Brazilian makes it two wins from two races
If the Chinese organisers race track was impressive, their inaugural Grand Prix was even better. Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen fought for the lead throughout 56 laps, the Ferrari and the McLaren on three-stop strategies, the BAR on two, and they finished 1.469s apart after 305 km of no-holds-barred racing.
Coming so soon after Monza, this is another dream come true! Barrichello beamed after stepping from his Ferrari and scoring the second victory of his season.
The Brazilian snatched the lead from the start but Raikkonen went with him as Button got held up behind Fernando Alonsos fast-starting Renault and Felipe Massa, who retaliated immediately after being overtaken by Button in the first corner to grab back fourth place before the end of the lap. It wasnt until the third lap that Button was able to make his move stick, and he quickly pulled clear as Massa fell back with badly graining tyres.
The Englishman then passed Alonso after the first round of pit stops between laps 10 and 16, but during his second stint Barrichello and Raikkonen pulled clear as they waged their own private war, rarely more than a second apart. They stopped together on lap 12, then Raikkonen stopped again on lap 27 and Barrichello on 29. Button went until lap 35 in the lead, and when Raikkonen stopped again on lap 36, Button moved up to the second place he would hold to the finish.
Barrichello went as far as lap 42 before his final stop, which set up the grand finale. When he rejoined on lap 43 the Brazilian was 8.3s ahead of Button, with Raikkonen a further 7.7s back. To begin with the gaps were stable, but then Button began to haul in Barrichello as Raikkonen was catching them both. Adding to the electricity, Barrichello came up to lap the battling Mark Webber and Jacques Villeneuve with two laps to go, by which time his lead had shrunk to two seconds over Button, who had Raikkonen only eight-tenths behind him. It was a superb demonstration to an enthusiastic public of just how good Formula One racing can be. Barrichello got a breather as he lapped Villeneuve, who had made a slight error and dropped off Webbers tail, but it very nearly went wrong as Rubens dived past the Australian right in the final corner of the last lap and Mark only just saw him before turning in himself. The Ferrari finally got to the finish line 1.035s ahead of the BAR, and the McLaren was just 0.434s behind that. Fabulous stuff.
That fight overshadowed other events, but this was a race with excitement all down the field. The other major story was the disaster that befell Michael Schumacher while his team mate raced into the limelight.
After his spin in qualifying Schumacher needed a rare engine change, so elected to start from the pit lane with a high fuel load. After the first 10 laps the champion was only 16th, 35.1s off the lead, but lap 11 brought the first drama when Christian Klien turned into the Ferrari as Michael dived, some would say rather late, down the inside in Turn 14. Their resulting collision saw Klien retire and Schumacher delayed. His second drama came on lap 15 when he spun in Turn 13, which upset his planned pit stop strategy. His first stop, on lap 20, dropped him from a distant sixth to 14th and he had to begin his recovery all over again. But this was not Monza, and it was soon clear that this was one race he would not win. Gradually he picked his way back up to 12th before pitting again on lap 35, but that was because he had sustained a deflated left rear Bridgestone, at the same time as a challenging Ricardo Zonta retired after losing fifth gear. Later Schumacher would stop again for a brief splash and dash on lap 47, dropping back down to his eventual 12th place finish, one lap behind. His sole consolation was setting fastest lap on his fresh tyres, on lap 55.
Between the two Ferraris, Alonso raced home fourth after two stops, unable to sustain the pace of the leaders, a similar strategy also brought Juan Pablo Montoya fifth place, and after starting from the back following his engine failure, two stops took Takuma Sato to sixth. The graining problem on their Bridgestones obliged Sauber to opt for three stops apiece, with Giancarlo Fisichella taking seventh from Massa. The Brazilian had a fight on his hands over the final laps after a flat spotted front tyre enabled David Coulthard to challenge. The Scot should have finished fifth, but lost ground having collided with Ralf Schumacher in Turn 14 after an optimistic overtaking move went awry on lap 37. Schumacher limped into the pits to retire, with suspected right rear tyre damage; Coulthards left front Michelin later punctured as a result, and his pit call dropped him back. Currently the stewards are investigating the incident.
Tenth place fell to Webber after a gritty drive in which he and Jacques Villeneuve ran within feet of one another after fighting throughout the race. Nick Heidfeld took 13th place ahead of an unhappy Olivier Panis, whose Toyota bogged down at the start when the anti-stall mechanism kicked in. Timo Glock was 15th, ahead of Zsolt Baumgartner, who was the final finisher.
Besides Klien, Zonta and Ralf Schumacher, Gianmaria Bruni failed to finish after his Minardi lost its left front wheel on lap 39.
The result moves Alonso ahead of the absent Jarno Trulli for fourth place in the drivers championship, and maintains BARs second position ahead of Renault. But the real story of the first Chinese Grand Prix was the three-way fight for the win. It set a stylish seal on a highly impressive debut.