Champion pays tribute to hard-charging BAR driver
Michael Schumacher fulfilled the hopes of his horn-blasting, red-capped countrymen with the 81st victory of his career and the third in his home race, but afterwards he admitted that Jenson Button had been a very serious threat.
Had the Englishman started from his third slot in qualifying, instead of dropping 10 places because of the valve problem that required his BAR to have a Honda engine change on Friday, it is possible that he would have been celebrating the first win of his Formula One career.
As Schumacher grabbed an early lead, Button made little headway from 13th and was only 12th at the end of the lap. Instead it was Fernando Alonso who led the chase for Renault, until a flying Kimi Raikkonen overtook him on lap two. The Finn then gave valiant chase after the Ferrari as Jarno Trulli chased his team mate, hounded in turn by David Coulthard. Already Rubens Barrichellos afternoon had gone haywire when he took his front wing off on the back of the Scots McLaren on the first lap. The Brazilian never got higher than ninth, and stopped with a puncture (after a late off) just before the finish line.
Front row starter Juan Pablo Montoya made a poor start and could thereafter aspire to little better than his eventual fifth place, and in the early going it was McLaren v Renault in Schumachers wake. The first signs of Buttons speed came when Alonso was the first to pit on lap nine, followed by Schumacher, Trulli, Coulthard and Takuma Sato on lap 10. Raikkonen came in on lap 11, followed by Montoya. All that let fast-starting Mark Webber lead briefly for Jaguar before he stopped on lap 12, by which time Button had risen to second place. In a car that was good enough to qualify third quickest despite a greater fuel load, he stayed out until lap 14, and when the music stopped he was fifth as Schumacher led Alonso, Coulthard and Montoya after 15 laps.
By then Raikkonen had made a spectacular exit after crashing heavily in Turn One at the start of lap 14 when the main plane of his McLarens rear wing simply tore away, pitching him into a wild spin and subsequent contact with the wall. He was lucky to walk away unharmed.
Button caught the group fighting for second and moved up to fourth when Montoya ran wide on lap 21, then steadily tracked down Coulthard. The Scot pitted again on lap 28, together with Schumacher and Trulli, then Alonso refuelled on lap 29, handing the lead back to the BAR. Button stayed out until the 34th lap, and his return to the track triggered a fabulous dice with Alonso, who just regained second place behind Schumacher as the BAR came out of the pits, having overtaken Coulthard during its stop. Now Button and Alonso indulged in some fabulous side-by-side racing as the Englishman tried the inside, then the outside, going into the hairpin. At one stage the white car nosed ahead, but Alonso had the line for the next corner and edged ahead again. It was proof that Formula One racing is far from dead and dull.
Further back Webber had disposed of an off-form Trulli but was embroiled in his own fight with Takuma Sato, who spun entering the stadium on lap 31, and Antonio Pizzonia who also had an off there and lost time earlier on. Both were now coming back with a vengeance, but the Australian would keep his cool.
In the closing stages the final stops would repeat the previous scenario. Schumacher, Alonso and Coulthard stopped on lap 47, Button on 50, and again he came out right alongside Alonso. This time he was able to dive down the inside on the left-hander after the hairpin, and as Alonso faded momentarily with a peculiar aerodynamic imbalance that prompted him to wonder at one stage if his front wing had actually fallen off, Button got clear. In the closing laps the Englishman had his own problem, as a loose helmet strap threatened to strangle him, but kept his foot down to chase Schumacher home.
Asked if hed had any problems, the world champion replied, looking across at Button: Yeah, hes sitting next to me! Compliments dont come much higher than that.
Coulthard got close enough during Alonsos problem to make a couple of stabs at taking the final podium slot, but the Spaniard recovered to score valuable points for Renault. It was nevertheless a great drive from Coulthard, who finished well ahead of Montoya. Webber was an equally deserving sixth, with Pizzonia boosting his value by snatching seventh from Sato on lap 60. Fisichella finished a disappointed ninth for Sauber, never really on the pace and hampered in his second pit stop by the need to retain his left rear tyre after the wheel stuck on the hub, but only got the place when Barrichello stopped in sight of the line.
In a race shortened a lap (from 67 to 66 laps) after Olivier Paniss new Toyota died on the initial grid, Christian Klien finished 10th after a feisty performance, Trulli was a demoralised 11th (after having his Renaults nose changed after it trapped debris from Raikkonens McLaren under the car), Barrichello was classified 12th, Felipe Massa soldiered home an unhappy 13th, and Panis recovered from a series of problems to set fourth fastest lap while finishing 14th. Giorgio Pantano was 15th (after losing time with a puncture) from the Minardis of Zsolt Baumgartner and Gianmaria Bruni. Besides Raikkonen, the only retirements were Cristiano da Matta, whose Toyota blew its right rear tyre and spun him off at the hairpin on lap 39, and Nick Heidfelds Jordan succumbed to a suspected suspension problem on the 43rd lap.
It was a tough one, Schumacher admitted, but I was always in a safe situation in terms of distance though I couldnt foresee what might have happened. Jenson got stuck behind Alonso, and at that stage I couldnt be sure what times he could do. He was going quite quick, so I was a little bit concerned and was pushing flat out to make sure I didnt leave anything open and then be sorry later.
Considering that I only expected to be fifth come the end of race, not second, Im very happy, Button said. This year its been very difficult to come through the field; you see people lose 10 grid places and it gets very difficult, so I was not holding out too much hope. It wasnt the best first lap of the year, either. I tried to move up but actually moved back after locking my wheels and going off, but it made the race very exciting. It was the best one of my career, but I have to admit that Im disappointed because if I had started where I qualified we would have had a good chance to challenge Michael. Its tough to come to terms with that, but Im sure therell be a lot more chances this year.