Austrian GP report: Schumacher wins despite fire

Michael Schumacher took an amazing victory in the Austrian Grand Prix, his third consecutive win and the second in a row for the new F2003-GA. Unlike his controversial win in Austria last year, the Ferrari driver had to work hard for his result overcoming a pit fire, rain and competition from Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen

Austrian GP report: Schumacher wins despite fire

The race took some time to get started, Cristiano da Matta causing the first start to be aborted with an electrical problem on his Toyota. After a five-minute delay the field tried again, only for da Matta to stall again. Thankfully, he got going at the third time of asking, although a launch control glitch meant Jos Verstappen's Minardi packed up just a few hundred metres off the line.

This brought out the safety car and allowed Juan Pablo Montoya, who had passed Kimi Raikkonen at the start, to close right up on Schumacher. Demonstrating his savvy at restarts from his Champ Car days, Montoya was right up behind Schumacher as they received the green flag, but he was unable to challenge due to the power of the F2003-GA engine.

Schumacher then set about building a substantial lead, and was 6.7s clear of Montoya by lap 12, but the German faced his next major obstacle when rain began to fall. With the grooved slick Michelin tyres able to function better in damp conditions than the Bridgestones on his Ferrari, Schumacher suddenly found that Montoya and Raikkonen were cutting dramatically into his lead, at times by up to five seconds a lap.

The rain was particularly welcome for Raikkonen, who had been pushed hard by Rubens Barrichello in the opening laps, having only stayed ahead of him at the start by a very determined manoeuvre in the first corner. But when the rain came, Raikkonen was simply able to waltz away from his pursuer.

The rain ceased on lap 19, and Schumacher soon began to pull away from his rivals again. That was until he came in for the first of his pit-stops. With the Ferrari mechanics having encountered trouble with the main fuel rig on Rubens Barrichello's stop, the decision was made to use the spare rig on Schumacher's car. All looked to be going well, until a fire broke out as the mechanics tried to remove the fuel hose from the car.

"The mechanics obviously thought I was a little cold in the car and decided to warm me up," said Schumacher. After both car and fuel hose had been given a thorough dousing with fire extinguishers, Schumacher was despatched on his way, although the stop had taken 20s and not enough fuel had been pumped into the Ferrari.

"The mechanics did a good job to save everything," he said. "I had concerns about whether the car would be okay, but it held up well. I was able to do the lap times I needed." And how. Schumacher then pushed the F2003-GA to the absolute limit, and was soon on the tail of second-placed Raikkonen.

With Ferrari's botched stop, things were looking good for Montoya and Raikkonen. The Williams driver assumed the lead on the first round of pit-stops, and was looking comfortable with a 4.598s lead over the Finn. But on lap 30, Montoya's BMW engine gave up, putting the driver out of the race and billowing smoke across the track.

At exactly the same moment, Schumacher made his move on Raikkonen, passing him round the outside going into turn two. Although back in the lead, things weren't yet straight forward for Schumacher, who had to push hard to give him the cushion he needed to make an early and extra-long stop to collect enough fuel to the finish. He did this in style, setting lap record after lap record seemingly at will. After a routine final pit stop he continued to fly, and by the time Raikkonen made his second and final stop there was no question the Ferrari driver would emerge comfortably in the lead.

Raikkonen came home second, having pushed his car as hard as it would go in his chase of Schumacher. "It was good to finish second, but I'm disappointed not to win the race," he said. In many ways, second was a strong achievement for the Finn, as he came under intense pressure from Barrichello in the closing laps.

Barrichello had lost time on his first pit stop, with Ferrari's fuel rig problem costing him 19.8s. He then found himself behind Jenson Button, who was having a very strong race for BAR. Barrichello disposed of the young Briton on lap 34, squeezing down the inside of him going into Turn Two.

The second Ferrari then began a string of impressive lap times, and after his final pit stop, Barrichello emerged just under 9s behind the McLaren star. He instantly began to close the gap, and was right under Raikkonen's rear-wing heading into the final nine laps of the race. But try as he might, Barrichello could not find a way past the McLaren, although he came mightily close heading into Turn Three on two occasions.

"I paid the price for using different tyres in qualifying," said Barrichello who started the race fifth. "I couldn't get through the guy's in front of me and then I had a problem on the pit stops. I was almost ahead of Kimi, but I couldn't get past."

Jenson Button came home fourth, having enjoyed an excellent but relatively quiet afternoon. Not many other drivers could say that, however. Fifth-placed David Coulthard struggled to battle through the field from his 14th position starting spot, and spent many of the early laps stuck behind Ralph Firman's Jordan. When he finally forced his way past, he became embroiled in a long battle with Jacques Villeneuve's BAR, which was only settled when the Canadian's car stalled on his final pit stop.

Ralf Schumacher was another driver who had to work through the field from a lowly starting spot. The German had risen to fifth after the final stops but the handling of his Williams suddenly dropped away, causing him to slide off the track at turn three and allowing Coulthard through.

Mark Webber finished seventh fo Jaguar, despite starting for the pit-lane and being assessed a stop-go penalty for breaking parc ferme regulations. The finla championship point went to Renault's Jarno Trulli, who was pushed hard in the closing laps by Antonio Pizzonia. The Brazilian drove an excellent, if somewhat ragged, race for Jaguar and deserved to score a championship point, and was disappointed not to have passed Trulli after several lunges down the inside of the Italian came to nothing.

After messing up his qualifying yesterday, Fernando Alonso drove another superlative race. The Spaniard opted to start from the pit-lane, and an inspired one-stop strategy saw him rise to fifth place before his car failed and sent him spinning out of the race on his own oil at Turn One.

But there was only one star in this race, and he was the man who stood atop the podium. If his win last year came gift-wrapped, Schumacher had to work harder for this victory than perhaps he ever has before.

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