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.