MAY 31, 2004
EUROPEAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
World domination, Part VI
Ding Dong! The Witch is back! The Reds are top and the mood is black. Racing fans, please come back. There's loads of action on the track. The problem is it's down the back. Ding Dong! The Witch is back!
After the excitements of Jarno Trulli's victory in Monte Carlo it was back to business as usual at the Nurburgring where Michael Schumacher won his umpteenth Grand Prix victory (we have now given up counting) and his sixth victory in seven races this season. The Schumi fans were happy but a cloud of gloom rolled in over the Nurburgring paddock on Sunday night as the other F1 team bosses considered the situation with four races coming in the next six weeks. A month from now Michael could have 10 wins to his name and he could finish off his seventh World Championship in August, without even needing to turn up for the last few races. If that is the case few people will show up.
If there was a crumb of hope, it was that BAR-Honda did frighten Ferrari in practice. Takuma Sato was so quick in the session just before final qualifying that the team decided to take out some fuel to be sure of pole position. This was achieved in impressive enough fashion but we suspected overnight that Michael had been running light. The only hope seemed to be that at the start someone might get ahead and hold Michael back. In fact, the opposite happened. McLaren, keen to make a good impression in front of Mercedes-Benz-loving audience, had run its cars light in qualifying. David Coulthard had broken down and was at the back but Kimi Raikkonen was fourth on the grid and, thanks to the over-enthusiasm of Jarno Trulli and Takuma Sato, the Finn found himself in a rather embarrassing second position before half of the lap had gone by. And that was it really. The weakness of the McLaren was highlighted graphically while every man and his dog crawled over the back of Raikkonen. Ahead of Kimi, Michael did only eight laps before rushing into the pits but in that time he had built himself a lead of 17 seconds. From then on he could relax a little and maintain the gap, without ever having to push very hard. He probably could have gone quicker because his best lap was still a good half a second faster than Sato's best but pushing hard was just not necessary. One can say that Michael was utterly brilliant in that period of the race and it is hard to argue otherwise but his pursuers were hobbled by the fact that they were all trolling around behind the slow silver car. We knew that Kimi Raikkonen would pit early or blow up and secretly we hoped it would happen sooner rather than later so that the others would get a chance to go after Michael. But the Mercedes V10 lasted long enough to make sure that the race was over by the time Kimi went into the pits. When Raikkonen rejoined he was way down the running order and within a matter of moments the engine had lunched itself. David Coulthard's V10 would follow later after he had done his fair share of holding up others.
Once released from the clutches of Raikkonen and Alonso, Sato's lap times came down two seconds a lap and one would be forgiven for doing mental arithmetic and working out that if he had been behind Michael for eight laps he would have been one second behind when the Ferrari star went into the pits and would possibly have been ahead of Michael at the start of the second stint. Would it ultimately have made any difference? We will never know but it had potential to be a good race. If one was being brutal it would be fair to say that Sato screwed himself because if he had not had the incident with Trulli he would have been second.
The Japanese star is very quick but at the moment he seems just a little too wild and keen to prove himself. At the first corner he pulled off a delightful lunge to grab second place although Jarno Trulli later reckoned that if he had not given Takuma a bit of extra space the BAR-Honda would have creamed into him there and then. A couple or corners later Jarno went down the inside and Sato closed the door.
"His right front wheel hit my front left and I nearly lost the car," said Trulli. Both men recovered but by then Raikkonen and Alonso were ahead and that was that.
Later in the race we would see Sato's impatience emerge again. He was on a three-stop strategy with Barrichello on a two-stop pattern. This meant that when Rubens made his final stop on lap 38, Takuma went ahead. When he stopped on lap 44 it was obviously going to be a very close call. Barrichello was ahead but Sato was rampaging over the back of him. At the start of lap 46 he went for the inside line at the first corner. Later Rubens would call it an amateur move but if Michael had pulled it off Ferrari would have called it brilliant. The two cars clonked into one another and bits of wings and things were left lying around. Sato had to pit for a nose-job and Ferrari had a 1-2. Button chased but he had been held up for too long by Coulthard to be in with a chance and so followed the two red cars home. Sato rejoined but after a lap and half his engine did a passable impression of its blow-up in Monaco and the plucky Japanese racer hopped out and wandered off, feeling a little peeved.
"It could have been a good result," he said.
Sato's misfortune was cash in the bank for Renault with Trulli and Alonso coming home fourth and fifth. Early on the two had run in reverse order but a mistake by Alonso on lap 14 cost him four seconds and three places. Alonso said that the incident had been caused by his steering becoming "very vague". Afterwards all he could do was hold position.
Sixth place ended up being a fight between Giancarlo Fisichella and Mark Webber and both men did very good jobs to be there and Fisichella had started at the back because of an engine change and Webber had been dumped back at the start when something went wrong with the starting system (again). His strategy took him up to sixth place before his first stop on lap 18 and then he fell back to 11th but he was back to eighth when it came to stop again and at the end he was right behind Fisichella. The two points he scored lifted Jaguar Racing back ahead of Jordan in the Constructors' Championship. Fisichella's three were even more important for Sauber as it now gives the Swiss team twice as many points as McLaren, its rival for fifth place in the Constructors' battle.
The final point went to Juan Pablo Montoya and this was hardly a massive haul for Williams. Belting down to the first corner Montoya reckoned that he tangled with Panis and that caused him to knock Ralf Schumacher into a spin. This knocked the second Williams-BMW into the second Toyota and ended up with Ralf and da Matta out of the race and Montoya going into the pits for a new nose. Given where he came from Montoya's point was a good effort but close examination of the footage of the incident revealed that Panis had had nothing to do with Montoya hitting Ralf. Juan Pablo just made a mistake.
Although Panis seemed to be in a good position the Toyota driver seemed to go backwards for the rest of the afternoon, indicating that the performance of the car was more to do with a light fuel load in qualifying than anything else. He finished 11th.
The top 10 in the race was completed by Massa and Heidfeld who crossed the line nose to tail, Felipe having done two stops and Heidfeld three. The only other man who was only a lap down was Christian Klien who finished 12th.