Finn does just enough to take title fight to the wire
Michael Schumacher was the 2003 world champion for 17 laps of the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis. As rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya met problems on a rainy day, and he deprived upstart Jenson Button of the lead on the 38th lap, Schumacher had amassed sufficient points to win a record sixth crown.
But when Raikkonen moved up to second place on the 55th lap Schumacher no longer had the 10-point gap he needed. Raikkonen was only nine adrift, and so the title fight would go down to the wire in Japan a fortnight later. It was yet another cliffhanger, 2003 style. But on a day when the weather gods smiled on Schumacher, his only cloud was Olivier Paniss allegation that the Ferrari driver had illegally passed him for third place under waved yellow flags on the fifth lap.
Hollywood scriptwriters could not have come up with a better scenario for this vital race. After qualifying, the third-placed driver in the championship fight (Raikkonen) had pole position, the second (Montoya) was fourth and the leader (Schumacher) was only seventh. And the weather was unsettled. After the second lap the race was a mish-mash of overtaking moves. Schumacher went from seventh to third at the start, but soon fell back as light rain favoured the Michelin runners. But Montoya was also in trouble. After colliding with Rubens Barrichello on the third lap he was awarded a drive-through penalty moments after a fuel rig problem delayed his first pit stop.
That left Raikkonen in an easy lead until he refuelled on lap 19. By now, however, light rain was dampening the track once more.
Schumacher stopped for fuel and gambled on new dry tyres on lap 20, but by lap 22 it was pouring, so he stopped again for wets. In the meantime, Mark Webber had a brief moment of glory leading for Jaguar, before crashing. On dry Michelins, new leader Coulthard also only lasted a lap. Thus Button was promoted to the lead for the first time in his BAR. Like Button, Heinz-Harald Frentzen had timed his stop right and was also on Bridgestone wets for Sauber, but Schumacher was catching them both. Frentzen succumbed on lap 33, Button on lap 38. While it lasted it had been an impressive and confident performance from the BAR driver, whose engine then blew up after another four laps.
Now Schumacher was champion, because Raikkonen was only fourth behind the Saubers of Frentzen and Nick Heidfeld. Montoya had been lapped in ninth place and was out of the points. But the race was far from over
Raikkonen passed the Saubers as the track dried again, and eight points for second just kept him in the hunt for the championship. Further back Montoya eventually caught Giancarlo Fisichellas Jordan, but sixth place was one too low. The Colombians title hopes were over.
This was a very important outcome for my position for the championship, Schumacher said with great understatement. Im so pleased, its such an emotional day today. Video evidence proved he had just beaten the yellow flags by a few metres.
After giving the 2002 race to Barrichello on the line Schumacher had been vilified. Now the Americans loved him again. But Raikkonen, though philosophical, was not daunted. We lost the race because we were unlucky with the weather. What can you do? he said. Things are a lot more difficult, but at least we are still in the championship.
But only just. His chances were on life support, and it would take a miracle to revive them.