|Flying Finn: Raikkonens victory was the 14th of his career [Reuters]|
The quest to be this year's Formula One champion will be decided in the last race of the season after Kimi Raikkonen's victory in the Chinese grand prix turned the title-fight into a three-horse race.
Lewis Hamilton, the championship leader, missed his chance of securing the title in his debut season by skidding out of the race.
Ferrari's Raikkonen secured his team's 200th Formula One win as he led home Hamilton's McClaren teammate and two-time World champion, Fernando Alonso, with Felipe Massa, also of Ferrari, finishing third.
The result means that, with just the Brazilian grand prix on October 21 to go, Hamilton has 107 points, Alonso 103 and Finland's Raikkonen 100.
Hamilton had hoped to become Formula One's first rookie champion with one race to spare.
"I'm disappointed for the team, the battle goes on to Brazil," Hamilton said on his return to the paddock.
Chinese grand prix results
1. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari (Finland)
2. Fernando Alonso, McClaren (Spain)
3. Felipe Massa, Ferrari (Brazil)
4. Sebastian vettel, Toro Rosso (Germany)
5. Jenson Button, Honda (UK)
6. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Toro Rosso (Italy)
7. Nick Heidfeld, BMW Sauber (Germany)
8. David Coulthard, Red Bull (UK)
1. Lewis Hamilton, McClaren (UK) 107pts
2. Fernando Alonso, McClaren (Spain) 103
3. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari (Finland) 100
4. Felipe Massa, Ferrari (Brazil) 86
5. Nick Heidfeld, BMW Sauber (Germany) 58
6. Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber (Poland) 38
7. Heiko Kovalainen, Renault (Finland) 30
8. Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault (Italy) 21
There was delight for Ferrari who had looked down-and-out of the title race just a day earlier when Raikkonen qualified second behind Hamilton on the grid.
"We're back in the championship and it'll be interesting in the last race," said Raikkonen.
Hamilton had led Raikkonen from pole position while Alonso lagged in fourth place after trying and failing to pass Massa for third at the start.
Neither of the leaders changed their wet tyres at the first pitstops, despite the tread being almost worn smooth, and Hamilton was already struggling to control his car before he tried to make his second stop.
Hamilton was the first to pit after 15 laps, giving Raikkonen the lead for four laps.
Raikkonen managed some fast laps with clear track in front of him, and by the time the Finn had emerged from his own pit stop, Hamilton's lead was down to four seconds.
Rain began to fall again, and Hamilton was having difficulty controlling his car, allowing Raikkonen to close onto his tail.
By the 28th lap they were wheel-to-wheel. Hamilton fended off two passing attempts, but Raikkonen got by on the third.
Just three laps later, Hamilton's race was finished.
The Briton attempted to take the mild turn into the pit lane at speed, but lost traction and left the tarmac after twice trying to correct.
He ended up stranded in a gravel trap near the pitlane entrance. For several seconds he remained in his car trying to get some bite from his tires or a push from the Chinese race attendants, while McLaren team chief Ron Dennis waved his arms in frustration at the pit wall.
Finally giving up, Hamilton walked calmly away, and Raikkonen continued in the lead, followed by Alonso.
On a hat-trick
Raikkonen was eight seconds ahead at the start of the 35th lap, and he maintained that buffer the rest of the way as the rain held off.
Toro Rosso's German driver Sebastian Vettel finished fourth, with Jenson Button fifth for Honda.
Italy’s Vitantonio Liuzzi was sixth for Toro Rosso, with Nick Heidfeld seventh for BMW Sauber and David Coulthard taking the final point for Red Bull.
"The tyres were getting worse and worse and you could almost see the canvas underneath. When I came into the pits it was like ice, I couldn't do anything about it," Hamilton said.
The retirement of his rival means Alonso now has a chance to become only the third driver still alive to win a hat-trick of titles.
|Hamilton was aiming to win the Formula One|
title in his first season [AFP]
With rumours of his strained relations with Hamilton still proliferating, the Spaniard had looked set to relinquish his crown after finishing fourth in qualifying.
"The result was good today and the eight points are a help for sure," he said. "I think the championship will still be very difficult because I know it will not be easy to take four points from Lewis.
"I need something dramatic if I want to win. With a normal race it will be impossible."
It will be the first time since 1986 that three drivers go into the final round of the season still in contention for the drivers' crown.
Frenchman Alain Prost triumphed that momentous final day in Adelaide after Nigel Mansell's tyre blew in spectacular fashion and his team-mate Nelson Piquet was called into the pits.