-- In Michael Schumacher's mind, today's running of the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an occasion for paying a debt.
With his fifth Formula One championship already sewn up and his place in the sport's record books secure, Schumacher eased up on the throttle of his lightning-fast Ferrari on the final lap to let his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, pull alongside.
What Schumacher envisioned, in a rare gesture of motorsports magnanimity, was a side-by-side finish for Ferrari that would clinch second place in the season's championship race for Barrichello. More importantly, he thought, it would right a wrong that the Ferrari tandem had committed, albeit under team orders, on the last lap of the Austrian Grand Prix on May 12. In that race, Barrichello, who had led from the start, was ordered to pull aside and let Schumacher win.
Today at Indianapolis, Schumacher and Barrichello found that orchestrating a side-by-side finish at 190 miles per hour wasn't so easy. Their Ferraris sped over the finish line so evenly matched that neither driver knew who had won until the timing system declared Barrichello the winner by 0.011 seconds -- the closest margin in F1 history.
But in his effort to right a wrong today, Schumacher engineered a fraudulent finish. And in doing so, he re-ignited what has been a heated debate in FI racing this season over the tradition of "team orders" -- in essence, the practice of ordering one driver to throw a finish to ensure his teammate finishes better.
Schumacher was quick to explain that the decision to slow on the last two corners was his own -- not that of Ferrari team manager Jean Todt, who had ordered the controversial outcome in Austria.
"I didn't feel particularly happy with what happened in Austria, but from the point of the decision we had to make at the time, I understood, and we both understood," Schumacher said. "And to be honest, with now what has happened, I feel to some degree I equalized this, and I feel I can give him back something where he deserved to win. We hadn't planned to do this. It just happened."
The victory was the fifth of Barrichello's career. And it continued Ferrari's remarkable dominance in the sport this season. Today's outcome marked the eighth 1-2 finish for Ferrari this season and the team's fourth consecutive 1-2 finish. Ferrari has won 14 of 16 races this year, including the last nine in a row. Schumacher, who is without peer as a race car driver, wrapped up the season's championship in record time, clinching his fifth world title at the French Grand Prix in July. With today's outcome, Barrichello sealed second place in the standings, extending his points total beyond the reach of Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya with only one race remaining.
Today at Indianapolis, Ferrari painted the town red, with neither car facing a challenge all day.
Schumacher and Barrichello qualified first and second, forming a Ferrari sweep of the front row. And they were the only two drivers to lead during the 73-lap race, with Barrichello taking over when Schumacher ducked into the pits for fresh tires and fuel.
Afterward, the two climbed from their cockpits and exchanged a warm embrace in victory lane. Barrichello said he had no misgivings about the win.
"I don't think that I will be worried thinking Michael let me by, and this and that," Barrichello said. "Today was a payback. I'm completely happy with the situation."
The outcome was cheered by thousands in the stands. Based on the number of national flags that fans waved, the crowd of 125,000 was dominated by South American partisans, screaming especially loudly for Brazil's Barrichello and Montoya of Colombia, who finished fourth.
But there was plenty of grumbling, as well, about the manipulated outcome -- particularly among journalists. And it clearly made third-place finisher David Coulthard uneasy.
Coulthard kept his McLaren-Mercedes within view of the Ferraris all day, but never managed to overtake either. Asked how today's result made him feel, Coulthard, who is Scottish, replied: "I'd really like to, what is it, the Fifth Amendment or something you plead out here? You know, I just don't want . . . Can you let me not answer that one, please?"
In terms of pageantry, the third running of the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis was a thing of beauty. It drew supermodel Heidi Klum, who strolled the pits alongside Indianapolis Speedway president Tony George; TV actor Anthony Edwards, star of "ER;" and a bevy of gawkers and gapers who looked as if they'd stepped from the pages of Elle and GQ.
Horns blared, and the crowd chanted "MON-TOY-YA!" "MON-TOY-YA!" as drivers took pre-race parade laps.
And the mere sound and sight of 20 F1 cars launching off the starting grid from a standing position, zooming from 0 to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds, jangled nerves and body alike.
But the only drama was whether Schumacher's upcoming lap would be faster than his previous. Schumacher insisted, in remarks afterward, that keeping Barrichello behind him today was harder than it looked. Until, of course, he chose not to.
Asked if he shouldn't be trying to win all the time, Schumacher paused a moment. "You know, I think life is to be honest and to be fair," Schumacher said. "And that is what I want to be."