By now the whole world will know the result of the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix. Probably not all the world was watching it live due to the time zone difference but if you were you will have witnessed history being made.
Michael Schumacher became the first driver in championship history to achieve his sixth driver’s title ensuring, along with the invaluable assistance and skills of Rubens Barrichello, that team Scuderia Ferrari took the 2003 Constructors championship. It is the fifth time in succession that the team have won the constructor’s championship and this in itself is a new record.
Unlike last year it has not been all plain sailing this season for the team and, in the tightest and most competitive championship in recent years, it was not until the end of the gruelling 53 lap race in Suzuka that Ferrari could uncork the champagne. Coming into the race Michael needed just 1 point to ensure the title outcome would remain in his own hands and not play into Kimi Raikkonen’s even if the McLaren driver had taken the win that he needed.
Suzuka is a renowned ‘drivers’ circuit with long straights, some fantastic high speed corners and more than one overtaking opportunity. Unfortunately none of these attractions really mattered during Saturday’s one lap qualifying as the session became a bit of a lottery with rain and an increasingly wet track affecting the times. Rubens took full advantage of the earlier drier weather to post the fastest lap by some margin, later describing it himself as ‘the perfect Suzuka lap’. Juan Pablo Montoya in the Williams was second fastest showing once again that his Williams was more than capable of providing stiff opposition and unsettling Ferrari’s title aspirations. By the time Michael unfolded his flying lap the track was too wet and disappointingly he could only manage 14th place. Raikkonen, his nearest rival was 8th quickest in a borrowed McLaren after having stuffed his own car into the barriers the day before. Its always nice to see Ron Dennis have to dip into his pocket and spend some money!
Raceday was overcast and most of the top teams were expecting more rain to settle the day’s results. As it turned out the rain never arrived and it was left to the drivers concerned to state their own case for a place in the history books.
Barrichello got off to a terrific start, storming unchallenged into the first corner while the following pack all jostled into position. Montoya was not in the mood for jostling and part way around the first lap swept purposefully past Rubens into an intimidating lead. Michael managed to pull up 2 places on the first lap but then a few laps later made a uncharacteristic nervous lunge down the inside of new driver Sato’s BAR approaching the chicane and lost his front nose section. It was fortunate that the accident happened at the end of the lap meaning that Michael had just a short limp back to the pits where an 18 second stop accompanied by the addition of some fancy Shell Optimax put his race and title hopes literally back on track.
On lap 9 Montoya’s frightening pace proved too much and his Williams expired with hydraulic failure putting Rubens back into a lead that he maintained again after the first scheduled round of pitstops a few laps later. Sensing that Rubens would disappear into the rising sun McLaren took a gamble and changed Kimi’s strategy to 2 stops hoping that a pitstop less would give him the time he needed to overhaul Barrichello’s lead. The McLaren was clearly not the quickest car on the track and this heavier fuel load hampered Raikkonen further. It was at this point that Fernando Alonso driving one of the respected Renaults also departed from the chasing pack by retiring with a blown engine. Alonso has had a marvellous season and would be most people’s choice for driver of the year. His convincing victory in Hungary earlier this year was a deserved reward for a very impressive season.
After the second scheduled refuelling and tyre stops on the halfway mark the positions remained the same with Rubens slightly extending his lead over the two McLarens with Jenson Button following behind them. Jenson has had a relatively satisfying season at BAR, coolly making ex-champion Jacques Villeneuve eat his BAR cap by out- racing him for the majority of the season and ultimately condemning the Canadian to what looks like a life of pipes, slippers and early nights.
Michael was still carving his way through the field and was now within striking distance of the valuable championship point he needed. He was sizing up da Matta in the Toyota when his brother Ralf took it as a personal crusade to gatecrash the impending party and pressure the champion-elect into a mistake. Ralf swarmed all over the back of the Maranello gearbox pulling out from behind it on the pit straight only for Michael to fight to defend his line. This was not what Michael was expecting and Ralf had not eased up when a lap or two later Michael left it late on the brakes entering the chicane only to find Ralf leaving his own braking later still. The front end of the errant Williams just glanced the rear Bridgestone of the Ferrari but it wasn’t enough to do any damage and Michael maintained track position. Needless to say Ralf had done himself out of any sausages on sticks at the celebration party! Admirably, Ralf did set the fastest lap of the race soon after reappearing from the pits with a new nose cone but, like his season before him, it was too little too late.
At the other end of the pack Rubens Barrichello took a marvellous win thereby denying Kimi the result he needed to clinch the title and ensuring that Ferrari took the constructors title for an unprecedented fifth time in a row. Ron Dennis would have to wait another year before any expansion plans to his trophy cabinet. Behind Kimi and in third place was perennial underachiever David Coulthard. It is nearly 10 years since David pinched the vacant Williams drive from under tifosi favourite Nigel Mansell’s moustache and considering he has had top kit at his disposal since then, he has very little to show for it apart from a nice hotel in Monte Carlo and a collection of supermodels! – actually on second thoughts maybe that is ample.......... Button and Sato sandwiched Jarno Trulli in his Renault for 4th, 5th and 6th places with Brazil’s da Matta keeping seventh place.
As Rubens took his worthy and rewarding victory the grand prix world readied itself to salute Michael Schumacher passing the chequered flag in 8th place thereby securing his sixth world championship. It is 46 years since the great Juan Manuel Fangio won the fifth of his championships and quite simply Schumacher is now a legend in his own lifetime having become the most successful driver of all time. The team that Jean Todt and Luca Di Montezemelo have assembled at the racing stables in Maranello have played an enormous part in Schumi’s success and I suspect that after this challenging season they may all consider it to be one of their most satisfying.
And on the subject of Schumacher retiring? No chance, I hear that 7 is
his lucky number!
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