Even if Kimi Raikkonen wins the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in a fortnight, all Michael Schumacher needs to do is finish eighth to secure a record sixth world championship. That is the hard fact on which the world champion can now base his final campaign of an extraordinary season, in the aftermath of the American race that turned him from the villain of the 2002 event to the hero of 2003.
Last year, Schumacher was vilified by American fans for handing the win to team-mate Rubens Barrichello as they sprinted for the finish line; this year a superlative performance left him with so little to do to win this year's title that he was fêted as the champion even before he climbed out of his Ferrari's cockpit. But then this year he did give them the sort of spectacle that they deserved, instead of leaving them feeling short-changed.
British, Italian and Japanese racegoers are renowned for their passion and knowledge of the sport, but the Americans run them close in their enthusiasm, even if Formula One has yet to make any serious inroads into the national fascination with the Nascar stock car series, in which 10 cars habitually sprint to the finish line after 400 miles of wheel-to-wheel racing.
In the Indianapolis Motor Speedway they have a fabulous facility that, from its history and its spaciousness and cleanliness to the engineering complications that the circuit presents to the teams, is the envy of the world.
As a backdrop to the US Grand Prix weekend, Formula One team principals spent large amounts of time on Friday and Saturday locked in detailed discussions about how the sport should be changed to improve the show further in 2004. These centred on the precise format that is required to ensure that it continues to satisfy existing fans and attract new ones at a time when the world economy is still in a recession that has affected even the best teams this year.
Many ideas have been proposed, among them two-day meetings, two-lap qualifying with a pit stop in the middle and qualifying an hour before the race. As might be expected where so many huge egos are involved, the discussion has at times been heated, but though nobody was keen to divulge details some sort of plan based on refinement of the current format appears close to being finalised.
"We have had a lot of fruitful talks and agreement is close," the BAR team principal, David Richards, said. "We have to be careful about the future. We are still in a very difficult environment. Commercially and economically, it isn't an easy one for anyone. We just have to continue to adjust to the times and be very aware of the cost associated with running the teams and ensuring that we continue to deliver value.
"We have to be very aware that our duty is to the paying audience who come to race circuits and the people who watch television to deliver a product that they enjoy and feel they want to continue watching."
There will be a meeting at Heathrow Airport on Thursday prior to the meeting of the F1 Commission the following day and the gathering of the World Motor Sport Council next week in Paris, where any plan will be ratified.
* Nick Heidfeld confirmed the Japan Grand Prix will be his last for Sauber. The Brazilian Felipe Massa is expected to take his place. Giancarlo Fisichella will join from Jordan to replace Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who is also leaving.
UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX DETAILS
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 33min 35.997sec (ave speed 196.164kph); 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 (Bra) Ferrari.
Fastest lap: M Schumacher 1min 11.473sec.
1 M Schumacher 92pts; 2 Raikkonen 83; 3 Montoya 82; 4 R Schumacher 58; 5= Barrichello and Alonso 55; 7 Coulthard 45; 8 Trulli 29; 9 Webber 17; 10 Frentzen 13; 11= Button and Fisichella 12; 13 Da Matta 8; 14= Panis, Heidfeld and Villeneuve, 6; 17 M Gene 4; 18= Firman and Wilson 1.
1 Ferrari 147 pts; 2 Williams, 144; 3 McLaren 128; 4 Renault 84; 5 Sauber 19; 6= BAR and Jaguar, 18; 8 Toyota 14; 9 Jordan 13; 10 Minardi 0.