Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello squashed Kimi Raikkonen’s title hopes by dominating the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday. But the day belonged to Michael Schumacher, who clinched a record-breaking sixth F1 world championship crown at Suzuka.
Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello squashed Kimi Raikkonen’s title hopes by dominating the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday. But the day belonged to Barrichello’s team-mate Michael Schumacher, who clinched a record-breaking sixth F1 world championship crown at Suzuka.
Starting from pole, Barrichello held the lead for roughly half a lap before Williams-BMW ace Juan-Montoya passed him at the Spoon Curve and catapulted to a four-second lead by the end of lap two. Raikkonen and Schumacher, meanwhile, claimed seventh and twelfth places respectively off the line.
But there was drama on lap seven, when Schumacher made an uncharacteristic error in trying to pass BAR Honda’s Takuma Sato at the chicane. The Ferrari driver misjudged Sato's line and clipped the rear of the BAR-Honda with his front wing. But in a twist of good fortune, the damaged Ferrari was close to the pit entrance when the incident happened, allowing the German to duck in for an immediate front wing replacement.
While Schumacher was relegated to 19th place after his pit stop, Montoya retired from the race due to a hydraulics system failure on his FW25. The Colombian's demise allowed Barrichello to re-inherit the lead, but the Brazilian now had the fast-starting Fernando Alonso in close contention. Raikkonen, meanwhile, held a watching brief in third, more than ten seconds adrift of the Renault.
The leaders pitted together on lap twelve, allowing Raikkonen into the lead, but Barrichello retained his advantage when Raikkonen stopped next time around, the McLaren appeared stationary for longer than necessary, but the team had opted to change strategy and put the Finn onto just two stops, when most of the field had decided that three was the better way to go.
Schumacher, meanwhile, was having to fight his way through the field all over again, but found the midfield, now with his brother and the Toyotas in the mix, a slightly tougher proposition. His concerns were heightened when Alonso dropped out, with another blown engine, elevating Raikkonen to third spot, albeit behind team-mate David Coulthard.
Schumacher pitted along with his brother and Toyota's Cristiano da Matta on lap 24, ensuring that the battle between them would rage into the third sector of the race. Barrichello and Coulthard pitted in tandem a couple of lap later, returning to the track ahead of Raikkonen, who continued to pick up pace gradually as his fuel load dwindled.
The Brazilian's metronomic pace allowed him to open out a 16-second advantage over the young Finn. By the time the McLaren-Mercedes driver made his final stop on lap 32, it seemed that only mechanical failure on the second Ferrari would give the young Finn a realistic title shot.
Barrichello's final stop came eight laps further down the road and, again, the Brazilian was able to resume at the head of the field. Coulthard led briefly, but his slightly-longer stop was just enough for his team-mate's two-stop stagger to unwind and elevate him into second. The Brazilian, however, maintained his pace to the end, even easing off over the closing stages.
Raikkonen maintained his second spot, with Coulthard third, but fourth-placed Jenson Button was too far adrift to pose a real threat, and had Jarno Trulli - up from the very back of the grid - for company. The second BAR of Sato, having survived its brush with the champion-elect was running solo in a strong sixth place and, enjoying the sort of reliability predecessor Jacques Villeneuve lacked, put the Brackley-team in pole position to scoop the valuable fifth constructors' championship place.
Although Barrichello looked untroubled out front, Michael and Ralf Schumacher (having exchanged places at their third and final pit-stops), tried to take Da Matta’s seventh place. A couple of passing attempts by Ralf were fended off by Michael, but the Ferrari driver's own attempt to get past the Toyota ahead of him almost ended his run.
Catching da Matta a little quicker than he anticipated heading into the chicane, Michael locked up all four wheels, slewing across the road as his brother attempted to take avoiding action on the outside. Somehow, heavy contact was narrowly avoided, but Ralf - who had earlier had two spins at the same spot - repeated Michael's earlier nose-breaking incident, and had to pit for a replacement, effectively ending any resistance to the sixth Schumacher crown.
Schumacher backed off from there on in, allowing Da Matta an easier run to seventh place. And while Barrichello enjoyed an untroubled cruise to a third win of the year victory, Ferrari was able to celebrate a remarkable - if slightly nerve-wracking and anti-climactic - double triumph.
Schumacher's eight place was enough to clinch the drivers' title by two points from Raikkonen, while Williams-BMW's non-score meant that the Scuderia was assured of the constructors title for much of the afternoon.