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The season so far - we review the first third of the 2004 world championship… 03 Jun 2004

Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari celebrates victory on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, 9 May 2004 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Renault R24  celebrates his first win with Patrick Faure (FRA) Head of Renault F1 and Flavio Briatore (ITA) Renault Team Principal 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Race Day, Monte Carlo, 23 May 2004 Jenson Button (GBR) BAR in the post qualifying press conference.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, San Marino Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Imola, Italy, 24 April 2004 (L to R): Nick Heidfeld (GER) Jordan celebrates seventh position and the first points of the year for Jordan with Eddie Jordan (IRE) Jordan Team Owner.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Race Day, Monte Carlo, 23 May 2004 Felipe Massa (BRA) Sauber.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, European Grand Prix, Nurburgring, Germany, Qualifying, 29 May 2004

A look back at the first six races of the year. A first Grand Prix victory for Jarno Trulli, Jenson Buttons maiden Formula One pole, and just a few more wins for Michael Schumacher...

Round One: Australia (Results)
After the nail-biting finish to the 2003 season, most pundits predicted that the opening round of 2004 would be a closely-fought affair. They could not have been more wrong. What they got was an unexpected return to total domination by Ferrari. The world champions scored one-twos in all but one of the weekend’s sessions, and Michael Schumacher topped all of them.

In qualifying the scarlet cars had a full half second in hand over the third-placed Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya. By the end of the race the opposition were over half a minute down. As Williams and McLaren struggled, it was Renault who came through as ‘best-of-the rest’, with Fernando Alonso taking the final podium spot behind Schumacher and Barrichello. And BAR proved their winter testing form was no fluke, Jenson Button qualifying fourth and finishing sixth.

Ferrari’s form aside, the other talking point of the weekend was the rule changes. With each driver limited to one engine per weekend, Friday’s practice sessions were relatively subdued affairs, with the teams allowed one using their third drivers to full effect. The real controversy though was over the new, two-part qualifying session, which was almost universally slammed for being too long and too dull. So much so that even before the next round in Malaysia a proposal was on the table for a revised, two-session format.

Round Two: Malaysia (Results)
The searing heat at Sepang would hand the advantage back to Ferrari’s Michelin shod rivals, whose French rubber would be better suited to the high temperatures than would the champions’ Bridgestone tyres. That was the theory at least. In reality, while Ferrari’s lead was dramatically cut – they did miss out on top spot in Friday’s second practice – in the end Schumacher, at least, remained unbeatable.

A sublime lap from the German in qualifying saw him take pole by almost 0.7 seconds from Jaguar’s Mark Webber, whose superb performance gave the Ford-owned team its first ever front-row slot and demoted Barrichello to third on the grid. Montoya took fourth and Raikkonen fifth, both comfortably eclipsing their respective Williams and McLaren team mates. Button put BAR up there again in sixth, while Renault, who had locked out the front row at Sepang the previous year, unexpectedly slipped up. Jarno Trulli could manage only eighth, while Alonso threw away an excellent chance of pole by spinning off late in his lap.

He almost made up for it with what must go down as one of the greatest starts in Grand Prix history. With paddock talk focussing on Renault’s interpretation of the ban on launch control, the Spaniard rocketed off the line and went from 19th to tenth by the end of lap one, eventually finishing seventh. Meanwhile at the front Michael Schumacher won an intense battle of wits with Montoya. The Colombian never actually got within striking distance, but at least his Williams was still visible in the champion’s mirrors at the chequered flag.

Biggest celebration of the day was at BAR after Jenson Button’s excellent third place finally brought the young British driver his first Formula One podium. He successfully fought off a late charge from Barrichello, who was handicapped by choosing the ‘wrong’, harder Bridgestone compound. There was disappointment again at McLaren, with Kimi Raikkonen retiring for the second race in succession, while at Jaguar, Webber’s excellent qualifying performance came to nothing after his R5 bogged down big time off the line, instantly dropping him out of the points.

Round Three: Bahrain (Results)
Located quite literally in the middle of a desert, the spectacular Herman Tilke-designed Bahrain International Circuit provided the setting for round three of the championship, bringing Formula One to the Middle East for the first time since the Moroccan Grand Prix of 1958. Sand made the track slippery off line, but the circuit proved a hit with drivers and fans alike, throwing up plenty of passing moves in an eventful and enjoyable race.

Track temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius in practice were good news for the Michelin runners. As Williams and BAR dominated proceedings, Ferrari and Bridgestone quietly kept a watching brief. Come qualifying though, the champions pulled out all the stops. Aided by a slightly cooler track, and running light on fuel, Michael Schumacher took his third successive pole, with team mate Barrichello dutifully joining him on the front row. Williams clinched P3 and four, BAR five and six, while at the other end of the grid languished the luckless Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn falling victim to a ten-spot penalty after his McLaren’s engine failed in practice.

Ferrari’s strategy proved the right one. They led into Turn one and from there were never seriously challenged. Williams’ Juan Pablo Montoya was the only man able to stay vaguely in touch, but his third place evaporated when gremlins hit the FW26’s gearbox late in the race. That left Jenson Button to fill the vacant podium spot for the second race in succession, following another assured and mature drive for BAR. Team mate Takuma Sato also earned his spurs, surviving a collision with Ralf Schumacher (for which the Williams driver was rightly blamed) and holding off a charging Fernando Alonso to take fifth.

Alonso had impressively climbed from 17th on the grid (he went off track during his qualifying lap) to finish sixth. This combined with Jarno Trulli’s fourth place, lifted Renault into second in the constructor standings. Ralf Schumacher recovered from his clash with Sato to take seventh place, while Mark Webber benefited from Montoya’s misfortune to snatch the final point in an otherwise disappointing weekend for Jaguar. It was not as bad as McLaren’s mind. Both Raikkonen and Coulthard retired with mechanical problems, leaving the Mercedes-powered team with just four points from the first three races.

Round Four: San Marino (Results)
Back to Europe and to Imola – ten years on from the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. The event served to celebrate the lives of the two fallen heros, in particular that of the legendary Brazilian. A selection of the drivers showed off their footballing inadequacies against Brazil’s 1994 World Cup squad, all in aid of the Senna Foundation, while former team mate Gerhard Berger gave a public outing to Senna’s 1985 machine, the Lotus 97T.

Back to the present day and the growing threat of BAR. Practice and qualifying proved to be a battle between the Honda-powered team and Ferrari, or more accurately, between Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher. Less than three hundredths of a second split them in final practice, but ultimately it was Button who prevailed to take his, and the team’s, maiden pole. Such was his pace, in fact, that Schumacher made a rare driver error in his failed bid to catch the Brit. Left languishing at the other end of the grid was McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, victim of yet another engine change.

Button backed up pole with a superb race start, giving him an unchallenged run into the first chicane. Starting from P2, Schumacher did not have that luxury, and quickly found Juan Pablo Montoya swarming all over the rear of his F2004. It prompted some defensive driving from the world champion, tactics that did not impress the Colombian (and he bluntly told him so in the post-race press conference). Having shaken off Montoya, Schumacher set about catching Button, whose pace in the opening laps was blistering. He was soon in touch with leader and when the BAR pitted on lap nine the German took control, upping his pace sufficiently to ensure he retained the lead after stopping two laps later. From there he casually eased away from Button, extending his lead to over 25 seconds at one point, before easing off in the latter stages to take his fourth win from four races.

Button was left to secure a lonely second, and Montoya, over ten seconds further back in third, was forced to admit that BAR had overtaken Williams in the performance stakes. Renault saw Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli come fourth and fifth to consolidate their second spot in the constructors’ championship. Trulli successfully fended off Barrichello for much of the afternoon, the Brazilian unable to find a way past despite his Ferrari’s supposed advantage, while Alonso survived a collision with Ralf Schumacher, which flipped the Williams into a spin. Ralf eventually finished seventh, with Raikkonen taking the final point (his first of the year) after fighting his way through the field.

Round Five: Spain (Results)
The pattern of the Imola meeting was initially repeated in Barcelona. Ferrari blitzed Friday’s opening practice and then, apparently happy with their progress, took a back seat for the second in which BAR’s Jenson Button again led the way. Saturday’s final session hinted that qualifying would be another Ferrari-BAR battle, as Takuma Sato narrowly outpaced Michael Schumacher. But in the end the world champion was unbeatable. In a reversal of San Marino, this time it was Button who made the error to end up 14th on the grid. Schumacher’s lap wasn’t perfect, but it was still good enough to beat Juan Pablo Montoya by over half a second. It was left to Sato to maintain BAR’s honour. The Japanese driver was third fastest, his best ever qualifying performance.

Come the race and grid spots one to three were rendered irrelevant by the fast-starting Renault of Jarno Trulli. The Italian rocketed from fourth to first by Turn One and held off Schumacher until the first round of stops. From there though, the champion took the lead and with it control of the race – or, more accurately, Ferrari did. A regular three-stop strategy kept Schumacher ahead until the flag, despite a broken exhaust, while a two-stopper for Barrichello (one of only three men on such a strategy) helped vault the Brazilian from fifth to second to ensure yet another scarlet one-two.

Sato was unable to match his qualifying performance, and was forced to give best to the Renaults of Trulli and Alonso, while for Williams and McLaren it was another difficult afternoon. The former underestimated the amount of brake cooling needed. The error forced Montoya to retire and left Ralf Schumacher down in sixth with a very long brake pedal. McLaren, meanwhile, at least got both cars to the finish, though race pace was sorely lacking. With Coulthard tenth and Raikkonen 11th, the Mercedes-powered team found themselves beaten by both Saubers (crucially on two-stoppers). For the Swiss squad it was the best result of 2004 so far.

Round Six: Monaco (Results)
For those who felt the 2004 season needed a shot in the arm after five Ferrari victories, Monaco was it. Not only did Michael Schumacher not win, he didn’t even finish. Team mate Barrichello made the podium in third, but he was well over a minute behind the Renault of winner Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button’s second-placed BAR.

Practice had not suggested such an upset. Schumacher topped every session, though tellingly, while he was dominant on Thursday, by Saturday’s second stint, his advantage over Trulli was just 0.002s, with only two tenths separating the top five drivers. Trulli made good on his threat in qualifying, storming to the first pole of his Formula One career. There was a Schumacher alongside him on row one, but it was Ralf not Michael. The champion was left languishing in fifth – not a good place to be at Monaco, where overtaking is all but impossible.

Spectacular was the only word to describe the race start, in particular that of Takuma Sato. The BAR driver blasted from eighth on the grid to seize fourth by Ste Devote, quite literally shoving Schumacher’s slow-starting Ferrari aside. But his glory was short lived. On only lap three his Honda engine expired and the ensuing smoke screen claimed the Sauber of Fisichella and Coulthard’s McLaren. Meanwhile, up front the Renaults of Trulli and Alonso were the class of the field. A late stop for Michael Schumacher lifted him ahead of Button to third and when Alonso’s R24 emerged from the tunnel in a mangled state on lap 42 he inherited second. The Spaniard had gone off line to lap the ailing Williams of Ralf Schumacher and promptly spun into the wall.

The incident brought out the safety car, prompting many, including leader Trulli, to dive for the pits. It left Schumacher leading the field, his rivals wondering whether Ferrari had made a tactical gaffe by not bringing him in. The question was soon rendered irrelevant, however. On the final safety car lap Schumacher braked hard in the tunnel (to keep his brakes hot, he said) and a lapped Juan Pablo Montoya had to take sudden avoiding action to the right. As Schumacher closed the gap they collided, Schumacher hitting the left-hand wall, smashing off his left front wheel and ending his hopes of matching Ayrton Senna’s six Monaco wins.

That set the stage for an epic showdown between leader Trulli and the chasing BAR of Button. The gap, almost seven seconds at one point, fluctuated as the pair weaved their way through traffic, putting in consistent qualifying-style laps in between lapping backmarkers. In the closing laps Button was right on the Renault’s gearbox, but Trulli kept his cool and took the chequered flag just four tenths ahead of the BAR to clinch his first Grand Prix win. Barrichello, nursing a brake problem, was the only other man on the same lap. Further down, Toyota had plenty to celebrate, with da Matta sixth and Panis eighth, while Nick Heidfeld took Jordan’s first points of the year in seventh.