Ferrari rivals still left with plenty of work to do
When the only thing that comes anywhere close to stopping you winning a race is a small hole in your exhaust pipe, you cannot say youve had a tough time. And, truth be told, that was the only thing either Michael Schumacher or Ferrari had to worry about in Spain.
There have been times in Formula One racings history when it has seemed that one car and driver combination will win all the races: Mercedes-Benzs W196 was the dominant car of 1954/55, just as was the Lotus 49 of 1967 or the McLaren MP4-4 of 1988. More recently, Williams FW14B and FW18 models took some beating. But on each occasion something has arisen to prevent a clean sweep. In 2004, however, that something still seems only a dim light at the end of a rather long tunnel.
The Spanish Grand Prix rammed that point home with such force that all of Ferraris rivals left Spain with their tails between their legs and even more urgency in their development programmes.
On his three-stop strategy, Schumacher was unbeatable once he had disposed of fast-starting Jarno Trulli in his Renault. But on a two-stop strategy Rubens Barrichello was equally uncatchable. Either way, in Schumachers 200th Grand Prix, Ferrari had it covered.
My abiding memory of this day will be that of a team that goes after wins with never-ending will and determination, Ferrari director general Jean Todt said. Ferrari is like a religion whose principal belief is in striving for excellence and this team that has now been together for such a long time knows how to interpret that belief in the best way possible.
While Todt was inspired to be a little metaphysical, others were left with slim pickings. Renault came out of the bruising affair best, garnering a nice helping of 11 points thanks to a fine drive by Jarno Trulli and a decent recovery from a disappointing qualifying by Fernando Alonso. They were third and fourth, separated by less than a fraction by the finish. Last year Alonso finished second to Schumacher, proof that the Renaults aerodynamics were excellent, and this year they remained highly effective.
For BAR there was a lot of flattery and an equal measure of deception, as Takuma Sato qualified third but could only manage fifth on the day. And, of course, there was Jenson Buttons qualifying gaffe that really spoiled things. Had he started from the front row, where most people would have expected after his speed at other times in practice, then there might have been a race. That is borne out by the relative speed of the two protagonists. Schumacher set the fastest lap of the race in 1m 17.450s on lap 12, while Button was the next fastest in 1m 17.495s, 34 laps later. Even if he had not been able to stay with the Ferrari, he might just have been able to put the exhausted Schumacher under some pressure. So BAR, at least, could head for home with a degree of satisfaction somewhere in all its undoubted frustration.
There was flattery and deceit for Williams, too, and their chances evaporated right at the start when Montoya went backwards off the grid. When the Colombian pitted for fuel on lap on lap nine, the same as Trulli, it was clear that the team were in trouble. He and Ralf Schumacher ran behind the Ferraris, Renaults and Satos BAR, and Montoya failed to finish because of a brake problem.
After a disappointing start to the season Sauber made progress in Imola and some more in Spain. Neither driver was particularly quick in qualifying, which rightly suggested that each would go though, like Barrichello, with only two stops. Giancarlo Fisichella was very competitive at times, held off Montoya quite easily, and might even have challenged Ralf for sixth at the end, while Felipe Massa dealt with both McLarens on his way to ninth. The silver cars are still in trouble, finishing 10th and 11th, and Raikkonens best lap was only just quicker than Nick Heidfelds in the Jordan. The little German didnt make it home after an hydraulic problem stymied the differential and led to gearbox failure, which was a shame, and the same thing accounted for Giorgio Pantano.
There was little in the race for Jaguar or Toyota, either. Mark Webber complained of lack of grip, both from his clutch getting off the startline, and from his rear tyres, while a throttle problem brought Christian Kliens race to a halt. Cristiano da Matta was the final finisher, in 13th, but Olivier Panis succumbed to loss of hydraulic pressure.
The constructors championship points table says it all: Ferrari 82; Renault 42; BAR 32; Williams 30. Then McLaren 5; Sauber 3; and Jaguar 1.
At least the next round of the season is Monaco, and if there is one thing you can expect there, it is the unexpected.