Business as usual for Schumacher as engine failure spoils Sato's race

If you took Michael Schumacher out of yesterday's European Grand Prix at Nürburgring, it wasn't a bad race. Not a bad race at all. But unless he damages his car in an on-track altercation these days, Schumacher's red bullet just doesn't quit. Yesterday the champion did not put a wheel wrong and his reward was the 76th Grand Prix victory of a career that shows no sign of waning.

If you took Michael Schumacher out of yesterday's European Grand Prix at Nürburgring, it wasn't a bad race. Not a bad race at all. But unless he damages his car in an on-track altercation these days, Schumacher's red bullet just doesn't quit. Yesterday the champion did not put a wheel wrong and his reward was the 76th Grand Prix victory of a career that shows no sign of waning.

If there was any crumb of comfort for everyone else it lay in Ferrari's strategy. Normally Schumacher goes into qualifying with sufficient fuel to run a lap, maybe two, longer than the main opposition. But when he took pole position on Saturday suspicions grew, and the rate at which he annihilated his pursuers in the opening stages made it abundantly clear that this time he was running with less fuel.

By lap eight he had a lead of more than 17 seconds when he made the first of three fuel stops. That one dropped him temporarily down to seventh place but the others, on laps 28 and 44, saw him keep his lead with terrifying ease. It is not just that he is driving at the very top of his form, or that his Ferrari never breaks down. It is that Ferrari never seem to slip, either. That change of tactic suggested that Takuma Sato's blinding speed for BAR-Honda in Saturday's pre-qualifying session had worried Ferrari but their race strategy, and the execution of it, was virtually perfect. Schumacher's sole problem came when he had to avoid Mark Webber as the Jaguar driver left the pits.

The rest had it nothing like so easy. Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, for instance, got together in the first corner at the start, and Ralf took the rest of the day off. Montoya's BMW-Williams needed a new nose, and he spent his afternoon salvaging a point. "It was a racing incident. That turn is notorious for that sort of thing and it was unfortunate that our two drivers came out of it worst," the new technical director, Sam Michael said, teeth doubtless clenched.

"Barrichello, who was in front of me, braked quite early and both Ralf and I locked the tyres," Montoya said of the incident. "Then Ralf went for the outside and I stayed behind Rubens but, when I was going around the corner, Panis dived up the inside hitting my front tyre which threw me straight into Ralf."

Then there was McLaren, who sent Kimi Raikkonen to the line with a lap's worth more fuel than Schumacher. He actually led a lap after Schumacher's stop, which made a change for his unloved car, but two laps later the Finn was spreading his usual oil cloud round the track as his Mercedes V10 ingested itself. The same thing happened after 25 laps to team-mate David Coulthard, after a doughty performance by the under-rated Scot saw him fighting hard for fourth place with Jenson Button.

Even those teams doing good jobs had little to cheer about. Monaco winner Renault saw Jarno Trulli lose second place to Sato in the first corner, become embroiled with the Japanese driver further round the lap, and eventually finish fourth, ahead of team-mate Fernando Alonso. Both were behind Button's BAR-Honda, but on this occasion the Englishman had to play second fiddle to his flying team-mate.

Sato may not be winning many friends on the track with his press-on style, but he's hugely popular with the media and the fans. "He should calm down," several people suggested, and Trulli, who is not a fan, said: "If I hadn't opened the door, Sato would have taken me out. He made a mistake so I took the inside line through Turn Four, but he closed the door. His right front wheel hit my left-front and I nearly lost the car." In the confusion Trulli pressed the pit lane speed limiter and lost places.

Rubens Barrichello, who rode his usual shotgun position to finish second to Schumacher, was pushed out of the place by Sato on lap 46, and was not amused. "I think Sato's move was a bit amateurish. Luckily I just saw his nose and moved over," he reported.

That move cost Sato half his front wing, so Button moved up to third as Sato had to pit for a new one. Two laps later Sato felt some Monte Carlo déjà vu exiting the final corner, as his Honda V10 once again grenaded itself.

Sato was bitterly disappointed, but had made his mark again. Enough to remind everyone that here is a racer, albeit perhaps an as-yet fully polished one, who adds to the show. Give him a gap, and he will go for it. Had Schumacher produced such a move, it would doubtless have been praised for its brilliance. "Throughout the race I was fighting all the time," Sato said, suppressing his emotions. "It could have been a good result for me, but now I must look forward to Montreal and Indianapolis."

The head of BAR-Honda, Dave Richards, gave Sato his backing. "The sport needs heroes," he said. "It needs people who don't win races by calculating results of the race on a computer the day before. It needs people who actually take up every opportunity and challenge to the last lap."

He added: "I'd rather be seen as a fighting team and a challenging team rather than a team that sat down and calculated everything beforehand and runs out computer programmes of how we're going to perform."

Button's third place didn't come quite the way he'd like, but those you can't win, you finish. And six points helped nicely to keep him ahead of the challenging Trulli in their increasingly intense fight for third in the championship. "Considering the problem I've had with grip all weekend, third is a great result for me," Button said. "Obviously this podium was slightly luckier than the other four, bit it was a podium nonetheless."

When it was all over, Schumacher acknowledged that the time Raikkonen had cost his pursuers early on had helped him, and said: "We are looking very strong, but generally it was not a clean race and we were helped today because others had difficulties."

And this time he remembered some history, too, dedicating their 1-2 to Fiat scion Umberto Agnelli, who died on Friday.

RACE DETAILS

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 32min 35.101sec

2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:32:53.001

3 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:32:57.601

4 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:33:28.701

5 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:33:36.001

6 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:33:48.501

7 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:33:51.301

8 J-P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW +1 lap

9 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas +1; 10 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan +1; 11 O Panis (Fr) Toyota +1; 12 C Klien (Aut) Jaguar +1; 13 G Pantano (It) Jordan +2; 14 G Bruni (It) Minardi +3; 15 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi +3

Not classified: T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda 47 laps; D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 25; K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 9; R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 0; C de Matta (Br) Toyota 0

Fastest lap: M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 1min 29.468sec (lap 7).

Manufacturers Championship Standings: 1 Ferrari 106pts; 2 Renault 61; 3 BAR-Honda 46; 4 Williams-BMW 36; 5 Sauber-Petronas 10; 6 McLaren-Mercedes 5; 7 Toyota 4; 8 Jaguar 3; 9 Jordan-Ford 2; 10 Minardi 0

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