Japanese Grand Prix: Schumacher clinches record sixth title

Another day, another accolade or two. The red tide crashed in once more at Suzuka as the Ferrari era showed no sign of turning. Michael Schumacher wrapped up his record sixth drivers' championship, Rubens Barrichello won his second race of the year and the Prancing Horse landed another constructors' title as the serious threat from Williams-BMW self-destructed

Japanese Grand Prix: Schumacher clinches record sixth title

Schumacher admitted that it was perhaps one of his untidiest displays for the Scuderia. Following his rain-hit qualifying lap and resultant 14th position start, Michael made good progress early on until he lost his front wing after six laps following an overly-optimistic lunge on local hero Takuma Sato's BAR-Honda at the chicane. He was able to dive into the pits with minimal time loss, but it locked him into a three-stop strategy, which could have been a lot more painful had the threatening rain clouds ever got around to dropping their contents properly.

"I was a bit messy today," he allowed. "After I lost my nose I had to go flat-out after that."

Mistake made, Schumacher purred his way back into the points as the race progressed. But his drama for the day was not over, as he got caught between a rock and a hard place (or rather Cristiano da Matta's Toyota and brother Ralf's Williams-BMW) in a late-race battle for seventh. Matters came to a head at the chicane on lap 42, as da Matta did what others (besides Sato) had almost seemed scared to do and slammed the door on Michael as he lined up a lunge down the inside.

This seemed to catch Schuey unawares, and he locked his front tyres as he tried to sweep back across the track to avoid the stubborn Toyota. The close following Ralf, who had already suffered two spins at the corner, made it a hat-trick as he got involved in the mayhem. He tagged the left-rear of Schumacher's car as he rotated, fortunately without damaging the Ferrari although it did account for the Williams' front wing.

With the threat of Ralf gone, Schumacher was able to relax and sat back from da Matta. His eighth position was easily enough, and gave him the safety zone of knowing that even if leader Barrichello went out and handed the win to title rival Kimi Raikkonen, he would still be champion. Even then, Schumacher had to contend with his flatspotted tyres, which he said made it felt like he was driving on cobbles in the latter stages.

Despite Schumacher's problems, Raikkonen was only ever in a championship-winning position for two laps during the race. That came early on, when erstwhile leader Barrichello pitted for the first time. While all were expected to three-stop, the threat of rain was a joker card that McLaren seemed willing to play. After his brief moment up front, Kimi was locked into a two-stop strategy, which meant his car would be much slower than Barrichello's, but should it rain he would reap the benefit.

But the rain never arrived. Sure, it drizzled, but not enough for the hot dry tyres to lose any of their grip thanks to the huge levels of downforce exerted by the modern F1 car. Barrichello admitted his concern after the race, knowing the his Michelin-shod McLaren rivals could take chunks out of his lead in greasy conditions, but Rubens needn't have worried. He kept his pace up right until the last lap and defeated Raikkonen, the man he needed to beat, by 11secs.

"Suzuka is definitely a drivers' circuit, so to be winning this race makes me a proud man," said Barrichello. "I was pushing right to the end, because if we had a situation where it was going to be wet, then I knew they could catch me 2-3secs a lap. So I had to push all the way through."

It could have been oh-so-different, however. Although only four cars failed to make it to the finish line, two of those were Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams-BMW) and Fernando Alonso (Renault). Although out-dragged off the line by Barrichello, Montoya attacked for all his worth on the opening lap and after softening up Barrichello with an optimistic lunge at the hairpin, he pulled off a stunning manoeuvre on the entrance to Spoon.

Montoya's early pace was emphatic, and his lead over the first three laps read 1.3s, 3.4s and 4.4s. The gap then stabilised for a couple of tours, until Montoya - whose car smoked heavily on the opening lap - was forced to tour back to the pits with hydraulic failure that jammed his car in a low gear.

Williams' constructors' championship hopes had already taken a blow when R Schumacher, who failed to set a time after spinning at the chicane in qualifying, spun at the same place trying to pass fellow back row starter Jarno Trulli (Renault). He repeated the feat a few laps later, when a move on Sauber's Heinz-Harald Frentzen also went wrong. Following his third incident and resultant pitstop, Ralf would finish a dismal 12th.

Alonso was the only other man to take the fight to Barrichello, and was right on the Brazilian's tail before the first pitstop. He dropped a couple of seconds behind by lap 17, when his engine went pop on the approach to 130R. The Spaniard's frustration was clear as he thumped the Armco after alighting from his car - he knew a repeat of his Hungarian victory was within his grasp.

The exit of Montoya and Alonso at least gave Raikkonen second place, although team-mate David Coulthard looked the quicker of the McLaren duo. DC would finish just half a second behind, as if to prove a point that he's worth his drive for next season.

"It's not very nice to finish in second place almost every time," said Raikkonen. "But we were just not quick enough this year to win the title, and at least we didn't lose it to a bad driver."

Following his laps in the sun - and in the lead - at Indy two weeks' ago, Jenson Button was at it again for BAR-Honda at the end of his opening stint. After three laps in the lead, Button drove a solid race and made it to the finish this time, although once again that podium continues to elude him. Button kept Trulli covered all afternoon, while an equally praiseworthy performance came from F1 returnee Takuma Sato, who finished a strong sixth. All that helped BAR to win the keenly-contested fight for fifth in the constructors' championship.

Da Matta and M Schumacher rounded out the point scorers, although Michael had to keep his eyes open to keep Nick Heidfeld's Sauber at bay for the final point. Olivier Panis, like da Matta, suffered from not being quick enough to make a three-stop strategy count and finished 10th, ditto Jaguar, whose drivers Mark Webber and Justin Wilson slumped to disappointing 11th and 13th place finishes respectively.

Ralph Firman finished 14th for Jordan, team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella ending his time with the team by posting a retirement. Jos Verstappen and Nicolas Kiesa trawled around with little chance of troubling anyone in their Minardis, while the only other driver not to see the finish line was Frentzen (Sauber), who perhaps ended his F1 career with an engine failure.

The great Fangio's record broken, there was no retirement talk from Schumacher. Just cool, analytical reasons for why he couldn't finish higher than eighth. He might have rough edges and be brittle under pressure, but Schu's still the best out there. It's up to the rest to get better if they want to beat him. Maybe next year...

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