Rubens Barrichello again played the perfect back-up role to Ferrari team leader Michael Schumacher at Suzuka - but did so from the front, leading almost throughout to win the Japanese Grand Prix and prevent Kimi Raikkonen from having a shot at the German's world title.

Starting from pole, Barrichello held the lead for roughly half a lap before Juan Montoya blasted past at the Spoon Curve and disappeared into a four-second lead by the end of lap two. The title rivals, meanwhile, claimed seventh and twelfth places respectively off the line, both opting to play it cautiously to avoid eliminating themselves from contention at the first corner.

Schumacher's circumspection lasted only slightly less time than Montoya's lead, as the German made an uncharacteristic error in trying to pass F1 returnee Takuma Sato at the chicane on lap seven. Sizing the Japanese driver up from too far back, the Ferrari driver misjudged Sato's line and clipped the rear of the BAR-Honda with his front wing. Again, his famous luck held, however, as the damaged Ferrari was right by the pit entrance when the incident happened, allowing the German to duck in for an immediate change.

While Schumacher was in the process of dropping back to 19th place, meanwhile, Montoya was dropping out. The leader was spotted crawling out of the Degner Curves, apparently running on the limiter and, having eventually made it back to the pits, confirmed that the hydraulics had let him down. It may be just as well that his championship ambitions expired at Indianapolis.

The Colombian's demise allowed Barrichello to re-inherit the lead, but the Brazilian now had the fast starting Fernando Alonso for company, as the feisty Spaniard looked for a way through. Raikkonen, meanwhile, held a watching brief in third, more than ten seconds adrift of the Renault.

The leaders pitted together on lap twelve, allowing Raikkonen into the lead, but Barrichello retained his advantage when they resumed. When Raikkonen stopped next time around, the McLaren appeared stationary for longer than necessary, but the team had opted to change strategy and put the Finn onto just two stops, when most of the field had decided that three was the better way to go.

Schumacher, meanwhile, was having to fight his way through the field all over again, but found the midfield, now with his brother and the Toyotas in the mix, a slightly tougher proposition. His concerns were heightened when Alonso dropped out, with another blown engine, elevating Raikkonen to third spot, albeit behind team-mate Coulthard, while he still languished a few places away from the single point he required.

Schumacher pitted along with his brother and Toyota's Cristiano da Matta on lap 24, ensuring that the battle between them would rage into the third sector of the race, although none could have imagined that it would almost end in tears.

Barrichello and Coulthard pitted in tandem a couple of lap later, returning to the track ahead of Raikkonen, who continued to pick up pace gradually as his fuel load dwindled. The Brazilian's metronomic pace allowed him to open out a 16secs advantage over the young Finn by the time the McLaren man made his final call on lap 32, however, and it seemed that only another shock would hand Raikkonen and McLaren a realistic title shot.

Barrichello's final stop came eight laps further down the road and, again, the Brazilian was able to resume at the head of the field after a faultless turn-around. Coulthard led briefly, but his stop and a slightly longer delay was just enough for his team-mate's two-stop stagger to unwind and elevate him into second, the best place to capitalise should anything happen to Barrichello. The Brazilian, however, was piloting one of the increasingly reliable F2003-GAs, and maintained his pace to the end, even easing off over the closing stages top preserve his machinery.

Raikkonen maintained his second spot, with Coulthard playing rear gunner against the chasing pack, but fourth-placed Jenson Button was too far adrift to pose a real threat, and had Jarno Trulli - up from the very back of the grid - for company. The second BAR of Sato, having survived its brush with the champion-elect was running solo in a strong sixth place and, enjoying the sort of reliability predecessor Jacques Villeneuve lacked, put the Brackley team in pole position to scoop the valuable fifth constructors' championship place.

Although Barrichello looked untroubled out front, Raikkonen's need to pass the Brazilian was almost raised by an inter-necine squabble between the two Schumachers. Having exchanged places at their third and final pit-stops, both Germans continued to hound da Matta, with Ralf looking the more feisty at the back of the train. A couple of passing attempts were strongly rebuffed by Michael, but the Ferrari driver's own attempt to get past the Toyota ahead of him almost ended his run.

Catching da Matta a little quicker than he anticipated heading into the chicane, Michael locked up all four wheels, slewing across the road as his brother attempted to take avoiding action on the outside. Somehow, heavy contact was narrowly avoided, but Ralf - who had earlier had two spins at the same spot - repeated Michael's earlier nose-breaking incident, and had to pit for a replacement, effectively ending any resistance to the sixth Schumacher crown.

Michael backed off from there on in, allowing da Matta an easier run to seventh place, knowing that he was on course to break yet another record.

While Barrichello enjoyed an untroubled cruise to a third win of the year victory, Ferrari was able to celebrate a remarkable - if slightly nerve-wracking and anti-climactic - double triumph.

Schumacher's eight place was enough to clinch the drivers' title by two points from Raikkonen, while Williams-BMW's non-score meant that the Scuderia was assured of the constructors title for much of the afternoon.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Schumacher and the Scuderia may not have been miles ahead of the opposition in this year of revised points and procedures - but the are still ahead.

Race result:

1. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari 53 laps 1hr 25min 11.740secs
2. Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +11.085secs
3. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +11.614secs
4. Jenson Button Britain BAR-Honda +33.106secs
5. Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault +34.269secs
6. Takuma Sato Japan BAR-Honda +51.692secs
7. Cristiano da Matta Brazil Toyota-Toyota +56.794secs
8 Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari +59.487secs

9. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +1min 00.159secs
10. Olivier Panis France Toyota-Toyota +1min 01.844secs
11. Mark Webber Australia Jaguar-Cosworth +1min 11.005secs
12. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +1 lap
13. Justin Wilson Britain Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
14. Ralph Firman Britain Jordan-Ford +1 lap
15. Jos Verstappen Holland Minardi-Cosworth +2 laps
16. Nicolas Kiesa Denmark Minardi-Cosworth +3 laps

Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Jordan-Ford 33 laps completed
Rtd Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault 17 laps completed
Rtd Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Sauber-Petronas 9 laps completed
Rtd Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW 9 laps completed

Fastest lap:

Ralf Schumacher Williams-BMW 1min 33.408secs lap 43