BERLIN — When German Formula One seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher retired, there were gloomy predictions ratings for the sport would suffer.

But the circuit’s Oct. 21 finale in Brazil, when three drivers fought for a championship that wasn’t decided until the last lap, provided chills for broadcasters as well as fans.

“The spectacular finale was the crowning moment for a thrill-filled first season in the post-Schumacher era,” says RTL sports topper Manfred Loppe of the sport, whose popularity trails only soccer in many countries.

Still, despite the tight finale, ratings for the circuit were off 20% over last year, a drop Loppe finds acceptable.

“If you keep in mind the declines this year were far less than predicted, the overall result was very positive for us,” Loppe says. “The strong ratings are proof that the passions for the sport remain high.”

German commercial web RTL ended up with sterling ratings, especially in the latter half of the season, with the 11.13 million (39.8% market share) viewers for the primetime finale in Brazil making it one of the most-watched programs of the year — a peak of 12.9 million tuned into the Brazil Grand Prix.

There was drama both on and off the track, which helped spike ratings as the season progressed. Spain’s Fernando Alonso, the moody defending champion, sniped at the perceived favoritism on the McLaren team toward charismatic young Brit Lewis Hamilton. Adding spice was an unprecedented spying scandal involving top secret documents passed from a disgruntled Ferrari technician to a counterpart at McLaren — resulting in a $100 million fine. Aside from the colorful three-way race in Brazil, there was a spectacular crash in the Montreal Grand Prix in June involving BMW driver Robert Kubica of Poland whose car disintegrated after hitting a barrier at 170 mph. Kubica was only slightly injured, and replays of the crash all week helped spark an upturn in ratings.

RTL had an average of 5.9 million viewers (about 40% market share) for the March-October racing season that moves around the world with events in Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas.

In Britain, ratings jumped higher on ITV this season, thanks to Hamilton’s dazzling first season. The finale in Brazil averaged 9 million and peaked at 10.6 million, which was half of Britain’s TV audience Oct. 21. Ratings in Britain were up 41% this season to their highest level since 2001.

“It’s been a superb season with viewing figures at a six-year high,” says ITV news and sport topper Mark Sharman. “Lewis Hamilton might have just narrowly missed out on the world championship, but his impact on the sport has been huge.”

In Italy, 6.59 million watched the finale, just below the 7.7 million who watched Schumacher’s last race a year ago.

In Germany, there is also a considerable audience watching the ratings on paybox Premiere. Premiere signed a contract extension recently, and RTL, which has broadcast Formula One since 1991, is in advanced stages of negotiations. German media reports put RTL’s 2007 deal at e85 million ($121 million) per year while Premiere paid $64 million.

With the annual worldwide TV rights alone for Formula One valued at an estimated $384 million, there’s a lot at stake.