Analysis - that winning combination 27 Sep 2004
The Chinese Grand Prix may have been the ultimate endorsement of the special bond between Ferrari and Bridgestone. While the Saubers of Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa qualified strongly on a revised construction tyre, that reached its operating temperature much quicker in its first lap, they suffered serious graining problems that cost them up to two seconds a lap in the race. Winner Rubens Barrichello suffered nothing of the sort.
The Brazilian was able to push hard all the way to the chequered flag to score yet another memorable victory for the Scuderia. It was their 14th in the 16 races. Of course, Michael Schumacher found himself in a world of pain almost all weekend, spinning in qualifying an then starting from the pit lane with as high fuel load after his car requited an engine change prior to the race. A collision, a spin and a puncture conspired to cost him what should have been fourth place, but as the champion remarked philosophically, If one of our cars cannot win, the other is still there to do the job.
BAR again left a race track with their tail up, after Jenson Button had pushed hard for second place and Takuma Sato drive an error-free race to come from the back (after his Friday engine failure) to snatch sixth place. With Fernando Alonso struggling to keep up the pace and managing only fourth place for Renault, and new team mate Jacques Villeneuve finishing a lapped 11th, BAR moved further ahead in their second place in the constructors championship, with 105 points to Renaults 96. With 36 points up for grabs in Japan and Brazil this tussle is far from over, but it has swung very much in BARs favour lately.
McLaren were very competitive all weekend, with Kimi Raikkonen grabbing the other front row slot alongside polesitter Barrichello and hounding him throughout the race. Unfortunately, McLaren mistakenly believed that Button was on the same three-stop strategy as themselves and Ferrari so gave Raikkonen a short second stint of only nine laps. By the time they realised that Button was two-stopping the damage was done. In effect wed handed second place to Jenson, Ron Dennis admitted. Without that, the Finn was a very strong contender for another victory.
Williams should have scored more than Juan Pablo Montoyas four points for fifth place, but a kerfuffle between David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher deprived the German of the place on the 37th lap and delayed Coulthard, dropping him to ninth at the finish after his left front tyre failed as a result of the collision. Schumachers car had to be pushed to one side so the team could refuel Montoyas, but once a new tyre was fitted, Schumacher did not want to continue. It remains to be seen whether he still drives the car at Suzuka and Interlagos.
Sauber were disappointed that the graining problem hurt their speed, but another three points for Fisichellas seventh place and Massas eighth, plus their competitive lap times when their Bridgestones were at their best, meant that they did not go away empty handed.
Those that did were Jaguar, Jordan, Toyota and Minardi. Jaguar lost Christian Klien early when a dive into the Turn 14 hairpin by Michael Schumacher caught the young Austrian unawares and led to his retirement with suspension damage. Webber drove extremely well all through, and fended off Villeneuves faster Renault to the flag for 10th place.
Nick Heidfeld felt that his Jordan was reasonable all afternoon, while team-mate Timo Glock matched his lap times on his way to an undramatic 15th, two slots and half a minute behind.
Toyota had a disaster right at the start when the anti-stall on Paniss car activated itself, but Ricardo Zonta was fighting hard with Schumacher, Villeneuve and Webber when his TF104B lost fifth gear after 35 laps.
Finally, Minardi had an adventure when Gianmaria Bruni lost the left front wheel from his PS04 due to a mechanical problem. Team mate Zsolt Baumgartner finished 16th and last.
Chinas first-ever Grand Prix was a superb affair, and sets up the final showdowns between BAR and Renault; Williams and McLaren; and Jaguar and Toyota as the last two races approach.