GER: Schumacher in the clear

Ferrari's main man cruised to his 81st GP win after the early challenge of Kimi Raikkonen ended in a frightening crash. By Mark Hughes

GER: Schumacher in the clear



To truly appreciate the magnificence of Michael Schumacher's 61st career pole position you needed a lot of salient background. From the moment he got his first Hockenheim laps under his belt on Friday morning, he was adamant pole was on. Ferrari tech boss Ross Brawn took a proverbial intake of breath, unconvinced. Surely not, he thought.

There were two new Bridgestone compounds here that the tyre company and Ferrari were very excited about - they appeared to be the final cure to the long-standing Bridgestone Hockenheim bugbear of blistering - but the first-lap performance deficit to the best Michelin cars was still very evident.

"Retrievable," insisted Schuey. "Are you sure?" countered Brawn.

There are two ways around this very familiar Ferrari 2004 conundrum; the team either accepts pole isn't on and fuels Schumacher heavy (the Canada strategy), or it runs him lighter than the rest and goes for broke (the Nürburgring method), trusting in his race pace to overcome the strategy disadvantage. Hockenheim isn't a track friendly to running heavy. The multiple of its weight penalty, big fuel consumption (the heaviest on the calendar) and high tyre degradation see to that.

A Hockenheim with only 1sec covering the first 10 cars, as the practices suggested we had here, is even less friendly to such a strategy, potentially putting you on the fourth row once you've taken into account the double whammy of first-lap tyre performance and fuel load.

But for the light strategy to work you have to virtually guarantee pole. Get away from the line in anything other than the lead and you're forced to follow a Michelin car with a very different performance cycle, ruining your strategy. But there was a further complication, making the whole thing a tightrope walk: good though the Bridgestones were in the heat, it was still easy to overwork them early in the lap and lose their performance for the remainder. So Schuey was going to have to a) do a stunning lap to beat the grip deficit but b) do so after having taken it easy for the first sector!

So here was the German, 10th man out after being the track cleaner in pre-qualifying, as usual. With an angel's feel and judgement, he wasn't especially quick in sector one, was fast-ish in sector two, mind-blowing in sector three, from the fast entry of Turn 8, through the stadium section then the long turn onto the pit straight.

"That final turn punishes you heavily if you have a grip problem through it," said Brawn, "and that was the concern."

Just as the turn was finishing, just as the Ferrari was almost straight, Schumacher felt the grip going. That was how perfectly he'd judged it. As he crossed the line in 1m13.306s, Brawn shook his head, smiling in disbelief. Even he's still capable of being surprised by a man with whom he's worked for over a decade. "It was a stunning lap," said Brawn, "just unbelievable."

But there was another lap arguably on a par with this: Jenson Button's. An inlet valve had failed during Friday practice, consigning the BAR driver to an engine change and a 10-place penalty. Given this, the team fuelled him for an extra four to five laps. And still he set third best time. Extrapolate back, and his third fastest 1m13.674s would theoretically have edged Schuey out of pole by around 0.1sec.
Schuey's lap was the best part of 1sec quicker than Rubens Barrichello who had just gone in the sister car, carrying around 15kg more fuel (a difference accounting for about half the deficit). Of the remaining runners, the pole threats were going to come from McLaren, Williams and Renault.

First to run was Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren. The 19B was performing superbly, especially in the slow corners, and was now being pushed along by in excess of 900bhp for the first time. The Finn was 0.2sec up on Schuey's conservative first sector, but 0.3sec down in the middle one. It was still to play for through the stadium. Visibly, he looked awesome, especially in his spectacular foot-down car control out of the final turn, but it all fell shy of the Ferrari by 0.3sec.

Jarno Trulli was 0.1sec down on Raikkonen in each sector, the Renault not quite the factor it was earlier in the year, now that McLaren and Williams have gained speed. The car was well balanced, but without the slow-corner grip of the McLaren or the straightline speed of the Ferrari.

David Coulthard had finally got the McLaren handling to his liking and only just failed to match Raikkonen's time. Fernando Alonso squeezed a bit more out of the Renault than Trulli and was within hundredths of the Scot.

Now only the two Williamses were left. In pre-qualifying Antonio Pizzonia had been on the same tenth as Juan Pablo Montoya, but this time it all went wrong for the Brazilian.

"He was too conservative early in the lap," said technical director Sam Michael, "and the way that affected the tyres meant he then picked up a lot of understeer later in the lap. He just didn't quite get it together." It left him a disastrous 11th fastest.

Finally Montoya. He was a genuine pole threat. "The car is working much better this weekend," he said. "Since the revised car came at Magny-Cours, this is by far the best it's been. Williams and BMW have done good work. We had a bit of understeer to tune out, but for qualifying it was very predictable."

Montoya's lap was shaping up into a Schumacher challenge until he got a little too greedy with the throttle coming out of Turn 7. The left rear kissed the grass and, although he rescued the moment beautifully with his reflexes, critical time had been lost. Nonetheless, it was still a lap good for the front row, a bare six-thousandths faster than Button. A Schuey/Monty front row, two McLarens on row two and two dynamite-starting Renaults on row three - which seemed to set the race up nicely.



It was a poetically beautiful scene. The race long-since ended, the crowd had wound its way home, having shouted itself hoarse at its home hero's inevitable victory, but all the cars were still in parc ferme, huddled together like herded animals in a pen, bodies covered in grime, tyres wearing the detritus of gunk picked up from a hot, demanding track. In the early evening sun they stood there apparently abandoned, their drivers by now flying home, their mechanics not yet allowed to touch them. They had only their own stories for company.

Sitting stationary like this, wearing their battle scars, they all looked equal, but of course they're not. Tucked away in a far corner was the red car, F2004/239, that had carried the crowd's hero. The story it told was one of routine. Michael Schumacher had won as he pleased once a brief challenge from Kimi Raikkonen had ended with a McLaren wing failure. Michael had done what was required but had never been pushed, never forced to unleash the full fury of that remarkable machine. Its lead after 16 laps had been 10 seconds, much the same gap it had won by 50 laps later.

A red and white car in the middle of the herd, 006-05, had a far more interesting story to tell. It had broken its engine in practice and been sent to the middle of the grid, from where Jenson Button had driven it to a great second place, running longer than the others on its first stint and going like the wind after they had stopped, making up places like that before going wheel-to-wheel to take the final place. Its driver described the contest as "by far the best race of my Formula 1 career". The audience described the event he had enlivened as arguably the best race of the season.

But one of the blue cars, R24-06, could top even that. Careful to look after its precious rear tyres on a track that is a killer of them, it had enabled Fernando Alonso to lead the vain chase of the red car once Raikkonen had crashed. But then it had injured itself, got some debris caught in its left-hand bargeboard. Its centre of aerodynamic pressure shifted rearwards by a massive 80 percent and the rapidly-dropping temperature readings from sensors in its skid blocks sent a telemetry message that told the team it was barely keeping its front end on the road. It shouldn't have been driveable.

Everything that its operator Pat Symonds knows about racing cars told him that the machine should have been brought into the pits and either repaired or retired. Yet remarkably Alonso had still got a tune from it. Sure, it had then been easy for Button to finally make the pass that he couldn't quite pull off when the Renault had been healthy, but still it had hung on, coaxed along by the young Spanish wizard.

The silver car, MP4/19B 03, and the blue and white one, FW26 06, had begun to close in fast on the crippled blue machine. But then the most remarkable bit of the story: just as David Coulthard and Juan Pablo Montoya were almost upon Alonso, he whacked a kerb, dislodging the debris. Suddenly the car had come alive again, its front end grip was restored, its skid block readings had come up, and Alonso pulled away from his pursuers to finish on the podium.

Mind you, the silver car had a story to tell too. It had received an injury on the very first lap of the race when Rubens Barrichello whacked Coulthard up the back at the hairpin and damaged the diffuser. Later it received yet another wound, ironically from the debris of its sister car, the one that Raikkonen had crashed. A piece of carbon had damaged the front wing end-plate and deflectors. It had made the McLaren understeer, especially so early in its stints, and had given it randomly locking brakes. DC had done well to bring it home fourth, putting the idea of any repeat of the sister car's failure out of his mind.

The nervous flighty filly, FW26, had given its rider, Montoya, a tough time. From the front row it had started very badly, its clutch not releasing properly, possibly as a result of a temperature increase caused by an aborted start and an extra formation lap. Then its lack of downforce had allowed the rear tyres that are always so marginal here to slide, causing the inevitable blisters. Furthermore, its rear brakes overheated, requiring Monty to use more forward brake bias than he would have liked. With scrubbed tyres on for its final stint, the car had finally pulled itself into some sort of shape, giving him a fifth-place finish. It now sat near the front of the parc ferme herd as Montoya cursed it from afar.

The aborted start was caused by Olivier Panis getting his button sequencing mixed up, not for the first time this year. With the Toyota stalled, the start lights were turned off and the pack - minus Ollie - was sent around again. Panis would then have normally started from the back but as he pulled away for his formation lap a McLaren crew with a trolley walked into his path. He slowed and again stalled. He was wheeled into the pits from where he would have to start.

All this might have contributed towards the clutches on the Williamses playing up. Whatever, Schumacher took an immediate lead as most of the front half of the pack desperately swerved around the slow-starting Montoya. Alonso made fantastic use of the Renault's lightning getaway, passing not only Montoya but both of the McLarens on the row ahead. It was all a bit hectic on the opening lap as Barrichello braked late to protect himself from Montoya, locked up and hit Coulthard, wiping off the Ferrari's nose. Rubens was in for a new one at the end of the lap and he received an extra eight-laps-worth of fuel, putting him firmly on a two-stop strategy.

Two-stopping isn't the way to go here. Fuel consumption is so high that each extra lap brings an awfully big weight penalty. The longer stints plus the extra weight put yet more strain on rear tyres very prone to blistering. Everyone apart from the Saubers started the race intending to three-stop. Everyone, too, had opted for the harder of their tyre compound choices. Almost everyone had conscientiously pre-scrubbed their rear tyres during the practices. The reduced tread depth limits the temperature build-up that causes blistering, by producing less flexible tread blocks. Furthermore, the heat cycle of tyres that are used and then left toughens up the rubber. Renault, in particular, had made big efforts in limiting the blisters in its test at Jerez in the week before the race.

However, Alonso was demoted by the flying Raikkonen into the hairpin on the second lap and Kimi then kept the race-leading Ferrari in sight. Did he have the pace to seriously threaten Schumacher? Maybe. Schuey was only three seconds clear as he made his first stop on lap nine (one after Alonso). Raikkonen had only one more lap in which to claw back the time but he made fantastic use of it, and set what would stand as the race's fastest lap, 0.003sec faster than Schuey's best. Aided by Schumacher's exit being delayed by other pitlane traffic, Raikkonen was only a second behind the Ferrari when he rejoined. Button - who had completed the first lap in 12th - had now floated to the front on account of his strong pace (though his best lap was 0.3sec adrift of Raikkonen/Schumacher) and not having stopped yet. The real lead battle, though, was with the Ferrari and McLaren a few seconds behind.

Michael got the hammer down, but Kimi went with him. Hey, this was looking very promising, particularly as Kimi had more fuel on board. Then, in a blink of an eye, the McLaren's rear wing flap failed, throwing Raikkonen off at turn one at very high speed. The big asphalt run-off area saved him from any harm, but he was furious. This was lap 14 and as Button made his stop Michael was left with a 10sec lead over Alonso, with Coulthard, Montoya, Button, Jarno Trulli,
Mark Webber and the two-stopping Giancarlo Fisichella in tow. Game over, as far as first place was concerned.

Trulli had some of Raikkonen's rear wing lodged behind his own, making him very slow, and though he defended for a long time he was passed by Takuma Sato and Webber. Sato's move on Trulli was breathtakingly brave, squeezing down the tiniest of gaps through the kink between turns three and four while flat in seventh, kicking up dust on the outside, where the track was running out. What's more, he did it in the full knowledge that he was pitting a lap-and-a-half a lap later. As Taku had completed the move into the hairpin, Webber had taken opportunistic advantage to get past the Renault too.

After his disastrous start, Montoya had spent most of the first stint behind Coulthard. Although he pitted a lap later he hadn't been close enough to leapfrog the McLaren and the team risked fitting him with fresh tyres to buy him the early 'golden' laps that might have got him a place. Not only didn't it work but it consigned him to horrendous blistering of the rears. Nine laps into the stint, with Button closing, and with his brake balance far from ideal, he ran onto the grass at turn eight, in front of the Mercedes stand - and Button got past for fourth.

This was going far better than Button had dared hope from his 13th place starting position. On his slightly out-of-synch strategy, he was able to stay out a few laps longer than the others each time and use those laps aggressively to buy him positional advantage. In the last five laps of this stint he was able to do enough to jump Coulthard for third and claw back two seconds of his deficit to Alonso.

He exited the pits just behind the second-placed Renault, but had it in his sights as they raced down to the hairpin. Fernando blocked the inside approach and Jenson took up the conventional line, enabling him to swoop across to the inside as they exited. Side-by-side they raced up the following straight, but Jenson backed out of it before they arrived at the fast kink of seven. On the next lap he tried again, this time getting sufficiently alongside that he was able to hold his ground and they went through seven wheel-to-wheel. A more ruthless driver might have held Fernando out wide at this point, but Jenson was scrupulously fair, allowing Alonso to retain the inside line into eight.

That rather took it out of Button's fresh tyre grip and as Alonso picked up his pace, Button couldn't respond. In fact, he had to complete a gentle lap 40 to bring his rear tyres back into shape, to prevent the blistering from building, and so he dropped back a couple of seconds adrift of the Renault, secure in the knowledge that he would have his late-stop laps to try again to leapfrog it.

But it didn't quite work out like that. Alonso's late stint pace was strong. He lost a bit of time on his out-lap fighting past the yet-to-pit Montoya, but Button then lost a chunk of time on the lap prior to his stop lapping Zsolt Baumgartner. It meant that, in a carbon copy of last time, the BAR exited the pits a car's length behind the Renault. But this time Button was holding on to the side of his helmet on the straights.

"The strap had come loose," he explained, "and that was pulling the helmet back and choking me. I was holding it so that I could breathe properly!" Regardless of that inconvenience, Button went back on the attack. Again, the hairpin and the following sequence of seven and eight was the battleground and again Alonso held him off, the Renault's traction advantage plain to see.

It was on the next lap that Alonso picked up that debris. "Suddenly the car felt terrible. I thought I had a wheel or a suspension problem. There was just no grip at the front at all. I was thinking for sure I'm going to have to come in." Struggling with the crippled car, he was easy meat as he attempted to get turned into eight and Button zapped past. "Knowing what we know from our data," said Pat Symonds, "I have absolutely no idea how he kept that car on the road, let alone how he dropped only a couple of seconds per lap. That was quite remarkable."
Alonso completed six laps with the car in this state as Coulthard and Montoya drew up behind. Then, magically, the piece dislodged itself and Alonso pulled out of their reach.

While the excitement was elsewhere, Schumacher simply maintained the comfortable 10-second cushion he'd enjoyed ever since Raikkonen's accident to rack up win number 81. Behind Button, Alonso, Coulthard and Montoya was Webber. He'd driven a superb race in the Jag, seeing off challenges from Sato, Fisichella and - at the end - from Antonio Pizzonia, the second Williams driver suffering from delays caused by his grid position even though his best lap was within 0.1sec of Montoya's. Sato had lost this seventh with a late 360-degree spin entering the stadium, his concentration not helped by his HANS device becoming dislodged. He got going again before Fisichella could take further advantage.

Barrichello? Two stops don't work here and he could do no better than 12th, a victim not only of his own lap-one error but also of a strategy surely designed to have helped Schumacher by delaying his likely rivals after their first stops. To cap it all, his left-rear tyre appeared to fail on the final lap. He parked it on the start/finish straight and it would be difficult to imagine that he helped Michael celebrate.

But that's another story.

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