Race review - Schumacher closes on 6th title 28 Sep 2003
Michael Schumacher moved another crucial step closer to a record sixth world championship with the 70th victory of his career in Indianapolis this afternoon, and he did it the hard way.
Qualifying only seventh, he swept up to third place by the first corner as team mate Rubens Barrichello, on the front row, was slow away. But then it began to rain lightly on the second lap, and soon Schumacher, on his Bridgestones, was falling back as Kimi Raikkonen, in the lead from pole from the start, pulled away. Ralf Schumacher went with him, as the other title contender, Juan Pablo Montoya, made a poor start.
Montoya's problems came early, for on the third lap he collided with Barrichello in Turn Two. The Brazilian spun into the gravel and was through for the day, Montoya dropped a place to eighth.
"I hit Montoya," Barrichello admitted. "I thought I had given him enough space, but obviously it wasn't. I went into the corner, and all of a sudden, I felt a bang. I had given him space when we turned into Turn Two, running on the outside, just hoping to get better traction, and Montoya touched the kerb, and the kerb was damp and he slid down into me."
Montoya would be given a drive-through penalty for the incident, which most observers thought harsh.
Raikkonen led the first 19 laps, and when he made his pit stop on that lap conditions had improved. Ralf Schumacher stopped earlier, on lap 15, and Jarno Trulli followed Raikkonen into the pits, so Mark Webber and Jenson Button, both of whom did everything right in the early stages, moved into first and second places. But then it began raining heavily. Michelin had had an advantage on the greasy track initially, but now the pendulum swung in Bridgestone's favour.
Webber crashed after lap 21 in the lead, and just as quickly as he was handed the advantage as Button pitted for wets, so David Coulthard lost it as his dry Michelins could not cope. When Raikkonen pitted again, for wets, on lap 22, Button passed Heinz-Harald Frentzen (who had timed his stop for wets to perfection) so that they led the race on lap 23.
Schumacher, who had stopped for wets on lap 21, was catching them both hand over fist, but it was entertaining while it lasted. Frentzen offered only token resistance on lap 33, and by lap 37 Schumacher had caught Button, who had been driving beautifully. At the start of lap 38 Schumacher jumped ahead in Turn One, and four laps later Button's glory ended with a broken engine. "It's disappointing, of course," he said, as he watched the first podium place of his career slip away yet again, "but the good thing is that all year I believe that I've driven to the very best of my ability and got the most out of the car. That's a good feeling that I can take away with me whatever happens."
So now the race was Schumacher's. Raikkonen was only fourth, having been passed by Nick Heidfeld's Bridgestone-shod Sauber, and Montoya was a lapped ninth. The Colombian's fuel rig nozzle had not engaged at the first attempt when he pitted on lap 17, so he lost at least five seconds, then he had to take his drive-through penalty.
For 17 laps Schumacher was the 2003 world champion and was ready to move ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio by taking a record sixth crown. But then as the track dried out again Raikkonen moved up to second place on the 55th lap and the points deficit between them came down again below the 10 Schumacher needed.
"We lost the race because we were unlucky with the weather. What can you do?" a philosophical Raikkonen shrugged. "Things are a lot more difficult, but at least we are still in the championship."
As Schumacher reeled off the final laps Trulli squeaked ahead of Heidfeld for fourth, but third and fifth places were enough for Sauber to rub further salt in BAR's wounds by lifting the Swiss team from ninth to fifth in the constructors' championship. Behind them all, Montoya managed to catch Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan for sixth place, but the Colombian needed fifth to keep his title hopes alive. And despite an incident in the pits when he inadvertently ran over one of his mechanics, Justin Wilson did his 2004 job prospects a lot of good by scoring his first championship point for Jaguar with eighth.
With a nine-point advantage Schumacher and Ferrari clearly feel the championship is theirs for the taking. "This was a very important outcome for my position for the championship," Schumacher said. "I'm so pleased, it's such an emotional day today, so fantastic, after not a great qualifying performance, a great start and then falling back on slicks, then coming back on wets. There was everything in it. To win this one at such a crucial stage meant a lot."
The only blight was an allegation from Olivier Panis (whose had a disastrous day on tyre choice with his Toyota and eventually crashed) that Schumacher overtook him on the pit straight under waved yellow flags for the Barrichello incident. For a while there was a chance there might be a protest, but video evidence exonerated the German. "I knew where they started and passed Panis well before them," he snapped
So on a day of changeable conditions, Schumacher brought all of his brilliance to bear and exploited the benefits of his tyres to the full. Raikkonen did a brilliant damage limitation job. But the Finn knows he has a mountain to climb in Suzuka.
Click here for the race results in full.