The Italian championship dream is very much alive, after Michael Schumacher led home Rubens Barrichello in an eventful United States Grand Prix.

The German's margin of victory on a damp-but-drying track was both more and less than could have been expected prior to the first American Formula One race for nine years, but helped to give him an eight-point cushion heading to the Orient and the season finales in Japan and Malaysia. Barrichello, too, had to rely on others to cement his second place, but at least on this occasion, it was from within his own team.

Schumacher's bid to lead from lights to flag was thwarted right from the off, but only by a suspiciously good start from the McLaren of David Coulthard starting alongside him on the front row. The German's fears about straddling the famous yard of bricks proved an irrelevance as, firstly, the front row was moved back to row two, and, then, Coulthard made a better than average getaway, as all but Johnny Herbert opted for wet-weather tyres to combat the greasy track and decidedly leaden skies..

Replays showed that the Scot had, indeed, begun to move before the lights had gone out but, at this point it mattered little. Having built up a small cushion over the rest of the field - which all made it through the tight opening corner sequence unscathed - Coulthard then allowed Schumacher to catch him, before bottling the Ferrari up until team-mate Mika Hakkinen arrived in third place.

The Finn had made a good start, but had to fend off Rubens Barrichello in the second Ferrari at Turn One, dropping time to the two leaders. Coulthard's tactics, however, soon bunched the leading trio together again, before Schumacher muscled his way through at the start of lap seven. Hakkinen was then allowed through without too much opposition, as much because Coulthard had got the call to serve his stop-go penalty as in the interests of the championship, of course.

Almost as soon as he was through, however, Hakkinen disappeared, as McLaren got wind of the pace being set by the early stoppers for slick rubber. A collision between Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button - at the time running in fifth and sixth - saw the Briton swap to the four-groove option, and almost immediately, he was lapping quicker than the front runners. Determined to steal a march over its rivals, McLaren wasted no time in calling Hakkinen in from second, and handing Schumacher a sizeable lead.

With Coulthard making his penalty call on the very next lap - and then stopping again on nine for his move to slicks - and original fourth-place man Barrichello also having stopped, the German found himself over ten seconds to the good. Opting not to stop only increased this margin, as those behind filtered onto pit-road one-by-one, and Schumacher was 13secs up on Heinz-Harald Frentzen by lap ten.

As if to prove McLaren wrong, Schumacher then set a handful of fastest laps, before Hakkinen again began to make a mark on the leaderboard. The Finn had found himself stuck, legitimately, behind the Minardi of Gaston Mazzacane and, with the track still damp off-line, could do nothing as Schumacher stretched away. By the time the German decided that his wets had had enough punishment, he was able to stop and rejoin still in top spot, and with a 16sec advantage to boot.

Now Hakkinen began his charge, setting a string of fastest laps with every one completed. Slowly but surely the gap between the two championship contenders came down until, by lap 24, Schumacher was just four seconds up the road. Hakkinen had succeeded in taking the lap record down from 1min 18.7 when he began to carve through the field, to 1min 15.7 when he made it into second place, but his recovery was beginning to take its toll. On lap 26, the Mercedes finally cried enough, showing flame under the engine cover as Hakkinen tried to coax it back to the pits - and retirement.

The leader now enjoyed a twelve-second advantage over his similarly slick-shod brother Ralf, with whom he had exchanged fastest laps while Hakkinen was enjoying the rear view of a Minardi. The Williams had initially run in the wake of the battle for second but, as those around him stopped, managed to climb in behind Hakkinen, and ahead of the new scrap for fourth involving Frentzen, Jos Verstappen, Jacques Villeneuve and Barrichello. It would not last for Ralf, however, as, shortly after his first real pit-stop, the Williams was back in for attention to its pneumatic system, a problem that would later herald its retirement.

Also mixing it in the point-scoring places early on were the likes of Pedros Diniz and de la Rosa, and Herbert, who had kept the Jaguar out on slicks while all around were losing wets.

The changeable track conditions had, like the accident at Monza, prevented too much fuel being taken on at the early tyre stops and, despite most teams having decided that the Indianapolis pit-lane was too long for more than a scheduled one-stopper, forced the majority to make a second call at half-distance.

With Herbert dropping to 17th after requiring a new front wing during his change, and both Arrows falling by the wayside within ten laps, the top order was then reshuffled by a piece of typical Ferrari thinking.

Frentzen, Villeneuve and Barrichello continued to run in close formation, despite an unscheduled spin for the Canadian at the ridiculously tight infield hairpin, and both Ferrari and Jordan were determined to gain as much advantage as possible during the pit-stops. More than once, one tried to bluff the other into blinking first, shuffling men and tyres out of the garage only to withdraw them again as the cars sped past pit entrance.

Then, suddenly, both crews were out, even though neither car appeared likely to make the deceleration lane. Frentzen, had other ideas, making to take to the banking before ducking sharply into the pits. The change of tyres took no more than the average time, but Barrichello now had a clear track on which to make ground. Twice the Ferrari driver eschewed the need to stop, all the while opening out a vital advantage. Then he was in, turned around in a shade over seven seconds, and returned to the track as Frentzen continued to make his way down the seemingly never-ending main straight. Ferrari was one-two; McLaren just one down.

Schumacher, by now, was comfortably ahead but, if the American public thought that the race was over, they had the one name they already knew to remind them that there was more to watch than the Ferrari. Villeneuve, a winner at the Brickyard in '95, and shuffled back to fourth by the spin and stop, quickly began to reel Frentzen in, the BAR on a mission to score it first podium in front of an audience it liked to think of as its own.

As the laps ticked by, so the Canadian began to think more and more about the decisive move. Edging closer each time around, Villeneuve got himself deeper and deeper into the Jordan's slipstream, although never quite close enough to make the pass into Turn One. This, however, was a trifling problem to the Canadian, and a lunge was finally prepared at the start of lap 64. Too far back to make it stick, the BAR sailed down the inside of Frentzen, before taking to the grass as corner and car parted company.

Three seconds were lost in the recovery, but still Villeneuve was not giving up. Two laps later, the gap had been halved, and two more still saw the Canadian right back on the Jordan's tail. Both cars missed apexes, and braked late in an effort to secure third once and for all, but it was Frentzen who would win out.

Behind them, Coulthard was on the verge of joining the enthralled spectators. The McLaren man had clawed his way back into the top seven following the demise of the Arrows, which saw Verstappen hit the T8 tyre wall and de la Rosa stop next to the pit wall, and then guaranteed himself at least a point by diving inside Diniz on lap 37. From then on in, however, life became tougher and, despite the fastest lap of the race, Coulthard made just one more place before the flag came out.

Gone by now were early combatants Button (engine)and Trulli, who was further delayed by a missing wheel at his stop for slicks before coasting into retirement on the oval section beyond Turn One. Mika Salo spun off into the T4 gravel trap, while both Giancarlo Fisichella and the resolute Mazzacane succumbed to late race engine problems. Jean Alesi, too, had another motor failure, almost collecting Prost team-mate Nick Heidfeld as the unit seized and pitched him into a spin.

Of the survivors, Diniz looked set for sixth until his final pit-stop, which allowed the second BAR of Ricardo Zonta to close right in on the Sauber. The two Brazilians toyed with the place for a while, before the less experienced man decided that he had had enough of playing and moved to strike a second point in as many meetings.

Almost striking a blow for his title hopes at this stage was Schumacher. So great was the German's advantage in the closing stages that his concentration began to wander, and it took an unscheduled moment when the Ferrari hooked a kerb and spun, to bring him around. Assuring the pits that he was now fully awake again, Schumacher cruised on home.

There was no repeat of his Monza tears this time around, the German simply overjoyed at having rescued his championship challenge - and seeing his greatest rival sidelined unexpectedly. Hakkinen's demise was McLaren's first mechanically-induced retirement for eleven races, and could yet prove to be its most costly. With Coulthard too far back to make any difference, Ferrari swept back to the head of both championships, and will take some shifting as the series moves on to the Eastern venues of Suzuka and Sepang.

As the Americans would say: 'Game On!'