McLaren appeal hangs over Raikkonen title joy

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SAO PAULO, Oct 22 (Reuters) Kimi Raikkonen may have to wait days and even weeks before the Ferrari driver can be absolutely certain that he is Formula One champion.

Even as the Finn celebrated a stunning victory against the odds in yesterday's Brazilian season-ender at Interlagos, rivals McLaren were preparing an appeal that could cast a cloud over his first title.

There may be further agonies in store for a sport whose image has taken a battering already this season with a spying scandal and other controversies.

McLaren's Fernando Alonso, the double world champion who handed his crown to Raikkonen after finishing a point behind the Finn and level with team mate Lewis Hamilton, dreaded that.

''It would sink the sport if they (McLaren) won the title this way,'' he told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser.

''I would be mortified if that happened,'' added the Spaniard, whose future at the team will also be decided in the coming weeks after a falling out with bosses.

McLaren have informed the governing International Automobile Federation of their intention to appeal against the stewards' decision not to penalise Williams and BMW Sauber for fuel temperature irregularities at Interlagos.

With those two teams occupying the three positions in front of Hamilton, the 22-year-old British rookie who would have been Formula One's youngest champion had he finished fifth rather than seventh yesterday, they have an incentive.

McLaren have a week to decide whether to proceed but even then it is unlikely that they will be able to overturn Raikkonen's title.

Article 168 of the FIA's international sporting code makes clear that it remains up to the stewards to decide whether to move a driver up in the race classification. Drivers have been stripped of points in the past but allowed to keep their placings.

TORMENTED SEASON Raikkonen has seen it all before, hailed as a winner of the halted 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix only to have the victory taken away days later when it emerged that the timekeepers were wrong.

Even if it all turns out to be one last storm in a teacup, the lingering uncertainty was typical of a tormented season, poisoned by the spy saga that left McLaren stripped of all their constructors' points and fined a record 100 million dollar for having Ferrari information in their possession.

Having secured a thrilling three-way battle down to the wire, for the first time since 1986, the last thing the sport needed was further confusion.

Raikkonen's win appeared at least to have ended talk of the title being tainted. After twice finishing a season as runner-up, the Finn won more races (six) than anyone else.

McLaren team boss Ron Dennis was quite correct when he said after the race, before the fuel issue came to a head, that it had been a great season on the track.

His team had led since the second race in Malaysia, won by Alonso, and in Hamilton -- the most astonishing rookie the sport has seen -- they struck pure gold.

Dennis said the statisticians had worked out how Hamilton was likely to progress during the course of the season but had ripped up the predictions after three races, such was his form.

''He exceeded all the expectations,'' he added.

Hamilton failed but his time will surely come. He won four races and finished his first nine on the podium.

''Lewis has shown more potential as a newcomer this year than any rookie driver has ever done. He has shown that he is a serious contender,'' said Britain's last champion Damon Hill.

''This has been the best F1 season in a very long time; it is great for the sport. I hope that Lewis wins the championship next year,'' he added.

''The worrying thing for the other drivers is that he's only going to get better.'' REUTERS TB RAI1957

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