What do you give people who have invested £136m building their first grand prix venue in just 600 days? Well, the race that Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen put on for China's 150,000 spectators would be high on any wish list. In this architecturally magnificent place they raced head-to-head for all 56 laps and only 1.469sec covered them at the end.
From pole position Barrichello grabbed an early lead, but Raikkonen went with him. It took Button three laps to shake off Felipe Massa's Sauber-Petronas, and another four to catch and pass Fernando Alonso's fast-starting Renault.
Button took the lead when Barrichello and Raikkonen made their first refuelling stops, but though his two-stop strategy would be good enough to push him ahead of Raikkonen (who refuelled again on laps 27 and 36), it was not quite sufficient to keep him ahead.
McLaren's short middle stint was designed to push Raikkonen into the lead, but Barrichello always remained just out of reach. When the Brazilian went into his third and final stop on lap 42, Button came up 8.3sec short of what he had needed to grab the lead back, and now had a hungry Raikkonen only 7.7sec behind.
The scene was set for a nail-biting finale, as Button reeled in Barrichello, and Raikkonen was catching them both. Just to add further spice, they were all preparing to lap Jacques Villeneuve as he battled to catch Mark Webber. With two laps to go the trio caught the duo, and now Button was only two seconds adrift and Raikkonen was less than a second further back.
"I was amazed how much grip there was on the first lap," Barrichello said as he celebrated his second consecutive triumph. "Kimi pushed me quite hard but I was able to keep a gap. But I was not sure I had command of the race until my final stop when [technical director] Ross Brawn told me that I should be OK. As I left the pits I still pushed flat out and then at turn three I looked in my mirrors and saw no one behind me, so I knew I was OK. The team told me to back off a bit, but then I had to step up the pace again when Jenson got closer."
"The change in our strategy didn't work and I lost second to Jenson," Raikkonen said. "But from where I was sitting it was a close and exciting race."
Button said: "We came here to keep Renault at bay for second in the championship. I didn't get a good start and losing those two places was disastrous. But today proved again that our first win is getting closer.
"Our strategy was good but it was so hard to push against the three-stoppers, so in the end I had to concentrate on keeping Raikkonen behind me."
A distant fourth fell to Alonso, ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya, Takuma Sato, Giancarlo Fisichella and Massa. David Coulthard should have taken fifth, but an overtaking move on Ralf Schumacher went awry on lap 37 and he dropped back to ninth.
Schumacher limped into the pits. Initially his car was pushed aside because his Williams team-mate Montoya was due to refuel, but once a punctured tyre was replaced he refused to get back into the cockpit. Sources inside the team suggest he may be replaced again by Antonio Pizzonia for the final two races.
The race was also a disaster for big brother Michael, who started from the pit lane after spinning on his qualifying lap and then requiring a new engine for his Ferrari.
The champion was never in contention, survived a crash with Christian Klien on the 11th lap, and then spun on his own four laps later. A rear tyre then failed and, after another late pit stop for fuel, the German finished a lapped 12th, his only consolation setting the fastest lap on his fresh tyres on lap 55. "This was a slightly more interesting race than I would have wanted!" he said.
The man who brought Formula One to China seemed pleased. "It was a good race, wasn't it?" Bernie Ecclestone said with his customary understatement. "Just shows what can happen without Michael."
¿ A van carrying four Williams team members collided with another vehicle on the way to the circuit yesterday. None of the occupants, including Princess Anne's son Peter Phillips, a Williams account manager, was seriously hurt, but the head of marketing Jim Wright, who was thrown from the vehicle, and senior account manager Christopher Styring went to hospital for check-ups.