It was a sunny day. The grandstands were bursting. And motor racing was on the agenda. Real motor racing. Not the scrappy politics that has dominated Formula 1 for so long; nor the unhealthy domination of one team, but rather good old-fashioned spectacular motor racing and even what we used to call a Silverstone-type finish as Kimi Raikkonen went around the outside of Giancarlo Fisichella on the last lap of the race to win an astonishing victory from 17th place on the grid.
Equally impressive was Fernando Alonso who charged through the field and gave everyone (except perhaps Michael Schumacher) a thrill as he passed the seven-time World Champion around the outside in the daunting 130R Corner.
Now that is what motor racing is all about!
They say that smoking can ruin your health but it did not seem to do much harm to Jenson Button's BAR-Honda as the cars revved themselves stupid as the lights came on before the start of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. Jenson did not get away very well but the Honda V10 did not blow up and there were no doubt a few sighs of relief down in the BAR pit as the field hustled down to the first corner. And it was there that the team and the Japanese fans had to take a sharp intake of breath as national hero Takuma Sato went wombling into the dirt in his BAR while trying to hold back Christian Klien.
Up ahead Ralf Schumacher had made the most of his pole position to lead Giancarlo Fisichella, Jenson Button and a fast-starting David Coulthard but after that it was all a big cloud of dust. Sato was the first to go but Rubens Barrichello joined in with gusto, running across Sato's nose and setting off a parallel cloud of dust. The Japanese TV producers were so excited by this development that they then followed the trundling Takuma for half a lap before someone rang up and pointed out that a motor race was going on and it might be an idea for them to use the cameras to follow it.
By the time we got back to the action they had missed a key moment. This was probably not a bad idea because Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug would probably have collapsed with cardiovascular crises had they seen the two McLaren-Mercedes Benz's clonking one another as Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya tried to navigate through the chaff.
"There was quite a lot happening," admitted Raikkonen. "I was turning in and Montoya touched my rear wheel and I got sideways and he went by me, but luckily we did not damage the cars."
Ah, but give them time...
Up at the chicane Kimi ran wide, ran across the grass and rejoined, fortunately setting off down the hill quickly enough to avoid bits and pieces of McLaren which came back onto the track after Montoya went off into the wall while trying to drive around the outside of Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber at a place where one does not really do that. The fact is that the TV director was still hyper-ventilating from the Sato Affair and missed most of the incident. The drivers did not agree on who was to blame but the FIA stewards concluded, hopefully using other footage, that it was all Villeneuve's fault. He was formally reprimanded and given a 25-second time penalty after the race.
"I never even saw him," said Jacques, "so I really have no idea what he might have been trying to do when he went off."
The important point in all of this was not whether justice was done but rather that Montoya was gone and with him went the chance of McLaren to win the Constructors' title in Japan. Indeed it opened the way for Renault to fight back. Fisichella was up the front and waiting for Toyota's public relations exercise to come to an end and Alonso was going gangbusters through the field, like a hot knife through butter.
The Montoya crash resulted in six laps during which the field circulated behind a Safety Car with Ralf, Fisichella, Button, Coulthard, Mark Webber, Klien, Michael Schumacher, Alonso, Villeneuve and Antonio Pizzonia making up the top 10. Raikkonen was 12th.
When the action started again Ralf disappeared off again, obviously on a much lower fuel load than those giving chase. This was not altogether unexpected and there was much pre-race banter about whether or not Ralf would get to lap 10 before having to pit. In fact he got to 13 (although five laps were spent doing low-consumption speeds behind the Safety Car). Or to put it another way, this was either a Toyota PR stunt because a three-stop strategy made no sense at all, or the three-stop strategy was the best option for the team, in which case the car is not as good as we thought. Either way it did not reflect well on Toyota. After the race Toyota argued that the Safety Car ruined its plan but it was not very convincing.
As we waited for this to happen Schumacher passed Klien and Alonso set himself up to follow only to run wide at the chicane. This gave him an advantage and so he carefully lifted off and let the Austrian back ahead and then floored the throttle. Within half a lap Fernando had overtaken him properly although this appears to have been missed by the stewards (who were probably watching the poor TV coverage) and the result was that a few laps later Alonso was told by the FIA to back off and let the Red Bull go ahead again. In order to do that he had to sacrifice around four seconds to allow Klien to catch up. He lost so much time that everyone thought he had a mechanical problem or had gone off and the incident had been missed by the TV director. Anyway, for three laps Fernando had to sit behind Klien before he could get ahead. He then left the Red Bull behind. Raikkonen soon had Klien for lunch and so the Austrian was down to eighth from fourth on the grid.
Once Ralf disappeared into the pits, to re-emerge in ninth position, we had a clearer picture of what the real race was going to be like: Fisichella was ahead and going away. Button's BAR could not hack the pace and Coulthard's Red Bull could not keep up with the BAR. Mark Webber looked threatening while Michael Schumacher looked feisty but frustrated as he held back Alonso and Raikkonen. We had already lost Pizzonia in the second Williams who made a mistake (a costly one perhaps) and spun off of his own accord on the 10th lap. A minute or two later Honda and Toyota got a little more airtime as Takuma Sato tried to pass Jarno Trulli down at the back, made a complete mess of the move and took out poor old Trulli in what can only be described as a hit-and-run.
"Sato tried a manoeuvre that was obviously impossible," said Jarno. "He just tried to overtake me but instead he hit me and pushed me off. There was no reason to try that move so I don't know what he was thinking. He's been causing problems for a long time and the FIA has to take action to stop it."
Given that Taku was recently punished for punting off Michael Schumacher at Spa, the penalty was akin to a spanking with a feather. He was excluded from the results, a punishment which means absolutely nothing to a F1 driver who finishes a race in 13th place. A reprimand was added but this will hardly have Taku quaking in his racing boots.
Now the key point, apart from the entertaining dice between Schumacher, Alonso and Raikkonen in the midfield, was how long Fisichella could go before he came in for a top-up. We got that answer on lap 20 but no-one was paying attention because simultaneously Alonso pulled off the move of the race by going around Michael Schumacher on the outside in 130R. Yes, read that again slowly and appreciate what it means. The fearsome 130R corner. On the outside. Michael Schumacher. That is brave.
"That was very nice," said Fernando later. "I was on the outside, flat out and risky but I had nothing to lose."
Now that the World Championship is his, Fernando is willing to joust and not drive around picking up points. The problem was that as the race developed Fernando's strategy meant that he was continually passing the slow men ahead of him and then having to stop and do it all again. That made progress slow.
On the list of fastest laps Alonso all but matched Raikkonen's best lap but one must consider that fuel loads were an important element in this. Alonso stopped on lap 22, Kimi went on to lap 26. The second stints saw Fernando do 14 laps to Kimi's 19. And that said it all. The McLaren was quicker. For a while after everyone ahead cleared out of the way Michael Schumacher and Raikkonen ran together at the front and then both went into the pits together. The Ferrari even managed to stay ahead but within a few laps Kimi went around the outside of Michael into Turn 1 and that was the end of that. Michael was left behind to play with Alonso again. On lap 33 Fernando took Michael on the inside at Turn 1. Soon afterwards Alonso stopped again and fell back down the order.
While all of this was going on Fisichella was leading Button and Webber (the Williams having got out ahead of Coulthard at the first stops on lap 23). By lap 37 Fisichella's lead was out to 19secs. This one, we thought, we in the bag. On lap 38 Fizzy pitted and so Button and Webber fought for the lead for a bit. And then for a few short laps Raikkonen was back ahead and running very fast before he too had to head to pitlane. It was lap 45. There were eight to go and Fisichella was more than five seconds ahead of Raikkonen. Webber was third with Alonso closing. Button had faded to fifth and Coulthard was sixth ahead of Michael, Ralf and Klien.
We watched the gap. On lap 47 it was 4.3secs, on 48, 3.1s and on 49 it was cut to just 1.8s. By the end of lap 50 Fisichella's hopes looked slim. Raikkonen was right with him and looking dangerous.
Behind them there was further excitement as Alonso caught Webber but for a string of laps could not get past. Then on lap 49 Mark made a small mistake out of the chicane. Alonso carried a little extra speed down the straight and then went for the inside as they hurtled down to Turn 1.
"The asphalt ran out," Fernando said later, "and I had to use a little bit of grass!"
The move took Webber completely by surprise and by the time he had gathered his wits about him he was looking at the back end of the Renault - and it was disappearing up the road. Mark would end the day in fourth. A good effort.
Back at the front all eyes were now on the fight (and even the TV director had managed to work this one out). At the end of lap 51 the two cars went across the line split by two-tenths, which meant that they were side by side. At the end of lap 52 they were even closer and as they went down to Turn One Raikkonen went for the outside line, hit the rev limiter of the McLaren and ignored it and swept around the Renault in very classy style to move into the lead. It was all great and it was over. The Renaults would get home second and third and together they managed to claw back the lead of the Constructors' Championship but Raikkonen had scored his seventh win of the year. Alonso may be the World Champion but he has only six wins to his name and as we head to China Kimi will want another to underline that he was the man to beat in 2005 and that his Mercedes-Benz engines failed him.
L to R: #2 Giancarlo Fisichella (Renault), #1 Kimi Raikonnen (McLaren), #3 Fernando Alonso (Renault)
"I think it is one of the best for sure," a rather pink-faced Raikkonen said of his victory. "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. When I came up behind Fisichella I was thinking which way I should go. Of course 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?"
The result must inevitably cast a shadow on the career of Fisichella for he had what seemed like a huge lead and it had gone away. It was not the sort of display that Renault team boss Flavio Briatore likes to see from one of his cars.
"He was just quicker than me on the straight," Fisichella said. "I did my best."
But his best was not good enough.
Sixteen seconds behind Giancarlo was Alonso and then came Webber who finally had a few things go right for him and rewarded the team with fourth place. He had, however, beaten Jenson Button and David Coulthard both of whom started the day ahead of him. Button said that the cause of his defeat was a dodgy fuel hatch which cost him time in both stops but it is doubtful that it made much difference because Webbber was quicker when it mattered.
Michael Schumacher might have spent the afternoon watching youngsters passing him left and right but he probably deserved better than seventh, having driven the wheels off the beastly Ferrari F2005. Little Bro Ralfie came home eighth. The rest trailed home as normal, the big event being in the mid-race when Albers's Minardi went up in flames for a brief moment after Chrsitijan overshot his mark and the fuel hose had to be stretched a little which resulted in a small spillage and a flash fire. To give Albers some mitigating circumstances, Robert Doornbos also overshot his mark and ran into one of his mechanics.
The Minardi men hobbled home with singed ears.
Renault took14 points from the race and so regained the lead in the Constructors' Championship. The team is now two ahead of McLaren and there is everything to play for in Shanghai this time next week.
If we get a race as good as this one, everyone will be happy.