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Title race to go down to wire following Chinese Grand Prix

Oct 7, 2007 - 1:34 PM By Nick Briggs Special to PA SportsTicker

SHANGHAI, China (Ticker) -- Lewis Hamilton's bid to become the first rookie driver to win the Formula One world championship was put on hold after the McLaren driver suffered his first retirement of the season at the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday.

The 22-year-old stuck his car in the gravel after sliding off the pit lane entry road as he came in to change heavily-worn tires as an incredible season took another dramatic twist.

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen won the 56-lap race by 9.8 seconds over McLaren driver Fernando Alonso as the pair set up a thrilling three-car showdown for the drivers' title in the final race at Brazil on October 21.

It had initially looked like Hamilton was set for an historic day after he got away cleanly from pole and soon set about opening up an advantage over Raikkonen as all the field safely made it through the first corner.

Alonso had managed to pass Felipe Massa round the outside for third but the Brazilian re-took the place at turn six, condemning the Spaniard to fourth.

That was good news for Hamilton and the 22-year-old took control of the race with a succession of fastest laps to open up a 6.6-second lead over the Finn's Ferrari by lap 10. More importantly, Hamilton also opened a 13-second advantage ahead of teammate Alonso, who had started to fall away from Massa after exerting brief pressure on the Brazilian.

Anthony Davidson, who had an earlier collision with Rubens Barrichello, was forced to retire his Super Aguri on lap 13.

The intermittent rain did not seem to bother Hamilton and he held a commanding lead by the time he made his first stop on lap 15, a 6.8-second effort, before Massa and Alonso followed soon after.

Raikkonen was the last driver to pit and tried to make the most of the fact by setting a couple of fastest laps.

When he rejoined, he had more than halved his deficit behind Hamilton, but did not change the positioning among the top four.

But that soon changed in dramatic circumstances.

As the track continued to dry, Hamilton's wet weather tires started to wear to such an extent that he was struggling to keep his car on the course.

The championship leader ran wide on numerous occasions and it was not long before he and Raikkonen were involved in a thrilling scrap for the lead that lasted the best part of a lap and a half before the Finn got his man on lap 29.

Hamilton was clearly in trouble as Raikkonen quickly opened up a four-second lead and Alonso, who had finally passed Massa two laps previously, had reduced an 18-second deficit to virtually nothing.

The Brit struggled along and came in on lap 31 but as he tried to make the final turn towards the pit entry, he could not keep his car on the track and ended up in the gravel.

He tried to restart his McLaren but to no avail, admitting defeat and eventually climbing out of the car as boss Ron Dennis thumped his monitor in frustration on the pit wall.

Raikkonen then assumed control, pressing home his advantage over Alonso after the pair had both pitted for dry tires.

While Hamilton's retirement had sunk British spirits, Jenson Button was producing his strongest race of the season as his troublesome Honda was running fourth behind Massa.

Robert Kubica had briefly led but was forced to retire on lap 34 after his BMW Sauber developed a technical problem.

Button made his second stop on lap 43 but was back up to fifth and chasing the Toro Rosso of Sebastian Vettel, who was again putting in another incredible drive on a one-stop strategy.

Raikkonen cruised to the checkered flag over the final laps to claim his fifth victory of the season and set up a three-car showdown in the final race of the season at Interlagos.

"We needed that," Raikkonen said. "We're back in the championship. It will be interesting in the last race. We saw today that anything can and does happen so we'll see."

Alonso brought his McLaren home in second place, 9.8 seconds behind the Finn, to bag eight points and cut his deficit in the title standings behind Hamilton to just four.

"It was not easy with the tires," Alonso said. "I'm very happy now. I wasn't happy with the qualifying and what happened. Eight points is good, I'm back in the championship, but it will still be difficult to win it.

"Eight points is good but I'm not changing my outlook."

Massa finished where he started the 56-lap race, in third a further three seconds back, while Vettel claimed an incredible fourth in his Toro Rosso.

Button grabbed four valuable points for Honda in fifth place, Liuzzi made it a special day for Red Bull's junior team by finishing sixth, while BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld and Red Bull's David Coulthard claimed seventh and eight, respectively.

"It was a good race," Massa said. "I did the fastest lap at the end and it was good to finish on the podium but it was not enough to win."

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