With a mighty bound, the heroes escaped their predicament. Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher, that is. In a remarkable display that left all who witnessed it breathless with disbelief, the Ferrari drivers dug themselves out of trouble to snatch a crushing victory in a race that toyed with the affections of other drivers for a long time before swooning happily into its old lover's arms.
On a day when his podium finish and team-mate Takuma Sato's fourth place hoisted BAR-Honda ahead of Renault in the constructors' table, Jenson Button was left to ponder what happened to a race that seemed at one point destined to turn him into a Grand Prix winner.
It began on a surface that was drying, but still damp, after a morning of heavy rain. Barrichello went into the lead on intermediate rain tyres, but as one red car went forwards, the other, on dry weather Bridgestone tyres, went backwards and then sideways as Schumacher spun in the second chicane after a brush with Button.
Barrichello immediately opened an 8.2 second lead, but the drying track soon wiped that out. As he stopped for fresh tyres, the dry weather Michelin-shod cars of Fernando Alonso, Button, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen staged a four-way scrap. Schumacher trailed in 13th place.
The first round of pit stops left Button with a three-second lead, while an engine failure accounted for Spa winner Raikkonen on lap 13. Schumacher struggled to overtake Mark Webber's well-driven Jaguar and as the second stops approached, Button was still in charge. But when Barrichello had pitted on lap five, Ferrari had given him plenty of fuel, enabling him to run until lap 29 before a quick stop got him going again.
Alonso and Montoya refuelled again on the 33rd lap and Button did so on the 34th. However, Barrichello's lighter middle-stint fuel load had crucially allowed him to lap fast enough to snatch the lead once Schumacher, who had worked his way up to a distant fifth and inherited the lead for two laps as the others refuelled, made his own stop on the 36th lap.
Barrichello rocketed away to build enough advantage to make a final "splash and dash" stop on lap 42. As the Brazilian exited the pits, his team-mate was overtaking Button down the pit straight. "That thing was so quick on the straights that Jenson didn't even manage to get a tow off him," his father, John Button, observed wryly.
Button himself was philosophical. "We did a good job and we had a strong race, but unfortunately not as strong as the Ferraris. In the end I focused on looking after the tyres and extending the gap between myself and Alonso."
It was hardly a disaster for BAR, but for Renault it was purgatory. After his opening burst, Alonso dug in behind Button and ahead of Montoya, until a rare mistake on the 41st lap saw him spin into the gravel in the second chicane. Since his car was in a dangerous position the marshals should at least have pushed it out, but they refused to and the disgruntled Spaniard was left to walk away.
Montoya struggled home fifth with his Williams' gearbox failing, and crossed the finish line only a second ahead of David Coulthard, who fought valiantly against Antonio Pizzonia in the other Williams and survived a moment in the closing laps when the Brazilian ran into the back of his McLaren. That enabled Giancarlo Fisichella to close right up on them as he scored the final point for Sauber Petronas. Webber, who also deserved better, was ninth ahead of an undistinguished Jarno Trulli in the second Renault.
"I never thought I could go from almost last to second," Schumacher said. "Rubens deserves this win as he drove a great race."
Barrichello himself was overwhelmed. "I couldn't believe it when the team told me I was P1, and said something rude in Portuguese! Some people say Formula One is boring, but there was nothing boring today. It was unbelievable," he said.
¿ As a result of his lacklustre 10th place in the Italian Grand Prix, an announcement is expected tomorrow that Jarno Trulli, who is due to leave Renault at the end of the season, will be replaced for the final three races of 2004 by former champion Jacques Villeneuve. Team insiders said they were concerned that Trulli was able to summon competitive speed only over the final three laps, having run off the pace for the previous 50.
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