INDIANAPOLIS: Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was a point short of a record sixth Formula One championship on Sunday after winning a wet and wild US Grand Prix.
The German, ever the rain master, steered clear of the controversy and chaos that blew away Colombian rival Juan Pablo Montoya's title hopes to claim the 70th victory of an extraordinary career.
Schumacher now has 92 points and a nine-point lead over McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen with just the Japanese Grand Prix remaining.
Williams' Montoya, a crowd favourite and many people's pre-race title tip, has 82 points after finishing sixth but cannot catch Schumacher now.
The swashbuckling Colombian, winner of the Indy 500 at Indianapolis three years ago, had his hopes dashed by an early drive-through penalty and left the Motor Speedway without talking to reporters.
The closest championship in years suddenly looked like a foregone conclusion, all over bar the shouting.
“A very disappointing race, basically decided by the penalty I was given for the accident with Rubens,” the team quoted Montoya as saying in a later statement.
“In fact it started to rain hard just when I was given my drive-through penalty, which forced me to delay by one lap my pit stop to change on to wet tyres.”
Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen was third for Sauber, the team's first podium of the year and his first since Indianapolis in 2000, with Italian Jarno Trulli fourth for Renault.
Germany's Nick Heidfeld was fifth for Sauber, Montoya sixth, Italian Giancarlo Fisichella seventh for Jordan and Briton Justin Wilson picked up the final point for Jaguar.
That result means Schumacher needs only to finish eighth at Suzuka, where he has won for the last three years, to claim his unprecedented sixth title on Oct 12.
He said he would not be playing safe in Japan.
“We just need one point, basically, but you never know,” said Schumacher. “To be first, first you have to finish. My target will be to win another race.”
“This is such an emotional day today, so fantastic after a not very great qualifying performance ... there was everything in it today and to win this at such a crucial stage in the championship means a lot.
“Our tifosi (fans) just carried us to this success.”
Raikkonen said he had not given up hope of catching Schumacher. “We lost the race because we were very unlucky today with the weather but what can you do?” he said. “But you never know, maybe we'll have a very different race in the last one and it all can happen.”
On a day of constantly changing fortunes, but the rain gods favouring Ferrari, it seemed for much of the race as if Schumacher was destined to leave Indianapolis with the title.
But Raikkonen ensured the battle remained alive, if only with the weakest of pulses, with a tenacious second place from pole position after leading the first 19 laps.
Ferrari also regained the lead in the constructor's championship, with 147 points to Williams' 144.
Montoya's hopes were destroyed by a third lap incident with Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello, ironically one of his best friends in Formula One.
The two cars touched and Barrichello spun into the gravel and out of the race, although the blow to Ferrari's hopes of retaining the constructors' crown lessened when Montoya's team mate Ralf Schumacher went out 20 laps later.
A brief flurry of hail preceded the race and heavy rain fell on lap 21, leading to confusion with cars spinning and skating across the track. – Reuters
US GRAND PRIX RESULTS
1. Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1'33:35.997, 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes at 18.258, 3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 37.964, 4. Jarno Trulli (Ita) Renault 48.329, 5. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 56.403, 6. Juan Pablo Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW one lap, 7. Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Jordan one lap, 8. Justin Wilson (Gbr) Jaguar-Cosworth two laps, 9. Cristiano Da Matta (Bra) Toyota two laps, 10. Jos Verstappen (Ned) Minardi four laps, 11. Nicolas Kiesa (Den) Minardi four laps
Did not finish: Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari collision lap 3; Mark Webber (Aus) Jaguar-Cosworth left track lap 22; Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW left track lap 22; Olivier Panis (Fra) Toyota spin lap 28; Jenson Button (Gbr) BAR-Honda engine lap 41; Fernando Alonso (Spa) Renault engine lap 44; David Coulthard (Gbr) McLaren-Mercedes gearbox lap 46; Ralph Firman (Gbr) Jordan spin lap 49; Jacques Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda engine lap 64.
Drivers: 1. Michael Schumacher (Ger) 92pts, 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) 83, 3. Juan Pablo Montoya (Col) 82, 4. Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 58, 5. Rubens Barrichello (Bra) 55, 6. Fernando Alonso (Spa) 55, 7. David Coulthard (Gbr) 45, 8. Jarno Trulli (Ita) 29, 9. Mark Webber (Aus) 17, 10. Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 13, 11. Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) 12, 12. Jenson Button (Gbr) 12, 13. Cristiano Da Matta (Bra) 8, 14. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) 6, 15. Olivier Panis (Fra) 6, 16. Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 6, 17. Marc Gene (Spa) 4, 18. Ralph Firman (Gbr) 1, 19. Justin Wilson (Gbr) 1.
Constructors: 1. Ferrari 147pts, 2. Williams-BMW 144, 3. McLaren-Mercedes 128, 4. Renault 84, 5. Sauber-Petronas 19, 6. BAR-Honda 18, 7. Jaguar-Cosworth 18, 8. Toyota 14, 9. Jordan 13.