New machine puts Ferrari title charge back on track
A dream debut for the Ferrari F2003-GA, but a nightmare of a race for McLaren. Indeed, whereas the world champions could not have come up with a better script for the Spanish Grand Prix, their key rivals could not have penned a worse scenario than the one which befell Kimi Raikkonen in Barcelona.
Ferraris brand new F2003-GA was just as quick as everyone had feared it would be, but a lot more reliable than they had secretly hoped. Afters rumours of breakages in testing, it performed faultlessly and took Michael Schumacher to a victory that came with the same insouciant ease that most of his 2003 triumphs had demonstrated.
Raikkonen, meanwhile, screwed up his qualifying lap and was obliged to start from the back of the grid. As Schumacher fled from the startline, the series leader slammed into the back of Antonio Pizzonias stricken Jaguar and became an instant retirement. At virtually the same time, David Coulthard was being bundled off the road in the second corner by an over-enthusiastic Jarno Trulli.
Schumachers only problem, by contrast, was team mate Rubens Barrichello. Battling with local star Fernando Alonso into the first turn, Barrichello had the outside line which then gave him the inside line for Turn Two. Momentarily he was ahead of Schumacher, but then the world champion rubbed wheels with him and edged his number two on to the dirt to confirm his lead.
Soon Schumacher simply drove away, leaving Barrichello with his hands full with upstart Alonso. All were on three-stop refuelling strategies, and after his first stop Alonso was able to move into second place. After that the then 21-year old Spaniard thrilled his countrymen with a superbly mature performance that kept Schumacher the pressure on Schumacher, albeit from a distance. Alonsos only problems were being delayed in a fight with Ralf Schumacher after his second stop, which saw the Williams driver eventually sliding into the dirt, and another encounter with the German when he was lapping him on the 63rd lap.
It was not an edifying afternoon for the champions younger brother, as he struggled with his cars hard-compound Michelin tyres and an early change from three to two-stop refuelling strategy. He also lost out in a fight with team mate Juan Pablo Montoya, which momentarily saw them running wheel to wheel until the Colombian moved ahead to finish fourth. In the closing stages the battle for fifth between a defensive Schumacher Jnr and the challenging Toyota of Cristiano da Matta was one of the races highlights.
The final points fell to Jaguars Mark Webber, after a steady two-stop run, and Jordans Ralph Firman, who once again staked his claim to a Grand Prix seat with a spirited drive to eighth place and his first-ever championship point.
For a while Firman had fended off Jenson Button, who delayed himself on the 18th lap after hitting Coulthard in Turn One. The two were due to party together after the race as their boats were moored in the local marina, and remained cordial despite the tangle. I thought you were my mate, Coulthard smiled, hands spread, as Button approached.
Schumacher said the result was a perfect day for the championship and for the new car. The result put him only four points behind Raikkonen, with Alonso third another three adrift of Schumacher. McLaren were three points ahead of Ferrari in the constructors points table, but the writing was on the wall: Ferraris challenge was now firmly back on track.