Japanese GP 2003
OCTOBER 12, 2003
Japanese GP, 2003
As we walked out of the Suzuka circuit late on Sunday night they were playing Auld Lang Syne on the tannoy. It was an unusual version, twice as slow as it should be played and using that least evocative of all possible musical instruments: the xylophone, but it was that the thought that counted. It had been a good year for Formula 1. A great year even and, even if the result seemed somehow predictable, it is fair to say that Michael Schumacher's sixth world title was no foregone conclusion. Suzuka was not his greatest race - no great drive through the field. It was not a drive of which he will be proud because he finished only eighth, but that was all that was needed and Juan Manuel Fangio's record total of five World titles was finally toppled.
A majestic drive would have fitted the moment better but it was more a case of hand-to-mouth scrambling.
The problem was perhaps pre-ordained because qualifying had left us with a very scrappy-looking grid with neither World Championship challenger very well placed: Kimi Raikkonen was eighth and Michael Schumacher a rather alarming 14th. Regular frontrunners Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli were sharing the back row and there was much talk of the potential that existed for a first lap incident which could have a dramatic effect on the title battle.
But in when push came to shove, there was little pushing and not much shoving. The field was very well-behaved as they roared off down to Suzuka's first corner where, over the years, we have seen a few acts of lunacy. But not on Sunday.
Barrichello and Montoya, who two weeks ago collided in Indianapolis, stayed out of trouble this time while Fernando Alonso once again lit the blue touch paper on his Renault and held on as the electronically-brilliant beast headed for the first corner. When it comes to launch-control, no-one does it better than Renault. Well, no-one that is except the Japanese engineer at Nissan, who designed the system.
Alonso's start took him past both Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta and as David Coulthard was also fast away he was right with Alonso. This meant that there was not room for everybody and in the end it was Panis who had to lift and as a result he found himself suddenly sixth with Kimi Raikkonen right on his exhaust pipe. Further around the lap the Finn would sweep past Panis as well.
But this was all happening in the background, the spotlight was actually on Barrichello and Montoya as they threaded their way on the greasy track up the hill behind the paddock and over the brow to the Degner Curves and the crossover. As they went down towards the hairpin, Montoya made a play for the lead. It did not work and Monty was scrambling to get out of the corner when Rubens made a mistake, trying to cover his back.
"I think that Rubens was trying to protect his line and he touched a white line," said Montoya. "He went slightly sideways and had to lift off. I went for it."
As they went into the famous Spoon Curve, Montoya's momentum took him past Barrichello and into the lead. There seemed to be nothing that Rubens could do about it. And then Montoya hit the afterburner switch in the cockpit of his Williams and he shot away into the distance within a couple of laps he had a lead of nearly four seconds but then Barrichello began to respond and gradually he began to chip away and pull the Williams back in, tenth by tenth.
Even so Montoya was still 3.3 seconds ahead on lap nine when suddenly the Williams faltered. An hydraulic failure. It was all over. The Williams dream of winning the Constructors' title was finished, not least because on the second lap Ralf Schumacher had messed up again (something of a habit these days) and had gone spinning off while trying to work his way through the pack. Ralf would try to recover from that clanger and was running along in ninth place in the closing laps, trying to find a way to pass his brother and Cristiano da Matta's Toyota, when everyone got into a big muddle at the chicane and as Michael swerved to avoid da Matta, he went straight into Ralf's path. That tore off the front wing of the Williams and Ralf had to head for pitlane for repairs. A new nose was added and Ralf ended the day in 12th place. Down in the Williams garage they scratched their heads, wondered why it is that the team pays him so much money, and began packing up the equipment.
After the demise of Montoya, Barrichello found himself coming under attack from Fernando Alonso in the Renault but that was to be a short-lived story as well because on lap 18, the blue and yellow car came to a halt with steam coming out and the electronic readout on the steering wheel flashed up the message "Game Over" and poor old Fernando went off home to ponder what may happen next year.
That left Barrichello being chased by David Coulthard but Rubens had a 15 second advantage over the Scotsman and that grew to 20 seconds before the pair went hustling into the pits on lap 26 of 53. That gap was not much changed by the time they reached the end of the third stint but in the closing laps David found himself stuck behind his team mate Raikkonen, who had managed to get up by using a two stop strategy rather than a three-stop one. The gap remained at around 15 seconds until the last lap when Rubens let the two McLarens close up to within 11 seconds.
"I had a hard time all the way," said Rubens, "because even if you think it was 15 seconds or more to David or Kimi I felt that if it rained it could ruin everything in one lap so I had to keep doing high 1m34s so that if it rained on the last lap I would be OK."
As it turned out the weather was always threatening but never actually delivered the goods. It was grey and humid, a nasty combination, but the crowd was huge (around 150,000) and it was a great show. For a long while all that was needed was Barrichello to have a mechanical failure and Raikkonen would have been in the lead with Schumacher out of the points but as the race wore on Michael moved gradually up and finally arrived where he needed to be. It was not done with much grace. On the first lap he managed to get rid of the Saubers, which were ahead of him on the grid and then it was just a lap or two before he snuck ahead of Justin Wilson in his Jaguar. And then on lap 6 he made a extraordinarily optimistic attempt to pass Takuma Sato, thinking perhaps that being a newish boy in F1, he would be intimidated to see the red car in his mirrors. Sato was not interested.
"I had the line," he said. "He came up on the inside of me."
By the time Michael realized it was too late, it was too late and off came the front wing. Michael had to scurry into the pits and by the time the Ferrari mechanics had stuck a new nose of the car, Michael was back behind even Jos Verstappen's Minardi. He was going to have to do it all over again. He took to the task manfully as one would expect and as others pitted he moved up, picking off a car here and there until lap 24 when he was up to 10th. He then had to stop for new fuel and tires and that lost him ground again but he drove strongly and as the next sequence of pits stops came along he was finally up into the top six. But we knew even that he was not secure because he had another stop to do and on lap 37 he dropped from sixth back to 10th. He was up into eighth again a few moments later when he found himself battling with his brother Ralf behind and Cristiano da Matta in front. On lap 41, Michael's race nearly fell apart.
The Toyota braked rather early and Michael seemed headed for an impact with the rear end. He jumped on the brakes, locked everything up and swerved to the left, only to find that he had gone straight into the path of Ralf. That ripped the front wing off the Williams and sent Ralf scurrying back to the pits.
The Williams team did think to enquire at race control as to whether or not this constituted an avoidable accident but to Charlie Whiting it was a racing incident and that was that.
For the last 12 laps Michael was riding a bucking bronco home. He had squared off his tires and the battering he was taking made it difficult for him to focus on the road ahead. He worried that the vibration would cause terminal damage to the car; that the tire that Ralf had hit would come apart but he needed eighth place and could not bring himself to pit to be on the safe side.
Afterwards Michael seemed a little pre-occupied and said that he felt "empty and exhausted" after "a strange, strange race" and he departed without talking to anyone other than a couple of TV cameras.
Down at the Ferrari pit they did not care how Michael had won the title. All that mattered was that the job was done.
Poor Raikkonen has done just about everything he could have done to beat Michael but his poor grid position had really been his undoing. He was in a difficult car and had to go for a different strategy and he made it work well but there was no catching Barrichello on this occasion. No way at all. As the various strategies unwound, Raikkonen found himself getting ahead of Coulthard and the two McLaren-Mercedes shadowed one another all the way to the finishing line. Their haul of points was spectacular but it was still not enough to dislodge Williams from second in the Constructors' Championship. The team talked about next year... and coming back with a stronger challenge. A fine idea.
While there was huge celebrating in the Ferrari pit, there were also scenes of joyousness at British American Racing-Honda as well as Jenson Button came round to take the checkered flag 20 seconds behind the two McLarens to take his second fourth place of the year. Better still he had stayed ahead of Jarno Trulli and not far behind the Renault was Sato, picking up three more points for the Constructors' Championship, which vaulted the team past Sauber to fifth in the final championship standings. That result was worth a lot in pride and a very great deal of money.
Renault found little consolation in Trulli's fifth place although the team was happy to get points after starting Jarno at the back of the grid.
"The real damage was done on Saturday," said Jarno. "I could have got on pole if it had not rained."
Behind Trulli and Sato was da Matta's Toyota but Toyota could draw little satisfaction from this result. The choice of a three-stop strategy did not seem to work out and so da Matta and Panis started third and fourth and finished seventh and 10th. And that said it all.
Ninth place went in the end to Nick Heidfeld and there was nothing more that he could do.
"The BAR Hondas were simply too strong for me," he explained.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen never got as far as explanations because his race was ended early on after he was punted off by Ralf Schumacher.
"I had to go to the pits where we discovered that oil was leaking from a damaged cooler."
Soon afterwards Frentzen's engine blew.
The last man not to be lapped by the finish was Mark Webber in 11th position and with Justin Wilson in 13th Jaguar had managed to bring two cars home. But it did nothing to improve the championship situation. Considering that the pair started from sixth and 10th on the grid it is fair to say that Jaguar's three-stop strategy was not the right thing to do. The team blamed this on overnight rain which cleaned the track and changed the handling of the cars.
Fourteenth and two laps down at the end was Ralph Firman in his Jordan. Ralph lost a lot of time during one of his pit stops when there was a refueling malfunction while a similar problem ended Giancarlo Fisichella's career at Jordan in a most embarrassing way when he ran out of fuel before his second pit stop, the team thinking that more fuel had gone into the car than was actually the case.
And that left Minardi, which finished both cars but had nothing to dance about.
And so as the black and white team packed up glumly at one end of pit lane, down at the other end, the reds celebrated wildly.
The usual story...