Race weekend review - Ferrari come through 13 Oct 2003
First and foremost, the Japanese Grand Prix was all about Michael Schumacher and his destiny in moving ahead of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio as the sport's only six-time world champion. Unusually he did not feature at the front of the race, but he was always a focus of attention as Rubens Barrichello was able to demonstrate that Ferrari and Bridgestone had regained the sort of performance edge they showed in Barcelona and Austria. The end result was another stunning triumph for the Scuderia. No constructor has ever managed five consecutive successes, a quite remarkable statistic, particularly when you take into account the sheer strength of the challenge from Williams and McLaren.
The former could have won the race, but that would not have been sufficient to win it the constructors' championship assuming Barrichello had been second. Juan Pablo Montoya looked a very serious threat as he snatched the lead from Barrichello on the opening lap, but his FW25 lasted only until lap nine before fading with hydraulic problems.
McLaren had the speed to win, as demonstrated by David Coulthard's second fastest lap (Ralf Schumacher set the fastest one on lap 43, but that was aided by the new tyres he fitted after his brush with brother Michael in the chicane on the 41st lap). As Ferrari demonstrated, the three-stop refueling strategy was probably better and Coulthard also employed it. Kimi Raikkonen's two-stop strategy did not seem to work quite as well, but it was generally recognised that the Scot had to compromise his own race to help his team mate to finish as strongly as possible.
The fact is, however, that the team which had seemed on the verge of implosion in Hungary, when Schumacher could only manage eighth place, fought back when it mattered and appeared to have regained all of its famed strength just when it mattered most.
The race was also a triumph for BAR and Honda. After Jenson Button's bitter disappointment at Indianapolis where second place seemed a probability, many people thought it was only a matter of time before the Honda engines expired again in the Suzuka race. After all, Button had lost one on Friday morning after only nine laps. But in this most crucial of races for the Japanese manufacturer, both the Englishman and his new Japanese team mate Takuma Sato finished, their fourth and sixth places earning the team eight valuable points. This was sufficient to push it back ahead of Sauber, which had jumped from ninth to fifth in Indianapolis, in the constructors' championship. Fifth ands sixth places are the respectable positions for teams that cannot push into the top four, but anyone will tell you that fifth is a whole lot better than sixth. It endows a team with considerable status, and is the perfect stepping off point if you have the sort of ambition that BAR has. The team has asked to use Michelin tyres next season, and is likely to grow further in stature. Small wonder that team principal David Richards permitted himself the luxury of a celebratory cigar.
The race also indicated that Toyota and Jaguar didn't get their strategy quite right, trading grid positions of third and fourth, and sixth and 10th, respectively, for 10th and seventh and 11th and 13th. Both teams did three-stop strategies, but did not have cars that were sufficiently fast (unlike the Ferrari or the McLaren) to resist those (such as BAR) who did two stops.
Williams and McLaren came close in 2003, but ultimately the strength of the Ferrari machine proved too much. The pace of development will now reach fever pitch as teams finalise their new cars for 2004, when they will redouble their efforts. The 2003 season may be over, but in factories across the globe, 2004 has already begun.
See also: Schumacher takes record sixth title at Suzuka