Europe 2004 - Too easy for Schumacher
30 May 2004
Oh, how he would have wished this could have been the story of Monaco! Michael Schumacher simply cruised to his sixth win of the 2004 Formula One season, untroubled by anything more sinister than a couple of wayward backmarkers as he re-established his superiority over his rivals.
The closest anyone got to deposing the world champion was at the start but, even then, Takuma Sato and Jarno Trulli found themselves to busy scrapping over the crumbs from the king's table that they eventually ceded second spot to Kimi Raikkonen. With the less pacy McLaren installed at the head of the pack, Schumacher simply made hay while a weak sun shone on the Michelin runners and disappeared into the distance.
Fourteen seconds to the good after just six laps, Schumacher may have betrayed the fact that he had qualified on a lighter fuel load than his main rivals, but also made full advantage of his reduced load to build a gap he and the Ferrari team thought adequate to keep him in position to move back to the front when the first rounds of stops cycled through.
As usual, Ross Brawn's planning worked a treat, with Schumacher stopping first of anyone, on lap eight, and rejoining in seventh - immediately behind the chasing sextet and having extended his stop to take on extra fuel for the middle stint.
This left Raikkonen at the front of the field for the first time in a season where he had been expected to chase Schumacher all the way to the crown, but the McLaren driver quickly showed that his pace was also the result of a light fuel load as he stopped on the very next lap.
Grid positions would have suggested that next in line to inherit the lead would be either Sato or Trulli, but their opening lap skirmish had served neither particularly well, with the second Renault of Fernando Alonso leaping into third as the field came back past the pits. Sato managed to hold on to P4 at the end of the lap, but Trulli had dropped a further three places, to lie seventh, behind both Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. It would prove to be the undoing of his podium hopes....
Already undone, however, were the similar hopes of the two Williams drivers and, perhaps more optimistically, Cristiano da Matta. The revised opening corner complex at the Nurburgring was designed to promote greater overtaking at the German venue, but brought with it the inevitability of a first corner accident. The 2004 European GP did not disappoint and, given their past record, it was little surprise to see the two Williams-BMWs make first contact.
On this occasion, it was Juan Montoya at fault, finding that his FW26 didn't want to turn in with the amount of speed it was carrying, and clipping the rear of team-mate Ralf Schumacher. The impact was enough to turn the two white-and-blue cars nose-to-nose, with the inevitable result of broken front wings on both. While Montoya was able to recover and repair to the pits, however, Schumacher's day was done - but just to make sure, the German accelerated his broken car off course... and over the nose of da Matta, an innocent bystander caught up in the conflict.
If one half of the 'local' family was making an early exit, however, the other looked set for the day, gradually picking up places as his rivals made their respective pit-stops. Alonso's lead lasted just a lap before he handed over to Sato, who enjoyed a further couple of tours at the front before peeling off. This allowed Barrichello to take up the reins, the Brazilian having decided - as in Spain - to employ a two-stop strategy in the hope of beating his Ferrari team-mate.
Raikkonen's pace had not helped any of those hoping to chase Schumacher Sr at the start of the race, though, and Barrichello was hardly ahead of the German by the time he made his first stop, on lap 14. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was already on his way back to the paddock, the victim of yet another engine failure...
Barrichello's stop dropped him not only behind Schumacher, but also into Sato's wake, setting up the main focus of attention for the afternoon. The Japanese driver was clearly running three stops to Barrichello's two, and the question remained whether he could pull out enough of a gap either side of his second call for fuel and tyres to emerge ahead of the Ferrari on the run to the flag.
Team-mate Button, meanwhile, had managed to use his pit-stop to get ahead of the two Renaults - which endured a lacklustre second quarter - but found himself bottled up behind another pair of two-stoppers in a race that featured more than its fair share of alternative strategies. Immediately ahead of the Briton when he emerged from his stop was Christian Klien, the Austrian putting in a reasonable run on a track he knows better than most, while David Coulthard belied the fact that he had started on the penultimate row by running fourth, having benefited from the first corner melee.
Having dispensed with the Jaguar, Button also made short work of the McLaren, thrusting past Coulthard at the very spot where they had collided a year ago. Once into fourth, the BAR driver tried all he could to close the gap to Barrichello, but continued to struggle with the lack of grip that had plagued his qualifying effort and held nothing more than a watching brief.
Out front, Schumacher continued to re-establish his advantage, opening out 16 seconds over Sato by the 20-lap mark, his only problem appearing to be the number of backmarkers he was due to lap before the end of the other forty. Incredibly, he came close to disaster on a couple of occasions, both of which came as he was passing the pit exit on the run to turn one. First, Olivier Panis appeared oblivious to the Ferrari's presence as he attempted to keep ahead of Montoya, then, ten laps later, Mark Webber - on a two-stop strategy - did much the same thing, running the world champion wide into the opening corner and receiving a dismissive gesture from the German as he passed.
Schumacher's ability to take on more fuel than his rivals at his first stop was highlighted when Sato ducked in from second a lap or two earlier than the Ferrari, again dropping behind Barrichello as he did so. Schumacher, however, was never under threat from his team-mate and, despite a sticky fuel hose, managed to rejoin comfortably ahead of the Brazilian.
The chasing pack had settled down somewhat by the mid-point, with Button only dropping behind Alonso due to his second stop, but holding sway over Monaco winner Trulli, as well as Giancarlo Fisichella and Webber, who occupied the final point-scoring places. Out of the equation, however, was Coulthard, who joined his McLaren team-mate on the sidelines with..... you guessed it - an engine failure.
Further back in the pack and there were a few more close battles to be had, with Christian Klien's defence of tenth place from Juan Montoya, and Olivier Panis' desire to remain ahead of Olivier Panis despite pitting, among the highlights. Klien refused to be cowed by his rival's greater experience or speed, but eventually had to give way after the pair had come close in the manner of Coulthard vs. Alonso 2003. Heidfeld, meanwhile, exited the pits right in front of his Toyota-mounted adversary and, having fended the Frenchman off, pulled away over the second half.
Barrichello waited until lap 38 before making his second and final stop, taking ten second but still rejoining ahead of fourth-placed Button. That was crucial to the outcome of the race, as being bottled up behind the Briton could have allowed Sato to spring his three-stop trap and vault past the Brazilian into second place. As it turned out, Rubens eked out a small gap over the second BAR, and, when Sato tailed Schumacher into the pits, had just enough in hand to hold second spot.
Sato exited the pits at the same time as his team-mate came through, but Button took the sensible option of letting his better placed colleague resume his pursuit of Barrichello, easing wide at turn one to make sure there was no embarrassing contact between the two white cars. Sato's fight looked lost as Barrichello extended his advantage while the BAR got up to speed, but, just a lap later, the two were together, Sato attempting to exploit the best of his tyres by diving down the inside of the Brazilian at turn one.
Sadly for Sato's afternoon - which had been filled by one of his finest F1 drives to date - the move was never quite on, the BAR coming from too far back and at too acute an angle to make the pass stick. Barrichello, undoubtedly unsighted as to what his rival was trying, claimed his line, with Sato's car coming off worst in the ensuing contact, its front wing folding under the wheels before being spat out to the extreme edge of the road.
As Button inherited the final podium spot, Sato returned to the pits for a slightly tardy change of nose, but it mattered little for the Japanese star, as his Honda engine reprised the show put on by its sister at Monaco, leaving him frustrated and dejected as the final retiree.
Button again tried to close the gap to Barrichello but, even with their main rival now on the sidelines and allowing them to back off, the two Ferraris remained out of reach, some 27secs separating red from white at the chequered flag. The two Renaults followed a similar distance behind, again taking two handfuls of points, while Fisichella defied the odds by claiming another three marks despite starting from the very back row. Webber, his tyres wearing more than most, gave Jaguar a fillip after its Monaco debacle by holding off the lapped Montoya to the end.
None had answer to the man out front, however, as Schumacher showed his home fans just what the opening five rounds had been about.
1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 60 laps 1hr 32min 35.101secs
2. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +17.989secs
3. Jenson Button Britain BAR-Honda +22.533secs
4. Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault +53.673secs
5. Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault +1m 00.987secs
6. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Sauber-Petronas +1m 13.448secs
7. Mark Webber Australia Jaguar-Cosworth +1m 16.206secs
8. Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW +1 lap
9. Felipe Massa Brazil Sauber-Petronas +1 lap
10. Nick Heidfeld Italy Jordan-Ford +1 lap
11. Olivier Panis France Toyota-Toyota +1 lap
12. Christian Klien Austria Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
13. Giorgio Pantano Italy Jordan-Ford +3 laps
14. Gianmaria Bruni Italy Minardi-Cosworth +3 laps
15. Zsolt Baumgartner Hungary Minardi-Cosworth +3 laps
Rtd Takuma Sato Japan BAR-Honda 47 laps completed
Rtd David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes 25 laps completed
Rtd Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 9 laps completed
Rtd Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW 0 laps completed
Rtd Cristiano da Matta Brazil Toyota-Toyota 0 laps completed
Michael Schumacher Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 29.468secs