2003: Schumacher's record sixth title

The biggest achievement in the history of the sport, and the weather was threatening to whisk it from under the noses of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari at the 11th hour. All he had to do was finish eighth, the very position he now occupied after a scrappy incident-packed struggle. And if he couldn't manage that, it was still okay - just so long as Kimi Raikkonen didn't win, and here was Kimi trailing a long way behind leader Rubens Barrichello. But the skies - grey all day - were now beginning to turn black, with just six laps to go. A light shower at this point was all it would have taken to drastically alter history

2003: Schumacher's record sixth title

The Bridgestone dries on the Ferraris were expected to be about three seconds per lap slower than the Michelins around Suzuka in the wet. With six laps to go and the skies looking ready to break- looking ready to confirm Ferrari's own pre-race weather forecast of rain in the closing stages - Kimi trailed Barrichello by 16.295sec. Six laps at three seconds per lap = 18sec, and with that sort of performance advantage, overtaking wouldn't be a problem. That would have been one half of Ferrari's nightmare. The other lay in the form of Olivier Panis' Michelin-shod Toyota, two places but only seven seconds behind Michael, ready to push him out of the points, to dance effortlessly around the outside somewhere safe, where he couldn't be touched.

It was only God teasing. The rain held off and the records fell - a sixth drivers' championship for Schumacher, five consecutive constructors' titles for Ferrari. How fairy-tale is that?

"I always said getting one point might be harder than winning," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn, "and Michael proceeded to try and prove us right. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."

The Scuderia's sporting director Jean Todt looked on, tension in his brow, eyes far away, little bandages around each of his blood-stained fingernails.

It began badly, of course, with Michael's weather-compromised starting position of 14th. But it would get worse. A trip over the grass, a nosecone lost against a rival, an emotionally charged ruthless defence against his brother, a tyre-smoking incident at the chicane. Forget the rain: any one of these could have lost it for him. Except it wouldn't have - because Barrichello, driving faultlessly, was winning the prize for Michael anyway, allowing Schuey the indulgence of his characteristic final round title-deciding wobbles. Todt, suddenly coming out of his post-race trance as the story from the Ferrari pits was recounted, said: "Yes, Rubens followed team orders today - we told him to win." In those words echoed the images of the team's controversial past 18 months, getting hazier already against the shining glory of this achievement.

Barrichello had taken off into the lead, Juan Pablo Montoya had followed him and Fernando Alonso's Renault launch control catapulted him between the Toyotas to go third. Michael took it easy, kept out of trouble and lay 12th - between local hero Takuma Sato and a rocket-starting Jarno Trulli.

It had rained overnight and been cool ever since, grey sky unrelenting. The track temperature was no more than 24C, a sliver of moisture sat in the pores of the tarmac. It all spelt M-i-c-h-e-l-i-n, its rubber always better in the first couple of laps from cold, always shrugging aside damp with faster heat-up, especially as the Ferraris were on the harder of the Bridgestone choices.

Approaching the hairpin, Barrichello could feel the lack of grip through the steering, knew he had to be careful on the brakes. Montoya's racing instincts are electrifying in moments like this, the grippier Williams rounding the hairpin wheel-to-wheel with the Ferrari, on the outside - which translates to the inside for the following kink. He didn't quite make it past there, but through that kink the Ferrari was on tippy-toes, the Williams massively faster. Montoya ducked down the inside on the entry to Spoon, got cleanly in front and proceeded to pull away.

In the space of half a lap, Montoya was 1.3sec clear, leaving Barrichello to fend off the aggressive Michelin-shod Alonso. Behind were Cristiano da Matta, David Coulthard, Raikkonen (the two McLarens soon to swap places, as befitting Raikkonen's title chase), Panis and Jenson Button.

Michael watched as ahead of him into the chicane on the second lap, Sato neatly picked off Justin Wilson. Not only were things very busy ahead of Schuey, but Trulli was filling his mirrors. Into Spoon next time, the Ferrari was lucky to get away with just a run over the kerbs. It didn't lose Schumacher a place, didn't damage the car. He passed Wilson for 11th on lap four and two laps later took a peek down the inside of Sato. It appeared as if he then thought better of it but couldn't get himself out of the move. Sato took up his line and Ferrari nosecone snagged BAR gearbox. Michael limped into the pits for a new nose and a refuel. "Even at that stage, you just knew he'd somehow still do it," said Brawn. "You get to have so much faith in the guy." He rejoined last.

The chicane in fact was already proving a difficult place for the Schumachers. Ralf had spun there on the second lap as he tried to pass Trulli. He rejoined between the Minardis. On lap eight he would spin there again after banging wheels with Heinz-Harald Frentzen's soon-to-expire Sauber.

By contrast, Barrichello was playing it perfectly and used his straightline speed advantage to keep Alonso behind him while the Bridgestones came up to temperature. By the fourth lap he'd stabilised things and was lapping as quick as Montoya - but the Williams was now 4.5sec clear. However, it stayed at the front only until lap nine. Coming out of Degner Montoya felt the steering go heavy at just about the same time that the BMW monitors were showing a hydraulic pressure loss. Next, the engine lost most of its power and Montoya slowed to a crawl. "I'm glad I was already out of the battle for the championship," is all he said.

So Barrichello assumed the lead once more but Alonso was still breathing all over the Ferrari, way quicker through the fast turns but too slow on the straight to take advantage. Similarly Raikkonen was losing whole chunks of time stuck behind da Matta's Toyota, which was just about fast enough down the straights to stay out of reach into the braking areas.

The recovering Schumacher brothers were at this stage trading fastest laps, with Ralf in 13th, Michael 18th - and more than 40 seconds away from the eighth place he needed to secure the title.

Then came the stops. Da Matta was the first of the front-runners in, followed next time through by team-mate Panis and Trulli, the latter having reached eighth before getting stuck behind Sato. Suzuka is quite sensitive to weight and thanks to all those long duration fast turns, tyre degradation is high, particularly at the rear. This makes three-stopping the theoretically fastest strategy. As ever, though, there are provisos. If you're quicker than the car you're racing against but cannot pass, you might want to convert to a two-stop. It will lose you overall time to the front, but will get you past the guy holding you up. And if you're in second, being held up by the leader, it's the obvious right thing, you just have to be sure you are being held up. They were the thoughts going through Renault's Pat Symonds' head

Barrichello and Alonso pitted together at the end of lap 12. "I was tempted to short fuel Fernando and get him out ahead, but I decided it would be better to convert to a two-stop. That was going to win us the race." The Ferrari and Renault left in the same order as they'd arrived, Coulthard pitted from fourth at this time too.

A lap later and Raikkonen made his stop. Like everyone else, he had been fuelled with a load that could be made into either a two- or a three-stop strategy at the time of the first stop. They elected to put him on a two-stop, having put DC on a three. The longer stop (9.2sec compared to DCs 7.5sec) would lose him track position and as they were operating as one, position would be regained on track without any loss of time. But to have any chance of winning the race - the thing his tide depended on - Raikkonen needed to be stopping no more than 0.7sec per lap slower than the three-stopping Barrichello, and even that was disregarding whatever strategy Alonso might have been on. It quickly became obvious that the McLaren was just not fast enough to do this and for the next 5 laps before Barrichello's stop Kimi was on average around 1.5sec per lap slower. "The car was very difficult to drive all weekend," he related. "We struggled for set-up, just didn't get it right. It was okay on the first set of tyres but after that there was no grip."

It seemed to be a Michelin trait on the day - on the common choice hard compound, at least. They were quick for the first couple of laps, as ever. But they seemed to have less than the Bridgestones subsequently. As well as Raikkonen, neither the Toyotas nor the Jaguars were as quick as might have been expected. The Renaults were going, but they were the only ones who'd got their car to work on the softs.

The BARs ran until laps 15 and 16 on their first stints, allowing Button to lead for a couple of laps. Both of them were on clear two-stop strategies, and Button rejoined between the Toyotas of da Matta and Panis. The red-and-white cars were three-stopping, and were simply not fast enough to pullout the gap needed over the two-stopping Button, Sato and Trulli.

Inside the car, Alonso was feeling pretty good as he followed a couple of seconds behind Barrichello. "I knew there was no way he could give me the 30 seconds needed for his extra stop," he said, "and I could sense a win. I was just waiting for him to stop." No sooner had he thought this, than the Renault blew its engine. Pulling off onto the grass, he got out, climbed the barrier, then repeatedly banged his fist upon it. It was lap 18, and a long way behind Rubens now was DC, still well clear of Raikkonen, then da Matta, Button, Panis, then a queue behind Mark Webber's gripless Jaguar (temporarily benefiting from an early stop) which comprised Trulli, Sato and Ralf Schumacher. Michael, out of sequence after his early stop, would soon be closing in on the battling Ralf and Sato.

Once Webber got out of the way by pitting on the 22nd lap, the Trulli/Sato/Schumacher brothers foursome closed on the Button/Panis battle. Michael was now 10th, but in a closely matched group, the head of which was sixth. All he needed was eighth. Two laps later and the Schumachers pitted together for their second stops. They left with Ralf still ahead and continued their battle. With Barrichello extending an already big lead over Coulthard, and Raikkonen struggled, Michael's fortunes were the centre of interest. But Ralf- trying to help Williams win the constructors' title as well as rescue his own race -was in no mood to help his brother.

Barrichello and Coulthard made their routine second stops of three on lap 26. Rubens didn't even lose the lead, while DC fell temporarily down to sixth, behind the gaggle of two-stoppers. The Schumachers were coming through the midfield like a dose of salts, picking off Panis and Webber in quick succession, before making their third and final stops. Michael came in on lap 37, Ralf a lap later. Michael had a strong out-lap and as Ralf exited the pitlane, the Ferrari squeezed ahead, into that vital eighth place just behind da Matta, who had exited the pits ahead of Ralf. On his quick-to-work Michelins, Ralf was faster than Michael at this point and knew he had to make his move before his brother's Bridgestones got up to temperature. As both were bottled up by the slower da Matta, Ralf was all over the back of the Ferrari as the three of them came into Spoon corner. On the exit, with Ralf's nose up the Ferrari's gearbox, Michael lifted off, trying to prevent Ralf getting a run at him. It wasn't polite, but the stakes were high.

On the next lap, Ralf got a run going down the pit straight, and about three-quarters of the way down he staked his claim to the inside. Michael jinked right, squeezing his brother towards the wall at more than 180mph, forcing Ralf to either concede or have an enormous accident. He conceded. But now he was angry.

Da Matta still narrowly led the brothers, so forcing Michael into that tricky zone where a driver needs to attack as well as defend. As they came into the chicane on the next lap, Michael was keeping one eye on Ralf when da Matta braked slightly early -in order to destabilise Michael and prevent him from getting a run onto the pit straight. It caught Michael by surprise and, wheels locked, he jinked left to miss the back of the Toyota. Ralf, already braking late, suddenly had Michael come across his bows. The rear wheels of the Williams locked, the car began to snake and the brothers ran off the circuit in tandem, Ralf spinning and catching the Ferrari's left-rear tyre with his front wing. Michael rejoined behind da Matta, Ralf made for the pits for a new nose, now furious and telling his team over the radio that they should protest his brother for dangerous driving.

In terms of the championship outcome, the story now appeared settled: Michael was eighth and under no threat, Kimi was a distant second behind Barrichello. "There was a concern about whether the chicane incident might have punctured Michael's tyre," said Brawn, "and we anxiously kept our eyes on it." Other than that, all that could go wrong now for Ferrari was the rain -the rain its forecasters had said was coming. And so Brawn concentrated, kept Michael informed over the radio and Todt picked at his nails.

Barrichello had made his final stop just as the Schumachers were having their drama at the chicane. But despite his big lead, he couldn't relax. "We knew the rain might be coming so I was having to push like crazy to have a big enough gap to be able to stay in front even if they could catch us by three seconds per lap. That was the target." It was a target he was never quite able to reach, though it turned out he didn't need to.

Coulthard had dutifully ensured he wasn't running ahead of Raikkonen and stood by just behind, even though he was potentially quicker, having set the race's second fastest lap, just a few hundredths slower than Ralf Schumacher and a full second quicker than Raikkonen. Part of that was down to the three-stop strategy giving him a more favourable combination of recent tyres and low fuel, but not all of it. This was a very strong performance from DC.

Some way distant of the McLarens, the two-stopping Button and Trulli had a long, long dice. Button soaked up the pressure from his 2002 team-mate to come home fourth, while Sato wasn't far behind in sixth after another excellent performance. Without quite the edge of speed of Button, he nonetheless performed faultlessly, just as he did here last year, but this time with little preparation. The home crowd gave him another rapturous reception and the double dose of BAR points secured the team fifth in the constructors' title race. Once Schuey's eighth place was under no threat, he left da Matta in peace to take seventh.

As Schuey slowed to salute his team he had to be careful not to let the fast approaching Nick Heidfeld pass him before the line. But even if he had done, Barrichello's flawless drive had ensured that it wouldn't have mattered.

"I am feeling completely mixed about myself, honestly," said Michael. "Usually I have won my titles by winning the race and here I am having finished eighth. I was a bit messy today. I can feel well for the team and the incredible job they have done. But I cannot feel well for myself at the moment. I feel empty and exhausted."

There's the mindset of a champion. The champion of champions.

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