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Race analysis - Michael back on top 11 Oct 2004

Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari F2004 
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 10 October 2004 Jenson Button (GBR) BAR 
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 10 October 2004 Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams BMW FW26 leads Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren Mercedes MP4/19B and Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Ferrari F2004.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 10 October 2004 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R24.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 10 October 2004 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Toyota TF104B.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Race, Suzuka, Japan, 10 October 2004

If there was anything else that Michael Schumacher could have done in Suzuka, as he made another little bit of history by taking pole and a win in the same day, it was difficult to know what it was.

Rubens Barrichello set the fastest lap, but frankly there was never any real need for Schumacher to vie for that, such was his Ferrari’s advantage. The champion launched into the lead, and that was that.

After his slide in the chicane in qualifying left him only 15th Barrichello had no option but to push super hard, and while he was doing so his car was “fantastic”. The ‘guestimated’ set-up for the dry proved almost perfect, but he came to grief on the 38th lap when he tangled with Coulthard. In a way, it was all academic for the Scuderia, with all the titles firmly wrapped up ages ago. But a win is a win, and this one was Schumacher’s 83rd, the team’s 15th of the season, and their 182nd from 703 starts.

Williams were also happy, thanks to their welcome upturn in fortune that saw Ralf Schumacher able to stay with Michael initially (albeit on a lighter fuel load) and to push hard to finish second. The German praised the team’s strategy, and the balance of the FW26, and the eight points from his afternoon’s work were very useful in the battle for fourth overall with McLaren. Juan Pablo Montoya’s two were rather less impressive. The Colombian complained of being stuck in traffic, after charging hard all afternoon on his way to seventh.

Suzuka marked BAR’s 100th race, and third and fourth places for Jenson Button and Takuma Sato gave their team their 11th podium of the season and another solid haul of 11 points. Now they have 116 to Renault’s 100, and there are 18 to play for in Brazil. To beat BAR, Renault need to finish first and third at Interlagos, with neither BAR scoring. This is a pretty tall order but stranger things have happened. After all, Brazil last year threw up the most remarkable result (Fisichella winning for Jordan) in recent years.

Button said his 006 was difficult on a heavy fuel load in the early laps, and let Sato go by as he was running a lighter load, but in the end two stops worked out just fine for the Englishman. Sato was disappointed not to reach the podium in his home race, but did a strong back-up job. The team have now garnered 33 points from the last three races, proof of just what a great season they are having. If they hang on to second in the constructors’ championship, it will be richly deserved.

Renault were disappointed to have lost their edge in recent races, but Fernando Alonso put in his usual professional performance to take fifth place and another four points. They might have done better, but just as the conditions helped Renault in qualifying at Spa, so they hampered them here as Alonso ran when the track was damper and that set the seal on his race. He was only able to run at his true pace after his first stint, which put him out of the fight for the podium.

Jacques Villeneuve looked strong early on despite understeer, which the team dialled out in the two pit stops. But for whatever reason he could not pick up the pace in his final stint and had to accept a 10th place finish.

McLaren employed some sound strategy by running their cars on two pit stops. This proved the right way to go, and though he seemed to be out of the running early on, Kimi Raikkonen was able to put in a solid performance that ultimately yielded sixth place. David Coulthard was going strongly, fighting for fifth place, when his first collision in four races (the blame was probably 50/50 overall) wiped him out. He and Barrichello touched at the chicane on lap 38 when the Brazilian dived for the inside line, and that was it. Once again, the stewards wisely decided it was a racing incident and took no action against either driver.

Hopes were high at Sauber after Giancarlo Fisichella ran second only to Michael Schumacher on Friday, but the Italian was a little unlucky only to take seventh on the grid in qualifying as he did not get the best conditions. He lost places the start but made them up and was fighting hard when he slid wide in the Spoon Curve, distracted momentarily by radio messages concerning a faulty fuel alarm sensor. After that he attacked against and was right with Montoya - the only man to pass him while he was slithering on the grass - when the flag came out. Team mate Felipe Massa spun twice on Friday and again in qualifying, but made amends with a scintillating drive from 19th to ninth in the race that saw him do more overtaking than anyone else, and set the fourth fastest lap.

Toyota had very high aspirations too, in their 50th race, and the third on home ground. And with strong qualifying performances from both drivers they had both their TF104Bs in the top 10. New boy Jarno Trulli was sixth, and Olivier Panis lined up 10th for his final Grand Prix appearance after 11 years in the game. But this important race for the Japanese team ended in disappointment. Trulli ran strongly in the opening stages, fighting hard with Webber and Coulthard for fifth place, but as the race went on tyre performance deteriorated, which in turn compromised the balance and left the Italian struggling. Panis suffered likewise on his way to a 14th place finish.

Jaguar went to the start fervently hoping to exorcise the ghost of Malaysia, where Mark Webber had qualified second but lost it all with a poor start. Sadly, the Australian’s fine effort in qualifying his R5B third on the grid was again negated by a poor getaway, and he lost several places and then found himself trapped behind Trulli’s Toyota early on. Then things began to hot up, literally. “It was on lap seven that I noticed that the cockpit was becoming increasingly hot, and in particular my right-hand side. I pitted as planned on lap 11 and the team tried to cool me down and solve the problem. We could not find the cause for the heat and so I carried on in the hope that it would cool down or at least remain static. It didn't, and the heat soon became excruciatingly hot and I had no option but to retire. You need to be completely focused on the race and when the temperature is so high that you are being physically affected and thus distracted, you need to take the decision to stop.” It seems a skid block may have been rubbing on the track through 130R due to a low ride height. There have been some unusual reasons for retirement over the years, but that one was one of the best.

Team mate Christian Klien finished, but his race was hampered by his complete lack of dry road running on a new and unfamiliar circuit.

Jordan had a hard race with several technical problems, centring on electronic gremlins for Heidfeld which manifested themselves as a refusal of the transmission to accept neutral in his three pit calls The pit lane speed limiter also activated itself out on the track at one point. Timo Glock had a brush with Raikkonen and a spin, and fought understeer and oversteer in equal measure all afternoon.

Finally, Minardi got Gianmaria Bruni to the finish, but the Italian struggled with oversteer all race. Zsolt Baumgartner lacked dry road experience of the track, and spun off on his 41st lap.

As usual, then, there were winners and losers, happy teams and unhappy teams. With only the Brazilian Grand Prix left, second, fourth and seventh places in the constructors’ table are still up for grabs, and in the drivers’ stakes fourth place could still go to Fernando Alonso, Juan Pablo Montoya or Jarno Trulli. The major placings are settled, but there’s plenty of interest to spice things up in Interlagos.