Champagne for Raikkonen, seven up for Schumacher
Michael Schumacher clinches the 2004 title at Spa, but can't beat Kimi Raikkonen to the chequered flag after a highly eventful race.
The Finn survived a brush with Felipe Massa at La Source on the opening lap, and three safety car periods, the second of which neutralised a 13 second lead he had assiduously built over Schumacher. Each time, the McLaren driver kept the final lap behind the safety car to a crawling speed to ensure that Schumachers Bridgestone tyres lost as much temperature as possible, then sprinted away to build his lead again. It was nip and tuck the first time, as Schumacher was closing in by the 38th lap, but then an incident involving team mate David Coulthard, who crashed his McLaren into the back of Christian Kliens Jaguar on the rise to Les Combes, gave Raikkonen a respite. In the closing laps the Finn pulled away, beating Schumacher to the line by 3.1s to claim only the second Grand Prix success of his career. Assuredly more will follow.
Second was enough for Schumacher to eliminate the mathematical possibility of his team mate Rubens Barrichello beating his points score, and the Brazilians presence in the final podium slot was testimony to what an extraordinary race this was.
It began 44 laps earlier with the Renaults of Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso sprinting up to first and second places off the line, with Coulthard sneaking through to push Schumacher down to fourth. But behind them there was drama. Webber outgunned Fisichella off the line, but then whacked his Jaguar into the back of Barrichellos Ferrari. Meanwhile, Raikkonen came round the outside of Massa, who locked up and brushed the McLarens right-hand side. Both of them got away with that, but then Jenson Button hit the back of the Sauber. The Englishman lost his front wing. Shortly after this, team mate Takuma Sato spun at the top of Eau Rouge after getting squeezed between the slow Webber and Montoya. Gianmaria Bruni spun avoiding him, and was hit by an unsighted Giorgio Pantano. Momentarily the Minardi caught fire as oil from a damaged cooler leaked out. So, as the safety car was deployed for the first time, Barrichello, Button, Massa, Panis and Heidfeld pitted for repairs, while Sato, Bruni and Pantano saw their cars winched into a dead car pound that would grow as the race continued.
Meanwhile Trulli narrowly defended the lead from an aggressive Alonso, with Raikkonen quickly disposing of Coulthard and Schumacher to make it a threesome. On lap five Montoya shoved Schumacher down to sixth with a brilliant move round the outside of the German going into the Bus Stop chicane. Already this was some race.
Trulli was the first to pit, on lap 10, but no sooner had Alonso inherited the lead than he spun through 360 degrees at Les Combes on lap 12, before rotating out of the race at Rivage just after Raikkonen had snatched the lead. Oil was leaking on to the Renaults left rear tyre, so that was it for one blue car. The other, meanwhile, began a slow decline to a disappointing ninth place as Trulli found it increasingly undriveable. At one stage Montoya spun him at the Bus Stop on lap 20, in his frustration.
Now Raikkonen was looking strong, but his refuelling stop on lap 13 handed Montoya the lead from Schumacher, and Coulthards day was damned by a right-rear puncture at Kemmel on lap 12. After Montoyas stop on lap 15 Schumacher led for a lap before his own pit call, which let Antionio Pizzonia lead for the first time in his Williams before he refuelled on lap 17. As Massa (who had stopped again on lap two for further checks) had resisted Montoyas challenge for sixth place, Pizzonia got back out ahead of his team leader. Once things stabilised, Raikkonen was leading again from Schumacher, the two Williams, the recovering Barrichello, and Fisichella, whose Sauber had also been clouted in the rear at the start and had thus lost downforce.
Chasing hard was Button who, like Barrichello and Massa had refuelled in his unscheduled stop. This was pretty much the order after the second round of stops, but having climbed back to fifth Button made a spectacular departure on the approach to Les Combes on lap 29 as his left rear Michelin exploded. The BAR was thrown into a spin and collided with an innocent Zsolt Baumgartners Minardi. Neither driver was hurt, but both were definitely through. That brought out the safety car again for laps 30-34, and when racing resumed Schumacher set out after Raikkonen for the lead, with Montoya, Barrichello, Ricardo Zonta, Massa, Fisichella, Klien, Panis, Trulli and Coulthard. Poor Pizzonias race had ended on lap 32 with a sudden gearbox failure when he was running a comfortable third.
Now the heat was on, not just for Raikkonen, but for Fisichella who had Klien all over him, and for the Austrian as Coulthard closed in. The next drama came when Montoyas right rear tyre blew at Kemmel, and the angry Colombian crept home to retire. Then Coulthard made an unfortunate misjudgement at Raidillon and augured into the back of Klien on lap 39. The McLaren lost its front wing and damaged its rear one as it slithered on to the grass, so as he headed to the pits out came the safety car again on lap 39 as yet more debris was swept away.
Once again Raikkonen went through his act, and this time when racing resumed at the end of lap 41 he sped away to a great triumph, not just for himself but also for McLaren, Mercedes and Michelin. It was a stark contrast to the Ferrari domination of two weeks ago, but a beaten Schumacher was philosophical as he clinched his seventh crown.
Further back Barrichello was thankful for third place on a day that had started with disaster, and Massa was similarly surprised to score his best-ever result with fourth (though without his problems he could have been third). This came at the expense of poor Zonta, however, the Brazilians Toyota suffering the teams first engine failure of the year just when he was poised for five deserved points. Massas team mate Fisichella held off Klien for fifth, the Austrian scoring his first points after a good drive. Coulthard, remarkably, made it home seventh for two more points after having new wings fitted, and Panis claimed the final point ahead of the desolate Trulli. Zonta was classified 10th ahead of Nick Heidfeld, who lost his front wing in the La Source carnage and later had problems with his Cosworth engine cutting out.
It was some race.