Japanese GP 2002
OCTOBER 13, 2002
Japanese GP, 2002
IF you listen to people in the Formula 1 paddock you will hear that Formula 1 is in crisis. But it didn™t look like it when one stood on the main straight before the race and looked up into the grandstands. There were 155,000 people crammed into Suzuka and they knew before they came that they would be watching Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello humiliating the position. It did not take a genius to spot that. In the last four races Ferrari has finished 1-2 on all occasions. So the likelihood was that it would be a similar story at Suzuka. The rival teams felt it would be worse because Suzuka is a place where the overall package is tested. There are cars with good engines which will show well at Monza (like the Jaguar) and cars with good chassis which will do well at Monaco (like the McLaren) but there is no hiding at Suzuka. And we all know that the Ferrari is a great all-rounder.
The scale of Ferrari domination in recent weeks has been such that one cannot help but wonder whether the Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes teams may not have been trying as hard as they might because they want their maximum effort expended on next year™s machinery. They“and F1 in general need to avoid another year of being beaten by the Ferrari team.
And in Japan they were beaten again. It was a completely dominant performance but Michael Schumacher.
The TV viewers may not have thought much of the race but the locals loved it. They got to see The Great Schumacher in action but better than that they watched Takuma Sato drive to fifth place and single-handedly hoist Jordan up from eighth to sixth in the Constructors™ Championship. This cannot but help Jordan Grand Prix as it looks for money for next year. It was great news for F1 in Japan which has not had a driver score a point since Shinji Nakano picked up some in a Prost in Hungary in 1997.
The outcome of the race was settled at the first corner although by the time Michael Schumacher got there he was already well ahead of the rest. Rubens Barrichello was slower off the line but still managed to stay ahead of David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn having been beaten away by the German. Behind them the action a little more exciting with a fair bit of switching going on. The big victim of this was Jacques Villeneuve who went off and dropped back from ninth on the grid to 14th. Giancarlo Fisichella was well into a bad afternoon, having suffered an engine failure before the race had even began. He switched to the T-car but this was not the same at all. It was set-up for Takuma Sato and had a less powerful engine than his race car. He dropped back from eighth to 11th. Still the two Honda teams were doing rather better than Toyota which had only one representative because Allan McNish had been told by Professor Watkins that it would not be a good idea to race with his knees as bruised as they were from his qualifying crash. McNish did not want to agree but one does not argue with St. Sid.
From then on it was a case of watching the red men running away with the game. Barrichello was no match for Schumacher and no-one else was even in the same ballpark. Things got worse early on when David Coulthard™s McLaren went wrong because of an electronic problem which left five cylinders working and five not maximizing their potential. That put Ralf Schumacher up into third place. The Ferraris were doing so well that when Michael stopped after 20 laps Michael was still able to rejoin ahead of his brother. The following lap Barrichello tried the same trick but he was not quite far enough ahead. At the second pit stops it was all academic. The Ferraris came and went and stayed ahead. Michael and Rubens stayed under 10 seconds apart until the last lap when Michael slowed down so that the two men crossed the line close together but this time there was no silliness. Michael was the winner for the 64th time in his career.
Ralf Schumacher looked like he would take third but his engine failed late in the race and so the position fell to Kimi Raikkonen who had nothing much to report. He had greatness thrust upon him. There was one nasty problem to overcome with the throttle control system but a quick reset solved the problem. He was never really under threat from anyone as Montoya was not his usual feisty self. His lap times were all over the place and he seemed somehow disinterested“which is odd for a man reckoned to be a star.
Montoya finished the day in fourth place but his mantle of being a hero was upset somewhat by the efforts of Sato, who finished in fifth place, albeit a very long way behind the first four. Takuma did a good job in qualifying and ran well in the early part of the race under pressure from the two Renaults. Eventually they disappeared into the pits and realizing what they were trying to do, Jordan made the decision to bring in Sato for a rapid tweak for the front wing. Takuma rejoined in eighth place but his lap times improved. By the time the second pit stops came he was close enough to win back one of the places lost. And retirements took care of the rest. The crowds went wild. Fisichella, for his part, was too far behind to make much of an impression and went out with a smoky engine failure.
The sixth-placed finisher was a lap down but Jenson Button was happy to take a point for Renault. His race had been a simple one. The ended the first lap in ninth place and Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard and Jarno Trulli all retired and so he moved to sixth. Renault would no doubt have preferred that the point went to Trulli who is staying with the team next year but his engine failed.
Sauber had another uninspired day. Nick Heidfeld was an unremarkable seventh while Felipe Massa in his last race for the team was fighting with Villeneuve in the early laps when he got too close to the BAR, lost downforce and understeered in the Degner Curve. He car went over a gravel trap and seemed to surf on its underbody plank as there was nothing Massa could do to bring the car back onto the circuit. In the end he clonked a barrier lightly and that was the end of his day.
Behind Heidfeld was Mika Salo in his last race for Toyota and probably his last race in F1. It was, he said, not the most exciting of races.
Salo™s pal Eddie Irvine was also off the pace, proving once and for all that the Jaguar revival at Monza was not the start of a great resurgence but rather the result of a good engine being able to overcome a poor chassis. At Suzuka there was no hiding. Irvine complained that the car lacked grip and had a miserable afternoon although it was not as miserable as that of his team mate Pedro de la Rosa who suffered another transmission failure.
This and Sato™s fifth place jumped Jordan ahead of Jaguar and BAR in the Constructors™ title. It was a very bad weekend for BAR with Olivier Panis going out early with an electronic problem that could not be cured and Villeneuve blowing his chances with a wild off at 130R on the first lap. He ended the lap too far back to achieve much and then went out with an engine failure.
This left Mark Webber to take the last place for Minardi. This was a good effort. Alex Yoong had several spins, the final one ending his afternoon in a sandtrap.
And so, as night fell and the parties started to happen, we were all tapping away up in Press Room when suddenly we heard an engine beneath us which had been tuned to play When the Saints Go Marching In.
The engine clearly has a future in the music business¦ but not in Formula 1. The day ended with Asiatech announcing quietly that its F1 plans for the future were over¦
The year ended as it had begun with a Ferrari 1-2, a local hero getting the crowds excited and a bunch of team bosses arguing over the Prost money¦
So what has really changed these last nine months?