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Race analysis - everything to play for in Japan 29 Sep 2003

(L to R): Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren, Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari and Heinz-Harald Frentzen (GER) Sauber on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd15, United States Grand Prix, Race Day, Indianapolis, USA, 28 September 2003

After all the criticism that has come Bridgestone's way in 2003, the quality of its tyres in heavy rain proved crucial in tipping the balance of the world championship in Indianapolis. Had the race been dry all the way through, most believe Michelin would probably have won. That's the way the cookie has crumbled in a seesaw season that has injected fresh life into Formula One racing.

Last year race fans here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway left feeling outraged that Michael Schumacher had gifted victory on the line to team mate Rubens Barrichello. This time they cheered the German to the echo as he scored his sixth victory of the season, his 70th overall and took a giant leap closer to a record sixth world title.

But, is the battle really over? Most betting punters would suggest that is the case, but you can be sure that Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren are very definitely not giving up the fight. And though a dreadful day finally wrote Juan Pablo Montoya out of the drivers' championship screenplay, Williams is still well in the fight for victory in the constructors' even though Schumacher's triumph moved Ferrari back into the lead by four points.

Looking at yesterday's chaotic race it is interesting to note that this time the top-speed tables were turned in Williams' favour, in contrast to Monza. This time Montoya peaked at 358.9 kph compared to Michael Schumacher's 355.7. This bodes well for Williams's prospects at Suzuka, where high speed is important, But equally interesting was the fact that Raikkonen's top speed was only 346.7, yet his best lap of 1m 11.617s was only just shy of Schumacher's overall fastest lap of 1m 11.473s. That indicates just how good the McLaren chassis is and the driveability of its Mercedes engine, even if the latter lacks the sheer power of BMW or Ferrari.

One of the reasons Schumacher and Ferrari are so strong is the apparent invincibility of the red car. Thirty seven races have passed since Michael's last mechanical retirement - when his car suffered fuel pressure problems in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 2001. This season he has finished every race bar Brazil, where he crashed in the rain. While that is a genuinely impressive statistic, however, the odds are high that he must suffer a retirement sooner or later. Certainly that is the view that is sustaining McLaren and Williams as they prepare for the final race, where Michael need only finish eighth even if Kimi Raikkonen wins, to secure his sixth crown.

Indianapolis produced an equally fascinating result outside the top four manufacturers. Sauber led a race for the first time, courtesy of Heinz-Harald Frentzen on lap 48 (while Schumacher refuelled), and with the German's third place and Nick Heidfeld's fifth Peter Sauber pulled the rabbit from the hat. His 10-point windfall boosted his team from a frustrated ninth in the constructors' championship to the fifth position it sought to protect at the beginning of the season. This was salt in BAR's wounds, after Jenson Button had led the race for laps 23 to 37 and seemed set to score eight points for second place. Now Sauber has 19, BAR 18. And Jaguar is back in the fray too, after Justin Wilson drove an excellent fighting race to score his first-ever championship point for eighth place. Further back, Toyota's tyre gamble proved costly as it failed to add to its 14 points despite Panis starting third and da Matta ninth, and Jordan's two points for Fisichella's seventh place has brought it within a point of its Japanese rival.

There may be only one race left, but there is still everything to play for.