After the weather in qualifying on Saturday had left both Silver Arrows at the back of the grid, together with the new world champion, Fernando Alonso, and Michael Schumacher, the first lap was always going to be tense. "There was quite a lot happening," Raikkonen admitted. "I was turning in and Montoya touched my rear wheel and I got sideways and he went by me. Luckily, we did not damage the cars."
A little further round the lap Montoya had a run-in with Jacques Villeneuve and crashed his McLaren heavily into a tyre wall. The stewards later gave Villeneuve a post-race 25-second penalty.
Once Toyota's publicity stunt in getting Ralf Schumacher into pole position was exposed as he stopped to refuel after only 13 laps (five of them run under the safety car that was deployed after Montoya's accident), the race became a contest between Giancarlo Fisichella in his Renault, Raikkonen, and Fisichella's team-mate Alonso. Together with a feisty Michael Schumacher, they put on a wonderful show.
Schumacher Snr, Alonso and Raikkonen lost little time carving their way through the back-markers. By lap nine they were running sixth, seventh and ninth respectively, though Alonso would lose a crucial seven seconds by having to let Christian Klien re-pass him after cutting the chicane on that lap.
Schumacher strove hard to keep the Spaniard's and the Finn's faster cars behind, but eventually Alonso pulled a brilliant move on the former champion on the entry to the notorious 130R corner.
Raikkonen could not follow suit, and when he and Schumacher both refuelled on the 26th lap (four laps later than Alonso), the German was still ahead as they rejoined.
On lap 30, however, it was Raikkonen's turn to make a superb passing move on Schumacher by going round the outside of his Ferrari at the circuit's turn one. Immediately, he set about hunting down Mark Webber and Jenson Button, who were running behind Fisichella in first place. Two laps later, Alonso also swept by Schumacher Snr when going into the first corner.
The denouement was set up when Fisichella refuelled for the second time on lap 38. That briefly put Button in the lead from Webber, until they too refuelled on lap 41. Now Raikkonen finally had the lead, but he still had to refuel again, and did so on lap 45. With only eight laps left, Fisichella appeared to have the race in the bag, but Raikkonen had other ideas and reduced a 5.4sec deficit to a mere tenth of a second over the course of six laps.
On the final lap, as they went into the braking area for turn one, Raikkonen was wheel-to-wheel with the Italian and in a piece of totally committed racing, he went round the outside and into the lead. It was classic demonstration of the art of grand prix driving.
"I think it is one of the best for sure," Raikkonen said of his victory, "because I really had to fight for it and after all the problems we had this weekend, it was very nice.
"There was a lot happening in the race all the time," he added. "When I came up behind Fisichella I was thinking which way I should go. At the inside it is easier to overtake, but Fisichella went to the inside so I didn't have much choice but to go round the outside.
"With all the problems in the practice with the engine change and the 10-place penalty we were still able to win," he added.
The result surely casts doubts over Fisichella's future, after he lost what was at one time a 19-second lead. The Renault principal, Flavio Briatore, has little taste for that. "He was just quicker than me in the straight," Fisichella said lamely. "I did my best but unfortunately I always try to keep my position but I could see there was the possibility of a collision."
Sixteen seconds further back, Alonso completed his remarkable race with third place after an equally impressive overtaking move on Webber in the first corner deprived the Australian of what should have been a podium position for Williams-BMW. "In the final laps I just couldn't keep him behind me," Webber admitted, but he beat Button fair and square as the Englishman's BAR-Honda was again found wanting. No doubt the irony of that will not have been lost on Sir Frank Williams.
All Schumacher Snr got for an afternoon on which he reminded everyone that his fire is far from quenched, was seventh place behind Britain's David Coulthard, whose own hopes of a podium were lost after his first refuelling stop.
With 14 points from the race, Renault regained the lead from McLaren in the chase for the world championship for constructors. They are two points ahead, setting up a final showdown at Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, SUZUKA, 53 LAPS
1 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 29min 02.212sec;
2 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:29:03.845;
3 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:29:19.668;
4 M Webber (Aus) Williams-BMW 1:29:24.486;
5 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:29:31.719;
6 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull 1:29:33.813;
7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:29:36.091;
8 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:29:51.760;
9 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull 1:29:54.137;
10 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1:29:59.781; 11 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:30:02.845;12 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-Petronas 1:30:25.433; 13 T Monteiro (Por) Jordan-Toyota, 1 lap;14 R Doornbos (Neth) Minardi, 2 laps; 15 N Karthikeyan (India) Jordan-Toyota, 2 laps; 16 C Albers (Neth) Minardi. 4 laps. Disqualified: T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda. Not Classified: 18 J Trulli (It) Toyota 9 laps completed; 19 A Pizzonia (Br) Williams-BMW 9 laps completed; 20 J Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes no laps completed.
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Renault 176pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 174; 3 Ferrari 100; 4 Toyota 82; 5 Williams-BMW 64; 6 BAR-Honda 37; 7 Red Bull 30; 8 Sauber-Petronas 17; 9 Jordan-Toyota 12; 10 Minardi 7.Reuse content