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Chinese GP 2004: Rubens' takeaway.

Despite Barrichello gaining time on Button as the BAR again took vital laps to get up to pace on its heavier fuel load and fresh tyres, the battle for the lead was still most definitely on - and still included a never-say-die Raikkonen.

When Barrichello finally stopped, on lap 40, he was a shade over 27 seconds to the good, enough for the Ferrari crew to conduct another 6.2secs stop and return its man to the race in front for the field. Button, however, was far from done, and lapped over half a second quicker than the Brazilian over the remaining lap. Raikkonen, too, refused to see either of the top two steps as beyond him and, hanging the tail of his car out on more than one occasion, was taking similar chunks from the gap to Button.

The battle brought the three protagonists through the midfield, eventually catching the battle between Mark Webber and Villeneuve for eleventh. That became tenth when Michael Schumacher completed a fourth, 'splash-and-dash', stop, dropping a lap behind the leaders for the first time since Hungary in 2003. Despite being locked in their own scrap, neither Villeneuve or Webber posed any problems for the leading trio - although Renault probably wished that JV could do something to impede Button's path to points - leaving Barrichello and Raikkonen to sandwich the Briton in a race to the flag.

Barrichello had just enough to keep the Ferrari a second clear of the BAR as they flashed across the line, with Raikkonen closing to within half a second of Button at the flag as Formula One edged closer to the end of the season with its third dose of excitement and intrigue in a row.

The rest of the field was well adrift of the frontrunners, with Alonso doing his bit to keep Renault in the hunt for championship runner-up honours in fourth. A subdued Montoya - who had earlier suggested that Williams was favouring Schumacher on the German's return - claimed fifth, but there was more bad news for Renault in sixth, where Takuma Sato claimed three vital points after a mature drive from the penultimate row. BAR now heads its Enstone rival by an extended nine-point margin in the race to finish as 'best of the rest' behind Ferrari.

The two Saubers rounded out the top eight, although Massa had to defend from Coulthard right to the flag. Despite the Scot narrowly missing out on a score, McLaren managed to close the gap on Williams to just four points with two races remaining.

Those rounds - in Japan and Brazil over the next four weeks - will have little impact on the top of the drivers' table, where Schumacher, Barrichello and Button have all now cemented their positions. However, the Brazilian won at Suzuka last season, and is desperate to do so in his homeland and, with the title settled, will be looking to extend his winning streak.


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