APRIL 26, 2004
SAN MARINO GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
The Red Planet
Brides-to-be, if you are hoping for the perfect summer wedding later this year, take some advice from a hack in the Formula 1 press room: plan for your wedding to take place on a Saturday afternoon on a Grand Prix weekend because it seems that every Saturday when the Formula 1 cars are running, no matter where we are, the weather is always warm and sunny. And then on Saturday night (when the bridesmaids would be cuddling up with their new beaux) the temperatures drop dramatically and Sundays are really rather chilly. This has happened four times this season in four races and there are some in Formula 1 circles who are beginning to believe that Michael Schumacher has done a deal with the Devil to ensure that he always races when the temperatures are exactly what he needs - and exactly what his rivals do not need.
At the first three races of the year there was a feeling each time that although Michael had won on each occasion, it was not as much of a massacre as it appeared to be. Things just played into Michael's hands.
On Saturday night at Imola not only did the temperature drop but there was a massive rain storm, which washed away the rubber on the track. The Michelin tyres work best at higher temperatures and with a lot of rubber on the road. Some of the qualifying battles this year have been exciting but when the temperatures drop the Bridgestone tyres get better and better and Michael disappears into the distance.
At Imola, for a few short minutes, we thought that BAR-Honda might finally have found an antidote to Ferrari domination. But then it all went wrong. Michael Schumacher's lap times dropped by more than a second. His IN lap was 1.8 second better than that of Jenson Button. His OUT lap was an astonishing two seconds faster than that of Button and really every television across the world should at that moment have featured the words "Game Over". When the two men were back up to speed Michael was five seconds ahead. Four laps earlier he had been a second behind.
After the race the only sensible suggestion seemed to be to propose to Ferrari that a good PR strategy would be to nominate Michael to be a candidate to become the first astronaut for a manned mission to Mars. He would become even more famous than he is now. Willi Weber could sell lots of hats saying "Michael on Mars" and Formula 1 would get the chance to have other drivers win races.
Michael is just too good.
On Sunday morning in Imola we looked forward to having Jenson Button up at the front. Juan Pablo Montoya was up there and Fernando Alonso too but Michael was ahead of both and so the hopes really rested on Button. At the start Jenson got away brilliantly. Michael was not very quick and Montoya was not much better. Ralf Schumacher wanted to find a way past his team mate but Montoya was there as Ralf tried to take advantage of a better start. The bunching in the midfield meant that as everyone was following Button into the Tamburello chicane, David Coulthard locked up and his McLaren slid into the back of Alonso's Renault. The McLaren weekend faded from grey to black. DC went off for a touch of rallycross and then wandered around to pitlane where the man in black stuck on a new nose and sent him on his way. Alas, there are times when no amount of cosmetic surgery will make a girl into Miss World and the same applies to Little Miss MP4-19.
The fun and games continued on the run down to the Curva Villeneuve where Montoya went for the inside and came out alongside Michael Schumacher. Now this is a good place to be except that the next corner is Tosa, a curling left-hander. Montoya might have been there and he might even have been quicker but Michael was on the inside and in such circumstances one cannot expect a man of his competitive (one might say ruthless) nature to give you room to overtake. Michael widened his line and Montoya was off on the grass, decapitating earthworms. At the post-race press conference Michael said he had not seen Monty but, as luck would have it, when it came to be Montoya's time to speak the incident in question was playing on the Media Centre screens. And so we all watched it together.
"I actually got in front of him when we were braking," said Montoya. "Oh no, he didn't see me there. No chance. You've got to be blind or stupid not to see me."
Michael's body language gave him away. He knew no-one believed him. We all knew.
But Michael always get away with it.
There was a certain amount of poetic justice to come because Montoya lost momentum on the grass and so as they went up the hill the other Schumacher was trying to pass his BMW Williams team mate. Montoya squeezed Ralf out and then suddenly Schumacher Jr was off on the grass on the left side of the track. More earthworms met a grisly fate. And no doubt Ralf was less than impressed by his team mate. This meant that coming up the middle was Takuma Sato and it was he who emerged fourth behind Jenson, Michael and Juan Pablo.
Ralf was fifth but he did not seem very comfortable with Rubens Barrichello right up his chuff.
Jenson must have been laughing into his helmet as the men in his wake bumped and ground one another (and killed earthworms). By the end of that first lap Button's lead was a massive 2.7 seconds.
The next time around Michael was only 2.1s behind and on lap three the gap was down to 1.4s. On lap four it was under a second and now we wondered about fuel loads. If Jenson stopped first the dream was over. Michael was stuck behind him for few laps but the Ferrari was obviously quicker and so it was now all about fuel loads.
We got the answer on lap 9 when Button peeled off into the pits. Michael jammed his pedal to the metal and was gone. Being five seconds up on Jenson within four laps was not enough for Michael and in the laps that followed the gap went from 5 secs to 6.1 to 7.6 to 8.8, 9.9, 10.8 and so on. In 13 laps he made up 17.69s and we knew it was all over.
Button was himself a long way clear of Montoya and Monty's explanation was not the sort of thing that Williams and BMW really want to hear.
Was there light at the end of the tunnel? someone asked.
"There has got to be, either this year or next year or whenever," he said. "At the moment we don't have anything. The car is not quick enough. We are down on power and we are down on downforce as well. We are a bit like the best of the rest apart from the fact that BAR has now overtaken us. We need to find a way to come back a little bit."
Montoya may not have been overly impressed by his technical package but then again the team did not seem overly impressed with Montoya's incident with Michael.
"There was no question of overtaking him," said Patrick Head. "It was either lift or go off. But I don't think Michael could say that he didn't see Juan."
Williams's afternoon garnered eight points from the two drivers (six for Montoya and two for Ralf). It was not a good score and Ralf should have done better. After the first stops he was pushed back a place by Jarno Trulli. At the second pits stops Ralf managed to get ahead of Jarno and so was back in fourth again but the pesky Renaults would not leave him alone and after the third stops Ralf found himself under serious attack from Alonso. When the Spaniard tried to pass him on lap 50 there were tears.
According to Patrick Head, Ralf "left the door a bit wide". Alonso liked the look of the gap and went for it. Ralf did not give him the room he needed and (as happened in Bahrain) the cars went clonk into one another. Ralf spun. The measure of Ralf's popularity at the moment was a huge cheer that rose up in the Media Centre. Trulli and Barrichello went past him. Ralf now has no chance of staying at Williams next year. His chances of a drive at Toyota seem to be waning and there is a feeling in the F1 paddock that his future may lie in the German Touring Car Championship...
Alonso went after Montoya and was right on his tail at the end. Fourth and fifth was a good haul of points for Renault.
Barrichello added to Ferrari's points with sixth but it was not a great result. He suffered during the first lap and ended up sixth from fourth on the grid. After that he spent the entire afternoon looking at the gearboxes of his opposition. First it was Ralf and then Trulli and the Renault was there all the way to the flag.
Everyone else was a lap behind. Kimi Raikkonen was seventh from 20th on the grid thanks to a two-stop strategy but the fact that in the closing laps he was fighting with Giancarlo Fisichella's Sauber (also on a two stop strategy) put that performance into perspective, particularly given the fact that Fizzy had wasted some time when he went off trying to avoid an errant Minardi and lost a second a half. At the end of the race he was nine-tenths behind Raikkonen.
The less said about McLaren the better. Ferrari has 64 points from four races. McLaren has five.
Sauber tried two different strategies and the drivers came home eight seconds apart, showing that the two-stop run was better. Toyota had a dull day with Olivier Panis 11th and Cristiano da Matta failing to finish after a big mess caused by a blue flag infringement which sent him into pitlane for a drive-through in the mid-race. He was pressing buttons to engage speed limiters and things went wrong and he disabled his traction-control and so ended up sitting in a world full of gravel.
He was better off than Mark Webber who started eighth and finished 13th. All was well until the first pit stops after which one cylinder began to misbehave and Mark never knew whether he was going into a corner with or without the horsepower involved. It was, he said later, like riding a bucking bronco. Christian Klien ended up more than a minute behind Webber for no apparent reason.
Neither Jordan made it home but Giorgio Pantano's race was short but a little sweet. He did well at the start and was up to 13th in the early laps but then a hydraulic problem put him out.
Perhaps the unluckiest man of the day, however, was Sato who went from fourth to eighth because of a gearbox problem which caused him problems all afternoon. In the end he was running eighth when the stresses and strains caused by the gearbox problem caused the Honda engine to lunch itself in a monumental fashion with just a few laps to go.