(CNN) -- Lewis Hamilton's shock retirement from the Chinese Grand Prix has set up a grandstand finale to a thrilling and controversial 2007 season. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone could not have wished for a better conclusion to a year filled with surprise, intrigue, espionage and infighting -- for the third time this decade, the driver's championship goes down to the wire.
Grand Prix contenders Raikkonen (left), Hamilton (center) and Alonso (right) gear up for Brazil
As he slid into the world's smallest gravel trap on lap 31 of the Chinese Grand Prix, Hamilton lost his chance to take the driver's title in China. He now faces his toughest challenge yet, to win the title at the last race of the season, in Brazil. It's the first time since 1986 that three drivers are in contention for the championship at the final race.
The mathematics of the matter dictate what the rookie must do. Hamilton has 107 points in the championship, Fernando Alonso has 103 and Kimi Raikkonen 100. If his teammate Fernando Alonso wins the race, Hamilton must finish second in order to claim the title. If Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen wins, he needs fifth place or better.
McLaren and Lewis Hamilton therefore face a dilemma: Do they go for the win and claim the title in style, but risk being knocked out in a fight for the lead; or do they play the percentages game, follow a more cautious strategy than they did in China and aim to finish the race in whatever position they need to win the championship, letting Alonso and Raikkonen fight for victory?
And what of Kimi and Fernando? How will they approach this race? Kimi, the dark horse of the championship, blitzed the field at the season opener in Australia. He then disappeared off the radar as he struggled to adapt to the Bridgestone tires, but during the second half of the year he's been consistently scoring points and race wins, and could very well steal the title from under the McLaren drivers' noses if they clash in Brazil.
Fernando Alonso might be the polar opposite of Kimi Raikkonen. Kimi is laconic, laid back and utterly calm under pressure. This season Alonso has seemed paranoid, frustrated and on edge, constantly looking for fault from his McLaren team.
However, despite the fragile situation he's in with McLaren -- partly of his own devising, it must be noted -- he still has great reserves of mental toughness when it really matters.
Witness Alonso's stunning drive at Monza, where he annihilated the entire field to take an emphatic victory as the spy scandal overshadowed all else in the F1 paddock. Alonso could well dig deep and produce another championship-winning performance in Brazil.
Interlagos is one of only two circuits on the F1 calendar that is counter-clockwise, the track surface is bumpy and the weather can be unpredictable. In 2003 a chaotic wet race saw four drivers, including acknowledged rain-meister Michael Schumacher, slide out of the race on the tricky Curva du Sol corner. A heavy crash from Alonso caused the race to be stopped, and confusion reigned as to who had won. Kimi Raikkonen was awarded the trophy on the day, only to relinquish it at the following race to Giancarlo Fisichella after the stewards deemed him the rightful winner.
Mention should be made of local favorites Felipe Massa and Rubens Barrichello, the two Brazilians on the 2007 grid. Massa won last year's race in imperious fashion with a lights to flag victory, sending the home crowd wild. He's driven very well this season despite some uncharacteristic Ferrari mechanical woes, and could well spoil the party for all three title protagonists on race day.
Rubens Barrichello has not enjoyed much success at his home race. From 14 starts he has only finished four times, with an unbroken run of nine straight DNFs between 1995 and 2003. The disappointing performance of his Honda car is unlikely to allow him to give the crowd much cause for joy, but he will surely be hoping to at least make it to the checkered flag.
So, as the 2007 season draws to a close, all eyes turn toward the teams and drivers who have been battling it out all year at the front of the grid. With the constructor's championship won already, Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
McLaren have already lost too much this season, more off the track than on, and this is their last chance to finish the season on a high with both of their competitors poised to take the driver's crown. The anticipation has never been greater, and the title showdown in Brazil is sure to be spectacular. E-mail to a friend