Hamilton’s comfortable 12-point lead was cut to four ahead of the race in Brazil.
“China was another valuable lesson for me this season, and an incident I will take from and try to develop as a driver,” Hamilton said. “I moved on from the disappointment pretty quickly and since leaving Shanghai my sole focus has been on Brazil.”
Felipe Massa, Raikkonen’s Ferrari teammate, won last year’s Brazilian GP, and is hoping to win again at home, but said he will do whatever he can to help Raikkonen win the title.
Fair play is not expected among the McLaren drivers. Not only are both fighting for the championship, their relationship has deteriorated over the season.
The drivers often traded accusations and the team recently said there was “competitive tension” between the two. Alonso complained that as world champion he deserved different treatment than his rookie teammate, contrary to McLaren’s policy of treating drivers equally.
McLaren team chief Ron Dennis admitted recently he wasn’t talking to Alonso, but the team said it will treat the drivers “with complete equality” in the Brazilian GP.
To make sure, Formula One’s governing body, FIA, reportedly summoned an official to watch closely whether the British team favored one driver at the Brazilian GP.
Dennis had to deal with a similar situation in the late 1980s, when Prost and Senna had a public rift and didn’t speak to each other for a long time. The two, however, had some of the most exciting duels on the track.
But the biggest problem for the McLaren boss this year came off the track – a spying scandal that overshadowed most of the second half of the season.
McLaren was fined a record $100 million by the World Motor Sport Council on Sept. 13 after FIA found the team guilty of using leaked data from Ferrari.
The British team was kicked out of the manufacturers’ championship by FIA, but Alonso and Hamilton were not docked points.
The ruling kept both alive in the championship race, allowing the wild season – the first without the great Schumacher – to fittingly reach its climax at the final grand prix of the year.
“Whilst I might be ahead by four points, this championship is still very open,” Hamilton said. “I will do what I can to score the points I need, and the rest is out of our hands.”