China 2004 - a dazzling debut 11 Oct 2005
The most important race in Formula One history was how one senior team member described the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix. Few could argue that the stunning Tilke-designed Shanghai circuit and its facilities set new standards that many European venues could only dream of, but would the new track produce a great race? After 56-laps on Sunday afternoon, a resounding yes was the answer, unless that is you were a die-hard Schumacher fan.
The champion, after declaring the track as the best hed ever seen, went on to have the worst weekend of his Formula One career. Never before had he started from the back of the grid, and never before had he finished as low as 12th. Consolation came from yet another calculated win for Ferrari and team mate Rubens Barrichello.
The weekends other big stories were Ford putting the Jaguar team up for sale and the return of former champion Jacques Villeneuve, drafted in by Renault for the final three rounds of the season to replace Jarno Trulli. And with Ralf Schumacher finally back at Williams after a six-race absence, and Timo Glock stepping up to a race seat at Jordan after the termination of Giorgio Pantanos contract, it was a Grand Prix of fresh, if not strictly new, faces.
In practice all the usual contenders were looking strong, but Williams, and in particular Ralf, were especially competitive. Come qualifying though, and tyres came into play, with the Bridgestones seemingly more effective over a single lap. They gave Barrichello pole from Kimi Raikkonen, and Felipe Massa his best ever grid spot in fourth. They werent, however, much help to Michael Schumacher, who was too hot into Turn One and promptly spun off into the gravel. This, and a subsequent engine change, meant he would start the race from the pit lane.
The race did not provide the spectacular comeback Schumacher fans were hoping for. There were brief periods of blistering pace (he set the fastest lap right at the end of the race), but in between there was a suspect collision with Christian Klien, another spin and a puncture. Fortunately, there was also a fantastic race going on up front between Barrichello, Raikkonen and Jenson Button. Again it was ultimately BAR who came closest to beating Ferrari, but in the end Button simply didnt have the speed to match the Ferrari. Raikkonen may have had the pace, but poor pit-stop timing handicapped the Finns race. At the chequered flag just 1.4 seconds separated the three of them. The opposition, led by Fernando Alonsos Renault, was half a minute or more down the road. Villeneuves comeback was subdued, the Canadian coming home 11th after qualifying 12th. He did at least beat old rival Schumacher, though.
Links: Results / Live Timing Archive, Photos, TV images