Michael's blazing saddle...

Michael Schumacher, Austrian GP 2003

Michael Schumacher, Austrian GP 2003 

 © The Cahier Archive

Michael Schumacher won his third consecutive victory in Austria but this was one of the more unusual wins of his career. Michael has long pulled off unusual achievements but few have been as unusual as the 2003 Austrian Grand Prix. On the race track there seemed to be little that anyone could do to beat him but when he went into the pits, there was a fire...

Qualifying had been rather confusing for everyone with no obvious signs of what to expect on Sunday. The story was going to be decided upon by tires and strategies. The number-crunchers in the paddock said that the best strategy was two stops with fairly even stints. But no-one was quite sure how it would all pan out because of the difference in the way that the Michelin and Bridgestone tires behaved. The Bridgestones were very quick on their first lap but dropped away quickly after that. They would grain a little and it would take a few laps for them to be cleaned up and then they would be good again. The Michelins on the other hand went off in a rather more consistent way, the performance sliding down and then coming back again as the rubber wore away. But all of this was theory based on certain temperatures and a few degrees could make a massive difference. So no-one really knew what to expect.

What everyone expected was a first lap accident and that did not happen. But getting the Austrian GP started was not the work of a moment thanks to the efforts of Cristiano da Matta and the Toyota launch control system. This failed to work twice. On the first occasion the start was aborted and da Matta was sent to the back of the grid. The race might have started at the second attempt but as da Matta was stopped on the racing line there was a worry that it could be dangerous and so for the third attempt at a start da Matta was told to move to the other side of the track so that if the car failed again he would not upset the race any more.

By then the aborted starts had already caused other problems. Mark Webber had taken the decision to start from pit lane but in his normal race car. Also in the pit lane was Fernando Alonso but he had decided to use the spare. This was an important difference because if one uses the normal car one is bound by parc ferme regulations until the start of the race. The regulations state that any car in this circumstance can only be refuelled and have new tires fitted after the green light is shown for the final parade lap before the first start. Teams know that there is a chance that if they refuel after the green light they will get into trouble because if the start is aborted they will have broken the rules. And that is what happened with Webber. The Jaguar team could have waited and quickly changed the tires and filled up the car after the start of the race itself but they considered that doing it before then was a risk worth taking. That was a bad decision in the circumstances as the FIA Stewards decided that the punishment should be a 10-second stop-go penalty. That decision was taken if only to try to make sure that teams did not do it again. It seemed a heavy-handed punishment because the team had gained no advantage from what it had done but an example was needed and Webber was the victim. And after a miserable qualifying it seemed his race would be even more miserable.

It was miserable too for Heinz Harald Frentzen because as the field set off on the final parade lap, the Sauber driver was left behind. He rushed off to get the T-car but there was not enough time to get everything switched over from Nick Heidfeld's settings and so Frentzen's day was over.

Jos Verstappen's involvement would end a moment later. The lights went out. The field accelerated away and Verstappen's launch control broke. The car came to a stop alongside the pit wall.

Up at the front Michael Schumacher had made it look easy with Montoya behind him, the Williams-BMW driver having made a better start that Raikkonen. In fact Kimi was in trouble even before the race began because after qualifying it was found that the Mercedes-Benz V10 had a cracked valve. The team was given position to change it rather than changing the entire engine and having to start at the back of the field. There was some debate about that in the paddock but as there are no clear guidelines as to how much can be changed, the Mercedes men got away with it - except that the engine was not running very well. And that would affect Kimi's race as the afternoon wore on.

Before there could be much in the way of a battle it was decided that Verstappen's car needed to be moved and a Safety Car was despatched and the race was put on hold. For the next three laps the cars cruised around, a couple diving for the pits to fill up and try for a different strategy.

And then it was time to start again and this time the race was finally on. Schumacher's first lap was good enough to give him a lead of 1.4 seconds and after that the gap went up by six-tenths for each of the next few laps. And then the Bridgestone's cut in and Schumacher was off and away with a string of fastest laps which put him 10 seconds ahead in just 11 laps. And then it started to rain. It was an odd shower for only parts of the track were affected. This meant that drivers arrived in the corners not really knowing if it was wet or dry. The person with the biggest disadvantage was the leader who had to guess what the conditions would be like. And in a flash Michael's lead was hacked back to just over three seconds within a couple of laps.

Some took advantage of the rain to go into the pits while others waited to follow their plans. Once the rain had stopped Schumacher began building a lead again. What no-one knew was that Montoya's Williams already had a problem which would be terminal. The engine had a valve problem and was over-pressurized. It was going to blow up...

Before that could happen however the leaders started to pit. Second-placed Montoya was followed in by fourth-placed Barrichello. Montoya had no big dramas but at Ferrari a chain reaction was about to begin. Barrichello's refuelling machine did not work as it was supposed to have done. The team reacted by filling Barrichello's car with Michael's fuel rig. There was not much time to check things over because at the end of lap 23 Michael himself came into the pits. The theory is that the nozzle still retained some fuel from the refuelling of Barrichello. This must have spilled out as the refueler pushed the nozzle on to the car and a few moments later (although not immediately) it caught fire. The refueler tried then to detach the nozzle from the car but these are high technology pieces of equipment and a variety of safety systems meant that the nozzle had to remain on the car until the fuel and the vapor systems had been cut off. When the nozzle finally popped off some more fuel which was in the end of the nozzle slopped out and suddenly the fire was rather bigger. Ferrari had prepared its mechanics well. Twice a year they have to deal with practice fires and they are very good at it. Within a second four extinguishers were on, firing at the blaze from different directions. Schumacher did not even think of jumping out. He sat there waited for the word to accelerate away. And duly did it.

The two pits stops had nobbled both Ferraris and so the leader was Montoya with Raikkonen a few seconds back and Michael right up behind him. There was then a big gap back to Jenson Button's BAR-Honda and Barrichello while Alonso, who had worked his way through the field, was up to sixth.

Montoya did not pull away, but then Michael could not pass Raikkonen. Until the race fell into his lap on lap 32. Michael was able to power past the hobbled Raikkonen on the run up to the Remus Kurve. He slipped ahead. A few hundred meters further up the road, as Michael began to focus on the back of Montoya's Williams, the machine blew up and trailing smoke headed into the pit lane...

The race had surrendered itself to Michael Schumacher. And after that any other result was a dream. Raikkonen was to lead a few laps when Schumacher pitted again and Barrichello even had a lap ahead but on lap 51 the stops were all done and Michael was eight seconds ahead of Raikkonen, who was nine seconds clear of Barrichello. The remainder of the race was a chase as Rubens tried to catch and then pass Kimi. He came close on lap 66 but Raikkonen made it very clear that it was a thoroughly bad idea and the issue was solved.

There was big gap back from these three cars to the man in fourth place who turned out to be Button who had driven a very strong race, underlining the new-found performance of the BAR-Honda. Qualifying had been a mess but the cars were very fast and even Villeneuve who had started back in 12th was able to make am impression despite the fact that his steering wheel electronics went wrong straight away and Jacques had to figure out what was happening without a computer to tell him. At his second pit stop the engine stalled and poor Jacques was screwed again. He finished 12th.

Ralf Schumacher should have been fifth but he was struggling with his tires and on lap 57 he overcooked it and ran wide and so Coulthard moved ahead. He had had an afternoon dodging and weaving in the midfield after the horrible qualifying so this was a good effort. Ralf did finish sixth but there was hardly dancing the Williams pit. The cars had deserved better than a couple of miserable points.

The same could be said of Jaguar Racing as well but Mark Webber's seventh place was quite an achievement given that he had to deal with a 10-second stop-go penalty, two pits stops and a heap of traffic. Webber bundled his way through, setting the third fastest lap of the race. The result, he knew, could have been a lot better as the car was very good indeed. Pizzonia too did not make the most of his chances although he drove well in the early laps to snatch sixth place from eighth on the grid. That lasted only until the first stop when the rain came and then he tumbled down the order, the team having decided to fill him up. A few laps later he went skittering off the road and by the time he was back on the road again he was down near the back. He fought back well but ninth was his only reward.

Renault had a poor day as well with Trulli's race being ruined by an off road moment in the wet. He was then stuck in the midfield until the team changed his strategy but by then it was too late and he was eighth.

Alonso's race was even less rewarding. He had charged hard to go from the back to fifth on one tank of fuel. When he pitted on lap 37 he fell back to eighth and might possibly have scored if his engine had not popped on lap 45.

Heidfeld's afternoon for Sauber ended with his engine losing all power so that the man who ran fifth in the early laps soon fell back down the order and eventually there was no point in going on.

Toyota's day was similarly depressing with da Matta stuck in the backmarkers all afternoon while Olivier Panis went in for a tank of gas when the Safety Car came out but soon afterwards hit some wreckage on the road which broke his suspension and punctured a tire.

The Jordans and Justin Wilson did what they could, Wilson going for a quick stop when the Safety Car came out but although he got as high as ninth it was not enough to stop him falling right back when he pitted again. Fisichella and Firman struggled along, not far apart but eventually Fizzy's race fizzled out with a fuel system failure. Firman trekked home in 11th place.

The only real fireworks, when all is said and done, were in the Ferrari pit!




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