For 17 laps of the United States Grand Prix here yesterday, Michael Schumacher was the 2003 world champion.
Once he had taken the lead from Jenson Button on lap 38, on the way to the 69th victory of his career, and his rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya had stumbled, he was on course to score the points needed to win a record sixth crown and move clear of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio.
However, when Raikkonen moved up to second place on the 55th lap, the points deficit came down to nine and the Finn gained sufficient respite to carry the fight through to Japan in a fortnight.
It was yet another cliffhanger, 2003 style, but though there were plenty of clouds the only one for Schumacher was the allegation that he had illegally passed Olivier Panis for third place under waved yellow flags on the fifth lap.
Martin Scorsese could not have written a better screenplay after qualifying: the third-placed driver in the championship fight, Raikkonen, on pole position, the second-placed man, Montoya, fourth and the leader, Schumacher, only seventh.
Then, to complicate things further, there was a hailstorm 20 minutes before the race, and though the track was dry for the start, it rained again by the second lap. The early laps were thus a kaleidoscopic mish-mash of overtaking moves. Schumacher had leapt from seventh to third at the start, but fell back as the light rain favoured Michelin's runners, but already Montoya was in trouble after a poor start and then a clash with Rubens Barrichello on the second lap.
The race stewards studied video of the incident and eventually levied a drive-through penalty on the Colombian on the 21st lap. By then he had also been delayed during his pit stop on the 17th lap as the fuel nozzle refused to engage cleanly, losing him at least five seconds.
Raikkonen had made the best of pole position to lead the first 19 laps until stopping for fuel. Ralf Schumacher's initial challenge soon evaporated as he refuelled on lap 15, by which time the track was drying again. Then the rain returned with a vengeance on lap 17, and these conditions clearly favoured Bridgestone's drivers. Five laps later Ralf crashed his BMW-Williams.
Crucially, his elder brother stopped for rain tyres that lap, having already refuelled on lap 20 and gambled on staying on dry tyres. That gave Mark Webber a brief moment of glory leading a lap for Jaguar, but then he spun and crashed. David Coulthard also lasted a lap in the lead, but the Scot was still on dry weather tyres and soon dropped back calamitously. That promoted Jenson Button to the lead for the first time in the BAR-Honda. Behind him, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was chasing hard for Sauber-Petronas, but Schumacher was catching them both.
Frentzen offered only token resistance on lap 33, and soon the gap to Button shrank from 6.5sec on lap 33 to 0.245 on lap 37. At the start of lap 38, Schumacher pushed through ahead of the Englishman going into the first corner, and that was that. While it lasted, it had been an impressive and confident performance from the BAR-Honda driver, but sadly it came to an end on the 42nd lap when his engine let him down.
"It's disappointing, of course," Button said as he watched the first podium place of his career slip away yet again. "But the good thing is that all year I believe that I've driven to the very best of my ability and got the most out of the car. That's a good feeling that I can take away with me whatever happens."
Now Schumacher had done enough. Raikkonen was only fourth behind the two Saubers, Montoya was lapped in ninth place, out of the points. But the race was not yet over. As the track dried, Raikkonen caught the Saubers and the eight points for second kept him in the hunt. Further back, Montoya eventually caught Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan, but sixth place was one too low.
"This was a very important outcome for my position for the championship," Schumacher said with great understatement. "I'm so pleased, it's such an emotional day today, so fantastic, after not a great qualifying performance, a great start and then falling back on slicks, then coming back on wets. There was everything in it. To win this one at such a crucial stage meant a lot."
And those yellow flags? He had a sharp retort to the allegations: "I knew where they started and passed Panis well before them." Panis, however, was adamant. "Michael passed me after the flags, and didn't lift off," he said. After deliberation, McLaren and Williams decided not to lodge a protest.
"We lost the race because we were unlucky with the weather. What can you do?" Raikkonen said. "Things are a lot more difficult, but at least we are still in the championship." But only just. Raikkonen's chances are on life support.
UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX DETAILS
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 33 min 35.995sec
2 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +18.2
3 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +37.9
4 J Trulli (It) Renault +48.3
5 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +56.4
6 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW +1 lap
7 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford +1 lap
8 J Wilson (GB) Jaguar +2 laps
9 C da Matta (Br) Toyota +2 laps.
10 J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi-Ford +4 laps;
11 N Kiesa (Den) Minardi-Ford +4 laps.
Not classified (did not finish):
12 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 63 laps completed; 13 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Honda 48; 14 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 45; 15 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 44; 16 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 41; 17 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 27; 18 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 21; 19 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 21; 20 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 2.
Constructors' standings: 1 Ferrari 147pts; 2 Williams 144; 3 McLaren 128; 4 Renault 84; 5 Sauber 19; 6= BAR, Jaguar 18; 8 Toyota 14; 9 Jordan 13; 10 Minardi 0.Reuse content