GP report: Schuey sets record in thrilling style

Not even a last-minute switch to the spare car, a high-speed trip through a gravel trap or sitting in the pits for over a minute could stop Michael Schumacher from setting a new record of six consecutive Grand Prix wins from pole position in the Malaysian Grand Prix.

GP report: Schuey sets record in thrilling style

He eclipsed the mark of five pole-to-flag successive victories - achieved by Nigel Mansell in 1992 and Alberto Ascari in 1952 - in a topsy-turvy race at Sepang, in which he ran as low as 11th place at one stage.

The reigning world champion's 46th victory was achieved in one of the most incident-packed Grands Prix of all time, which began with a bizarrely-aborted start, was then punctuated by a rainstorm of Biblical proportions and ended with Schumacher cruising to victory by a country mile.

The start of the race was initially aborted because Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella lined up in the wrong grid slot. Just as the red lights were about to start their sequence, he realised his error and tried to take up his rightful slot, but didn't have enough steering lock to perform the manoeuvre. In comical fashion, the Benetton rolled lazily into the gap between the two ranks of cars, causing officials to abort the start immediately with the Renault-powered car at a right angle across the track.

The drama had already started before the grid formed up, though, as Schumacher was forced to switch to Ferrari's spare car (due to an oil leak) that was set-up for team mate Rubens Barrichello. Fellow German Heinz-Harald Frentzen then hit trouble and was forced to tour around the formation lap, but the aborted start gave him a 'Get out of Jail' card and allowed him to start from his grid slot of ninth.

Schumacher made a perfect start from pole, while Barrichello was slightly sluggish away and had Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli right behind him. Ralf tried to go around the outside of the Ferrari at Turn One, as Trulli lunged to the inside, but Schu Jnr and Barrichello collided, sending the Williams into a lurid spin in front of the pack.

As cars went in all directions, the McLarens almost collided, but the big benefactor was Coulthard, who leapt up to fourth. At the front, Schumacher extended a 1.5sec lead over Barrichello, who seemed to have escaped unscathed from his clash with the Ralf S, the latter dropping to last place.

The catalyst for the next bout of chaos was Olivier Panis, whose BAR deposited the contents of its oil system up in the middle of Turn Six, sending him into the gravel and leaving a huge slick.

A lap later, with rain now beginning to fall, Schumacher and Barrichello arrived on the scene and skated off into the gravel in tandem. They escaped relatively unscathed, but Trulli had leapt into the lead from Coulthard. Also going off the road at this point were Jacques Villeneuve (BAR), Enrique Bernoldi (Arrows), Jaguar's Eddie Irvine (who had already been hit by an Arrows and retired soon after with overheating) and Nick Heidfeld (Sauber).

"I thought my race was finished when I went off and saw the barrier so close," said Schumacher. "We were both very lucky that our cars stayed in good shape."

Barrichello added: "I saw Michael go straight on but I was too close to do anything. If I'd spun I would've collected Michael in the middle."

Despite the sudden monsoon-like rain, none of the leaders opted to pit for rain tyres straight away because half of the track was still bone dry. But the final section of the track, including the final first gear hairpin, now resembled a lake. The Safety Car was called into use, but it didn't appear in time to help the leaders as they braked for Turn 15 with a pit stop in their mind.

Trulli went straight on into the gravel, Coulthard spun right behind him, and Barrichello did likewise. They were soon joined by Gaston Mazzacane (Prost), Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) and Tarso Marques (Minardi) - although only the Colombian remained beached in the gravel.

Despite his spin, Coulthard won the race into and out of the pits, even though he had radio communication problems with his pit. Amazingly, through all the chaos, Jos Verstappen's Arrows had worked its way up to second place (from 18th on the grid!), although the Dutchman had to give up a position to Frentzen, whom he had unwittingly passed under yellow flags.

The sudden rainstorm sent Ferrari into a tailspin reminiscent of the European Grand Prix in 1999, when Eddie Irvine memorably sat helplessly in the Nurburgring pitlane with only three wheels on his wagon. This time it was Barrichello's turn to be one wheel short of a full set and, to make matters worse, just five feet behind him sat an impatient Schumacher - whom he had passed when both were on the grass - waiting for his new rubber. Oh dear.

"I screwed up," admitted the Prancing Horse's technical director Ross Brawn. "In all the confusion I called Michael in first before Rubens, so we had the wrong tyres ready. We had to make sure the right tyres were on the right car or we'd have been in all sorts of trouble. But we made sure we went for intermediates rather than wets, which won it for us today."

After a less-than-sprightly 1m12s stop, the frustrated Barrichello rocketed out of the pits and promptly aquaplaned off the circuit as he tried to catch the Safety Car. The Ferraris joined the queue in tenth and 11th positions, with Barrichello still ahead of Schumacher.

When the Safety Car came in, we were treated to a display of Schumacher at his dazzling best. In the fastest car and on the right tyres, he carved his way through the field, passing Mazzacane, Barrichello, Jean Alesi (Prost), Trulli, Frentzen, younger brother Ralf, Hakkinen, Verstappen and Coulthard to hit the front again in just five laps - a truly virtuoso performance.

Barrichello followed in his wake to give Ferrari another 1-2, as Michael cruised to a sublime victory thereafter, although a third pitstop to clear Rubens' radiators of gravel and grass exaggerated Schumacher's dominance. The Brazilian also wrecked his barge boards in his numerous trips across the gravel, quipping later: "These cars are robust, but they're not built to off-road!"

Coulthard produced another solid drive, ruing the choice of wets at his first stop on his way to third: "In hindsight we should've known that the Safety Car wouldn't let us restart with that amount of water on the track, so intermediates would have been better."

After his early scare, Frentzen took an unlikely fourth thanks to his two-stop strategy, which brought him home just ahead of the battling Ralf Schumacher and Hakkinen. Frentzen took full advantage when Hakkinen and Verstappen tripped over each other to get ahead of the Finn, which proved crucial in the final analysis. Hakkinen's point for sixth only puts him level with countryman Kimi Raikkonen in the World Championship - things are hardly going to the McLaren script.

After a brilliant drive, Verstappen just couldn't keep pace with the top six runners in the final part of the race and he missed out on the points in seventh. Even Schumacher had to admit: "Jos was flying on rain tyres, I thought he'd be easy to overtake but he wasn't."

Trulli was eighth, ahead of Alesi, Luciano Burti (Jaguar), Jenson Button (Benetton), Mazzacane and the European Minardis of Fernando Alonso and Tarso Marques, the latter delayed by a puncture on his way to 14th.

For full results, click here.

Click here for the championship standings.


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