Michael Schumacher clinched an historic fifth world title with victory at Magny-Cours, but he had to rely on a huge slice of luck to overcome an uncharacteristic mistake.
The German appeared to be heading for at least an extension of his points lead when he pitted for his first change of tyres, but crossing the exit line by the slimmest of margins set up a corking showdown with new kid on the block, Kimi Raikkonen.
Schumacher's path to the championship was eased even before the red lights went out when, behind him on the grid, Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello was left stranded on his jacks as the field moved off on its formation lap. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, who suffered a demotion to the back of the grid after stalling at the start of the last round in Britain, there was to be no way back this time. A change of steering wheel failed to have the desired effect, and a frustrated Barrichello was pushed away, his marginal title hopes over.
His luck holding for another week, despite some frantic work in the garage ahead of him joining the grid, Schumacher could not quite get the jump on his remaining rival, Juan Montoya, at the start. The Colombian cut left off the grid to block any potential move up the inside, then moved back towards his original line for the opening corner, Schumacher successfully rebuffed.
The leaders did not have it all their own way in the early stages of the lap, however, for Raikkonen and Ralf Schumacher, benefiting from the gap left by Barrichello's demise, were right on their tails through Grande Courbe and Estoril. Further back, however, it was a different story and, despite only 18 cars taking the start, Takuma Sato, Olivier Panis and Pedro de la Rosa all managed to be delayed in a midfield skirmish that saw the trio take to the gravel. The Japanese rookie claimed that his French rival turned in on him, but both were to suffer the consequences of their brush later in the race.
Surprisingly, all 18 runners made it around the Adelaide hairpin cleanly, with Felipe Massa showing in seventh place, behind the big three teams and Jenson Button, who moved into the points following Barrichello's non-start. Massa, however, was where he was by default, as he had jumped the start, and the eager Brazilian would thus be required to complete a 'drive-thru' penalty, setting the tone for the afternoon.
Not wanting to be stuck behind Montoya for too long, Schumacher made his intentions clear right from the start, looking to pass the Colombian at Adelaide as early as the third lap. The move was optimistic, however, and almost allowed Raikkonen through into second. The status quo
was swiftly restored, but the leading trio would not be much further apart before the opening round of pit-stops intervened.
Massa's drive-thru only served to land the young Sauber driver in more hot water for, in his haste to exit ahead of Sato's recovering Jordan, he put a wheel across the white line separating pit-lane from circuit and earned himself a repeat trip down the slow road. Sato, having ploughed the gravel, was closing on de la Rosa at this point, and seemingly had the legs on the Jaguar, for he was able to home in once more after Massa departed the fray for a second time.
The Japanese driver's progress mirrored that throughout the field, with cars closing on those ahead of them but being largely unable to pass on the tricky Magny-Cours layout. Jacques Villeneuve, running just ahead of the Mark Webber/de la Rosa/Sato battle, was chasing down the two Toyotas, all three having benefited from the first corner scuffle, but succeeded only in locking up under braking with each attempt to pass the Scot.