Michael Schumacher bookended his fourth world championship season in fitting style, taking a ninth win of the year and enough points to ensure that he became the highest scorer of all time in Formula One.

The German needed just six points to take the final accolade held by Alain Prost, but left no-one in any doubt of his intention to win the race by cutting violently across the track as soon as the red lights went out. The now traditional 'Suzuka Swerve' was conducted as much out of concern that second-placed Juan Montoya would vault ahead of the Ferrari into turn one, but Schumacher need not have worried as he laid the foundations for a blistering opening stint.

Running lighter than any other front-runner save team-mate Barrichello, Schumacher fairly blasted away from the pack to hold an astonishing 3.6secs lead at the end of the first lap. His cause was aided by the action in his wake, as Barrichello, needing to win the race to have any hope of making it a Ferrari 1-2 in the championship, carved his way through from fourth on the grid to be challenging Montoya at the final chicane.

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Ralf Schumacher had already been despatched by the time the Brazilian ducked inside the second Williams, blown away at 130R, and it was clear that the Grove team had chosen to run the controversial scrubbed Michelins from the start. Knowing that the tyres would pick up performance as the race wore on, both Montoya and Schumacher Jr were sitting ducks for the lightweight Ferrari in the opening laps, but Barrichello quickly discovered that Montoya was not about to lie down.

Having made his move at the chicane, Barrichello was astonished to find the Colombian blasting back past him into the first corner of the second lap, and thereafter had to settle for a view of the FW23's gearbox as Montoya's game plan took effect.

By this stage, the leader was some 8.2secs up the road, and seemingly heading for an uncontested ninth win of the year. But it was clear that Schumacher was pushing, as two untypical errors on lap nine would later testify.

Already the midfield had begun to thin out, as Giancarlo Fisichella undid all the hard work put in by his launch control to spin away an early fifth place. The Italian had been ahead of Barrichello off the start, such was the ferocity with which the Benetton cleared the line, but was bundled back to fifth - still ahead of the two McLarens - at turn one.

In the pits was Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the German requiring a new nose on his Prost after unscheduled contact with another car, while Alex Yoong and Enrique Bernoldi were tailed off at the back after having had to start from the pits.

None of these became the first retirements, however, as the unfortunate 'honour' fell to the man who would have no chance to redeem himself in the future.

Jean Alesi, making his 201st and last grand prix start, was minding his own business on the fringes of the top ten when Kimi Raikkonen's Sauber broke away from the Finn's control over a bump at Dunlop and spun across the path of the oncoming Jordan. Raikkonen appeared to have caught the Sauber, and Alesi headed for the outside, only to see the blue car come back across his bows.

A relatively low speed impact then seemed to be on the cards, with both men braking hard, but the contact between them only served to accelerate Raikkonen hard into the barriers, his nosecone now at the height of the Jordan's cockpit. Despite the Sauber exploding into a thousand fragments as it was caught between Jordan and barrier, neither driver was seriously hurt, although Raikkonen later visited the medical centre complaining of head and neck pains. Alesi savoured his last walk back to the pits, waving to the crowd and drinking in the atmosphere.

Remarkably, the debris from the incident had been cleared by the time the leaders returned to the scene, although the tail end of the field had had a narrow escape as loose wheels careered back across the track in the immediate aftermath.

Schumacher had got as far as ten seconds into the distance before Montoya recorded his first fastest lap of the race, and it became apparent that this was the point at which the Michelins began to kick in. From then on, the Ferrari could run no more, and the Colombian gradually reeled it back in until the gap stabilised.

With his advantage now only 8.2secs, and not enough to guarantee him the lead when he returned to the track, Schumacher peeled into the pits for his first stop on lap 18. This was only four tours after Barrichello had made his pit-call, and there was some suggestion that both Ferraris may be on three-stop strategies. The decision had not worked in Barrichello's favour, as he quickly found himself bottled up behind Fisichella and Jarno Trulli, battling over sixth, but the amount of fuel pumped into the champion's car quickly dispelled those fears.

Montoya's stint at the front lasted for three laps, as the two Williams cars ran one-two, before he, Schumacher Jr and Hakkinen all dropped from first to fifth at their respective stops, leaving the field in something of a status quo situation once the dust had settled.

Suzuka may be a fine racers' track but, like so many of its grand prix counterparts, it provides precious little in the way of clear cut overtaking opportunities. As a result, there was no change in the top order for much of the middle part of the race - despite the best efforts of Ralf and Barrichello to entertain.

The Brazilian had found himself running just ahead of his team-mate's brother after the first round of stops, but Ralf was in no mood to mess around, and wanted third for himself as he sought to chase down Montoya. The battle between the two eventually came to a head at the ridiculously tight chicane that ends the lap, as Ralf found himself taking the shortest route - and the quickest one to a stop-go penalty.

Any advantage the German may have gained from this would surely have been lost had both he and his combatant not opted to pit together on lap 29. While Ralf sat stationary, fuming, in the Williams stall, Barrichello all but stalled in the Ferrari station. Incredibly, the meant that the duo then exited at the same time, although a minor glitch for the Brazilian forced Schumacher to jink around him in the slip road in order to avoid a collision.

This in itself had the potential to prove controversial as, just as he had done at the Nurburgring, Ralf put a wheel over the white line that divides pit-lane from race track. No sooner had he served one penalty than another notice of investigation appeared on the timing monitors.

That almost became three, as the recovering Barrichello closed onto the back of the Williams, forcing Schumacher to defend vigorously and had it not been for the Brazilian eventually squeezing past into the first corner, Ralf could have found himself with something akin to a sin-bin season ticket. As it was, neither penalty was assessed, and the battle between the pair, still fighting over third in the championship, continued, via Barrichello's third and final stop, right to the end.

While his brother was engaging in his own brand of mayhem at the tail of the top six, Michael Schumacher was again trying to frantically open out a gap sufficient to keep Montoya at bay when the second and final round of stops arrived.

As he had the first time around, the German managed to eke out just eight seconds over his rival, allowing Montoya to retake the lead with 18 laps to go. Again, however, the role was short-lived as, on the very next lap, the Williams made its own final call for fuel and tyres.

With the chasing McLarens now some way adrift, both Schumacher and Montoya were able to exit inside the top two, as Mika Hakkinen missed another opportunity to lead on his last pre-sabbatical race by joining the Colombian in the pits.

Jos Verstappen was there too, having another of his lightning starts in an under-fuelled Arrows negated by the decision to pass people on the formation lap. It took the officials, no doubt occupied by Ralf's antics, some 34 laps to assess the penalty, but it was still enough to drop the Dutchman between the two late starters.

Also off the track by now - and not looking likely to rejoin - were the leading players in one of the minor championship battles.

With Pedro de la Rosa running too low down the order to be a force, Eddie Irvine had managed to work his Jaguar into a position to perhaps pick up the vital point to break a tie with Benetton, only for the fuel connector on his car to fail and prevent him leaving after his first stop.

This left Benetton in prime position to inherit a score should any of the frontrunners retire, but Fisichella's strong race also ended prematurely when his car coasted to a halt. Jenson Button's occupation of seventh place would ultimately count for little as the top six remained intact.

This also meant that the scrap in the Briton's wake, featuring one member of each team battling over fourth in points, also counted for nought. Nevertheless, Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve proved that they were not about to let up, until the Canadian spun out of contention three laps from home. With no points all round, it meant that Sauber attained its highest finishing position ever, with the two Honda-powered teams having to take a share of fifth place.

Traffic had not been kind to Montoya as he attempted to close the gap to Schumacher on his in-lap, and the Williams man again found himself having to negotiate the midfield runners - the battle between Trulli, Heidfeld and Villeneuve - as he tried to chase down Schumacher in the closing stages. Even though he had wend his way through the train of three cars, however, the Colombian somehow managed to reduce the deficit.

It was never enough to stop Schumacher and Ferrari from capping another champion display, though, and the German cruised home just over three seconds to the good.

Behind Montoya, Hakkinen, having enjoyed one last battle with his title nemesis during the first round of pit-stops, ceded third to team-mate Coulthard and dropped away from the Scot as his car began ailing. Barrichello and Schumacher Jr rounded out the top six, the German closing once again on his rival but running out of time.

Nine wins, ten points and another record in the books was a fitting way for Michael to sign off what he himself has described as his best year in Formula One. He had better enjoy it, though, as things won't be as easy next year.

Race Results:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 53 laps 1hr 27mins 33.298secs
2. Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW +3.154secs
3. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +23.262secs
4. Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +35.539secs
5. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +35.544secs
6. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +37.122secs

7. Jenson Button Britain Benetton-Renault +1min 37.102secs
8. Jarno Trulli Italy Jordan-Honda +1 lap
9. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +1 lap
10. Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda +1 lap
11. Fernando Alonso Spain Minardi-European +1 lap
12. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Prost-Acer +1 lap
13. Olivier Panis France BAR-Honda +2 laps
14. Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Asiatech +2 laps
15. Jos Verstappen Holland Arrows-Asiatech +2 laps
16. Alex Yoong Malaysia Minardi-European +3 laps

Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Renault 47 laps completed
Rtd Pedro de la Rosa Spain Jaguar-Cosworth 45 laps completed
Rtd Tomas Enge Czech Republic Prost-Acer 42 laps completed
Rtd Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth 24 laps completed
Rtd Jean Alesi France Jordan-Honda 5 laps completed
Rtd Kimi Raikkonen Finland Sauber-Petronas 5 laps completed

Fastest lap: Juan Montoya Williams-BMW 1min 36.450 new lap record