Michael Schumacher might have won his second consecutive US Grand Prix and his eighth of the 2004 season, but this was one race that could never be described as dull. It began with a series of dramatic incidents, and threw in a disqualification of Juan Pablo Montoya later on as the former Indianapolis 500 winner was fighting for a podium place.
The drama began to unfold even as the cars prepared to leave the grid for the final formation lap, as Montoya's race BMW-Williams malfunctioned and he had to sprint back to the garage to take the spare car. He was forced to start from the pit lane.
There was more drama at the first corner as Fernando Alonso made a great start to run up to third place round the outside of Kimi Raikkonen and Takuma Sato. Further back Cristiano da Matta was squeezed and triggered a chain reaction that accounted for Gianmaria Bruni, Giorgio Pantano, Felipe Massa and Christian Klien. That brought the safety car out until the end of the fifth lap.
No sooner had the safety car gone in at the end of that lap than Schumacher controversially appeared to break the rules by passing Barrichello before the historic line of bricks that is often mistaken for the start/finish line. Interestingly the timing screens in the press room momentarily credited the champion with the lead before reverting to Barrichello, whom Schumacher had certainly passed long before the first corner. The race stewards determined that the champion had done nothing wrong.
Then Alonso made a spectacular exit from third place at the start of the ninth lap when the right rear Michelin tyre rolled off the rim and his Renault crashed heavily. Only moments later Ralf Schumacher's BMW-Williams suffered a similar fate as it exited the final corner, the German spinning through 360 degrees before crashing backwards into the outside wall at more than 360 kmh and then coming to a halt facing the oncoming traffic. Once again the safety car was immediately deployed. That prompted a rash of pit stops as medics rushed to attend to Schumacher Jnr as he sat stunned in the cockpit.
That left the order as: Schumacher (extraordinarily, since he had pitted), Sato, Button, Webber, Montoya, Raikkonen, Barrichello, Trulli, Panis and Heidfeld, and they completed their 15th lap, still behind the safety car, as medics lifted Schumacher Jnr into an ambulance which took him for precautionary checks to the local Methodist Hospital. He was seen moving in the cockpit, but was advised to remain still in case he had sustained any spinal injury. Two laps later reports came through that he was fine and able to move everything.
After momentary torment from the BAR duo of Sato and Button evaporated when they pitted on laps 25 and 24 respectively, Schumacher held an easy lead over Montoya and Barrichello by the 26th lap. A lap later Button's threat disappeared when he parked in the garage.
Schumacher's second pit stop, on the 42nd lap, went like clockwork in 10.3sec, handing the lead back to Barrichello, and now it was a matter of how much advantage the Brazilian could generate before his own stop, which did not come until lap 50. As he left the pits, Schumacher just swept ahead, and over the next lap Barrichello came so close to re-passing his team leader that Schumacher was obliged to administer a ruthless chop to keep him behind. It was vintage Schumacher, but the vast American crowd certainly appreciated seeing the two red cars after the débâcle in 2002 when Schumacher clumsily handed victory to his team-mate as they crossed the finish line.
Behind them Montoya was busy fighting Trulli and Sato for third when he was suddenly shown the black flag on lap 58 for illegally transferring to the spare car, and Sato's dramatic passing move on Trulli two laps later saw both slipping on to the grass before gathering themselves up. There was also heartache for Mark Webber when his Jaguar's engine blew up on lap 60 when he was running in a points-scoring seventh place, and for Giancarlo Fisichella who had earlier run ahead of him until being slowed by a puncture.
Through it all Olivier Panis came through for fifth place for Toyota, in his 150th Grand Prix, and he was followed home by the McLarens of Raikkonen and Coulthard and Zsolt Baumgartner's Minardi.
"I'm very pleased to win," Schumacher said, "but it was not a nice feeling for me to race after seeing Ralf's car with all the medics around it. Fortunately the team was able to tell me on the radio that he was OK."
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