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Shanghai masterpiece trumps the Master
September 28, 2004
The inaugural Shanghai Grand Prix kicked off in magnificent style. On a Hermann Tilke masterpiece of a track, already nicknamed to rhyme with Malaysia's fine Sepang, The Shang gave Formula One aficionados what they had been clamouring for all season: a race where the top three drivers could have swapped position at any point during the 56 long laps, oodles of delicious almost-overtaking and retaking and chopping across and plain and simple brutal flexing of automotive muscle, and the usual unpredictable chaos so typical to the Formula One circus – clashes, collisions, punctures, spins. A fiery race, an awesome display of force, and a singularly dismal weekend for The Greatest Driver In The World. In short, ladies and gents, truly good television.
BAR engineer Jock Clear started the rumour that Schumacher had 'thrown' qualifying in order to make for a 'more sensational' race, and it found several takers across the paddock and among the glad, insanely romantic tifosi. Michael, basking in the glow of not-so-whispered speculation, grinned media-savvy and opined that it was going to be an interesting one. This after he spun spectacularly in qualifying, dropping down the grid for his lowest starting position of all time, missing out on 20th place simply because of a Sato penalty and the usual, absolute Minardi inefficiency. Ferrari took the strategic decision to start from the pit lane, further setting him a lap down and as dead-last as they get.
The start was an explosion into the tight, tight Turn One, and Fernando Alonso, a man well aware of the phenomenal starting capabilities of his Renault, catapulted into third place while Raikkonen bolted in gritty pursuit of Barrichello's scarlet machine. The next few laps were a marvellously entertaining battle between the feisty Massa and the charging Jense, as the Brit took the Brazilian only to be dethroned almost immediately, in a classic overtaking move. Finally Button flew past, at the beginning of the kilometre-long straight, and this was soon echoed by Fisichella and Ralf, while the bumbling David tagged Massa's back going into the tight Turn One.
Lap Nine saw the wildest of drivers in a tussle, something to make the inglorious twelfth and thirteenth positions they were jostling for utterly irrelevant. Montoya dove down the inside of the returning Jacques Villeneuve as they rushed into the tight right-hander, and the former world champion gnashed his teeth and stunningly retook position, his Renault passing the Williams in a contemptuously stylish overtake. Two laps later, the only other champion on the grid tried to dive down the inside of Klein's Jaguar, and thwacked him as he did so, Klein unable to respond to the radically sharp move, leading to the young man's unfortunate retirement.
Jenson Button, race leader due to the first two pitting, now poured on fastest lap after fastest lap, the Brit making the most of his awesome Honda engine, and building up the lead momentum. Two laps later, he pitted for a long 9.7 seconds, and the cards were out: was he going to two-stop and leapfrog the clearly three-stopping Ferraris and McLarens? Meanwhile, speaking of Ferraris, Car Number One suddenly spun again, with what seemed like a traction control problem, Michael throwing up tyre smoke as Fisichella and Coulthard squeezed by. As if to illustrate the complete irony of the moment, current race leader was none other than Ralf Schumacher, simply because he hadn't pitted yet.
Then the has-been tangled with the hasn't-been-anyone-else-like, as DC fought to stave off Michael. The Ferrari pushed hard and furiously found a way past! The McLaren edged ahead yet again! The Ferrari finally lunged alongside and gunned powerfully past, and all this in a matter of seconds. Incredible wheel-to-wheel stuff. Michael proceeded to set the lap record, bully little brother and snatch track position, chop vehemently across the unsightly Williams's nose, and pit, immediately, going back to fourteenth place in the process, right behind Villeneuve.
Lap 35 saw the non-scarlet populace treated to the rare sight of a limping Schumacher with a badly punctured rear tyre as he cruised wounded to the pit lane, letting most challengers through as he dragged on with three wheels in a desperate attempt to continue his race. After enjoying a season of nothing but form, things seemed to even out for the world champion, visited by more bad luck in one race than he usually has all season. One could start with the 'when it rains' adage, if only the man weren't one of the finest exponents of wet racing.
Then David hammered Ralf, causing the poor German to spin again with a rear suspension failure. As they careened clumsily all over the place, little brother refused to continue the race, even if the team felt the car was adequate. Frank Williams scowled, and the men without a drive for next season, Coulthard and Pizzonia, sighed wistfully, as they would have given anything for a run on the track, yet another chance to prove themselves worthy.
The pit-lane strategic differences between Button and the frontrunners had been exaggerated throughout the race, and even if Barrichello was a pitstop behind, he stretched his race lead to a yawningly safe 30 seconds before pitting comfortably, and the race stayed in formation from then on, the order certain to be Button and Raikkonen following the unchallenged Ferrari home, in yet another demonstration of Bridgestone superiority.
Meanwhile the two champions locked horns in another tussle, Michael finally charging past Villeneuve, only to pit again, his race strategy thoroughly thrown to pieces after the obstacle course he had been through. The agony was evident as, on Lap 51, all three race leaders lapped him, an unthinkable concept even a month ago. The final moments promised a possible clash between Webber and JV for tenth, but it was not to be. The race ended without a single twist in the last few laps.
Or did it? A certain Michael Schumacher, on the penultimate lap of the race, suddenly decided to leave his mark on China by burning up some rubber, and blazed the fastest lap of the race.
Just before he came in twelfth, his worst finish in five years.