Saturday, 27 October 2012

2003 U.S. Grand Prix - Indianpolis Motor Speedway

September 28, 2003

As race wins go the 2003 United States grand Prix was one of the best of Michael Schumacher's illustrious career. Certainly it was on of the most important, because it brought him within nine points of a sixth World Championship crown. How he got there though was even more impressive. The manner in which Schumacher had turned around his 2003 season was stunning. Early on in the year his Ferrari had the edge, but they suffered a mid-season slump (largely caused by Bridgestone's inadequacies) and only two races prior to Indy Schumacher was the underdog for the title. Juan-Pablo Montoya (Williams) looked virtually unstoppable for the Driver's title, having won in Germany and finishing second in Hungary.

It was fitting then, that Indianapolis was one of the German's best drives, even if the weather did play so comfortably into his hands. But with Schumacher, as always there was something more. During the 1995 season, Damon Hill once commented on his rival's superiority, "He's very impressive in every respect of the job. It is mental, it is physical and it is to do with teamwork. He has an advantage over everyone." For any sportsman, whose confidence and ability to perform consistently to the best of his ability depends so much on a pig-headed belief that he is the best, it was an astonishing admission for the Englishman to make. But, given the evidence, it was also an inescapable one and Schumacher carried this advantage throughout most of his career.

Schumacher: under pressure at Indy
The grid at Indianapolis was an unusual mix that did the champion no favours, and read like the screenplay for a Hollywood motor racing blockbuster: the third-placed driver in the World Championship fight, Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren), was on pole position, the second-placed man, Montoya, was fourth and the leader, Schumacher, was only seventh. Räikkönen and Montoya appeared to be free and clear to fight for the title, with Schumacher in a vulnerable position. Yet by the first corner it was clear this was not the case. The German sprinted down the outside and, as team-mate Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) faded on the front row and Olivier Panis (Toyota) and Montoya lagged on the second, he pounced into third place behind the leader Räikkönen and brother Ralf (Williams). Already, Montoya’s hopes were looking shaky. He was only seventh.

Up front Räikkönen put on another one of his brave displays that underlined the Finns' natural talent. Ralf went with him, and when it began to drizzle on lap two, their Michelin tyres offered them a significant advantage.

Almost as fast as he had catapulted forward, Michael began to go backwards. He’d overtaken Panis for third on lap 5, but by lap 7 the battling David Coulthard (McLaren), Montoya and Fernando Alonso (Renault) had all clawed past, and Jarno Trulli (Renault) was menacing. Things stayed that way until Ralf pitted on lap 15, by which time the track was beginning to dry. He slipped down to twelfth.

2003 USGP - Despite an impressive start, Schumacher slipped to 12th. 
Coulthard, Montoya and Nick Heidfeld (Sauber) were the next to stop, on lap 17, followed by Alonso on lap 18, Räikkönen and Heinz-Harold Frentzen (Sauber) on lap 19, and Michael Schumacher and Trulli on lap 20. Only Frentzen gambled correctly on wets.

Jensen Button (BAR) and Justin Wilson (Jaguar), running second and third behind an elevated Mark Webber (Jaguar), pitted for wets on lap 21, just as Michael and Heidfeld realized their mistakes and swept back into the pits as the heavens were opening.

Webber’s moment of glory on lap 21 did not last long after he crashed out. That left Coulthard and Räikkönen in a McLaren 1-2 on lap 22, but DC was still on dry Michelins and was soon hopelessly outpaced. Räikkönen pitted for wets, together with Montoya, Alonso and Trulli. Then Ralf Schumacher, running second, spun and bent his car’s rear suspension.

All of this left Button leading a Grand Prix for the first time in his career (and BAR’s) and looking pretty comfortable while doing it. Initially Frentzen hounded him, but Jensen soon dropped the Sauber. Both, however, were being caught by Michael, who was revelling in conditions which suited his wet Bridgestones perfectly. The tide of the Championship, almost literally, had turned.

2003 USGP - Schumacher was virtually unstoppable in the wet conditions. 
The German got another bonus when Montoya carried out a drive-through penalty. He had received it on lap 21 after colliding with Barrichello in Turn Two on lap 3. Most observers felt that was a bit harsh, especially since Barrichello did not attach much blame to the Columbian but regarded it as a racing incident.

Out front Button looked hugely confident, but this was David trying to fend off a very aggressive Goliath. after quickly disposing of Frentzen on lap 33, Schumacher was right with the BAR-Honda passing the pits on lap 37, and going into Turn One on lap 38 the red car went ahead. Button nevertheless kept a respectable distance to the Ferrari until his engine blew on lap 42. It was a tough break, just when Button's first podium finish seemed finally within his grasp.

Now Frentzen was second, and for the first time a Sauber led a Grand Prix as Schumacher pitted for fuel again on lap 48. When Frentzen did likewise a lap later Heidfeld moved to second, but the critical point now was that while the Ferrari led and the Saubers were second and third, Räikkönen in fourth place, was out of the title hunt. The track was drying, however, and gradually Räikkönen was able to start lapping at similar speed to Schumacher and moved ahead of the Swiss cars to take second place. It was the best he could do in the circumstances.

As far as the front end of the Grand Prix was concerned Schumacher was home and dry. Räikkönen was equally secure in second, Frentzen in third after an impressive drive, but Heidfeld could not hold off Trulli in the closing stages and succumbed on lap 43.

Further back, Montoya's desperate pursuit of Giancarlo Fisichella (Jordan) for sixth place finally reaped rewards. The Italian had again driven one of his unobtrusive but productive races, and would probably have stayed sixth but for problems during both his pitstops. On the first, on lap 21, the right front wheel stuck on; on the second, on lap 44, the fuel rig malfunctioned and tricked the team inot giving him twice the load he needed after there was initial doubt that the first load had gone aboard. The Columbian needed another place to stay in the game, however, and Heidfeld was far too far ahead.

Schumacher demoralised his rivals with a relentlessly stunning pace.
Coulthard's day ended on lap 46 with gearbox trouble. To add insult to that, afterwards Schumacher was critical of the Scot's defence of seventh place as they battled for position on lap 25. That, and an allegation from Panis that he had passed him on the pit-straight for third place on lap 5 under waved yellow flags for the Barrichello/Montoya incident, were the only things to mar Schumacher's day. Evidence, however, proved that the German was just ahead before the flags.  

"This was a great and important win." Schumacher said. "It means a lot at this crucial stage in the championship, but the tifosi have carried us to this position."

The victory was the most dominant win of Michael Schumacher's career up to that point. Not in terms of the winning margin he recorded - he had won races by more than 18 seconds in the past - but he utterly demoralised his opposition at Indianapolis in a fashion that is rarely seen in any sport.

The race came to him in the damp middle section, when the superiority of his intermediate Bridgestones allowed him to overtake the Michelin runners at will. But what made this win so special was the patience he showed prior to the rain. Under extreme pressure, he showed none of the impetuousness of Adelaide 1994 or Jerez 1997 (both title deciders, he caused an accident on both occasions) and instead waited for the race to come to him - even allowing title rivals Montoya and Räikkönen to overtake early on.

Schumacher was now poised to break Fangio's amazing record.

Michael went into the final race of the year, at Suzuka, almost certain to clinch a record sixth world title, which would surpass teh legendary Juan-Manuel Fangio's tally of five and leave him undisputed as the most successful driver in Formula One history. Formula One's commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone said after Indianapolis, "I'll give you 5-2 that Michael will take the title."

Of course Schumacher, as always, delivered.

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