Finn enjoys possibly his finest hour for McLaren
A stunning last-lap pass gives Kimi Raikkonen victory from 17th on the grid at Suzuka, with the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso second and third. The result ensures the constructors championship battle is wide open going to China.
The afternoon was all about motor racing, and Raikkonen, Alonso and Michael Schumacher gave fans around the world a fabulous exhibition of Grand Prix driving at its finest.
Off the grid poleman Ralf Schumacher led fast-starting Fisichella and Jenson Button, but the safety car was deployed as the field started its second lap after Juan Pablo Montoyas attempt to go round the outside of Jacques Villeneuve at the chicane had ended with the Colombians McLaren hitting the outer wall and losing its left rear wheel.
When racing resumed on lap six Schumacher Jnr continued to lead Fisichella and Button, with David Coulthard maintaining fourth from Mark Webber. But Schumacher Snr and Alonso had already made electrifying progress and were sixth and seventh, with Raikkonen chasing down Villeneuve, Antonio Pizzonia and Christian Klien.
Schumacher Jnr refuelled for the first of three times after only 13 laps - he was the first to make a scheduled stop - and then the real pattern was established with Fisichella leading from Button. Alonso had some dramas as he lost ground going off in the chicane and dirtying his tyres on the 8th lap as he passed Klien. He duly let the Austrian back through then immediately re-passed him into Turn 1. However, stewards decided that the Spaniard had still gained an advantage and he was forced to slow, let the Red Bull back through and then finally re-pass for good.
Alonso soon recovered so that by lap 15 he was the meat in a Schumacher-Raikkonen sandwich as they fought over fifth place. Lap after lap Schumacher kept the Spaniard and the Finn behind, but then Alonso pulled a brilliant move on the former champion, going round the outside on the entry to the notorious 130R corner. Immediately he pulled well clear of the Ferrari as Raikkonen closed in. But the Finn could not quite make the same move, and when he and Schumacher both pitted on the 26th lap (four laps later than Alonso), the German got back out ahead. By this time Fisichella was still the easy leader as Schumacher Jnrs rise to second place was negated by another stop. Button was second from Webber after Coulthard had lost a lot of time in his pit call.
Initially Raikkonen could do no more about Schumacher Snr than Alonso could, further back, about the Saubers and Coulthard. But gradually both men began to make progress. On lap 30 Raikkonen finally pulled off a superb pass on Schumacher by going round the outside of the Ferrari in Turn One, and thereafter he started to hack into the deficit to Webber and Button. Two laps later Alonso was virtually touching the back of the Ferrari going past the pits, and also swept by Schumacher Snr going into the first corner.
The denouement was set up when Fisichella refuelled for the second time on lap 38. That briefly put Button in the lead from a menacing Webber, until they too refuelled on lap 41. Just as they had with Coulthard earlier on, Williams got their man out ahead of BARs, but now Raikkonen was the new leader with Fisichella back up to second. The question now became: could the Finn really be on a single-stop strategy?
His fast lap times confirmed that he could not be, and sure enough in he swept for fuel again on lap 45. With only eight laps left Fisichella now surely had the race in the bag. But Raikkonen was not finished. He was 5.4s behind after 46 laps, but then slashed that to only 4.3s a lap later. By lap 50 the writing was on the wall as the Renault and the McLaren went past the pits separated by only half a second. The gap was two-tenths next time around, and a tenth on lap 52. As they went into the braking area for Turn One Raikkonen was wheel-to-wheel with the hapless Italian and pulled off a fantastic move to go round the outside and into the lead. It was classic racing.
As Fisichella immediately dropped back to finish a bitterly disappointed second, Raikkonen celebrated a remarkable triumph, his seventh of the season. 15.8s further back, Alonsos superb drive saw him take third place after catching Webber by surprise as they went into Turn One on lap 49, dipping his right wheels onto the grass in the process.
The Australian nevertheless impressed with a very strong fourth, with an unhappy Button fifth and Coulthard an elated sixth. After his never-say-die effort Schumacher Snr deserved a lot better than seventh place for Ferrari as he headed home his brother, who took the final point for Toyota.
Christian Kliens dramatic qualifying lap did not translate into points for the second race running, and the Austrian led home the Sauber duo of Felipe Massa and Jacques Villeneuve, the latter switching to a single stop strategy after the safety car deployment.
Rubens Barrichello lost a lot of time after going off the track in Turn One at the start, and the Brazilian headed home Takuma Sato, the man he will replace at BAR next year. Sato also went off in Turn One at the start after a stand-off with Klien, then later took Jarno Trulli out with an ill-judged overtaking attempt. Behind them Tiago Monteiro got back to finishing races with 14th for Jordan, followed by Minardis Robert Doornbos and his own team-mate Narain Karthikeyan. Behind them Christijan Albers was the final classified finisher in 17th place after his Minardi briefly caught fire during its refuelling stop on lap 34.
Besides Montoya and Trulli, the other retirement was Pizzonia, who spun off at the Degner Curve on lap 10.
As Schumacher Snr moved ahead again of Montoya in the fight for third place in the drivers championship, Renaults 14 point haul pushed them back in front of McLaren in the constructors, 176 points to 174, setting up a great title climax in Shanghai.