Round 9, United States Grand Prix, Indianapolis


1       Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)

2       Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari)

3       Takuma Sato (BAR Honda)

4       Jarno Trulli (Renault)

5       Olivier Panis (Toyota)

6       Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren Mercedes)

7       David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes)

8       Zsvolt Baumgartner (Minardi Cosworth)

THE new American home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had a settled place on the Grand Prix calendar and was the setting for race nine, one of the most dramatic in the 2004 season.  By now, the world championship was another formality for Michael Schumacher.  The dominant German was miles ahead of his competition and realistically, only team-mate Rubens Barrichello had an outside chance of denying Michael of a record-breaking seventh title.  He outgunned his team leader in qualifying to take an impressive pole position.

Williams and Toyota had been disqualified for use of illegal brake ducts at the previous event in Montreal and the North American double header got worse for the Grove outfit when Juan Pablo Montoya leapt out of his car seconds before the formation lap.  The engine had died and the Colombian gambled on the spare car, in the hope of having made the switch in time before the start of the race.  At the start, Barrichello and Schumacher were 1-2 on the long sprint to turns 1 & 2 and as the BAR Honda’s dropped back, Fernando Alonso came storming through from ninth on the grid into third position.  In the midfield, there was trouble when Cristiano Da Matta braked suddenly to avoid team-mate Olivier Panis.  In the bottleneck, Christian Klien had nowhere to go, clipped the Toyota and went broadside across the track, taking out Felipe Massa & Giorgio Pantano’s Jordan, plus delaying the other Sauber of Giancarlo Fisichella.  In a separate clash, a clout from Nick Heidfeld terminated Gianmaria Bruni’s afternoon, meaning the Safety Car had to come out, with four cars eliminated.

When the race restarted, Barrichello was caught out by not carrying enough speed through the banking and Schumacher slipstreamed past his team-mate to snatch the lead.  Alonso was third, followed in close company by Takuma Sato, Kimi Raikkonen & Jenson Button.  A lap later, Alonso’s right rear tyre disintegrated under braking for turn one.  Fortunately, some HSBC polystyrene blocks prevented a severe incident, but only for a matter of seconds.

Coming through the banked turn 13, another Michelin tyre went down on the Williams of Ralf Schumacher and Ralf was thrown backwards into the wall, spraying debris across the racetrack.  Schumacher Jnr was knocked out in the initial impact and it took a good while for any medical assistance to reach him.  While the doctors eventually arrived on the scene, the Safety Car was deployed again and both Ferrari’s used the opportunity to pit under the lengthy caution period.  Clearly realising that his sibling was in some distress, Michael was showing immediate concern, looking over every lap the field passed the crash site.  Ralf was eventually sent off to hospital with a cracked vertebrae (only revealed 10 days after the shunt) and the race could be ready to continue.

At the restart, Schumacher led Sato, Button and Raikkonen, but the BAR’s had to pit for fuel and when Raikkonen made an unscheduled stop to top up pneumatic valve pressure, Barrichello regained second spot.  For Button, his day was terminated by gearbox trouble, a pity as his car seemed to have some optimal speed.  This was demonstrated by Sato, who cruised past Fisichella & Heidfeld out of corners, then avoided a crude chop from Panis to take over fifth place.  By now, only 11 cars were running, so attrition was playing a real factor in who would end up scoring points.  Even Fisichella’s chances weren’t harmed too badly despite a time consuming trip to the pits with another puncture.  Back at the front, Barrichello seemed to have quicker pace over Schumacher and nearly took him off in a risky move up the inside at turn four after their second stops.  In these times, the rules were clear with the Scuderia, race until the final stops, then turn down the engines.

Remarkably, Montoya had climbed back into third, but it was to no avail, when he received a black flag for not registering the change in car 15 seconds before the start of the formation lap.  Although the transgression was clear, many commentators were disgusted by the inability of the FIA to spot the infringement.  Basically, JPM had wasted 90 minutes driving his heart out for no reason, deepening the black marks at BMW Williams.  His removal from the race moved a charging Sato into fourth, but his goal was rostrum bound and Jarno Trulli was under pressure.  With 15 laps to go, it was mission accomplished when a lunge at the first corner saw Trulli spin onto the grass and the BAR take a shortcut.  Jaguar lost vital points when an oil fire ended Mark Webber’s race and when Fisichella slowed to a halt, it promoted a consistent Zsvolt Baumgartner into a world championship point, despite being 4 laps down.

For the whole weekend, Barrichello had been quicker than his team leader in terms of pace, but it was the canny Schumacher who took another win, his eighth from nine starts.  His win though was overshadowed though by Ralf’s crash and Sato’s first podium finish of his career.  Trulli did well to finish fourth, having started last, following a gearbox gremlin in qualifying and Panis was a steady fifth in his 150th event.  The McLaren’s of Raikkonen and David Coulthard gained some useful points and Baumgartner held on to become the first Hungarian driver to end up in the points, some real treasure for the Minardi minnows.

It was another day of joy for Michael Schumacher, but it had been tempered with a scary crash for Grand Prix racing to deal with.  All thoughts were with Ralf Schumacher for a speedy and safe recovery as F1 headed away from the North American opera back to Europe.

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