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F1 season goes down to the wire again

Another Formula One season comes down to the last race of the year, with McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Felipe Massa vying for their first career title at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

In a thrilling season in which seven different drivers won races and as many as four led the series in points, Hamilton arrives in Brazil for Sunday's GP with a seven-point lead over home-crowd favorite Massa. Hamilton needs only a fifth-place or better finish to ensure he becomes F1's youngest champion at age 23, and the first British champion since Damon Hill in 1996.

"I have to look at things realistically and appreciate that I have another weekend of maximum effort ahead of me," Hamilton said.

Massa retains a chance to become the first non-European driver to win the title since Canadian Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, and the first Brazilian champion since the late Ayrton Senna in 1991. But he has to win or finish second and rely on Hamilton finishing down the field.

"It is impossible to predict what will happen, but I think our car has always been very good at this circuit," Massa said. "I have my people behind me and all the pressure will be on (Hamilton), especially when you think about what happened at this race last year." 

Hamilton came to Brazil heavily favoured to win the title last year too, but a mistake trying to make a pass in the first lap and then a gearbox problem led to a seventh-place finish that was not enough to give him the title. Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen beat Hamilton and Renault's Fernando Alonso in what was the tightest F1 championship battle in more than 20 years as he took the title by a single point..

The 2006 season also went to the wire, with Alonso taking the title by edging Ferrari's Michael Schumacher in Interlagos. The Brazilian GP has crowned the F1 champion the last four years. Alonso also clinched the title when the race was the third-to-last in the 2005 calendar.

Despite Hamilton coming to Brazil with the title all but secured, the 2008 season was one of the most exciting in several years. In addition to Hamilton and Massa, other race winners included Räikkönen, Alonso, Robert Kubica of BMW Sauber, Heikki Kovalainen of McLaren and Sebastian Vettel of Toro Rosso. Kubica, Kovalainen and Vettel were first-time winners. It was the first time since 2003 that at least seven different drivers won races in a single season. Also, six drivers took pole position, and 15 led races throughout the year.

Massa led the most laps among all drivers, totaling 300. And he could have been much closer to Hamilton in the points race had it not been for some key mistakes by Ferrari during the year. The most embarrassing gaffe came at the first night GP at Singapore on 28 September, when a botched pit stop probably cost Massa the victory. At the Hungarian Grand Prix earlier in the year, Massa had victory almost within his grasp when the engine on his Ferrari failed with only three laps remaining.

Massa, who won the Brazilian GP in 2006 and was second to Räikkönen last year, is expected to be boosted by nearly 70,000 fans at the 4.3-kilometer anti-clockwise Interlagos track.

"I know all the tricks and secrets of this track, and I'll have the people behind me," Massa said.

The Brazilian could become the first driver to win a title in front of his home crowd since the inaugural F1 season in 1950, when Italy's Giuseppe Farina won at the season-ending Italian Grand Prix. Also, it is the first time a Brazilian driver has a chance to win the title at home.

For that to happen, Massa needs to win the race and hope Hamilton finishes sixth or worse, something that happened to the British driver only five times in 17 races so far. If Massa is second, Hamilton would have to finish ninth or worse, out of the points.

Massa enters the race with a nothing-to-lose attitude, saying he has "zero pressure" on him.

"I only have to focus on winning the race," Massa said. "After that, the matter is not in my hands and we will have to wait and see exactly what and how much we have won."

Both drivers enter the deciding race with five victories each. The more consistent Hamilton earned 10 podium finishes, while Massa earned nine. Hamilton finished out of the points only four times, while Massa five.

McLaren, which trails Ferrari by 11 points in the constructors' championship, haven't won in Interlagos since 2005 with Juan Pablo Montoya. Ferrari won the last two races in Brazil.

The year-ending Brazilian Grand Prix could mark the final F1 race for another home-crowd favorite, Rubens Barrichello. The driver with the most grands prix in F1 history, Barrichello has not renewed his contract with Honda and is yet to decide for which team he will drive in his 17th season next year.

Double world champion Alonso also is yet to decide his future. He is likely to remain with Renault, but a final decision is not expected until after the Brazilian GP.

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