26 September 2004
Chinese GP 2004: Rubens' takeaway.
Barrichello and Raikkonen confirmed their intent to run a three-stop strategy by stopping together on lap twelve. Neither Ferrari nor McLaren crew seized a decisive advantage and the pair returned to the track no further apart than when they had left, albeit now down in temporary fourth and fifth places, as Button assumed the lead.
The Briton went on for a further two tours, underlining his qualifying effort, rejoining in fourth place after a stuttering exit, while former BAR team-mate Jacques Villeneuve completed the first pit-stop of his F1 comeback, resuming in 16th. With Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld pitting in quick succession, only Schumacher Sr and Takuma Sato - who had opted to start from the grid rather than the pit-lane remained on their original tyres.
The situation appeared not to faze the world champion, though, as Schumacher banged in two fastest laps - new lap records to boot - as he caught back up to the midfield. The first car he caught was that of brother Ralf, making his return to the cockpit after his USGP shunt, but there was no easy passage for the Ferrari, with Ralf easing the F20004 towards the grass verge before Michael finally dived through at the hairpin. A short straight later, however, and the world champion was in the pits, dropping back down to 14th after taking on his second load of fuel.
Out front, team-mate Barrichello had returned to the lead, but still had Raikkonen for company, the McLaren driver refusing to give up on what could become the second win of a difficult season. Button, however, was dropping away noticeably, the BAR appearing not to enjoy running on heavy tanks and new rubber.
The real reason for the Briton's pace only became apparent when the majority of the field began to filter back into the pits for a second time. While Raikkonen and Barrichello joined the stoppers on laps 27 and 29 respectively, the BAR stayed out on track, assuming the lead again when the Ferrari pitted. Barrichello had used the brief respite from Raikkonen's attentions to set a new lap record before making his own stop, and had his advantage enhanced slightly more as the McLaren caught Bruni on its entrance to the pits and Baumgartner's similar car on his out lap.
Button finally pitted six laps after the two erstwhile leaders and, despite being stationery for four seconds longer than either of his rivals, still managed to put himself right in the thick of the fight with both Raikkonen and Barrichello still to make a third stop.
Button was followed into pit-lane by Michael Schumacher, the Ferrari star having had to limp around the final third of the lap with a left rear puncture that only added to what was fast becoming a rare nightmare weekend for the German. To his credit, however, Schumacher called for a replacement tyre and rejoined, now back in 15th.
BAR's bold two-stop tactic paid its first dividend just two laps after Button had refuelled, with Raikkonen calling in for the final time. Unhindered by Minardis this time around, the Finn only had to sit through a longer final stop - 9.3secs compared to 6.1secs last time around - before rejoining, but the lag was enough to see the McLaren man rejoining well after Button had gone through.
The only question now remaining was how long would Barrichello be able to run before his final stop, and whether it would allow the Brazilian to open out a sufficient gap to prevent Button from assuming the lead.
The answer was delayed by fully four tours, time enough for Ralf Schumacher to be removed from contention by Coulthard's McLaren. Undeterred by his earlier foiled attempt on Massa, the Scot attempted a late lunge on Schumacher's Williams at the hairpin, only to find the door closing on him. Front-to-rear quarter contact resulted in a puncture for Coulthard, but damaged Schumacher's suspension enough for the German to spin at the hairpin and again as he attempted to repair to the pits. Despite being told by his team to rejoin without stopping - as they were waiting to refuel Juan Montoya - Schumacher had little option to park up and join Klien and Zonta in retirement.
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