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Chinese GP 2004: Rubens' takeaway

26 September 2004

Rubens Barrichello sealed second place in the F1 world championship with his first ever back-to-back victory after leading the field home at the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix.

The Brazilian, who had qualified on pole position during a dramatic session on Saturday, made no mistake away from the start, moving over to protect his advantage from fellow front row starter Kimi Raikkonen and holding the lead through the tricky first corner complex.

Barrichello's task was eased by a poor getaway for third-place starter Jenson Button, who found himself swamped by the fast-starting Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa before the opening turn. Further back, Olivier Panis made an even worse start, all but stalling on the eight grid slot and forcing those behind him to take avoiding action before finally getting away in 18th.

Missing from the grid, however, was world champion Michael Schumacher, who had opted to start from the pit-lane after an overnight engine change designed to elicit a possible cure for whatever had caused the German to spin out of qualifying. The Ferrari team used the decision to stuff the F2004 with fuel in the hope that Schumacher could make up lost ground while his rivals stopped early on.

As Barrichello and Raikkonen eased away, Button refused to defer to Massa, harrying the Brazilian through turn two, but then losing out once again at the fourth corner. The battle raged for the following couple of laps, before the Briton finally made a move stick entering the longest straight. Massa, by now, was beginning to struggle with the tyre graining problem that had afflicted the Bridgestone runners for much of the weekend. Team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella quickly closed on the Brazilian, but Massa's reluctance to let the Italian through allowed the chasing pack, headed by Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard to join the train.

Fisi eventually moved into fifth at the same point that Button had found a way past Massa, with Schumacher taking advantage of the Brazilian's loss of momentum by sneaking through at the hairpin. Coulthard tried to follow suit, but had to stomp on the brakes as Massa held firm, and then smoked his brakes again at turn two after another move was blocked.

On a charge, Button quickly closed on third-placed Alonso, and wasted little time in passing the Spaniard at the hairpin. Although the Renault driver attempted to fight back over the following lap, Button appeared to have his measure, easing out a gap as he set off in pursuit of the two leaders.

Further back, the world champion was struggling to make much headway, his heavy fuel load combining with the early stage Bridgestone problems to keep him behind the likes of Panis and the Jordans. Once he had worked his way through the backmarkers and taken advantage of a few early pit-stops, Schumacher's pace began to pick up, but he misjudged a passing move on Jaguar rookie Christian Klien, clattering into the Austrian at the hairpin and breaking the R5's suspension. That error was followed, four laps later, by another lapse by the German, who spun out of the quick corner leading onto the back straight, costing himself several positions in the process.

The first round of pit-stops had begun several laps earlier, with Massa no doubt relieved to don another set of tyres as he became the first to enter the pit-lane. A lap later, the midfield battle between Fisichella, Coulthard and Ricardo Zonta followed suit, but the Italian had the misfortune of catching a hobbled Gianmaria Bruni on the entrance road, as the Minardi driver limped in with a puncture.

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.

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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