Michael Schumacher won the German Grand Prix yesterday, but Jenson Button may have lost it on Friday afternoon. Even the world champion admitted to the power of the Englishman's performance, and conceded that he would have been even tougher opposition had he started from his rightful third place on the grid instead of losing 10 places because his Honda engine suffered a valve failure in practice. That may well have made the crucial difference between Schumacher's 81st win, and Button's first. But in the most electrifying grand prix of the season, which confirmed that when Formula One is good it is very, very good, the BAR-Honda driver lost with honour.
Schumacher boiled away from pole position in his Ferrari, and as Juan Pablo Montoya fudged his start, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Jarno Trulli and David Coulthard took up the cudgels in a Renault v McLaren pursuit. Raikkonen was pushing Schumacher hard from a distance of three seconds when he made a spectacular exit at the first corner at the start of lap 14. The main plane of his McLaren's rear wing failed, pitching him into a violent multiple spin and eventual contact with the tyre wall.
Alonso's Renault, Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes and Montoya's Williams-BMW continued to chase Schumacher, but Button was already on their tails. Where they had all stopped to refuel early (laps nine, 10 and 11 respectively), Button went as far as 14, leading for the three laps preceding his stop. He would lead again later, on laps 30 to 34, but by then he had disposed of Montoya (who helped him by briefly running off the road), and Coulthard.
Button's second stop was the prelude to some of the most exciting racing we have seen in a long while. As he rejoined, Alonso swept by to regain second place, and a fabulous duel ensued. First the Englishman tried the inside, then the outside, going into the hairpin. At one stage he nosed ahead, but Alonso had the line for the next corner and went ahead again. Formula One, dull and boring? Not when it's like this.
Sixteen laps later they were at it again, after the final refuelling stops had thrown Button momentarily back into the lead on lap 48. Alonso came barrelling along for an exact repeat of their previous encounter and Button was repelled initially, until finally he forced Alonso to concede, and later the Spaniard faded momentarily with an aerodynamic imbalance problem.
"It was great, very exciting," said Button of the duel. It also confirmed Button's burgeoning class. Despite a loose helmet that, he said, "threatened to choke" him, he kept the pressure on Schumacher until the finish while Alonso nearly succumbed to Coulthard as the Scot underlined that his F1 career is far from over with a fighting drive. Montoya was fifth, ahead of another tense fight involving Mark Webber, who kept his Jaguar in sixth, his former team-mate Antonio Pizzonia, standing in strongly at Williams, and Takuma Sato in the second BAR-Honda.
Button's display, however, overshadowed everything, including Schumacher. Asked if he had had any problems, the champion looked at Button and replied: "Yeah, he's sitting next to me!" Compliments don't come much higher than that.
"It was tough," Schumacher admitted, "but I was always in a safe situation in terms of distance. I couldn't be sure what times Jenson could do, so I was a little bit concerned and was pushing flat out to make sure I didn't leave anything open so I'd might be sorry later."
"Considering that I only expected to be fifth come the end of race, I'm happy," Button said. "This year it's been very difficult for people to come through the field, so I was not holding out too much hope. It wasn't the best first lap of the year, either. I tried to move up but actually moved back after locking my wheels and going off, but it made the race very exciting. It was the best one of my career."
But there was a bitter sweetness to it. "I have to admit that I'm disappointed, too," he added, "because if I had started where I qualified we would have had a good chance to challenge Michael. It's tough to come to terms with that."
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