German GP 2004
JULY 26, 2004
Race Report - The bums of Hockenheim
Fifty years ago a young actor called Marlon Brando won an Oscar for his performance as a one-time boxer, Terry Malloy, in the movie "On the Waterfront". In a memorable scene Terry tells his brother Charley (played by Rod Steiger) that he wasn't always a loser.
"I could have had class," he said. "I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum - which is what I am."
A number of drivers at Hockenheim on Sunday could have made the same speech after the German Grand Prix but, when all was said and done, they are still bums and Michael Schumacher had won his 11th victory in 12 races.
Jenson Button was the man who had the most right to make the speech but thanks to the silly rule that penalizes drivers when they have engine failures in practice, his hopes really went out of the window on Friday afternoon when his engine went wrong. If he had started from third on the grid (where he would have qualified) it might have been a very different story. Michael Schumacher's 81st Grand Prix victory might have turned into Jenson Button's first. Button ended the day second, eight seconds behind the Ferrari star. He had started 13th on the grid. He did not have a very good first lap but that did not seem to matter. The car was quick and even Michael Schumacher paid tribute to the fact that he had felt under extreme pressure.
"Jenson was very quick and at one stage I was not sure if he was only planning to stop twice or what pace he would be able to run once he got past Fernando. I had to push flat out."
Perhaps Michael might have gone faster if he had needed to do so, but we will never know. Michael's fastest lap was still three-tenths faster than Jenson's best but track position would have been all-important. Did Michael think it would have been a different story if he had not been able to hold on to the lead at the start?
"I think so," he said.
Button made no bones about the fact that he felt he had driven his best race of his Formula 1 career.
"It was a fantastic race," he said. "Probably the best race of my career. It is a bit disappointing because if we had started where we qualified we would have had a very good chance of challenging Michael. It is hard to come to terms with that really."
In the closing part of the race Button had a problem with the strap loosening on his helmet and had to drive half of each lap with one hand holding the helmet down as the slipstream was getting into the helmet and lifting it up, which made it difficult for Jenson to breath.
While Button was playing his starring role, Takuma Sato was paying the price for his crash in practice on Saturday. That meant there were delays on the first lap and little chance to get the car going to its full potential. He finished eighth.
"I think that Jenson's drive today will be remembered by millions around the world as a stunning example of simply brilliant racing," said team boss David Richards. "After a couple of disappointing races we have shown today that we certainly have the speed to match our competitors."
The highlight of the race was the wheel-to-wheel racing we saw from Button and Fernando Alonso. It was neat and it was fair with no hint of bad sportsmanship and it was clear that both men enjoyed the dice. In the end Button outfoxed Alonso although the Spaniard reported that his car suddenly started to feel very odd.
"I though it was a problem with the front wing," he said. "Then I thought it was the suspension but whatever the cause the result was obvious. I had no front grip at all. I radioed the team to tell them I was coming in but they told me to stay out. Then I ran over one of the kerbs and everything went back to normal."
But for the seven or so laps when the problem struck, Alonso's lap times dropped dramatically, going from low 1m15s to 1m17s and 1m18s. And then the problem solved itself and Fernando was back to 1m14s. He could have been a contender as well. After the race the team was able to conclude that the problem had been caused by a detached bargeboard having become caught under the car.
"It was not our day for collecting parts from other cars," said Pat Symonds. "Jarno also suffered when part of Raikkonen's rear wing lodged under his rear wing."
Trulli's early race had been quite impressive and he was running fourth until he picked up the wreckage and then he simply dropped away and ended the afternoon way back in 11th place and that would have been 12th if Rubens Barrichello had not suffered a puncture on the very last lap. Barrichello's race had been blown at the start when he ran into the back of Coulthard on the first lap and knocked off his front wing. A pit stop and a change of strategy and an ill-handling car made it a very average day for Rubinho and a last-minute puncture rounded things off unpleasantly.
"I guess it was all my fault," said Barrichello.
The other team that had a right to claim that it could have been a contender was McLaren. The MP4-19B is now officially a damned good racing car, which is amazing considering that miracles do not happen in motor racing. Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest lap of the race and in the early part of the Grand Prix had Michael Schumacher in his sights. Outgunned at the start by Alonso, Raikkonen made quick work of the Renault and then went after the Ferrari.
"I was quicker than him after my first pit stop," Kimi said, "and I only needed a few more laps to be able to mount a real challenge for the lead."
And then his rear wing collapsed. It was a frightening moment as the car careened across the gravel and went hard into the tyre barriers. They did their job but it was an irate Finn who emerged from the car.
"Kimi retired with a structural failure of his rear wing," said Ron Dennis. "We will investigate thoroughly."
Dennis then added that it had been a manufacturing mistake rather than a design problem, which seemed to suggest that the investigation had already been done...
David Coulthard ended the day in fourth place but he too felt he could have done better because he had been hit on the first lap by Barrichello and had then picked up bits of Raikkonen's wreckage and damaged his front wing. He too felt he could have been a contender.
The BMW Williams team looked quite good after qualifying with Juan Pablo Montoya second on the grid. New boy Antonio Pizzonia was further back but in the race the story was very different.
"What a bad start!" said Montoya. "The clutch did not bite and then I had so much wheelspin that the car did not go anywhere. I had no grip at all and I lost five places."
After that Monty had problems with his tyres and the car was "pointy and unpredictable". He fought the beast all the way to the flag and was fifth at the end, his race having included one offtrack moment when the car decided to take a little hike across the grass.
Antonio Pizzonia wanted to show Williams that he can race as well as test and but for his caution in qualifying, he did a very good job. He also had one off and was penalised for his lowly grid position but when he was in the clear he was quick - his fastest lap being just a tenth lower than that of Montoya.
"The race does not mirror our increased competitiveness," said BMW's Mario Theissen.
That was a refrain that could be heard elsewhere in the paddock on Sunday afternoon. Olivier Panis had a horrible time with the new Toyota but at the end of the race clocked the fourth fastest lap, just to show everyone that the new version of the car is quite good. It was hopeless because before the start the car stalled and so he was sent to the back. Then it stalled again and he had to start from pit lane. After that he had to work his way through the back markers. He ended up 14th.
"The performance of the car actually looked competitive today," he said, pulling some warm thoughts from a less than perfect day. It was however better than Cristiano da Matta's day. He was stuck in traffic early on and was never able to give the car its head and let it go. Then the right rear tyre punctured and he spun out.
Down at Jaguar it was a slightly different story because the result did mirror the team's level of performance and Mark Webber had the time of his life as he battled for sixth place. Having started 11th on the grid it was not what he had expected to be doing. Indeed for a lap he even led the race.
Webber's first lap was a mighty one. He was eighth in the first corner and then down at the hairpin was able to take advantage of the Barrichello-Coulthard incident which dumped the Ferrari front wing into the path of Montoya. This gave Mark the chance to nip ahead of Montoya and Barrichello and he ended the lap sixth. For the rest of the afternoon he put on a feisty show, the high point being when Sato passed Trulli for sixth place on lap 26 and Webber pulled off a sweet piece of opportunism and went with him. Later he would watch Sato rotate off and although towards the end of the race Mark was hounded by Pizzonia, he held the Brazilian off all the way to the flag.
"The balance of the car was great," said the Australian. "I had some good battles with the guys out there and to finish sixth is great for the team."
Christian Klien did not have such a successful time but he was happy to finish 10th, reporting that the team's new aerodynamic package does make a difference.
Sauber got Fisichella and Massa home in ninth and 13th, the team's two-stop strategy did not work out because the Michelin teams were much more competitive than they had been at other races. Fisichella might have done a little better but for a wheel which jammed on at his second stop, while Massa described his second set of tyres as having been "horrible". Peter Sauber called the team's performance "weak and hugely disappointing", which summed it up quite nicely.
Jordan had a pretty nasty day as well with Giorgio Pantano finishing 15th. Early on he had run quite strongly but he had a puncture just before his planned stop and had to do a slow lap. At the end of the race he had another puncture but struggled home to finish. Nick Heidfeld complained of balance problems from early in the race and had an extra pit stop because the car felt so bad. The handling got worse and worse and in the end Heidfeld concluded that it had become too dangerous to go on.
Minardi got its two cars home with Zsolt Baumgartner again outshining Gianmaria Bruni.