MAY 10, 2004
SPANISH GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Full marks but few sparks for St Michael
Michael Schumacher battled to his 75th Grand Prix victory on Sunday in Barcelona. This was his fifth consecutive win of the year to maintain a 100% record. These are statistics which Michael says he does not care about and the view in the Media Centre seemed to suggest that the press are not very interested either and that things are getting desperate for this sport that is Formula 1. Schumacher is so dominant that Formula 1 must inevitably suffer because no-one out there in TV land expects anyone else to win a race this year. Consequently the feeling is that millions of couch potato fans are now switching to the Cartoon Channel rather than keep their TV sets tuned into Grand Prix racing.
Is it the end of civilization as we know it and the death of the sport?
No. In fact if one remembers back to 1988 it seemed a little the same. McLaren won 15 of the 16 races. The only difference was that McLaren allowed its drivers to race one another. And had two drivers who could race one another. McLaren boss Ron Dennis is apt to say there is nothing like humiliation to motivate people to do better in F1. For a long time now Ferrari has been doing an amazing job but there are a lot of motivated people out there in the F1 paddock and eventually the Italian team will stumble and fall. Others may catch them but there is also the chance that team members will start to lose sight of the realities of life and think themselves infallible or not bound by the rules of humankind. One need only to look at the state of McLaren today to know that this is true. Normally Ferrari folk behave in a fairly sensible way but on Sunday Jean Todt started to get a little metaphysical in the post-race Ferrari press release and suggested rather oddly that Ferrari is "like a religion".
Well, Cardinal Todt, say your prayers because it isn't going to last forever...
The truth is that Michael was pretty lucky to win this one and that is not wishful thinking. There was a small hole in an exhaust pipe of his V10 from early on in the race and the car sounded positively flatulent from then on. For reasons known only to that great god Ferrari the thing held together and the escaping gases did not on this occasion cook anything at the back end of the car. The last time we saw such a leak, at Monaco a few years back, the heat caused the rear suspension to break up and Michael ended his race in the wall. It could have happened again in Barcelona.
But it did not.
"Ross Brawn came on the radio and told me there was nothing much to do about it," said Michael after the race. "It became very tiring mentally but I managed to bring it home."
So down there in the Ferrari garage the race must have been a bit of cliff-hanger but for the rest of us it seemed pretty dull. You could hear that the Ferrari did not sound quite right but the lap times did not really show it.
The afternoon ended thus with a sense of desperation in some circles and a feeling that it is just impossible to beat Ferrari.
But remember ladies and gentlemen that this is Formula 1. Things change very quickly. There are no foregone conclusions.
Much had been expected of the first lap at Barcelona, given the grid with Michael and Juan Pablo Montoya at the front but when the lights went out Jarno Trulli was so fast off the line that the others really had no chance at all. Jarno was into the first corner ahead while Michael had to keep an eye on Montoya and Takuma Sato behind him. In the sort-out there Sato came between Michael and Juan Pablo and there was nothing they could do to get into a fight. Barrichello was there behind Montoya but was loaded up with fuel because of a two-stop strategy. Fernando Alonso was up to eighth ahead of Olivier Panis and David Coulthard, while Ralf Schumacher monstered his way from sixth on the grid to ninth on the road which did his chances no good at all. The top 10 was completed by Kimi Raikkonen in the McLaren.
For a few laps Trulli held back Schumacher's Ferrari but just as happened to Jenson Button in Imola, Schumacher ate up the gap as soon as his prey went into the pitlane for his first stop. On lap 10 Michael came out from his pit stop ahead of Trulli. Those with good hearing could hear the fat lady beginning to do voice exercises, somewhere in the distance. Soon she would be singing and the show would be over.
Ironically, it was then that the exhaust went wrong. But it was too late, Michael could handle it.
Barrichello's two-stop strategy put him in the lead for a while when the two-stoppers ahead of him disappeared to pitlane but when he peeled off to the garages Michael and Jarno were left out in front and the gap between them grew. As the strategic battle unwound it became clear that Barrichello was going to get ahead of Jarno and we would be seeing another Ferrari 1-2. And so as Jean Todt was having a religious experience in pitlane, Trulli found himself looking in his mirrors to see where Man of the People and team mate Fernando Alonso was. The answer was that he was closing fast. Fernando had driven a splendid race, leaping up several places at the start and he had then poached positions from Montoya and Sato before finally setting off on Trulli's tail.
"I was stuck in the pack at the start," he said. "It took the first two stints for me to get a clear track so I could begin running at my true pace."
His best was just a tenth slower than Schumacher's and four-tenths faster than Trulli. But he had lost too much time.
In the overall scheme of things the only man who might have beaten Michael in Spain was Jenson Button in his BAR-Honda but the Englishman started so far down the grid that he spent the whole day trying to get out of the traffic. When he did he set a best lap which was almost as good as Michael's. But it mattered not. Jenson ended the day eighth, still paying for that mistake in qualifying on Saturday afternoon. He finished eighth, a lap behind the winner.
Sato did a pretty good job but fifth at the flag from third on the grid told the story. In the circumstances, the BAR was not as good as the Renault.
Ralf Schumacher was there at the end in sixth place but it was not a great story at Williams. Ralf struggled with brake trouble all afternoon and Montoya went out with it on lap 46 while running in sixth place.
"We made a bad call with the brake cooling," admitted Sam Michael.
There was something to cheer about down at Sauber as two points for Fisichella was a decent reward for a very good race. Both drivers went for solid two-stop strategies, hoping that this would give them more space without traffic and that is really how it worked out. Fisichella climbed from 12th to fourth before his first stop and then dropped back to eighth. Off he went again and he was sixth at the second stops. But he could not hold it in the final stint when Ralf Schumacher came back at him and Ralf obviously had a decent advantage to enable him to overtake. Felipe Massa was further back but he followed Fisichella all the way and came home ninth, ahead of both stumbling McLarens, which were chased across the line by Mark Webber's Jaguar. Ever the realist Webber, summed it up neatly.
"We were having a competition to see who could drive the slowest," he said.
The fact that both McLarens made it to the flag was something but 10th and 11th a lap behind Michael Schumacher was a pretty depressing place for this time to find itself.
The only other finisher was Cristiano da Matta's Toyota.
After the race Michael was asked about one of the few records he does not yet hold. Alberto Ascari won nine races in a row back in the 1950s. Michael is one of those racing drivers who think that history began on the day when they first sat in a racing car and on this occasion he did not even bother paying lip service to a great name.
"It doesn't mean anything to me," he said with a lack of grace that was startling.
The soul of the sport is feeling a little bruised...