For a few desperate moments, Felipe Massa had the world championship trophy in his grasp after a perfect race in tricky conditions.
As he crossed the finish line the winner, he thought he had done enough. Back down the road Lewis Hamilton had lost the fifth place he needed to Sebastian Vettel, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Then, in sight of the flag, fourth-placed Timo Glock slowed sufficiently to lose two places, and suddenly Hamilton was, after all, the 30th and youngest world champion in history.
As if there was not enough tension crackling in the humid air as the cars assembled on the grid in an ambient temperature of 30C, the sight of Bernie Ecclestone suddenly scuttling for cover with 10 minutes to go signalled the arrival of a brief torrent of rain as a thunderstorm swept across the circuit. It ended as quickly as it began, but its legacy was a wet track and myriad head-scratching questions for the teams as the start was delayed by 10 minutes. By 3pm, the original start time, the sun was back, but this was one of those days when it was capricious as it slid in and out of dark clouds.
Bernd Maylander's exploratory lap in the safety car was enough to convince most to go for Bridgestone's intermediate tyres, but at least the decision was taken to have a real start in the greasy conditions and not one behind Maylander. Massa made the most of the start, with Jarno Trulli beating Kimi Raikkonen as Hamilton slipped into fourth ahead of his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen. But the latter was soon dispatched by fast-starting Sebastian Vettel in the Toro Rosso, and then Fernando Alonso's Renault.
This was David Coulthard's last grand prix, and it lasted just a few hundred yards. Nico Rosberg tapped the Scot into a spin, which then collected Rosberg's team-mate, Kazuki Nakajima. "This," Coulthard said heavily, "was not the way I envisaged my racing career ending."
That brought out the safety car for four laps as the debris was cleared away . Until lap 11, Hamilton was in the fifth place he needed, but then a rash of pit stops as drivers switched to dry tyres dropped him to seventh, with Massa in the lead after his own switch.
Hamilton disposed of Trulli and closed on Giancarlo Fisichella, who was running fifth, having been the first to stop for dry tyres. Fisichella might be past his sell-by date, but the Force India's Ferrari engine and the slipperiness of the track through the Senna S frustrated Hamilton's pursuit. As long as he was behind, Massa was champion. But the Brazilian could not relax with Vettel and Alonso dogging his wheeltracks.
Hamilton slipped ahead of the Italian on lap 18, and all he had to do was bring his McLaren home in one piece. He was 15 seconds adrift of Massa, but that did not matter. Glock was pushing hard in sixth in his Toyota, but Hamilton had that covered as he looked after his tyres on a surface where degradation is high.
Lap after lap Vettel gave Massa no respite, the gap between them rarely more than a second as they traded fastest lap. It was not until lap 27, when the German refuelled, that Massa was able to nurse a 4.2 second lead over Alonso. He soon gave the Spaniard a spanking, and by the time he refuelled on the 38th lap had built that advantage to more than seven seconds. He rejoined in fourth, as Alonso now had an 11.1-second lead over Raikkonen, with Hamilton 3.7seconds back.
Alonso and Hamilton stopped on the 40th lap and, to his relief, Lewis was able to rejoin ahead of Trulli. So now it was a Ferrari 1-2, with Raikkonen leading Massa by 12.5 seconds with Vettel back up to third from Alonso and Kovalainen and Hamilton sixth. But without Massa in the lead that was enough for the Englishman. Kovalainen stopped for fuel on the 42nd lap, elevating Hamilton to the fifth place he would need when Raikkonen's stop would hand the lead back to Massa.
Vettel, meanwhile, used his lighter fuel load to monster Massa, until his next stop on the 51st lap dropped the Torro Rosso behind Hamilton. Soon the German was on his tail, but the lap times showed Hamilton was having a stroll. There was no need to fight. Fifth would be enough, especially as Kovalainen was riding shotgun in sixth.
This one still had a sting in the tail, however. The skies grew darker from the 60th lap and it began to rain again. On lap 66, Alonso, under pressure from Raikkonen, pitted for intermediate tyres, as did the Finn, Hamilton and Vettel. Massa and Glock did not. Massa came in a lap later, and rejoined without losing his lead. Alonso and Raikkonen were second and third, but with Glock fourth Hamilton was fifth with Vettel in his draft. There were four laps left – the longest of Hamilton's life. Nobody could have choreographed a better climax.
On lap 70, as Robert Kubica unlapped himself, Hamilton crucially ran wide and Vettel was through; suddenly, Massa was champion. It was all or nothing in the final two laps. There was nothing Hamilton could do about Vettel, but then Glock slowed, gifting the Briton the place he needed. It doesn't get any better, or crueller, than that.
Hamilton's heritage: Britain's champions
*MIKE HAWTHORN 1958 (Ferrari)
*GRAHAM HILL 1962 (BRM), 1968 (Lotus)
*JIM CLARK 1963, 1965 (both Lotus)
*JOHN SURTEES 1964 (Ferrari)
*JACKIE STEWART 1969 (Matra)
1971, 1973 (Tyrrell)
*JAMES HUNT 1976 (McLaren)
*NIGEL MANSELL 1992 (Williams)
*DAMON HILL 1996 (Williams)
*Lewis Hamilton 2008 (McLaren)