SEPTEMBER 29, 2003
UNITED STATES GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
...until the fat lady sings
They say in America that the show isn't over until the fat lady sings. At Indianapolis on Sunday there were lots of fat ladies but none of them seemed to be singing after Michael Schumacher's impressive drive to yet another Formula 1 victory. The show isn't quiet over yet, but with Kimi Raikkonen needing to win the Japanese GP with Michael failing to score a point, it is only fair to say that Michael losing the World Championship now would be rather more than careless. Still strange things have happened before. Let us not forget that back in 1986 Nigel Mansell went to Adelaide with a six point lead in the World Championship and yet still managed to lose the title to Alain Prost... And let us not forget that Michael has now had 37 races without a mechanical failure. He has not broken down since Hockenheim in 2001. One day it is going to happen...
When in the years to come racing historians look back and try to assess Michael Schumacher, they will probably conclude that one of his biggest advantages was his amazing finishing record. Michael rarely crashes and it seems never breaks down. He makes mistakes from time to time but always seems to get away with it. If rain is coming, Michael and Ferrari always seem to call it right. This may be down to better forecasting than the opposition but then again it might just be down to luck.
As the grid formed up a victory for Schumacher did not look very likely. Everyone knew that the weather would probably dictate the race. The crowd was loud and boisterous. The start was always going to be of enormous importance and it was a lively affair - unless you were Rubens Barrichello.
"It was a joke," said the Brazilian. "My gearchange were not working properly and so I had to switch to manual and by the time I had done that I had been overtaken by several people."
This did not help those behind him and Montoya and Alonso both suffered.
Going into the first turn we had Raikkonen leading Panis, Ralf Schumacher and Michael Schumacher. Then came Barrichello and a fast-starting David Coulthard, who had gone from eighth to sixth. Then came Montoya and Alonso. It was clean and tidy except down at the back where Ralf Firman made a mistake and ran into the back of Jos Verstappen and tore off his front wings. Verstappen's tire was punctured. He would need new tyres.
In those early laps Raikkonen looked very comfortable, pulling out a lead of two and a half seconds in the first two laps. Panis was holding up the Schumacher Brothers and all looked well for McLaren. They looked even better halfway through the second lap when Coulthard pounced and scrambled up to fifth, ahead of Barrichello.
The rain started to get worse.
At the start of the third lap Ralf used the prodigious power of the BMW engine to pass Panis for second place while in their wake Montoya tried to do the same to Barrichello. He was right on the Brazilian's tail as they dived into the complex of corners after the first turn. Montoya tried to go for the inside line and rather than shut the down Barrichello gave him room.
"I gave him room and hoped that I would have better traction than him out of the corner," Barrichello explained after seeing a video of the incident later. "I don't know if he touched the kerb and it was wet and he slid into me or whether he did not want to lift off because the space was there. But whatever happened he hit me and I spun and that was that. It was very frustrating because the car was capable of scoring a lot of points today."
Up in the Media Center we waited for a penalty to come because, as you may recall, trying overtook is considered to be dangerous. Half an hour Montoya was given a drive-through penalty.
His World Championship hopes had become dreams.
The incident allowed the two Renaults to get ahead of Montoya but he quickly found a way back ahead of Trulli.
Up at the front however Raikkonen was untroubled and Michael Schumacher was lining up to overtake Panis. Coming down the straight at the start of lap five Michael pulled out and moved ahead of the Toyota. As he did so there was a yellow flag going at the first corner and while some felt that Michael had passed under yellows, the videos revealed that the manoeuvre had been completed before the yellow flag. Michael had left at least three or four feet to spare...
After that one would have expected to see Michael chase after (and deal with) his brother Ralf but as the rain increased so the Ferrari handling got worse and worse. In semi-wet conditions the Michelin grooved tires are better than the Bridgestones and it showed as Michael suddenly dropped behind Coulthard and Alonso. Panis decided to take a risk and headed fro the pits hoping that an early stop to change to wet tires would give him a big advantage. The plan did not work. He took on wet tires but then lost a few seconds as the car was slow away from the pit. And when he got out on the track the rain stopped almost immediately. He was back amongst the tail-enders are needing to pit again. His challenge was effectively over...
It was a risk that Villeneuve, Kiesa and da Matta all took and it cost them all dearly.
The rain held off and Raikkonen found that Ralf Schumacher was able to lap more quickly and the Williams closed up to within a second before Ralf had to pit. He took on more dry tires and rejoined in 12th place.
Ralf's progress was mirrored by that of Montoya who overtook Coulthard for third on lap 15 (taking Alonso with him) and when Ralf stopped Juan was briefly second before he too came to the pits. Rain was threatening but he stayed on dry tires but he lost five or six seconds when the refuelling nozzle refused to connect at the first attempt. It was just not his day. Coulthard, who pitted behind him, also took dry tires and emerged ahead of the Williams. All this put Alonso into second but he went into the pits on lap 18 and so Michael Schumacher, still battling along on his dry tires in the treacherous conditions, found himself second. Raikkonen headed for pitlane immediately and he too put on dry rubber.
As this was happening the rain increased and suddenly everyone was in a quandary as to what to do. Michael and Trulli came in at that moment and both opted for dry tires again. All this activity meant that those who had not stopped were at a big advantage and so we had the unusual sight of Mark Webber leading Jenson Button, Justin Wilson, Ralf Schumacher and Michael Schumacher. They were being chased by Raikkonen and Alonso.
"I was driving my own race," said Webber. "I really did not have a clue where I was running. I was having big problems with visibility because my visor was completely steamed up and I lost the car and spun."
Mark rejoined and then went off again at the end of the back straight.
"There was just so much water," he said. "It was a shame but I have finished eighth too many times. I was going for it and I was trying to stay out as long as I could on the dry tires. It did not work out."
There was some consternation at the end of the lap because after Webber disappeared, most of the other frontrunners went into the pits and suddenly Coulthard was leading. He tried to keep going on dry tires. Within a lap the McLaren had been engulfed by those on wets.
Next time around there was Jenson Button in the lead in his BAR with Frentzen second, Wilson third and Raikkonen fourth. DC was only fifth. In the laps that followed Coulthard would tumble down the order, the team having decided to sacrifice his chances to see the point at which it would be best to bring in Raikkonen. Coulthard was soon two laps behind. His race would end later with a gearbox problem.
On the wet tires however it was clear that the Bridgestone runners had a big advantage and soon Michael Schumacher was back in contention having gone into the pits after just one lap on his new dry tires. When the chaos subsided Michael was seventh and he soon gobbled up Alonso, Wilson and Raikkonen and set off after Frentzen. He took second from the Sauber on lap 33 and on lap 38 he was in the lead. With Raikkonen fourth and Montoya running ninth Michael was World Champion on the road. When Button blew up a few laps later Raikkonen gained nothing because he stopped at the same time to get dry tires again now that the road was drying. He lost a place to Heidfeld but when the others had all stopped and gone on to dry rubber he was third with Frentzen ahead. On lap 55 however Kimi went past Heinz-Harald and managed to revive the World Championship.
Michael was never seriously challenged after he hit the front and although Frentzen led lap 49 (the first time one of the Saubers has ever led an F1 race) Michael was soon back in charge when Frentzen came in for dry tires at the end of the lap.
"It was a very intense and emotional race," said Michael later. "Tires played a crucial role today and while Bridgestone has been criticized a lot this year we always had the wet tires up our sleeve and they came good today."
Raikkonen came home second and was resigned in defeat.
"What can you do?" he said. "I was fighting as much as I could and we only got second place."
Third place went to Frentzen in his Sauber and with Heidfeld ending up in fifth the team picked up a big haul of points and so vaulted from ninth to fifth in the Constructors' World Championship.
"Ten points in a single race," said Peter Sauber. "It's difficult for me to find words. Our strategy, the skill of the drivers and the Bridgestone tires all played decisive roles."
Sneaking into fifth by the end of the race was Trulli in his Renault. he had kept his head while all around were losing their cool and as the track dried in the closing laps was able to catch and pass Heidfeld.
"Towards the end the car was really fantastic," said Trulli. "I think the real damage was done by my mistake in the warm-up yesterday. If I had been on pole we could have done a lot better today."
Alonso was ahead of Trulli on the road for much of the race but at the second stops Jarno got ahead. Soon afterwards Fernando had an engine failure.
"We were competitive today," he said, "but I was still not very happy with my car. It has been difficult all weekend."
For Williams one can only describe the United States GP as a complete disaster. Ferrari is now back in the lead in the Constructors' title by three points.
Ralf Schumacher was going well when he crashed on lap 22.
"I stayed out one lap too long," he said. "That was due to a misunderstanding with the engineers. It was obviously not the thing to do and I spun off. The conditions were very difficult."
Montoya managed to recover to finish sixth. His fastest lap was only tenth slower than Michael's best but he was a lap behind.
"The race was basically decided by the penalty," he said. "That came at the same time as the rain storm and so I had to delay my pit stop to change to wets."
Seventh place went in the end to Giancarlo Fisichella and it was a good result for the struggling Jordan team, a triumph of good driving and good strategy.
"We did not take advantage of the conditions as much as we might have done," said Gary Anderson. "Our stops were at the right time but there were problems at both stops: one with a right front wheel sticking and the other with the refuelling machine. At the second stop we thought that the refuelling machine had malfunctioned and so we fuelled him again so he had too much fuel onboard in the final stint and that obviously slowed him down."
Still it was points in the bag for Jordan.
Ralf Firman was at the back after his first lap incident and eventually spun off on lap 50.
Eighth place - and a World Championship point - went to Wilson who had struggled all afternoon with a badly-handling car. The strategy had taken him up to the front of the field but the car was just not good enough to hold on and held fell backwards in the difficult wet conditions when the Michelins were not working well.
Toyota's race was also a disappointment. The team's decision to risk an early stop for wet tires was a blow and by the time the problem had been rectified both drivers were a lap down and out of contention. Panis then had to change a nosecone when he was hit by another car and eventually he spun off. Da Matta battled on but was given a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pitlane and so lost all hope of being able to beat Wilson for a point.
For BAR it was a disappointing day after Button had driven so well and led the race for 15 laps. Villeneuve's race had been ruined by the early decision to risk a switch to wet tires and although he lapped quickly he was never going to make enough ground. He was running ninth when his engine blew on lap 64.
The Minardis were both there at the finish but finishing four laps down is really not worth many column inches.
"If it hadn't been for the first lap incident, Jos would have scored a point today," said Paul Stoddart.
Everyone had a story like that...
But no-one had a story like Michael Schumacher.