JAP: Schuey's dark cloud lifts

The world champion put his China crisis behind him to storm to a record 13th win of the season in Japan. Mark Hughes reports

JAP: Schuey's dark cloud lifts

"I'm thankful now for not having been so good in China," revealed Michael Schumacher in the post-qualifying press conference - on Sunday morning.

His brother Ralf, sitting alongside the Ferrari on the front row, publicly thanked David Coulthard for biffing him at Shanghai. Mark Webber was another to be thanking his lowly China result as he stuck the Jaguar R5b third on the grid in the team's penultimate race after a great lap had put him fourth in pre-qualifying.

Running order was everything on a damp but drying track. If you'd endured a bad race in China then you got a great running slot in (wet-tyred) pre-qualifying here, and if you made use of that you got yourself a big advantage in (dry-tyred) qualifying when the track was still surrendering new chunks of time each run.

Michael Schumacher was the penultimate man out. On the softer choice of Bridgestones well suited to the damp conditions, he shaded his brother's effort by just 0.5sec. Earlier on, team-mate Rubens Barrichello had been on course for a respectable slot when he locked up into the chicane and ran over the grass, dropping him down to 15th.

Set-ups and fine-tuning meant next to nothing. It was all about where fate had put you in the running order. Behind Ralf and Webber was the crowd's darling, Takuma Sato. His qualifying lap was a heart-in-the-mouth thriller that sent the fans into raptures. He almost dropped the whole lot over the twin rivers that crossed the track in the chicane's braking zone, but reflexes honed from hundreds of such moments rescued him from the brink even if it did lose him a few tenths.

"It was very tricky," explained Sato's BAR team-mate Jenson Button, who was fifth fastest, "because most of the circuit was dry, but there were some parts that were still very wet and it was difficult to see them. When it goes it's not just a slight loss of grip either; it's big oversteer."

Jarno Trulli got his Toyota career off to a fairy-tale start by being fastest of all in pre-qualifying, courtesy of being the last man to run because he wasn't even present in Shanghai. "It was good. A nice little present to the team and the fans," he said, "but let's be realistic: I had the best track. Actually the car is easy to push hard over one lap, it gives you a lot of confidence."

But that was only pre-qualifying. He got the best track in qualifying too, but in the less wet conditions, the Toyota's true level couldn't be as effectively disguised. He qualified sixth, 1.6sec behind Schuey whose pole was thereby confirmed.
Giancarlo Fisichella ran seventh from the end and qualified seventh fastest with a typically silky lap, a couple of thousandths faster than David Coulthard. Jacques Villeneuve was trying very hard indeed and his ninth fastest lap included a big wobble at the chicane. He was a couple of places ahead of Renault team-mate Fernando Alonso who had gone out a couple of cars earlier. They sandwiched the Toyota of Olivier Panis, having his final qualifying run.

Although Kimi Raikkonen ran a couple of cars later than Alonso, the harder compound Michelins weren't as well suited to the conditions and he ended up only 12th, 0.7sec slower than Coulthard. Juan Pablo Montoya, the third man out, was the first to run dry-weather tyres. His problems went back to a combination of a poor running slot and the wrong tyre pressures in pre-qualifying. He was less than happy about that but still flung the Williams around spectacularly for a lap that would stand only for 13th position.

Christian Klien (Jag), Barrichello, Jordan's Nick Heidfeld (on wets) and Timo Glock (very spectacular, also on wets) and Gianmaria Bruni (Minardi on wets) completed those who recorded a lap. Felipe Massa's Sauber left the track at Spoon while Zsolt Baumgartner's Minardi wasn't readied in time after he went off the track in pre-qualifying.

Michael had been quiet lately. Two consecutive wins for his team-mate and a disastrous race in Shanghai, and Schumacher had gone into himself. Ross Brawn recognised the signs. "He always goes like that when things haven't gone well for him. He gets very introspective. He asked if he could test and so we included him at Jerez last week. He'd been thinking about things a lot and I think he wanted to polish his technique." When he gets like that, you know you're going to get something explosive. He was like that after Hungary last year.

Serenely untroubled by the forcible re-jigging of the weekend's format, he was back on dominant form, aided it must be said by the circumstances of qualifying. The relief the result brought him was evident in his manner afterwards. He wisecracked as he squeezed past his team-mate in the paddock, as Rubens Barrichello explained his collision with David Coulthard that had left the Ferrari's front right wheel pointing around 45 degrees to straight ahead: "Hey, I saw your car in the pitlane," said Michael. "I think you were running a bit too much camber!"
Rubens in fact was the only one who might have challenged Michael, given the superiority of the F2004, but endured the sort of day that Michael had in China. Consigned by the circumstances of qualifying to battle through the midfield morass, his best lap was marginally faster than Schumacher's. Then came the optimistic move on DC at the chicane.

Instead, Michael was left to establish, then maintain, a half-minute lead over a close struggle for second between brother Ralf and Jenson Button, Williams-BMW vs BAR-Honda, three-stop strategy versus two-stop. It was settled in that order.It was actually quite a conventional 2004 sort of race, despite qualifying being run only that morning, despite no-one having completed more than one prior flying lap on dry tyres, despite no practice databases for fuel consumption and set-ups, despite a track washed green by the heavy rain and lack of running. But those expecting flawed strategies, imbalances and tyre troubles were left surprised as the teams showed the quality of their simulation and educated guesswork.

"We had the new family of tyres here," explained Brawn, "which were the constructions we ran in Hungary and China with a different compound, one that we knew worked well in the damp. They demand a very different set-up to the old tyres and we had to extrapolate from the Hungary set-up." A sort of cross-ply/radial amalgam, these latest Bridgestones allow for almost Michelin levels of sidewall flex, making set-up a more demanding task. "But this car is a forgiving one, within constraints," explained Brawn. "The strength of the team is in the engineering side. You often see that when we start a weekend the car is immediately quick. It's a compliment to our engineers that we were able to set the car up with no practice."

As for strategy, for Bridgestone users - universally on the softer compound choice - there was no choice to make. The downside of the fast new tyre is its wear rate. Two-stopping was not an option. Which was fine by Schumacher, as three-stopping is the fastest way round here unencumbered. But it meant Barrichello couldn't be put on the two-stop that would have been better suited to his grid position.

Another upside of the latest Bridgestone is that it gets quickly up to temperature and so Michael was 1.1 seconds ahead of his brother at the end of the opening lap. But thereafter Ralf was hanging on well. "I could see him in the mirrors," said Michael, "and the gap wasn't increasing the way I was expecting. Williams seemed to find really good race pace."

It was true. For the second race in succession the FW26 looked a much better car than it has for most of the season. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the races in which Ralf has returned to its cockpit. Technical director Sam Michael, while acknowledging the excellent job Ralf has done since his comeback, also pointed out that its development has been continuing. "There were some minor aero revisions on the car and we've been pushing on while maybe the teams around us have curtailed development." Whatever, Ralf - aided also by a fuel load around 12kg lighter (good for 0.5sec round here) - was the only one who could hold a candle to Michael in this first stint, the pair quickly dropping the BARs of Button and Takuma Sato.

Jenson had gone clean round the outside of his team-mate through the first turn, wheels inches apart, but it would perhaps have been better for both if he hadn't. Button was two-stopping, Sato three, and soon the heavier car was holding the lighter one up - as well as itself. "It wasn't just the weights," explained Button. "I was struggling with rear-end grip in the first five or six laps and was getting big oversteer pretty much every corner."

"Yes, we could see that from the fact that he had his diff locked," observed BAR tech boss Geoff Willis. Button was losing further time by having to defend from a team-mate who in turn was wasting his lower weight, so Willis had to act. "Team orders are not allowed of course, so we simply reminded each driver of the respective strategies..." Sato slipped by Button through Dunlop, the fast left-hander after the Esses, on lap seven. Getting off-line doing this cost Button around four seconds. Sato's pace afterwards suggested he in turn had lost around three seconds in his team-mate's wake. Soon afterwards, front tyre graining balanced out Button's wayward rear end and his pace improved. It was this graining period that made two-stopping a better option for BAR than three. Better to live through this only three times than four. Button was therefore at an advantage over Sato.

Jarno Trulli's Toyota was fifth out of the first corner, and though he knew it was never going to last, on account of the TF104B's propensity to eat its tyres, he was damned if he was going to give in without a fight and was soon defending hard from Mark Webber - very slow away from the second row - and Coulthard. "The car is better than I was expecting," Trulli said afterwards, "but it's performance does drop off quickly." Significantly, Jarno had found its steering wheel controls confusing and had the team colour-code them the way they were in his Renault.

Olivier Panis in the sister car, enjoying his final grand prix, got away very slowly for the umpteenth time this year and dropped four places from 10th on the grid. Running the softer Michelin - in common only with the Renaults - he too suffered big tyre degradation and was never a factor, a downbeat end to a Formula 1 career that enjoyed its moments of greatness.

Being held up by Trulli was soon the least of Webber's problems. "From lap seven onwards I started to feel an intense heat building up on my right-hand side." A seal between the radiator area and cockpit was faulty, giving his behind a real roasting. To add to his problems, Coulthard began attacking, eventually getting past for sixth on the 10th lap. "The car was fast," said DC. "It's just we were out of position with it. It was particularly good under braking." Still, Trulli defended hard but fair.

Jacques Villeneuve ran an early eighth but there was soon a big train of cars stacked up behind - comprising Giancarlo Fisichella, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya and Barrichello. Jacques still isn't at home in the Renault, admitting to finding it nervy. Furthermore: "I quickly found that the set-up wasn't ideal for dry conditions. It was understeering a lot." Later it began to extract a toll on his stamina. Fisichella was the first to find a way by - using the Sauber's excellent straightline speed to slip ahead into turn one on lap three. Four laps later Villeneuve didn't make it difficult for team-mate Alonso to go by into the same corner. Once past, Alonso pulled away at 1.3-1.5sec per lap, despite a similar fuel load, until he found himself stacked up behind Fisichella. At the first stops Alonso would leapfrog both the Sauber and Trulli.

Ralf was the first of the three-stoppers in, on lap nine. He was followed in two laps later by Webber and Montoya (who had sneaked a way by Raikkonen in the tight high-speed multi-car queue behind Villeneuve). Sato, Trulli, Fisichella and Barrichello were in on lap 12, Schuey on lap 13, the latter rejoining without losing the lead.

The two-stoppers were revealed as Button, Coulthard, Alonso, Villeneuve and Raikkonen, with Kimi leapfrogging Jacques at their first stops. By now Schuey was properly in the groove, and had turned a four-second lead over his brother before the stops into 15sec five laps later as Ralf paid the traffic penalty for an early stop. The order behind the Schumachers after everyone had made their first stops was Sato, Button, Coulthard, Alonso, Trulli and Webber, with the latter soon to retire in pain from the heat leak. Trulli was then holding up the faster cars of Montoya and Barrichello, both of whom went by Fisichella when the Sauber clattered over the grass at Spoon on the 16th lap. A faulty fuel level sensor had buzzed an alarm, he'd radioed this info to the pits but in doing so had missed his braking point.

Looking at who was fighting with whom once the differing strategies were taken into account, Ralf's second was under threat from Button while Sato had Coulthard and Alonso to worry about. Further back, Barrichello, Raikkonen and Montoya were locked in battle.

Frustrated at being stuck behind Trulli for five laps, Montoya made a dive for it at the chicane on lap 22, locked up and ran wide, allowing not only Trulli to repass, but Barrichello to nip by too. As they raced down the pit straight, so Rubens was tucked up tight behind the Toyota, with Fisichella now on Montoya's gearbox. Into turn one the Ferrari passed the Toyota and the Sauber took the Williams. It was thrilling stuff as four cars raced inches apart at 190mph. The pity is that it was for eighth. Up front, Michael's lead was 20sec and growing. Once clear of the pack though, Barrichello was able to show his true pace for the first time - and it was on a par with the race leader's, but almost a minute behind.

The three-stoppers made their second stops between laps 20-28. Ralf rejoined behind the two-stopping Coulthard, losing him valuable time in his strategic battle with Button. Ultimately, Button wouldn't have the high-fuel pace after his second stop to take advantage. His best lap was 0.4sec slower than that of the Williams. On rejoining from his lap 35 stop, he got out just over four seconds behind Ralf. He might have thought back to those four seconds he lost getting off-line to allow Sato past early in the race.

During this round of stops Montoya leapfrogged himself back ahead of Fisichella for what would ultimately be seventh place, with Trulli still costing the Williams time and preventing him from keeping Barrichello in sight.

The two-stoppers made their second stops between laps 32-36, and of their group Alonso was now beginning to make inroads into Coulthard. But it was three-stopping Barrichello who was looking for a way past DC's fifth place on lap 38. "I came out of 130R very quick," said Rubens, "and I was able to go for the inside into the chicane. But I don't think David expected me to be there. He turned in really fast, like I wasn't there." Ferrari left-front hit McLaren right-front hard, bending both wheels at a crazy angle. They pitted together but were immediately retired, Barrichello's car with some haste as team-mate Schumacher was coming in right behind for his final stop. "I think Rubens was a bit optimistic," said Coulthard. "It was a bit like my move on Ralf in China." Following an investigation by the stewards, the incident was dismissed.

After everyone had stopped for the last time and with 12 laps to go, Schuey led from his brother by 24sec, with Button 10sec up on Sato, who was being reeled in by Alonso. Raikkonen was sixth, well clear of Montoya and Fisichella. Villeneuve's tough comeback wasn't making much progress in Japan. His slow pace - a 16th fastest best lap, a second slower than Alonso - lost him places at each stop and now he was ninth, battling with Felipe Massa, whose Sauber had started from the back of the grid, five rows behind the Renault. Behind these two was Trulli, the tyre-degrading Toyota keeping ahead of Christian Klien's Jag and Nick Heidfeld's Jordan. Panis, the Jordan of Timo Glock and Gianmaria Bruni's Minardi completed the runners.

Sato responded to the threat of Alonso to retain fourth, though Fernando had driven an unobtrusively brilliant race with a car that was far from the quickest. His 12th fastest lap - slower than Webber's Jaguar - showed the R24's competitive state here, but his relentless push squeezed a better result from it than it deserved. In the late stages he kept just out of reach of Raikkonen's traffic-delayed McLaren. Massa nailed Villeneuve for ninth a couple of laps from the end, going round the outside of turn one in ballsy fashion after having earlier overcommitted into the chicane.

Shortly after, Massa unlapped himself from a cruising Ferrari as the world champion notched up his 13th victory of the season. Brother Ralf scored a flawless second while third and fourth places for Button and Sato virtually clinched BAR second place in the constructors' championship. All three podium men seemed genuinely delighted with their results. Perhaps now Michael will allow himself a week away from testing prior to Brazil.

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