Despite the comfort of heading into the final grand prix of the season with an almost unassailable lead, Michael Schumacher showed the stress and strain of winning his record sixth world title as he spoke after the event.

The German needed only a point to break the five-title tie with Juan Manuel Fangio, and that was all he was able to get after an incident-packed afternoon at Suzuka.

With only rival Kimi Raikkonen needing to win the race - and have Schumacher finish out of the top eight - the German could have been forgiven for cruising to the title, but rain on his qualifying run - which restricted him to 14th on the grid - made things a little more fraught.

Although he made two places up at the start, Schumacher found a resolute opponent in Takuma Sato, racing in front of his home fans on his return to a competitive F1 drive. The German tried to find a way past at the chicane, but was never close enough to make the move, and broke his front wing as the two cars made contact.

The pit-stop for repairs dropped Schumacher back to 19th place - with only Jos Verstappen behind him - and progress through the midfield was again a little slower than expected. However, taking advantage of refuelling at his enforced early pit-stop, the Ferrari driver eventually found himself running in a battle for seventh with brother Ralf and Toyota's Cristiano da Matta - which almost led to another disaster.

Chasing the Brazilian up the hill into the chicane, Schumacher again got his timing a little wrong, forcing him to lock up behind the Toyota and slew across the road in front of his brother. Ralf, mindful no doubt of the family tension an accident would cause, jumped on the brakes, and somehow missed punting Michael out of the race. Minor contact resulted in the Williams-BMW losing its nose wing - and ended any faint hope the British team had of taking the constructors' title.

With the only man likely to deprive him of eight place now well down the order, Michael opted for safety first and backed off to ensure that he secured the single point he needed for the crown. Although team-mate Rubens Barrichello took a convincing victory - to deprive Raikkonen of the ten points he needed - the race had left Schumacher a little drained.

"I find it difficult to say what I am feeling at the moment because, this has been a tough year, a tough last part of the season and today was one of my toughest races," he admitted in the champion's press conference.

"Personally, I feel empty and exhausted after this race. I went flat out after I lost my nose, because I knew [Juan] Montoya was out and the two McLarens were behind Rubens. I was a bit messy after the accident and it was a strange race, cutting through the traffic, especially with da Matta and Ralf. I knew I had to finish eighth because, although Rubens was in the lead, in Formula One you always wonder if the car will finish and think of the worst situation.

"After the incident with da Matta, I had a huge flat spot on the tyre, and the vibration was so bad I had vision problems down the straight. I was also worried about a puncture and was just trying to get the car to the flag. It feels strange, as usually I have won the championship with a victory, but now I am here in eighth place, so there are some mixed emotions."

The German was more effusive about the efforts of his Ferrari team, however, praising them for their endeavours in chasing what appeared to be a diminishing title chance.

"I can say what I feel about the team - they are more important and, again, did an incredible job today," he said, "Rubens also had a fantastic drive, winning in great style.

"After we had been written off earlier in the year, we never gave up. The team is always fighting and that is its strength. We are a big family and we can all be proud to be part of it."

Technical director Ross Brawn admitted that the German's race had caused a few concerns in the Ferrari garage.

"This was a very tough race, especially with so much at stake," he said, "Rubens did a fantastic job at the front, but we wanted to get Michael in the points just to be sure. It was very exciting.

"That early incident made life more difficult for us, but we knew we still had a chance. We had a recovery strategy which worked okay. We did not catch Ralf at the second stop, as he took on less fuel than we did, but we managed to get him at the third one. You always know with Michael that you have a chance. It was important to get that one point, because you never know what can happen at the front.

"It was actually tougher to get that point than it was to win the race. We were lucky to get away with the incident at the chicane with Michael and da Matta - I guess da Matta must have braked early as Michael almost hit him.

"This is a dream come true, and I am so proud to be part of Ferrari. But it was very close and tough today - I think I am getting too old for all this excitement!"

 

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