Busy Schumacher back in control

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The Independent Online

Just when you were tempted to think that Michael Schumacher's world domination had come off the rails a little, with three successive defeats since his last win in Hungary in August, back he bounced in the Japanese Grand Prix that nearly didn't happen.

Typhoon 22 might have veered away from the region at the last moment, but the postponement of qualifying until yesterday morning put everybody on the back foot. Ferrari did the best job of setting up their car, and the world champion said sayonara the moment the red lights went out at the start. Only brother Ralf kept him in sight. If Michael's race here last year was amateurish, this time his was a perfect performance.

"This was an historic day for Formula One, taking pole and the win on the same day," he said in the chirpy manner that was absent in Monza and Shanghai. "It was certainly exciting, but I think I prefer the old system! The fact that I did not do well in China certainly helped my qualifying in terms of when I made my pre-qualifying run. It was clear to us that we would have a strong race pace, but after the start I had Ralf in my mirrors for quite a while and the gap between us was not growing as quickly as I had expected. He was certainly hanging on."

Ralf finished second for BMW-Williams to score his personal best result of the season, but the reason why he was able to keep big brother honest became apparent when he made his first of three refuelling stops on the ninth lap, whereas Michael kept going to the 13th. The Ferrari had been carrying a heavier fuel load.

Nobody could touch the red car after that, and nor really could anyone else keep up with Ralf, but Jenson Button and Takuma Sato in their BAR Hondas had a pretty good stab at it. Button pulled off one of those beautiful no-compromise moves on his faster-qualifying team-mate as they sped into the first corner, but later conceded third place to him as he was also running with a heavier fuel load. In the end, however, Sato's three-stop strategy did not pan out as well as Button's two stops, and the man who was busy casting covetous eyes at Schumacher Jnr's fleet Williams went on to score his 10th podium finish of the season.

"It's a fantastic result here as we celebrate BAR's 100th race and the 40th year since Honda's F1 debut," Button said as his customary good grace masked any disappointment at not having a better chance of victory. He knows that his first win will come, but the circumstances will have to be special as long as there is a healthy Ferrari in the race.

"Taku was probably slowing me down at first because I was really struggling with rear grip in the first five or six laps. I had big oversteer on pretty much every corner. So he came past me through the quick left-hander, Dunlop, and there was no use trying to fight him because I knew we were on different strategies. The two-stop worked very well for me at the last race and I am used to driving the car when it is pretty heavy."

Sato finished a disappointed fourth in front of the thousands of Japanese fans who flocked to the circuit. There was good news and bad for them. The bad was that the traffic jams into and out of Suzuka made Silverstone look like a cakewalk; the good news was that being there live meant they did not have to sit through the appalling coverage by race sponsor Fuji TV, who focused on Sato too much and missed most of the major incidents.

The biggest of these came on lap 38 when Rubens Barrichello's recovery drive from 15th place on the grid went awry as he took himself and fifth-placed David Coulthard out of the race when they collided at the chicane. That left Coulthard's team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, to exploit a two-stop strategy and chase Fernando Alonso home, with Juan Pablo Montoya just holding off the Sauber Petronas of Giancarlo Fisichella for the final point. The Italian's ninth-placed team-mate, Felipe Massa, was one of the stars of the race, with 11 separate overtaking moves.