As Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen prepare to battle it out to see which of them is crowned the 2003 world champion, a former title holder will not even be here this weekend. Rejected by his BAR-Honda team for 2004 in favour of the Japanese racer Takuma Sato, Jacques Villeneuve made his feelings clear when his manager called the team principal, David Richards, on the bullet train from Tokyo and told him that his driver was not going to race.
"I don't have the level of motivation that I need," Villeneuve said, and doubtless that will suit BAR just fine. Last year Sato drove like a demon to take fifth place and his first helping of points for the Jordan team. This time around his presence in the team will win BAR many brownie points with Honda and will keep the team leader, Jenson Button, on his toes as the team fight to reclaim from Sauber-Petronas the fifth place in the constructors' championship that they lost in Indianapolis.
Button, who led a grand prix for the first time there, admitted that he expects a tough weekend, and added: "Jacques has been here at BAR for five years, up and down, and it's disappointing to see him leaving F1."
"I wanted Jacques to drive this weekend," said Richards. "I have not spoken to him personally but if he's not in the right frame of mind to drive you can't put it on him."
Predictably, the title contenders said little on the matter. "Sometimes your career goes wrong, what can I say?" the taciturn Raikkonen said. "I agree with him," Schumacher said. Six years ago Villeneuve was Schumacher's nemesis in their title fight in Jerez.
Both contenders say they will not be doing anything differently here. It would never occur to Raikkonen that he is in the situation Stirling Moss faced in Morocco when the 1958 championship was settled. Moss had to win, but that may still not have been sufficient depending on the fortunes of another Michael, Mike Hawthorn. Moss duly did win, and set the fastest lap, but when Ferrari's Phil Hill gifted second place to his team-mate, Hawthorn, it was enough to make the latter, not Moss, Britain's first world drivers' champion.
Raikkonen must win, and hope that Schumacher stumbles. The German has gone 37 consecutive races without a mechanical problem - "I think I just have a good team, very methodical and precise," he says - and if the odds of one on Sunday must therefore be higher, it is not something that appears to be troubling him.
"The mathematics are quite good for me," he said, "but while everyone seems to think the thing is done, I don't think it is. That's the point, we still have to win the constructors' championship and be very careful not to retire. We have more to lose than to gain in a way, but in the end when you sit in the car you do what you naturally do and don't think too much about it.
"It will depend on qualifying. There is this feeling that it is all to lose, but on the other hand my past experience is that whatever you think beforehand, it is different when you sit in the car. Then I just react to the situation. The championships I won in 1994 and '95 were won in a similar situation."
Schumacher admitted that Hockenheim and Hungary were difficult races, but said that the turning point came when he won at Monza. "I was still leading the championship before that, but you knew how difficult it could be. But it was Monza which turned the situation."
Raikkonen seemed almost absurdly laid-back. "I'm not approaching the race any differently," he said. "I'll drive the same as at the last race, I will try to win and see what happens. I'm not really feeling any pressure and I don't really mind, if we don't win the championship, if we lose the second place. Only first is important to me. I will just drive as hard as I can and hopefully it will be enough. It's the same thing we've done at all the races this year. I'm quite confident, after the last race."
Though the odds favour Schumacher, there is only one certainty. "I was asked about retirement at Indianapolis," the champion said with a hint of exasperation, "and I made a clear statement that some people struggled to understand: No, I'm not thinking about it at all."