10 October 2004
Japanese GP 2004: Hurricane Michael blows 'em away
Typhoon 22 may have given Suzuka a wider berth than expected, but a hurricane by the name of Michael Schumacher howled through the Japanese Grand Prix venue on his way to a comprehensive lights-to-flag victory.
The world champion showed that his disappointing outing in China was a mere aberration by trouncing the field on a day when three-stop strategies proved the way to go after the rescheduling of qualifying to Sunday morning.
Right from the time that the lights went out, Schumacher was a man on a mission stretching away at the head of the field, initially with brother Ralf in tow, before breaking the Williams and adding tenths to his advantage with every lap. The only question over the elder German's lead surrounded just what strategy he was running, with the rest of the pack already hoping that the Ferrari would have to stop three times as Schumi opened out a seven-second lead on third-placed Jenson Button by lap four.
Their prayers were answered, at least in part, when the two leaders stopped in quick succession, but Ferrari's call to the world champion didn't come until lap 13, allowing Schumacher to return to the track still in P1.
Ralf had made his first call for fuel and tyres on lap ten, dropping behind the squabbling BARs of Button and local hero Takuma Sato before he rejoined down in ninth place. Button had run third early on, having made a demon start to squeeze between his team-mate and the slow-starting Jaguar of Mark Webber, before holding Sato off running around the outside of the first turn. However, it quickly became apparent that the Japanese driver was running lighter than his British team-mate, and the two swapped place on lap eight to allow Sato a shot at reeling in the Schumacher brothers.
Further back, the re-arranged qualifying session, and lack of meaningful practice on either Friday or Saturday, had produced an 'all-star' midfield group, as several big names attempted to recover from poor grid positions brought about by a combination of mistakes on track or the misfortune of doing well last time out. Jacques Villeneuve headed a six-car train that comprised names such as Alonso, Raikkonen, Montoya and Barrichello, with Olivier Panis - in his final grand prix - thrown in for good measure. Barrichello had suffered from having to run first in a wet pre-qualifying session after winning in China, while Montoya was just plain slow in pre-Q and paid for it second time around.
The Brazilian was the first man on the move, picking off Panis at the chicane before making up further places during the first round of pit-stops, but Alonso also passed Villeneuve, and Montoya Raikkonen, as Suzuka proved unusually conducive to overtaking in the early stages. Raikkonen also suffered from a sticky fuel hose, dropping him behind the Ferrari.
Webber might have lost a handful of places at the start, but remained ahead of the illustrious group, and continued to hold his own in the chasing pack ahead of the early pit-stops. However, the Australian made a quicker-than-expected return to the garage, complaining of a burning sensation in the cockpit and, after another couple of laps was forced to call it a day. The team has yet to discover the exact nature of the problem, but it may have been that the Jaguar was bottoming out more than most after the lack of dry weather set-up time, transmitting heat through the seat.
By mid-distance, Schumacher Sr's lead was up to 36secs, albeit flattered slightly by the different strategies and second round of pit-stops for those planning on using four sets of tyres. With brother Ralf stopping on lap 24, the massed ranks of Sato supporters were able to briefly cheer their man into second place, but it wasn't long before the two leaders made their own stops, following each other into the pits exactly at half-distance. While Ferrari again ensured that Schumacher emerged at the head of the field, however, Sato dropped back behind team-mate Button, David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher.
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