Belgium 2002 - Michael's top ten 24 Aug 2004
At Spa in 2002, Michael Schumacher took centre stage. At his favourite track, in front of some of his most avid fans, he became the first man to score 10 wins in a championship season, 10 years to the race where he scored his first. The opposition, like many of the more fragile engines, was blown away.
And to think, prior to the race around the majestic sweeps of Spa-Francorchamps, some people actually thought Kimi Raikkonen might have a chance of avenging the mistake that had cost him a maiden victory in France five weeks earlier.
It was no disrespect to McLaren to see such thoughts as fanciful, as Schumacher got the drop on everyone at the start and motored away to a stunning triumph. The more the 2002 season progressed, the more apparent it was that Formula One racing was in one of those magical spells that come but rarely. By the time his afternoons work was done, Schumacher had beaten the record of nine wins in a season that he had shared for so long with Nigel Mansell, who was there to witness it and expressed the opinion that records exist to be broken.
The world champion averaged 140.411mph to complete the 44-lap, 190-mile race in just 21 minutes and 20.634 seconds over the hour. His margin of victory over team mate Rubens Barrichello was only 1.977s, but that told nothing of the real story behind another historic triumph.
It began to unfold late on Friday morning. Conditions in the Haute-Fagnes region were superb, but in Liege there was fog, which meant that the medical helicopter , should it be needed, could not land at the local hospital. Since three possible medical venues are required for the cars to take to the track and only two were now operational, practice was delayed until the fog lifted. When the truncated session finally got underway, Barrichello set the fastest time ahead of Schumacher. But in the afternoon, a surprise: the upstart Raikkonen claimed the honour, slicing nearly two seconds off he Brazilians morning time and leaving Schumacher to take third place in the days running order, a tenth adrift of the Finns McLaren team mate David Coulthard. The Mercedes-powered team had a new type of Michelin tyre in Belgium, and already they were looking good, although Ron Dennis remained cautious.
Raikkonen continued his impressive form on Saturday morning, opting for the French companys softer tyre while Coulthard went for the hard compound. The Ferrari drivers were similarly split, Schumacher going for the soft, Barrichello for the hard. And this was where the hope for a close race began, for though Raikkonens tyres showed occasional signs of blistering, his pace was ballistic. Could Ferrari be beaten on what was virtually Schumachers home soil?
Qualifying, however, brought another surprise: Schumacher took pole. Yes, it seemed ridiculous to rate that a surprise, but it was the first time in the 11 seasons he had been racing here that he had actually taken pole at Spa. Even Schumacher said he had only realised on the Thursday. He put down the Raikkonen uprising by becoming the only man to lap in the 1m 43s bracket, and he needed only three of his four permissible runs to do it. It was his fifth pole of the season, Ferraris eighth and the teams 156th.
But Raikkonen remained close enough to pose a threat, which was the other cause for hope for those who would liked to have seen a race as opposed to a demonstration run by the red cars. He beat Barrichello, who in turn beat the fancied but disappointing Williams of Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, and Coulthard.
Could Raikkonen get the lead at the start? Within seconds it was obvious he couldnt. In fact Barrichello slipped ahead as they bunched for La Source. And that was the end of it. Montoya and Coulthard fought for third in a battle that would have been wonderful had it been for the lead. Raikkonen lost third place with a lurid slide on the first lap, and then fourth to Coulthard in the pit stops. Ralf Schumacher blotted his copybook with a spin, but got back into a points-scoring position when Jarno Trullis well-driven Renault blew up just as it was poised to inherit fourth place from Raikkonen, whose Mercedes engine expired in a shrapnel shower with eight laps left. It was indeed Ralfs lucky day as he moved into fifth. So was it Eddie Irvines, as he brought his Jaguar home to a nonetheless deserved sixth.
None of this concerned Schumacher in the slightest as he roared off into the distance. The gap to a beaten Barrichello was 25.8s seconds by lap 33, but after that the champion backed off and his true superiority was only glimpsed. In the early stages he lapped two seconds faster than his immediate rivals; now he was cruising nearly five seconds off their pace. Barrichello closed to within two seconds at the end, but it was immaterial. Schumacher finally got his 10th win of the year, having matched Mansells old 1992 record in 1995, 2000 and 2001.
To compound it all, he managed to keep a straight face afterwards when he said, We didnt really expect anything like this. I just enjoyed myself, and I just went flat out as much as I could until I had to drive a little bit within a certain pace for a couple of laps to save the tyres. And then I just went for it and just had fun this afternoon.