Not even fire can stop the Ferrari

Schumacher overcomes blaze in pits to lift team to top of constructors' table for first time this season
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The Independent Online

Ferrari moved into the lead of the constructors' world championship for the first time this season as Michael Schumacher scored the 67th victory of his career here yesterday, but only after the world champion had undergone trial by flood and fire.

After two attempts to start the race had to be aborted when the Brazilian driver Cristiano da Matta twice stalled his Toyota on the grid, due to a problem with the electronics, Schumacher rocketed away from the fast-starting Juan Pablo Montoya at such a rate that he appeared to be running a three-stop, light fuel load, strategy compared to the Colombian's two.

But he was not. After 15 sensational laps Schumacher had built a lead of 10.6 seconds, but almost as quickly lost it as rain fell on parts of the track. As had happened in the opening race in Australia, Michelin's grooved tyres had an advantage in such conditions and Montoya quickly reeled in the Ferrari. When Montoya refuelled on lap 20 he was only three seconds adrift.

Both Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, in second place, pitted three laps later. The Finn's stop went smoothly, but the German met with near disaster. During his team-mate Rubens Barrichello's stop there had been a problem with his rig, so the Ferrari pit crew had used Schumacher's; on Schumacher's stop there was still some fuel in the nozzle, and as it dripped on to the car there was a sudden fire, with flames licking round the side of the cockpit and the end of the fuel hose. With incredible coolness Schumacher resisted any temptation to bale out. The Ferrari crew does regular fire drills and quickly had the blaze under control.

"I could see the fire," Schumacher said. "Maybe the mechanics thought I was cold and wanted to warm me up! But the team did a good job to control the situation, reacting quickly with the fire extinguishers. I did wonder how serious the problem was." He lost just 10 seconds before rejoining, nonchalantly wiping extinguisher foam from his visor as he left the pit lane.

This drama left Montoya in the lead by three seconds from Raikkonen, but the previous evening McLaren-Mercedes had successfully appealed to the race stewards for permission to replace two valves on Raikkonen's engine, rather than start him from the back again after fitting a fresh unit. This meant he was not able to use full revs and Schumacher quickly closed in.

Just as it seemed that BMW-Williams' fortunes were finally changing, Montoya's engine blew up on lap 32. From the start the telemetry had indicated that a standard-issue water pressure regulator valve was malfunctioning and the cooling system had been losing water. Montoya, who had already had an altercation with Schumacher as they jockeyed for position when the safety car prepared to come in at the end of lap four after it had been deployed on lap two, was fit to be tied.

On that very lap Schumacher got a good run on Raikkonen as they swept down to the Remus corner, and was able to slip through into second on the inside line. By the end of the lap he found himself back in the lead and quickly began pulling away from the McLaren. By the time Schumacher was ready to refuel again on the 42nd lap he had the race in the bag, and this time everything went to plan. He maintained a comfortable lead for the rest of the race, which was shortened from 71 to 69 laps after the two aborted starts.

Barrichello drove a hard race to push Raikkonen all the way. Where Schumacher had chosen harder tyres, the Brazilian had opted for softer Bridgestones, but since he was in company with other cars for most of the race he was unable to exploit any advantage. Barrichello nosed ahead of Raikkonen on the 67th lap, but the Finn had the inside line for the next corner and moved back into second. By the flag they were 3.4sec behind Schumacher as the champion eased up, and only 0.589sec apart.

Jenson Button was in contention for a strong finish throughout, and duly came home fourth for BAR-Honda, but his team-mate Jacques Villeneuve lost his chance of points after his car suffered electronics problems and stalled during his second stop. "I had a great race," Button said. "I matched my best race finish. We earned our result, it wasn't just a fluke."

David Coulthard battled with a nervous McLaren to climb from his lowly 14th place on the grid to fifth, moving ahead of Ralf Schumacher after the latter had slid wideon lap 57. "I had a tough race," he said, "with a lot of battles, overtakings and heavy traffic."

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 24min 4.888sec (ave speed 213.003kph/133.127mph)
2 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +3.362sec
3 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +3.951sec
4 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda +42.243sec
5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +59.740sec
6 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW +one lap
7 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar +one lap
8 J Trulli (It) Renault +one lap
9 A Pizzonia (Br) Jaguar +one lap; 10 C da Matta (Br) Toyota +one lap; 11 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Ford +one lap; 12 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda +one lap; 13 J Wilson (GB) Minardi-Ford +two laps.

Did not finish: G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford 60 laps completed; F Alonso (Sp) Renault 46 laps; N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 44 laps; J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 32 laps; O Panis (Fr) Toyota 6 laps; J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi-Ford 0 laps.

Did not start: H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas.

Fastest lap: Schumacher, 1min 8.337sec (lap 41)

Manufacturers' Championship standings: 1 Ferrari 64pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 63; 3 Renault 35; 4 Williams-BMW 35; 5 Jordan-Cosworth 11; 6 BAR Honda 11; 7 Sauber-Petronas 8; 8 Jaguar 4; 9 Toyota 3.