Jenson Button may not have won the San Marino Grand Prix here yesterday - who can resist Michael Schumacher and Ferrari this season? - but the Englishman underlined his growing status with another smooth and competitive performance as he chased the world champion all the way to the chequered flag.
The BAR-Honda driver startled his rivals with a dominant performance in qualifying, forcing the great Schumacher into an error. And at the start he did what Schumacher normally does, sprinted away and by the end of the opening lap led by 2.7sec. Schumacher came under intense pressure from Juan-Pablo Montoya, and afterwards they traded verbal blows.
Through the swerves of the modified Tamburello corner (where Ayrton Senna was killed), Montoya eased ahead under braking. Schumacher immediately retaliated. When Montoya tried to go the long way round in the Tosa hairpin, Schumacher widened his line and squeezed the Colombian on to the grass. Montoya lost momentum and had to squeeze his own team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, on to the grass to keep third place. Schumacher Minor was about as happy with him as Montoya was with his brother.
"He hit my sidepod," Montoya said of the Ferrari driver, "and says he didn't see me. I don't know. All I know is that at Indianapolis last year when I touched with Barrichello I got a drive-through penalty and that killed my chances of the title. Without that I could have been world champion already. He does that to me here and he gets away with it. It's unfair really. It should be the same for everybody. Whether they are Michael Schumacher or anybody."
Schumacher listened to all this with a stern face. "I saw his attack outside when we were braking, but I didn't see him after that," he said. "When you go round the outside generally you lose ground, so I didn't expect him to be there any more."
His face became sterner as the video replay was then shown. "Oh yeah, look, for sure he didn't see me there!" Montoya baited, sarcastically. "I've done it before outside there. I understand that he's got to defend his position, but how far are you going to go and how far are you allowed to go?"
The interlude underlined the difficulty drivers face trying to overtake here. Schumacher's team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, spent all afternoon looking at somebody's gearbox and rear wing - first Ralf Schumacher's, then later Jarno Trulli's. And Ralf's attempts to defend fourth place against an attacking Fernando Alonso resulted in his Williams spinning when he closed the door at Tosa on the 50th lap. While Alonso went on to harry Montoya home for fourth place, Schumacher Minor had to be content with seventh behind Trulli and Barrichello.
Kimi Raikkonen in a reliable, if not particularly quick, McLaren-Mercedes hung on to beat Giancarlo Fisichella's Sauber-Petronas for the final point, but David Coulthard damaged his front wing on Alonso's Renault in the first corner.
"It was a great day for me," Schumacher said after continuing his perfect score rate for 2004 and adding No 74 to his victory record. "A perfect result that helps me to forget yesterday's mistake!" But it was not any more special, he said, for marking the 10th anniversary of Senna's death. "We come here every year and we think every year of what happened to Roland [Ratzenberger] and Ayrton. So, no, 10 years doesn't make it any more special."
Button, however, did impress him. "He's fully into it, absolutely," Schumacher said. And so he was. Over the years Button has had to take plenty of flak, being accused of being unable to overtake or living a "playboy" lifestyle, but in the last three races he has shown that he has the speed and the flair to win.
And the confidence. All through practice he appeared to have a problem in the final sector, regularly finishing a couple of tenths slower than team-mate Takuma Sato (who lost eighth place yesterday when his engine blew up). As the BAR engineers pondered means of fixing the problem, Button told them not to worry. He was deliberately lifting off because he did not want rivals to know until qualifying just what he had up his sleeve.
"I was a little bit surprised by the gap at the end of the opening lap but didn't really have time to look," he said. "All I saw was the red car disappearing backwards, which was very nice. That was my aim. It's very difficult to overtake here so when Michael was behind me I wasn't too worried, until my first stop. Then he pitted two laps later and suddenly there was a huge gap from him to me. I was quite shocked. But overall I'm very happy. We all know that Ferrari are untouchable in a race, so it's a fantastic result for all of us at BAR-Honda. I'm very happy with my year so far."
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 26min 19.670sec
2 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1.26:29.372
3 J-P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1.26:41.287
4 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1.26:43.324
5 J Trulli (It) Renault 1.26:55.886
6 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1.26:56.353
7 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1.27:15.400
8 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes at 1 lap
9 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas +1; 10 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas +1; 11 O Panis (Fr) Toyota +1; 12 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +1; 13 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar +1; 14 C Klein (Aut) Jaguar +2; 15 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi-Cosworth +4; 16 T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda +6.
Not classified: 17 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan-Cosworth 48 laps; 18 C Da Matta (Br) Toyota 32; 19 G Bruni (It) Minardi-Cosworth 22; 20 G Pantano (It) Jordan-Cosworth 6
Fastest Lap: M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 20.411sec (lap 10).
Manufacturers' Championship Standings: 1 Ferrari 64pts; 2 Renault 31; 3 BAR-Honda 27; 4 Williams-BMW 27; 5 McLaren-Mercedes 5; 6 Sauber-Petronas 1; 7 Jaguar 1.Reuse content