Fernando Alonso's championship chances received a massive boost at Suzuka, not only with victory in the Japanese Grand Prix but also with main rival Michael Schumacher retiring from the race while comfortably in front.
The German's smoky exit 16 laps from home was the one major talking point in a race largely devoid of excitement but, ironically, has had the opposite effect on the title race, by leaving Alonso in need of a single point in Brazil to put the crown out of reach. Up until that point, the Renault driver had been in damage limitation mode and appeared to be headed for Interlagos needing to score three points more than his rival.
Unable to gift his team-mate the lead as the lights went out, the race began with pole man Felipe Massa heading the field into turn one while Schumacher slotted in behind to keep the Toyota of brother Ralf at bay. Alonso, meanwhile, was already on the move, vaulting past Jarno Trulli for fourth at the opening corner, while team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella lost out to Honda's Jenson Button as the odd-numbered starting positions proved more beneficial.
With Alonso looking feisty, Ferrari wasted little time in getting Schumacher to the front, Massa appearing to slow in pre-determined fashion as the field crossed the start-finish line at the end of lap two. Once clear of his team-mate, the German edged away, but it was noticeable, even in the early stages, that Bridgestone did not appear to have the same sort of advantage over Michelin as had been the case in qualifying.
Schumacher's cause was helped, inadvertently, by his younger brother, who managed to frustrate Alonso through the early stages. While the Spaniard looked for a way past the lighter Toyota, the two Ferraris eked out a five-second gap. Alonso did little to help himself with a couple of lurid moments that allowed the second Toyota of Trulli to close in, but he was quickly back on Schumacher Jr's case, eventually passing the German for third at turn one on lap 13.
On that lap alone, the Renault managed to take six-tenths out of the leader's advantage, but the gap stabilised again as the pit-stops loomed. As expected, the Toyotas were among the first in, their qualifying performance confirmed as little more than a touch of showboating on Honda turf, but Massa, too, was an early caller, stopping on lap 13, along with Ralf Schumacher. Fisichella went just a lap more than the Brazilian, with Alonso in on lap 15, posing the question of just how much further could the leader run - and how impressive had his front row qualifying effort been.
As it turned out, Schumacher went another two laps into the race before making his first stop - only Kimi Raikkonen, from eleventh on the grid and therefore with free rein on strategy, went longer among the frontrunners - and was able to rejoin with his advantage over Alonso unchanged. With Raikkonen yet to stop and holding fourth, the Finn eventually called in on lap 22, to top order appeared positive for Ferrari, with Massa in third, and the two Toyotas ahead of Fisichella.
Button held the final points position, having ceded his gained place to Fisichella on lap five, while BMW Sauber completed the top ten, Nick Heidfeld ahead of Robert Kubica. Further back, Pedro de la Rosa continued to struggle in the second McLaren, mired in 13th behind the two Williams-Cosworths, while Scott Speed headed the now customary Red Bull train in 14th, having taken advantage of Toro Rosso team-mate Tonio Liuzzi's early spin to nip ahead of David Coulthard.
The train had been split into two two-car groups by the impressive Christijan Albers, who again pushed his Spyker higher than expected in the early stages. Once again, however, the Dutchman's efforts - and those of a fired-up Spyker MF1 team - came to nought, as a failure at the rear of the car caused a lot of damage under braking for the chicane on lap 21. Despite the amount of debris on the track, however, no safety car was called, allowing Schumacher to maintain his advantage over Alonso at around five seconds as the race headed for its halfway point.