Michael Schumacher moved himself into the pantheon of triple world title winners at the Japanese Grand Prix, but it took a little help from above to let him through the door.

The German could have settled for second place at Suzuka, and still go to the final round in Malaysia knowing that a similar result would be enough to land the crown - Ferrari's first for 21 years - but he stated repeatedly that a win was the only option he was prepared to consider.

That looked distinctly unlikely right from the moment the lights went out, however, as, for the third year in succession, title rival Mika Hakkinen got the jump on the Ferrari. Despite Schumacher's best efforts to squeeze the Finn into the pit-lane exit, Hakkinen was away and clear by the first corner, and continued to make progress over the opening laps.

The McLaren's getaway was in doubt as the cars reformed on the grid, with wisps of blue smoke, and the first drops of fluid, emanating from under its rear bodywork, but there appeared to be nothing wrong with the car as the signal was given to go.

Indeed, there was nothing at all amiss as Hakkinen opened up a one-second advantage in the course of just two laps and, although Schumacher remained in touch for the first fifth of the race, it was to the detriment of the Ferrari's tyres, which quickly began to show signs of wear in the chase.

By lap ten, the gap had extended to almost two seconds, as Hakkinen slotted seamlessly into the sort of routine that had brought successive Japanese GP wins in 1998 and '99. Running at a tenth or two quicker than Schumacher, the only question remaining was whether a big enough advantage could be built up to overcome what was perceived to be a heavier Ferrari fuel load by the first round of pit-stops.

The question was rendered pointless when the two combatants - already some distance clear of the pack - pitted a lap apart, allowing Hakkinen to retain his lead when both stops had been completed. The gap now had crept close to three seconds, but it did not take long for the balance of power to change slightly.

Heavy cloud had hung over the Suzuka region from well before the morning warm-up and, although the track was dry when the grid formed, there threat of further rain was one that every team was taking seriously. On lap 28, the first signs that the conditions were changing became apparent, as Hakkinen's pace dropped slightly, and Schumacher inched closer with every tour.

Three laps after the first spots of moisture appeared, the gap had been slashed to just 0.8secs, and Hakkinen once again had the red peril looming large in his mirrors. The significance of the track conditions showed even more as, with the drizzle abating momentarily, Hakkinen was able to push his advantage back up over a second on the now drying surface. His break did not last for long, and the rain returned with increasing vengeance.

If someone in the heavens was looking out for Schumacher, however, he or she did not make it too obvious. Even though the German was able to close back on his foe when the precipitation gained momentum, it was not heavy enough to send either man scurrying in for wets and, when the second round of pit-stops began, left Schumacher lumbered with two Jaguars to pass as Hakkinen peeled off.

This is where the race was really won and lost, however, as Ferrari's ploy to take longer over Schumacher's first stop paid off with three extra laps between the critical second stops for the two leaders. Disposing of, first, Eddie Irvine and, then, Johnny Herbert on successive passes through the chicane, Schumacher was able to find some clear track and put in a searing lap - for the conditions - immediately prior to coming in for his last lot of fuel and tyres.

Hakkinen, by contrast, struggled to find the traction and confidence he needed on the slippery surface, losing a full 1.5secs to the German on his first full lap back, and a further half second on the Ferrari's in-lap. With less fuel to take on board, Schumacher was then able to short fill - taking a round six seconds to Hakkinen's 7.4 - and emerged with the Finn only just clearing the chicane.

Twelve laps remained when both men were finally back up to speed, but the conditions were now bad enough to prevent either from getting within five seconds of their previous times. As if to prove how difficult his task still was, Schumacher's Ferrari stepped out of line through the 130R, as Hakkinen continued to apply the pressure.

The Finn was the faster of the two in the closing stages, as Schumacher attempted to stroke it home, and relentlessly closed the gap as the laps ticked by. A slight slip pushed it back over five seconds with just three laps to cover, however, and even the fastest first sector of the entire event on the final lap was not enough to prevent the pit-lane from erupting in a sea of red.

As in qualifying, the battle at the front all but overshadowed what was going on in its wake.

Contrary to expectation and fear, the respective number two drivers were never in a position to influence the title fight, and even the possible backmarkers with an influence behaved impeccably. David Coulthard managed to hold on third place at the start, despite being on the same side of the road as Schumacher, and this was largely due to the fact that Rubens Barrichello made a horrible getaway.

Much as they had in the warm-up session, neither Ferrari looked particularly swift at the lights, but the Brazilian's laboured run to the first turn saw him swamped by both Williams and even Irvine's Jaguar, leaving him seventh, and of no use to Schumacher at all.
Steady - if unspectacular - progress, aided partly by retirements and pit-stops, eventually allowed Barrichello to make it back into the top four, but it was a far from inspiring race by the Hockenheim GP winner.

Coulthard, too, was largely anonymous, simply because he was unable to keep pace with the leaders, and the Scot was condemned to finish over a minute adrift at a circuit where he rarely goes well. Barrichello's own poor race helped the McLaren man preserve his hold on third place in the championship, although this is one battle that will go to the wire at Sepang - even if Barrichello now requires a win to overhaul the nine-point gap between them.

If the scrap for the final step was uninspiring, at least that for the remaining points places kept the crowd enthralled. Ralf Schumacher made perhaps the best getaway to lie fourth at the end of the first lap, but lost his advantage with a somewhat tardy first pit-stop, and fell behind team-mate Jenson Button when everything had shaken out.

The 20-year old Briton had slipped up off the start, falling behind both the German and Irvine's Jaguar, but stuck to his guns on a drivers' circuit and was rewarded when he moved ahead of Schumacher on the pit-stops.

The places were then subsequently reversed a couple of times, and Schumacher seemed headed for fifth when he spun off at the first corner, putting a wheel on the white line bordering the circuit and burying the FW22 in the gravel.

Had its initial pace been upheld, the slip could have heralded more points for the Jaguar team but, by the time that Schumacher Jr exited stage left, Irvine was already trailing team-mate Johnny Herbert in ninth. Again, a long first stop had much to do with the Irishman's reversal of fortune, but he appeared unable to do anything about either Herbert, less so those who now occupied his top six place.

Thus it was Button who moved up to fifth as the lead Williams slid into retirement, and Jacques Villeneuve who inherited the final point. The two had been locked in battle prior to the first round of stops, as Villeneuve mounted a charge in front of the success-hungry Honda crowd. Holding onto his ninth place at the start, the Canadian wasted no time in passing Herbert for eighth, then assumed seventh while Irvine was being replenished.

By then, however, Button had become a distant memory, but Villeneuve was able to stay ahead of the Jaguars to the end, only allowing himself to be lapped at the very end as the title battle bore down on him. Herbert remained ahead of Irvine to the flag, but once again, had to settle for the place he deems the worst in Formula One.

Villeneuve's relative success was enough for him to move British American Racing ahead of Jordan in the constructors' rankings. Eager to get one over on the team with which it will have to share works Honda engines next year, the Brackley outfit will not have been dismayed to see both yellow rivals struggling.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen ran at the tail of the top ten early on, but retired with transmission failure at half distance, while Jarno Trulli tried everything he knew to gain places from his lowly twelfth grid spot, but ended up finishing lower than he had started. One point separates the teams heading to Sepang, however, this is one battle far from settled.

Benetton, too, is not out of the mix, holding a tenuous two point cushion over BAR after neither of its drivers scored in Japan. Giancarlo Fisichella at least put one over on a team-mate insisting he cut his hair after being out-qualified this weekend, as Alex Wurz spun - in front of Michael Schumacher - with the second round of stops on the horizon.

The top ten was completed by Ricardo Zonta, who proved his worth with a tigerish drive through the field from 18th to ninth, and Mika Salo, who did likewise to turn 19th into tenth. Pedro Diniz was no less impressive in gaining nine places to lie behind his Sauber tem-mate, but must be ruing even more the decision to tour his sick car back to the pits on Saturday morning.

If there was happiness in the Sauber garage, however, there was another earthquake happening in that of their engine suppliers a little further up the pit-lane.

Tears flowed with greater consistency than the rain that had wet half the circuit in the closing stages, and there was much hearty back-slapping and out-pouring of emotion as 21 years of heartache finally came to an end. Schumacher was accorded a hero's welcome on his return from a relieved slowing down lap, and lauded from every inch of the facility as he mounted the podium.

In the end, it was a shame that either man involved in the title fight had to lose, and neither disappointed when it came to what was the final battle.

The Gods could not favour both however, and it was Schumacher they chose after years of knocking on the door.