The 2002 Formula One season ended in style at Suzuka, with the Japanese Grand Prix
encapsulating everything that the rest of year had contained.....
Michael Schumacher showed why he is a five times world champion with a crushing display at the head of the field, Ferrari
did likewise with a photo-opportunity 1-2 finish, Williams
duelled to be best of the rest and a rookie driver scored an emotional top six finish in front of his home crowd.
Fresh from dominating the morning warm-up session, Schumacher streaked away from the lights to open up a two-second advantage over team-mate Rubens Barrichello
by the end of the first lap. Spurred on by the criticism he received after trying to contrive a dead heat at Indianapolis, the world champion was leaving nothing to chance as he prepared to show exactly how much better he and the Ferrari
F2002 are than the rest of the field.
On a slightly remodelled Suzuka circuit, every new fastest lap was a record, and Schumacher used them to good advantage to pull effortlessly away from Barrichello. In turn, the Brazilian opened out a useful advantage over David Coulthard
and Ralf Schumacher, who got the jump on Kimi Raikkonen
into turn one, with Juan Montoya rounding out the initial top six.
Takuma Sato, the darling of the home crowd held his nerve and his seventh place through the opening lap, but quickly had the two fast-starting Renaults swarming all over his rear wing. Despite being slow away on the formation lap, Jarno Trulli
showed that there was little wrong with his R202 by squeezing past team-mate Jenson Button
through the Esses and latching onto the back of the lead Jordan. Sato's team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, meanwhile, had dropped back at the start, the result of having to switch to the T-car shortly before the race, allowing Nick Heidfeld
to complete the top ten.
The Sauber assault, however, was shortly to be reduced by half, as another rookie, Felipe Massa, made a mistake at Degner, running wide on the exit of part one and failing to make part two as he plunged into the tyre wall. It was a sorry way for one of the most exciting men in F1 2002 to make his exit, not only from Sauber, but also possibly the category.
Massa's swansong lasted longer into the Suzuka day than that of Allan McNish, however, the Scot having decided that discretion should be the better part of valour by withdrawing from the meeting shortly after the warm-up, the legacy of his qualifying shunt on Saturday.
Reliability is always a cause for concern in Japan, but no-one expected the field to be reduced quite as quickly as it was. With McNish sidelined and Massa already trudging back to the pits, Olivier Panis' BAR slowed dramatically, dropping him behind the backmarking Minardis with a throttle problem. Two pit-stops, one taken inside the garage, followed as Honda attempted to keep a full quartet running in front of its home crowd, but eventually driver, team and engine supplier had to call time on Panis' last outing before switching to rivals Toyota.
Incredibly, a throttle problem also accounted for Coulthard, robbing the Scot of the chance to at least make a play at challenging the Ferraris. While Panis' waited gamely in the pits first time around, the leading McLaren
trundled past before being waved straight behind a rapidly closed garage door. The Scot made a swift exit thereafter, symbolically thanking his crew before heading off to a well-earned holiday in the sun.