Hamilton needed to outscore Vettel by eight points to claim the crown three rounds early, and with the German starting fifth and the Briton on pole, the odds were stacked in favour of Lewis emerging from the race a five-time champion.
But Raikkonen, starting from second on the grippiest ultrasoft tyres, had a superior start, snatching the lead from the Mercedes into the first turn.
It won Ferrari not just the position but also the strategic initiative, pushing Mercedes into riskier and ultimately unsuccessful tactics to win back the place and close the drivers championship.
Mercedes’s dilemma should’ve been good news for Vettel, who was battling with Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo for fourth place, but the German went wheel to wheel with the Australian at turn 13 and spun, falling to 15th.
Vettel clinically picked his way through the field and was sizing up Nico Hulkenberg’s sixth place on lap 10, but already he was too far back to dream of a position higher than that, and sixth place wouldn’t have been enough for the German even had Hamilton remained in second.
But the race threw a curve ball when Daniel Ricciardo stopped his car on track with a power unit problem.
The virtual safety car was deployed, slowing the field to a safe speed while the Red Bull Racing machine was cleared away, and Mercedes took advantage of the reduced pace to switch Hamilton onto a new set of soft-compound tyres on lap 11, dropping him to third but losing him only nine seconds to Raikkonen in the lead.
But Ferrari was adamant the Briton had stopped too early to make it to the end of the race without making a second tyre change, and though Hamilton was back harrying Raikkonen for the lead in eight laps – after Valtteri Bottas, who was then running in second, let him cruise past into second place – Ferrari was sure the race would come back to the veteran Finn.
On lap 21 Ferrari pulled the trigger, bringing in Raikkonen for his own set of softs, and pit stops followed for Verstappen, Bottas and Vettel, dropping them into places third, fourth and fifth respectively.
Hamilton was left with a comfortable 18-second lead over Raikkonen, but by lap 35 severe blistering was obvious on the Briton’s rear tyres. Ferrari’s forecast was correct, and Mercedes was forced into stopping Hamilton a second time at the end of lap 37.
He emerged from pit lane in fourth – third once Bottas let him past a second time – with a 12-second deficit 19 laps to close it. Ferrari was predicting he’d reach Raikkonen with three laps to go.
But Verstappen, running a bold 34-lap stint on the supersoft tyre that had incredibly vaulted him up from 18th on the grid, was sitting obstinately in second place, and the notoriously aggressive defender wasn’t about to let Hamilton steam past without a battle.
The pair came to blows on lap 54, with Hamilton trying to pin a move on the 21-year-old in the final sector. He got his nose ahead at turn 16, but he ran wide at the following corner, falling back to third and losing crucial momentum.
But second place still wouldn’t have won Hamilton the title, because Vettel, who had been stuck in fifth behind Valtteri Bottas for most of the race, finally made it past the second Mercedes driver and into fourth on the penultimate lap, depriving Hamilton of the points required to seal the deal anyway.
But the championship anticlimax was a just result for race winner Kimi Raikkonen, who expertly managed his one-stop strategy to keep Verstappen and Hamilton at bay and win his first race since the 2013 Australian Grand Prix.
“It’s been a great weekend,” said the Finn. “The tires were not in the best shape, but I think they were a bit similar to Max’s.
“We had enough speed and we keep it consistent. We just tried to keep the tires alive until the end.
“It was a great battle. I think that’s what we all want as drivers.”
Verstappen, who had been downcast on Saturday night (Oct 20) after a suspension failure knocked him out of qualifying and left him languishing at the lower reaches of the grid, was ecstatic to have taken an unlikely podium.
“A bit unexpected!” he said. “A good start, a good first lap, and then very quickly we were back into P4, P5 and following the leaders.
“We made the right call to undercut Valtteri, and then we did our own race.”
Hamilton, who drew headlines all week as he stood on the precipice of a fifth world title, faded into the background of the stories of his fellow podium-getters, but his third-place finish grew his title buffer to 70 points.
“I thought we’d be able to do better, but this is the best we could do in the end,” he conceded. “But anyway, I’m really happy still, we still got to the top three.
“Ferrari picked up their game this weekend. We’ve got to push hard for the next race.”
Hamilton need finish only seventh at this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix next Sunday (Oct 28) regardless of Vettel’s result to finally claim his fifth world championship.
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