Schumacher crowned king of the desert

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The Independent Online

The Bahraini Crown Prince HRH Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his host of royal visitors in Sakhir yesterday all lived in hope of seeing a proper motor race at their opulent £100m circuit. And that's precisely what Juan Pablo Montoya, Jenson Button, Takuma Sato and Fernando Alonso helped to serve up for them.

King Abdullah of Jordan, the Sultan of Brunei, King Juan Carlos of Spain, HRH Prince Andrew the Duke of York, Prince Albert of Monaco, Prince Hans-Adam of Lichtenstein and HRH Sheikh Maktoum Hasha Maktoum Al Maktoum from Dubai all felt the thrill of competition and the disappointment as Montoya faded down the field in the closing laps, leaving Button to roar home to another podium finish to the intense delight of a BAR Honda team that are on the rise in no uncertain terms.

Earlier in the race, the first Formula One event to be held in the Middle East and the first in an Arabic country since the Moroccan Grand Prix of 1958, Button had had to fight his way past team-mate Sato, and each BAR driver had a taste of leading during the first round of pit-stops, Sato on lap 11, Button on lap 12.

Sato's race began to come unstuck when he and Ralf Schumacher came together in the second corner while disputing fourth place, as Sato resisted the German's overtaking move. Perhaps he might have been wiser to concede the position and not to accelerate into a closing gap, but Sato is a racer and afterwards the stewards curiously gave the German the rap on the knuckles. Unfathomable.

This let Button close up after getting blocked - ironically by Schumacher Jnr - at the start, and when Sato slid over a kerb and damaged his front wing, the Englishman pounced on lap 17. He then dealt with Jarno Trulli's Renault during their third and final pit-stops, and set out after Montoya's BMW-Williams. Towards the end the Colombian slowed dramatically as his car lost all but fourth gear, and he would slide to 13th-place oblivion by the finish. As an anguished Patrick Head, the technical director of Williams, observed the coup de grace along the pit straight on the 49th lap, Button was yelling into his radio.

"Pedal to the metal!" he cried as he overtook the man who usurped him at Williams at the end of 2000.

"What, say again?" came frantic radio signals from his pit crew who, not having heard him distinctly, feared he was reporting some sort of mechanical problem of his own.

"Everything is okay, everything is okay," Button told them soothingly. And so it was. He had driven a pluperfect race that once again marks him as a potential future champion, never putting a wheel wrong and never getting flustered when Sato was running ahead of him.

"It's fantastic to be on the podium again so soon after Malaysia," Button said. "It was a great first race here and a brilliant result for the team. They have done another fantastic job this weekend and it's great to be lying third in the drivers' championship. We are still only three races into our relationship with Michelin so we're still learning a lot about the package, but it's really starting to come together now."

Sato lost a lot of ground after stopping for a new front wing, but charged back through the field and resisted everything Alonso threw at him. The Spaniard's own race had been compromised by his qualifying gaffes and then by a first-lap pit call for a new nose after he sustained damaged in the early traffic. Sato earned his spurs in style by keeping his cool to the end.

Montoya's problems also promoted Trulli, Sato and Alonso to fourth, fifth and sixth, while Ralf Schumacher battled back to seventh place and the final point went to Mark Webber's Jaguar.

The only problem was that - you guessed it - all the frantic action that was prompted by the circuit design and a generally low level of grip took place a very long way behind the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. Their red sea flooded the desert. After eight laps Schumacher had a 5.3sec lead over Barrichello, who in turn was 7.8secs ahead of Montoya, their nearest follower. Schumacher was the first to pit, on lap nine, followed a lap later by Barrichello and Montoya. Once the fast BAR Hondas of Sato and Button had had their turns leading, the Ferraris resumed their command.

Schumacher stopped again on lap 24, handing the lead to Barrichello until the Brazilian stopped on lap 27, then took over again until his final pit call on lap 41. Rubens led again on laps 42 and 43, then Michael went back ahead as Rubens refuelled.

"It is the dream result at the end of a superb weekend," Schumacher said after spraying the local fruit drink warrd rather than champagne in celebration of his 73rd triumph, and Ferrari's 63rd 1-2.

Most of the time the Ferraris were around 12sec apart, but the gap was down to 1.367sec at the end as Schumacher backed off in a style reminiscent of 2002.

We all know how good that was for Formula One.

RACE DETAILS

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 28min 34.875sec

2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:28:36.242

3 J Button (GB) BAR 1:29:01.562

4 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:29:07.089; 5 T Sato (Japan) BAR 1:29:27.335; 6 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:29:28.031; 7 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:29:33.030; 8 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1 lap behind; 9 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1 lap; 10 C da Matta (Br) Toyota 1 lap; 11 G Fisichella (It) Sauber 1 lap; 12 F Massa (Br) Sauber 1 lap; 13 J-P Montoya (Col) Williams 1 lap; 14 C Klien (Aus) Jaguar 1 lap; 15 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan 1 lap; 16 G Pantano (It) Jordan 2 laps; 17 G Bruni (It) Minardi 5 laps. Not classified: D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 50 laps completed; Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi 44 laps; K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren 7 laps.

Constructors Standings: 1 Ferrari 51pts; 2 Renault 22; 3 BAR 19; 4 Williams 19; 5 McLaren 4; 6 Sauber, Jaguar 1.

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