If Juan Pablo Montoya had been proud of his rise from 19th to second in the German Grand Prix this season, he no longer has bragging rights in the McLaren camp after team-mate Kimi Raikkonen went from a similar position to take victory in a dramatic Japanese Grand Prix.

As has been known in the past at Suzuka, the race packed a lot into its 53 laps, with incidents from start to finish and enough intrigue to fill a shelf full of mystery novels after qualifying through up the most unusual grid of the year.

With new champion Fernando Alonso, predecessor Michael Schumacher and both McLaren drivers marooned at the back of the field after being caught out by worsening conditions on Saturday, the start of the grand prix was always likely to be a fiery affair. Their ascent was aided at the first corner by Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello going off, initially not together but with enough contact later on to require both to make pit-stops for repairs. The talking points did not end there, however, for, as Alonso and Schumacher broke into the top eight from 16th and 14th respectively, the two McLaren's attempted to find their way through the backmarkers.

Approaching the chicane for the first time, Montoya was surprised to see three cars immediately ahead of him cutting the obstacle but, in trying to take advantage of their errors, he found himself on the outside of Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber, and out of the Canadian's line of sight. The result was a heavy off for the Colombian, who ripped the side from his MP4-20, and halved McLaren's assault on the constructors' championship at a stroke.

With Alonso already breaking into the points, and Giancarlo Fisichella having made a strong start to sit behind early leader Ralf Schumacher, Montoya's exit painted an even rosier picture for Renault, which was attempting to make up a two-point deficit on Ron Dennis' squad before the season reaches its denouement in Shanghai.

At the front of the field, the start had gone relatively smoothly, with poleman Schumacher getting away cleanly to establish a comfortable lead over Fisichella, who had used the Renault's renowned traction to power past Jenson Button, who bogged down despite appearing to be on the better side of the circuit after more overnight rain. David Coulthard, from sixth on the grid, also tried to pass his fellow Briton, but decided to settle for a two-place gain heading into turn one.

Behind them, however, Sato speared across the circuit after appearing to run out of grip. Although the Japanese driver managed to save what could have been a terminal trip into the gravel trap, he was unlucky enough to collect - or be collected by - an equally errant Rubens Barrichello, who had followed a similar trajectory into the trap, clipping the front of the BAR with his left rear as he went. The result was a damaged nose for Sato and a puncture for Barrichello, who now had the entire lap to cover before he could effect repairs.

Montoya's off, however, at least allowed the two stragglers to make up lost ground as the safety car appeared to facilitate easier clearance of the now two-wheeled McLaren and its associated debris. The controlled pace also allowed the field to bunch up, meaning that Raikkonen, who had been forced to lift in the confusion at the chicane, was also right back on the tail of eleventh-placed Felipe Massa, having already made up seven places. Schumacher Sr ran seventh, also up seven, while Alonso was right behind the Ferrari, having gained eight slots over his grid position.

The field was kept in check for a further six laps, but Ralf was still alert enough to anticipate the restart best of all, re-establishing his earlier cushion over the pursuing pack. Christian Klien - who had been shuffled back at the initial start - was caught napping, however, as Schumacher passed the Red Bull car for sixth into turn one , and Alonso further demoted the Austrian at the chicane as he tried to keep tabs on the Ferrari.

The Spaniard, however, had mistimed his braking in making the move, using the run-off area to get past Klien. Thinking clearly, he backed off to allow the Austrian back through, before then powering past him again into turn one. It didn't take long for Renault to catch Ferrari again but, just as Alonso appeared to be shaping up for a pass, the call came from pit-wall to allow Klien back into seventh place. The stewards had apparently not been convinced that the initial 'wave through' had been enough of a disadvantage to the new world champion, and ordered him to make amends. Only while the Spaniard was sandwiched between Klien and the fast-closing Raikkonen did officialdom admit that it had made a mistake...

Alonso eventually retook Klien on the next lap, but had now dropped four seconds to Schumacher, and needed to pass the Red Bull to lift some of the pressure being applied by Raikkonen. The Finn wasted little time in also disposing of the Austrian, but the constructors' race was about to take another turn, as Ralf headed in for his first fuel stop.

Despite claims that it had not taken any radical strategy decision in order to sit on pole at its home grand prix, Toyota had clearly opted to light fuel the German for this was only lap 13, with six laps having been run under the safety car. Schumacher's hopes for victory - which both he and technical director Mike Gascoyne had been adamant about, were gone, and it was Fisichella now out front, adding a further two points to Renault's provisional haul.

Fisi continued to lead for the next seven laps, gradually extending his advantage as he did so, while Alonso made short work of catching and passing Michael Schumacher, catching the German out with a daring outside pass at 130R. The move appeared crucial for, having got past Klien, Raikkonen was advancing again. The Finn, however, would find passing Schumacher an altogether different task.

Toyota's day had taken a downturn even before Schumacher's early stop, as Jarno Trulli, already starting from the back after an off in qualifying. found himself the subject of unwanted attention from Sato. The diminutive Japanese driver, attempting to rack up another points finish in front of his home fans, opted for an optimistic move inside the Toyota, only to clatter into its side, putting a furious Trulli out on the spot, but somehow managing to continue undamaged himself. Trulli joined Antonio Pizzonia alongside Montoya on the sidelines, the Brazilian having lost his Williams at Degner, but, amazingly, that would be it as far as retirements would be concerned.

Fisichella's first stop dropped him down to seventh behind a seething chasing group, allowing Button to lead Coulthard and Webber until BAR called the Briton for his stop two laps later. The real attention, however, was focused on the Alonso-Schumacher-Raikkonen triumvirate which, despite the Spaniard eking out a gap, still appeared to hinge on its impending stops.

Alonso joined Button in pit-lane on lap 22, but dropped to tenth place despite only taking over little over seven seconds worth of fuel. That was just the opportunity both Schumacher and Raikkonen were looking for and, when they stopped in tandem on lap 26, both managed to emerge in front of the Renault. Button, meanwhile, had lost his advantage when his fuel filler cap refused to open, leaving a crewman to prise it so, while Webber and Coulthard swapped places thanks to some slick pit work from the Williams team.

Although McLaren could have chosen to short-fill its remaining driver in an attempt to vault him past Schumacher, it actually took a full second longer to release Raikkonen, meaning that the Finn rejoined still behind his German adversary. The team's confidence in the potential of its package to get the job done was well-placed, however, for Raikkonen finally moved ahead of the Ferrari three laps later.

Now it was Alonso's turn to be bottled up behind the out-going world champion, and is was costly as the faster Raikkonen was able to pull out more than a second a lap on the man most likely to deprive him of valuable points. It took Alonso fully four laps to find a way past the Ferrari, eventually doing so at turn one, but Raikkonen was already five seconds up the road, and starting to harass the Button-Webber battle.

The race momentarily slipped into a state of reflection, with little in the way of action among the frontrunners, the lull only broken by a brief pit-fire in the Minardi section that had Christijan Albers leaping for safety - before climbing back in, rejoining and coming home as last of the 17 classified finishers.

With Ralf out of the equation having already made two fuel stops just over halfway through the race, Fisichella now enjoyed a 17-second lead over second-placed Button, but the Briton had Webber for close company, and was towing Raikkonen into the podium battle too. Alonso, meanwhile, was closing on the group, but pitted before reaching it, and not necessarily for tactical reasons, dropping himself temporarily back to eighth as the various strategies worked themselves out.

Fisichella was in two laps later, falling to fourth and allowing Button a second shot at leading. The top three now ran with little over a second between them, until Button and Webber pitted together on lap 41. Once again, the Williams team pulled out all the stops, and the Australian gained another place, the pair slotting back in in sixth and seventh respectively. Raikkonen, meanwhile, became the sixth different man to lead the grand prix, holding the advantage for four tours before his McLaren needed its final top-up.

With all the stops complete, the race appeared to be going the way of Fisichella and Renault but, with a reduced advantage of just over five seconds and the flying Raikkonen having rejoined in second, the scene was set for another nail-biting showdown between the championship protagonists.

Behind the Renault and McLaren, Alonso was doing his own carving through the points positions, passing Button on lap 44 and Webber five laps later to install himself in the final podium position. Coulthard was back up to sixth, having taken advantage of Schumacher's second stop, with the German now running comfortably ahead of the battle between his younger brother and Klien, who was destined to miss out on points again, just as he had in Brazil.

Montoya incident aside, the two Saubers ran largely anonymously in the midfield, with Felipe Massa just getting the nod over Villeneuve for the final top ten spot. Barrichello came home the last of the unlapped runners, despite having made three stops, including one to fix his puncture on lap one, while Sato and Monteiro were both classified a lap down. Narain Karthikeyan also made one stop more than most, but survived to claim 16th between the two Minardis.

It has often been reported that Fisichella needs a 'hurry up' from his pit crew during races, and Suzuka provided just such a moment - with added urgency, as Raikkonen homed mercilessly onto the rear of the Renault. Whatever was said between crew and driver, however, it did not appear to have the desired affect, as Raikkonen was soon looking for a way through.

Fisichella survived being blocked by one of the Minardis a couple of laps from home, but his decision to constantly defend into the final chicane finally proved his downfall. With his entry speed and line onto the pit straight compromised, the mentally-cowed Italian had to defend frantically on the run to the first turn, but the race proved to be one lap too long, and Raikkonen finally swept through on the 53rd and last tour.

It was a majestic move to cap a majestic race by the Finn who, again, proved that the McLaren-Mercedes combination was the one to have. A two-fisted salute greeted the chequered flag, with Fisichella already 1.6secs in arrears.

Flavio Briatore was not a happy man on pitwall, aware that two vital points had been conceded in the title battle. Renault now heads to Shanghai having reversed the deficit it faced on arrival in Japan, but aware that it could have made more of Montoya's retirement. Battle will commence again in five days' time, and F1 fans can only hope for more of what they saw at Suzuka.



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