SAN: Schumacher rises to the challenge

He had to follow Jenson Button's polesitting BAR for the first nine laps, but then the world champion dug deep to continue his dominance of F1. By Mark Hughes

SAN: Schumacher rises to the challenge

Jenson Button didn't know what he had to beat as he built up to his qualifying lap. But he had an idea; he knew that the BAR 006 was right in the ballpark, as it had been all weekend. With a further upgraded Honda that just might have been the most powerful engine of all, fabulous suppleness over the kerbs and rear wheels that would seemingly pull the asphalt from the track rather than surrender any traction, the Briton's confidence was soaring.

He can do no wrong these days. Since Indianapolis in 2003 he has been flawless, the driver he always threatened to be in his rookie year of 2000, now shored up by experience, a supportive team and the weight of team leadership on his shoulders.

So with car and driver at a peak, the quality of this lap would come down to details, to preparation. With a body familiar with the sensations, the driving could almost be autopilot. He needed to keep the tyres in good shape for the final sector: that was key for everyone on Saturday, but especially the Michelin runners.

He would concentrate in sector one and two on being neat but losing nothing in commitment, then he'd let fly over those critical two kerbs - Variantes Alta and Bassa - in the third sector. Button pretty much knew the lap he was going to do even as he completed his out-lap, turning into the Bassa chicane nice and slow in order to take a line that maximises your exit speed onto the pit straight for the beginning of the lap.

Quick and neat through one and two, just as he'd planned, it was a ballpark lap so far, nothing more. But, critically, his tyres weren't too hot and it hung on sector three, approaching now at just short of 170mph, the trees behind the barriers each side of the track forming a tunnel effect as he got on the brakes and prepared to line up Variante Alta. The car had proved so good here, so much better than anything he'd ever driven before, that he'd almost had to relearn the corner, giving it more and finding, incredibly, that there was still more to come. "I've gained so much time there during the weekend," he said, "It's a really tough corner because the kerbs are so big and you can upset the car so easily. But at the same time there's such a lot to be found there."

The BAR just smothered those kerbs, it went through there at a different rate to everything else. "Yes, that's something that we had with last year's car and we made sure that we didn't lose that with this one," said BAR technical director Geoff Willis. "We've been doing suspension work to help with that over the last few tests." Then the Rivazzas, and the car simply exploded out of the sequence, a mirage of grunt and traction, the new rear suspension geometry introduced at Bahrain really paying off now. But Button had one more final sector ace up his sleeve. That final chicane. With the rest of the lap perfect, it would have been far too easy to play conservative here. But that would have been to under-utilise its greatest kerb-calming asset. No, Button took masses of kerb and turned in at a speed and trajectory that would've spelt disaster for every other car. It was as close to the perfect lap as you're ever going to see and it took 1m19.753s to complete, quicker than anyone had gone all weekend, 0.7sec ahead of Rubens Barrichello. The BAR pit erupted.

Two cars later came Ferrari's Michael Schumacher. With Button's benchmark, he knew he was up against it. "It had to be all or nothing basically," he said. The Bridgestone was less critical to abuse in the first couple of sectors than Button's Michelins, and so Michael truly nailed it. As he approached that speed blur of the Variante Alta braking zone, he was 0.2sec up on the BAR. He took a lot of speed in, got the direction change perfect, but the Ferrari wouldn't absorb the exit kerb in the way the BAR had. In almost an instant Michael had on 30 degrees of opposite lock which even he struggled to get it back off of in time. It was a fantastic recovery to what looked like a surefire spin, but pole position had gone, Michael had ended up 0.25sec down.

Only the two Williams were left to go, but neither Ralf Schumacher (fifth) nor Juan Pablo Montoya (third) had the grip, traction, suppleness or apparent horsepower of the BAR and couldn't even knock the Ferrari off the front row, let alone challenge Button. The BAR pit erupted all over again: their first pole, Button's first pole, Honda's first since 1992, the first Brit on pole since Monaco '01.

"You have to wonder," said Montoya. "That was the best my car has been in qualifying all season. The balance was fantastic. Geoff [Willis] used to be here, Jenson's engineer used to be here. They said here Geoff couldn't do the job and now he's done a car that's half a second quicker than ours."

There was a beautiful mirage that lasted for the first nine laps of this race. Then Jenson Button pitted his BAR-Honda from the lead and Michael Schumacher let rip in his Ferrari, suddenly driving at one second per lap quicker than his previous pace. The scale of the performance advantage appeared in its true light for the first time over the weekend, and our mirage evaporated. But this newly-apparent reality was beautiful too - just a different sort of beauty.

It's now time to stop bemoaning the lack of variety at the top of the Formula 1 podium so far this year and instead appreciate just what we're witnessing. "I believe Michael is driving better this year than at any time in his career," said Ferrari tech boss Ross Brawn after the champ's fourth straight win.

Imola on Sunday was a masterclass from the German, but almost as impressive a drive was Button's runner-up spot in a BAR that is now clearly F1's second best car. "I've looked at the BAR this weekend," said Ferrari design chief Rory Byrne, "and though I can't know exactly how it works, there are features on it that make me think it's a very good car, that those guys have a good understanding of what they're doing."

But amid the crazy mix of variable machinery, how can the quality of a drive truly be judged? Well, there are clues, little tell-tales of the art, and the drives of Schumacher and Button were littered with them.

But first some background, some salient points. BAR's Michelin tyres give fantastic first lap performance relative to Ferrari's Bridgestones. You saw that in how small the performance gap from Ferrari to BAR was on Saturday and how big it was on Sunday. In qualifying, without Schumacher's tankslapper, the team reckoned his time would have been a 1m19.6s - a bare tenth faster than Button's superb pole effort. On race day, Schumacher's race average was 1m21.5s - around 0.9sec faster than Button's - and no-one else was even close to the Briton's pace.

"It's down to the performance profile of the tyres," said Brawn. "A Michelin is very fast on that first lap - and the qualifying lap. A Bridgestone is more consistent after that."

Indeed, the front Michelins tended to grain more than their rivals. On this occasion, for the first time this year, the result wasn't down to track temperature change - qualifying and race were run on a low 30°C surface. But the picture might still have been skewed by the weather. On Saturday night there was the mother of all thunderstorms, washing the track clean of the rubber it had built up and making it 'green' again. A green track always plays into Bridgestone's favour. There were signs the Michelins were coming back into the picture in the race's later stages as the rubber was laid down once more, but it was way too late by then.

Now the quality indicators: the first of them was Button's opening lap, the one that gave him a 2.7sec advantage over the Ferrari as it was completed.

"It was mindblowing what Jenson did," said Schuey. "It was like it was raining in front of me and dry for him." Have you ever heard such a compliment from the multiple champ? Then he qualified it: "It seems like we needed a little more time to get our tyres up to full temperature and grip."

But Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams was on the same tyres as Button's BAR, and he too was taken aback by his rival's first lap. "I couldn't believe Jenson's pace there," he said. "It was like he was on rails. He was unbelievable."

Stunning opening lap from Button notwithstanding, Montoya played his part in gifting the Briton the initial gap by having a little altercation with Schumacher. This triggered another brilliant moment from the Ferrari driver, albeit a controversial one.

As Button blasted away into the lead, Montoya, having blocked the quicker getaway of his team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, was in third place and quickly upon Schumacher Sr's tail. With Bridgestones slower to come up to temperature, the Ferrari was drawn in by Montoya, who got a good run on it down to Villeneuve. Schuey blocked the inside, then moved back across to take up the normal line - arguably two moves and therefore equally arguably illegal. Still, with superior grip and his dander now even further up, Montoya kept coming as they headed for Tosa. There, JPM went for one of his patented 'round the-outside' moves.

Quality marker number two: mixing racer's instinct with a shrewd and instant reading of the grand prix ahead, Schumacher was ruthless. He knew his tyres would soon be up to temperature and that if he got stuck behind Montoya there would be nowhere to pass until the pitstops, by which time Button might have been long gone. He couldn't let that happen, so he hung the Williams out to dry, went wider onto the exit kerb than he needed, allowed his wheels to touch Montoya's, so giving the Williams a big grassy moment.

Montoya was outraged: "He's got to be either blind or stupid," he later said of Schumacher, who was sitting next to him at the time.

As Montoya rejoined the track, Schumacher was off the hook and beginning his chase of Button, leaving the Colombian to furiously block his team-mate once again to prevent him taking advantage. As Ralf Schumacher got bundled out onto the grass for his troubles, so Takuma Sato's BAR nipped by for fourth. That guaranteed Ralf's role in the race would be minor, for Sato - troubled by a gearshift problem - ran at a slow pace and for all of the first stint held up a queue comprising Ralf, Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso. This further ensured that the race was only going to be about Schumacher and Button.

Quality marker number three: the two consecutive staggering laps Schuey completed between Button's first stop and his own. At this stage of the race a rival's strategy isn't clear and the reigning champion had only one way of maximising his chances. We saw at this time just how far he can stretch the envelope of his skills. With hindsight, those two laps broke the back of the race for him, helped him convert a one-second deficit into a five-second lead within just a few laps and to disappear into the blue beyond.

Button had realised the Ferrari was probably quicker - the way it had closed down his big opening lead told him that - but he had no idea it was that much quicker. "I know it's very difficult to overtake here," he said, "so when Michael was behind I wasn't too worried until I got to the first stop. Two laps later he had a huge gap and I was quite shocked."

Index-linking the respective first in-laps of Schumacher and Button to their average race pace shows that the BAR lost 0.9sec to the Ferrari (in actual time 1.8sec, but with cars that averaged 0.9sec per lap difference).

It never happened again, because in the remaining two stops the race was already Schumacher's and he had no need for special in-lap heroics.

But Button's unerring consistency was the next remarkable factor. In a car that the race-day wind had made "a bit twitchier" than he had expected, he reeled off the following sequence of laps from 14 onwards: 1m22.7s, 1m22.7s, 1m22.7s, 1m22.7s, 1m22.9s, 1m22.7s. It reads less impressively than it truly is. To do something as demanding as that to such a level of repeatability is truly wondrous.

Then there were the in-laps of the BAR driver's remaining two stops: 1m22.8s on lap 25, 1m22.4s on lap 44. Both were precisely 0.9sec slower than Schumacher's - exactly the average margin the BAR was slower than the Ferrari during representative lapping. Then there were his out-laps: 1m33.7s for his first stop, 1m33.7s for his second, 1m33.6s for his final one. By comparison, Schumacher's were 1m33.6s, 1m34.2s and 1m34.9s, but with the proviso that only during the first one did Michael need to nail it, his subsequent pace ensuring he was miles clear by the time of the second and final stops. The fact that a flat-out Schumacher out-lap was virtually identical to a Button equivalent emphasises again the first-lap speed of the Michelin, because it almost exactly compensated for the more usual 0.9sec advantage of the Ferrari - just as it had in qualifying.

So the figures show Button was flawless, particularly during the stops. But the BAR pitcrew - recognised as one of the very best - in this race lost time to the Ferrari boys. Button's first stop was very slow at 9.7sec, around 1.6sec slower than it should have been given the amount of fuel that went in. In fact, for a time it fooled us into thinking Button was two-stopping and that the race for the lead was still alive. Not so. In the subsequent stops, the BAR dropped 0.6sec and 0.8sec respectively to the Ferrari - not critical given it was no longer racing Schuey and was well clear of anyone else, but indicative of the all-round excellence of the Scuderia.

Before backing off late on, Schumacher had been 27 seconds clear of Button, with the Briton a further 20 seconds or so ahead of eventual third-place finisher Montoya. That told the true competitive story at Imola - and it did not please the Colombian: "We're nowhere. We need more of everything - power, downforce, set-up. We're not even best of the rest at the moment."

In fact, during the race the Williams-BMW wasn't even the third fastest car. That honour went to the Renault R24. Alonso drove a stormer, his race building up momentum, but he was ultimately denied a podium by poor qualifying and his subsequent entrapment behind slower cars. He began the race at the back of the five-car queue lined up behind Sato's gearbox-slowed BAR, a group whose races unfolded as follows.

Webber fell back with an intermittent electrical problem that cut out a couple of cylinders at random. The others all leapfrogged Sato at the first stops, and Trulli even got by Ralf too by staying out three laps longer. Ralf had Barrichello on his gearbox throughout stint two, with Alonso in turn right with the Ferrari. Ralf and Barrichello pitted inches apart and left the same way, and in the same order, but Trulli wasn't quick enough in the three subsequent laps before his stop and rejoined in between the Williams and Ferrari.

In the final stops, Alonso made superb use of an extra couple of laps and got in front of Barrichello and Trulli. That put him right on Ralf's tail. With his new tyres he was keen to take immediate advantage. He got a run on the Williams down to Tosa, went for the inside and cheekily stayed there, even though he was never fully alongside. Their wheels touched, Alonso kept going and Ralf spun, being passed by Trulli and Barrichello before getting going again. Alonso got to within a couple of seconds of Montoya, who responded to keep just out of reach. Sato was a late retirement from eighth when his Honda expired, possibly as a result of abuse caused by the gearbox problem.

Which left the final point to Kimi Raikkonen, his first of the season. From the back of the grid on a two-stop strategy, he had a close fight with fellow two-stopping back-of-the-grid starter Giancarlo Fisichella. Raikkonen only won this battle when Fisichella got held up at a critical moment lapping a Minardi, having earlier gone across the grass, but they each beat their respective team-mates.

Felipe Massa was 10th, 10 seconds behind Fisi, while David Coulthard lost his nosecone against the back of Alonso on the opening lap (some of the parts whacking the back of the Spaniard's helmet!). This forced the Scot into a lap-one stop, and he had a later grassy off on the way to 12th. The troubled Jaguar of Webber beat the healthier one of Christian Klien by almost a lap, the two Jordans retired with hydraulic and transmission failures, as did Gianmaria Bruni's Minardi. Bruni's team-mate, Zsolt Baumgartner, was last, four laps down.

Schumacher made his cool-down lap extra slow to wave to the tifosi. As he did, Montoya came menacingly close alongside to make some gestures. The man who finished between them had made his own gesture in the race's first stint, when the Union-Jacked helmet in the BAR-Honda had led the field to give the sport an enduring image of hope.

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