One lap, just one lap and Michael Schumacher is already faster than the pole position of 2003. Then Rubens Barrichello breaks loose. Friday 18 June 2004 the first day on the track in Indianapolis begins according to the script inaugurated in March in Melbourne and recited with little variation from Malaysia to Canada, passing through Bahrain and four European stops. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, symbolic place of motoring, the Ferraris immediately set the pace. At the end of the first session, Rubens Barrichello sets the fastest lap time on 1'11"354, in the second he drops to 1'10"365. It queues who can: Anthony Davidson, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ralf Schumacher - protagonist of three off-track exits and a spin - separated by 0.6 seconds, then Jenson Button at 0.8 seconds. The others are over a second. Giorgio Pantano is back on track, who settled the bill with Eddie Jordan, alongside Timo Glock, who replaced him in Montreal and scored two points. Rubens Barrichello comments satisfied:
"I'm fine and the car too. Who win? I always try".
And Michael Schumacher raises:
"I have a feeling that we are stronger than we expected".
The American public loves Ferrari, which has its main market in the United States, and Juan Pablo Montoya, who in 1999 was champion in Formula Cart and in 2000 triumphed precisely in the legendary Indy 500. On Friday 20,000 people attend free practice. The interest in Formula 1 is far from fanaticism, but there are tickets for 100 dollars, there are European immigrants, it is still a major international event, and that is enough every year to crowd the stands. In 2000, spectators reached a record 220.000. It was the return of Formula 1 to the United States since 1991, when it was raced in Phoenix. Formula 1 had already been at Indy between 1950 and 1960: at the time the Indy 500 awarded points for the World Championship, but the European drivers did not cross the ocean to participate (Alberto Ascari entered in 1952 without too much luck). The circuit is almost one hundred years old: it was built in 1909 and hosted the first Indy 500 in 1911, won by Ray Harroun at an average speed of 120.6 km/h. It originally had a very bumpy stone and tar pavement. A series of fatal accidents led the organizers to replace it with a fund of bricks, which earned the plant the definition of brickyard. As performance increased, even bricks became dangerous and at the beginning of the 50s they gave way to asphalt. Only one strip of bricks remained on the main straight. In 2002, hurtling towards yet another victory of the season, Michael Schumacher mistook it for the finish line and lifted his foot off the accelerator a fraction of a second too soon. The arrival of the two cars from Maranello on parade awarded victory to Rubens Barrichello by a handful of thousandths of a second. The two Scuderia Ferrari drivers are relaxed. Rubens Barrichello feels like the anti-Schumacher and, like every year, he begins to get in shape in the middle of the season (the United States Grand Prix is the ninth of eighteen rounds of the 2004 World Championship). Michael Schumacher is back from three days of vacation after the race in Canada and appears relaxed and determined as and more than ever. The States load him. Here he won in 2000 and 2003. Only Hakkinen in 2001 managed to break the dominance of Scuderia Ferrari.
"I had a nice lap on Harley Davidson. Can't wait to run. The track isn't the most demanding, but I've always found a special atmosphere there".
The layout is different from the American formulas: the oval is covered halfway and in reverse. The rest is an internal circuit, made up of tight bends and short accelerations that would exalt a go kart.
"Since the beginning of the championship, everything has gone very well. Last year things had always been a little more difficult. Now they go the way I like it".
Saturday 19th June 2004, although the players change, the music is always the same. After five pole positions (out of eight), Michael Schumacher gives way to Rubens Barrichello. The front row of the United States Grand Prix is red, Ferrari remains unapproachable. Rubinho returns to dominate qualifying after eight months of waiting: the last time was in the triumphal epilogue of 2003 in Suzuka. The Brazilian says the secret - in addition to an exceptional car - is his left foot. He was the only one in Formula 1 - together with Olivier Panis - to brake with his right hand, as they teach at driving school. Now he has learned to use his left foot, as taught by Michael Schumacher, master of this technique that you learn on go karts.
"I've become like those players who score with both feet".
Rubinho says jokingly. Whatever the trick, the Brazilian conquered the tenth pole position of his career in Indianapolis, in the number 172 of the Scuderia Ferrari. Rubens Barrichello smiles and hugs Michael Schumacher while everyone compliments him. The Brazilian driver is more than happy. For many reasons. He is ahead of his teammate and in pole position.
"Amazing. Because we are here, in one of the temples of motoring, because there are so many Brazilian fans. As I spun around I could almost feel myself cheering. It was a special moment".
Thanks only to the pilot?
"I'm fit, but it's obvious that this Ferrari is very good. I was able to improve in each practice session".
And also to be faster than Michael...
"Honestly, he made more progress compared to Friday. But it wasn't easy. Before qualifying we changed something on the car, the wind was also blowing in a different direction. In a certain sense, I no longer had the points of reference that I had previously taken. I drove instinctively, always at the limit, and I managed to not make any mistakes".
Can i aim for victory?
"In Montreal I was very close to Schumi, starting from behind him. This time I'll start in front and on the right side of the track. Sure: I'll try to conquer the first place I've been missing since last year".
To hit the target Rubinho will not only have to overcome his rivals, but also keep his teammate behind. However, he accepts the challenge:
"Barrichello deserved the pole position. He was better and faster. I had grip problems in the central part of the track, my car had a bit of oversteer. At one point, when I returned to the pits, I realized that Rubens would be faster than me and I was also afraid of losing second place as well. It went well, I'm happy, even if it's clear that I would have liked to be the best. The race? It will depend on many factors, as usual: on the strategies, on the tyres, on the unknowns to face. But until now we have always shown that we are competitive, living up to expectations in every race, and I don't see why we shouldn't be competitive in Indianapolis as well".
The prediction in favor of the Maranello team is obligatory, with a preference for Rubens Barrichello, who has been the fastest since Friday's free practice. Strategies should be similar for all top teams. Three stops are probable, even if Bridgestone, which for the United States Grand Prix managed to create a tire that manages to be fast from the first lap, is more resistant than Michelin. Sauber-Petronas should take advantage of this, having loaded the tanks of the single-seaters of Giancarlo Fisichella (P14) and Felipe Massa (P15) with petrol, in the hope of getting out of range. Behind the Ferraris are two other pairs: the BAR-Hondas of Takuma Sato and Jenson Button, then the Williams-Bmw with Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher. The current balances of the World Championship are faithfully reflected. Behind were the Renaults, who were expecting little from this long North American trip to the fast circuits of Montreal and Indianapolis. Bad luck remembers Jarno Trulli: the gearbox doesn't work and the Italian driver will be forced to start from the last position on the starting grid.
"The gears didn't go up or down and he had a lot of other problems".
Things are better for Fernando Alonso, who in any case continues to hover in mid-table positions: ninth place, just under a second off pole position. Takuma Sato made no mistakes and was very fast, two situations that he rarely manages to reconcile. The Japanese rider announces that he will attack from the first corner. However, the Japanese was also the protagonist of a collision on Friday, in an ambitious attempt to overtake a rider on the inside who had now entered the corner with the canonical narrow trajectory. The unfortunate person on duty was Felipe Massa, who called him crazy. And with British humour, the technical director of Scuderia Ferrari, Ross Brawn, coined the expression make a Sato, to indicate an impossible overtaking. The audience was lukewarm, down on previous editions. There is a medium alarm regarding possible terrorist attacks, but the security forces apply the stricter procedures foreseen for the orange alarm.
"However, we will not discriminate against racial or ethnic origins".
Assures a police spokesman in the name of political correctness. Meanwhile, with the beginning of summer, the helmet market also begins. Truili will remain at Renault: the announcement will be made at Magny-Cours, the future of Fernando Alonso must also be communicated. The renewal of the Spaniard's contract is also probable, even if this year he has suffered from competition from his teammate. Alternatively, Mark Webber (who is one of the pilots managed by Flavio Briatore) from Jaguar would arrive. Webber has a particular clause: if by August Jaguar isn't among the top six teams (now it's ninth), he will be able to terminate the contract. Together with Jacques Villeneuve he could end up at Williams: if one of the two negotiations fails, there would be a chance for Giancarlo Fisichella. On Sunday 20 June 2004, before the start of the United States Grand Prix, Juan Pablo Montoya was unable to start his single-seater due to a technical problem. The Colombian gets out of the car and reaches the pits, to then get into the reserve car. However, the car is replaced when there are less than fifteen seconds left before the start of the starting procedure and for this reason the Williams driver will be disqualified on lap 57. The two Ferraris get off to a good start, with Rubens Barrichello maintaining the lead race ahead of Michael Schumacher. Behind them is Fernando Alonso, who parades several drivers on the outside, conquering the third position. In the mid-pack, Cristiano da Matta slowed down to avoid contact with his teammate, but was in turn rear-ended by Christian Klien. The accident also involves Felipe Massa, Giorgio Pantano and Gianmaria Bruni, who retire immediately. Cristiano Da Matta reaches the pits, but his car has irreparable damage to the gearbox, which forces him to retire shortly after. To allow marshals to clean the track of debris and remove the damaged cars, the safety car enters the track. Behind the safety car, in order, Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Takuma Sato, Kimi Räikkönen, Jenson Button, Ralf Schumacher and Olivier Panis. The safety car returned to the pits on lap 5: on the restart, Michael Schumacher attacked his teammate, flanking him on the finish straight and overtaking him at the first corner.
The German driver crosses the finish line just 0.013 seconds behind Rubens Barrichello, thus not violating the rule that requires drivers to keep their positions up to the finish line after the safety car goes out. Further back, Fernando Alonso holds position on Takuma Sato. However, on lap eight, the right rear tire exploded on the Spaniard's car, perhaps due to debris left on the track after the collision at the start. The Renault driver loses control of his single-seater, which however stops in the wide run-off area of the first corner, without impacting the barriers. During lap 9, Ralf Schumacher's car got a puncture in the rear left tyre, probably again due to debris: the German spun and crashed into the wall in the last corner before the finish line. The collision, which occurred with the rear of the single-seater, was very violent and Ralf Schumacher was taken to hospital. Fortunately no serious injuries will be diagnosed. The safety car was used again to allow assistance to the German driver and to remove his car, which was parked in the middle of the track. Almost all the drivers took the opportunity to anticipate the first refueling, with the exception of Takuma Sato, Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Webber. However, the choice of these drivers does not fully pay off because the time saved with the less stop is compensated by the time lost to cross the stretch of track strewn with debris; furthermore, the track restoration operations took a long time, so much so that Mark Webber was forced to stop with the safety car still on the track, slipping to last position. Michael Schumacher therefore maintained the first position, while Rubens Barrichello slipped to seventh place, having had to follow his teammate in the pits. The safety car returned to the pits on lap 19, leaving Michael Schumacher ahead of Takuma Sato, Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Räikkönen, Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli and Olivier Panis. There were no overtakings at the restart, but Takuma Sato and Jenson Button, driving rather light cars, managed to keep up with Michael Schumacher's pace. The two refuel on lap 25 and lap 24 respectively, returning to the track in the middle of the group. The English driver retired three laps later due to engine failure, while Takuma Sato, back on track in the rear, overtook David Coulthard, Giancarlo Fisichella and Nick Heidfeld in sequence, quickly moving up to sixth place.
During lap 35 Juan Pablo Montoya also refueled, having climbed up to second position. Michael Schumacher continues to lead the race ahead of Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, Olivier Panis, Takuma Sato, Juan Pablo Montoya and Nick Heidfeld. Meanwhile, Kimi Räikkönen was forced to return to the pits twice to fill the pneumatic valve opening system with air, sliding to the rear. During lap 39 Takuma Sato overtook Olivier Panis, moving into fourth position. During lap 42 Michael Schumacher also refueled, thus moving into third position. In the following laps Takuma Sato, Jarno Trulli and Olivier Panis also returned to the pits; during lap 50 Rubens Barrichello also returned to the pits, and when he left, he was just behind his teammate, Michael Schumacher. After the Brazilian's pit stop, Michael Schumacher took the lead again ahead of Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jarno Trulli, Takuma Sato, Olivier Panis, Mark Webber, Kimi Räikkönen and David Coulthard, forced to make an additional pit stop to clear debris from his car. The Colombian Williams driver refueled on lap 57, rejoining the track in fifth place. Immediately after, however, he is shown the black flag, for having abandoned the starting grid less than fifteen seconds from the start of the start procedure; at the end of the race the slowness of the marshals in making this decision will be questioned. On lap 60 Mark Webber also retired due to an engine problem: therefore only nine riders remained in the race. During lap 61 Takuma Sato overtook Jarno Trulli, moving into third position. In the final laps Giancarlo Fisichella was forced to slow down due to a hydraulic problem; then Zsolt Baumgartner moves into eighth position. Michael Schumacher wins the United States Grand Prix and takes his eighth victory of the season. The German precedes Rubens Barrichello and Takuma Sato at the finish line. For the BAR-Honda rider it is the first and only podium in his career, as well as the first Japanese to climb it after Aguri Suzuki in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. Jarno Trulli, Olivier Panis, Kimi Räikkönen, David Coulthard and Zsolt Baumgartner complete the group of riders at the finish line. The latter is the first Hungarian driver to score points in the history of Formula 1 and brings Minardi back into the points for the first time since the 2002 Australian Grand Prix. Scuderia Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, another installment of a film which always the same ending.
Indianapolis celebrates the eighth seasonal triumph of an invincible and insatiable driver, who doesn't give a meter of track to his teammate, who doesn't lose his head passing nine times, following the safety car, next to the ambulance that is rescuing the Brother. Michael Schumacher is on his way to conquering his seventh world title - luckily no one claims that he has virtually already won it - with a superiority that no driver has ever managed to impose. Anything can happen behind him, so much he is in front, away from trouble. He protects Rubens Barrichello's first place at the start, while Takuma Sato paws and tries to sneak in. Then he takes it away on the restart behind the safety car. The Brazilian claims that his car suddenly lost grip, but it was his job to use the rubber band to gain a few meters of advantage before the fast race resumed. Barrichello attempted a decisive attack again (lap 51) and the other responded harshly. The two cars from Maranello brushed against each other, Rubinho had to give up and correct his trajectory. Then he didn't try anymore. Maybe he understood that he was too risky, maybe they told him from the pits. On the podium he doesn't seem so happy. The race was played out at the first refueling, when all the drivers returned to the pits because the safety car was back on track: he was behind his teammate and had to queue up. It was a dramatic Grand Prix: nine cars on the finish line, chain accidents in the first part, Ralf Schumacher in hospital. The first twist is for Juan Pablo Montoya, who abandons the starting grid because the Bmw engine doesn't start and runs to the pits to take the reserve car, with less than 15 seconds left before the start of the formation lap: he will be disqualified for this…
Then the race starts: Pantano, Klien, Massa and Bruni collide at the first corner. It wouldn't be a serious loss, but the carbon pieces scattered on the asphalt are a danger to the tyres. Bad luck hit Alonso, who punctured the right rear tire on lap 9, crashed into the wall at the end of the straight, where the speed exceeded 340 km/h, disintegrated a polystyrene sign and left other wreckage on the road. At the next lap the third, terrible accident of the day: at the entrance to the main straight (over 300 km/h) Ralf spun into the guards. The safety car returns to the track together with the ambulance. The impact takes place against the walls that delimit the American oval circuits and which are supported by a spring system that cushions the impacts. But Formula 1 races at Indianapolis in the opposite direction to the Indy 500 and there are no shock absorbers at the point where Ralf crashed. When the race resumes the lead games are decided. The latest skirmish is between the two Ferrari drivers: a bit of interest for the 120.000 spectators accustomed to overtaking in American races. Ferrari leaves North America - and in particular the United States, which is the main market for road cars - with an extraordinary return to its image. Opponents flounder. And yet, two dark faces can be seen, in joy for the sixth Ferrari-branded one-two of the season. Michael Schumacher still hasn't got over his great anxiety about his brother Ralf's accident. Rubens Barrichello, on the other hand, is disappointed, after only looking forward to his first victory of the season, and in a prestigious Grand Prix like the United States. But the great satisfaction prevails throughout the team at having confirmed with the Ferrari F2004 a superiority that has lasted since the beginning of the year and which only slowed down briefly in Monte-Carlo, when Trulli won. Michael Schumacher, from the height of his results and 80 points in the standings, does not comment on the outcome of the World Championship, preferring to tell a very difficult day:
"My biggest concern was for Ralf. I immediately saw that there was a semi-destroyed Williams on the track and I didn't understand who it was, because I didn't know where Montoya was. Then they informed me that he was my brother. I was shocked, I was constantly asking for information. After a while they told me it wasn't serious, that Ralf hadn't been injured. Only then did I calm down. Even if in my memories of the past, on similar occasions related to an accident, they sometimes told me that nothing had happened and it wasn't true".
Wouldn't it be better to put protections, piles of tires as elsewhere, to avoid impacts against the walls?
"No, it would be worse, it could get stuck underneath, with terrible effects. The walls of Indianapolis, in the areas where the track could go off, have a device that makes them absorbent, thanks to the springs on the inside. However, the Formula 1 race takes place in the opposite direction to those of American cars and this system does not work, because the impact takes place in other points. But these walls are always better than other protections".
Then Michael Schumacher analyzes the race, always in contained tones, apart from the beginning:
"An extraordinary result. But it was tough. the overtaking over Barrichello? I know from experience that when the safety car comes into the pits at this track there is no time to think. I slowed down a bit and prepared well. I slipstreamed from Rubens' car and overtook him. I didn't know what the situation was like behind it and I had to push hard".
In fact, there was no respite from his rivals, especially his teammate.
"Barrichello and I had two different strategies. Seeing what happened, with the safety car on the track, we changed them during the race. It was crucial to come back immediately after Ralf's accident. We went through the pit lane, while the others had to slow down in the midst of the debris left on the asphalt. I was able to restart in first position".
Did Schumacher expect such a decisive attack from Rubinho?
"I realized he could do it. It has been difficult. I had just fitted new tyres. In these cases, in the first two laps, you are not very fast and you have to be careful not to cause abnormal deterioration of the tyres, so as not to have problems later in the race".
Was it also difficult to repel the assaults of Sato's BAR?
"He put a lot of pressure on us, we didn't have a moment to breathe, apart from the very last laps. Right now BAR is the most competitive opponent".
Rubens Barrichello was also a fierce rival this weekend: pole position and great speed in the race. Precisely for this reason, the Brazilian said he was very disappointed:
"I thought I was going to win. I had success in hand, I am bitter. A brilliant result for the team, not for me. It burns me more than Canada and other rides. Michael however was as usual very good. When he passed me, my tires were cold and I spun them on the restart, as soon as the safety car returned to the pits. I had no chance to resist, even though my Ferrari was very fast. There was also some confusion at the first stop. But I think I lost the race in the second pit stop. I was hit by a detached deflector from Fisichella's Sauber. I was afraid something would break and I slowed down, leaving precious seconds. If this little crash hadn't happened, I would have been back on track in front of Michael, and he would never have passed me again. But sooner or later I'll win too".
However, the general director of Scuderia Ferrari, Jean Todt explains:
"An important result, because the American market is vital for Ferrari. A very intense race, unfortunately also dramatic at times. Luckily everything resolved without serious problems. Stronger than 2002? The only sure thing is that we have won eight out of nine races so far. But the championship is still long, we have just reached the halfway point".
It was a dramatic race for Ralf Schumacher, protagonist of a terrible accident: the German driver risked being seriously injured, even if the doctors' response seems reassuring in the end. It was since 2 September 2001, when the Brazilian Luciano Burli went off the track in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa with his Jaguar, that in Formula 1 he hadn't experienced a similar fear.
The Italian-born rider suffered a head injury on that occasion and remained in hospital for several days before recovering. In Indianapolis Ralf Schumacher had a dramatic spin under full acceleration entering the pit straight. After a couple of carambolas, his Williams shattered against the concrete wall outside the track and then bounced inside. Luckily, the impact occurred with the rear part of the single-seater, the more robust and protected one. Moments of terror, however. Ralf at first showed no signs of life and uncertainty about his condition increased because radio transmissions with the team were interrupted. While the safety car intervened to slow down the other competitors, who were passing on the debris of the Williams anyway, Ralf Schumacher raised his arm at the request of the course marshals, at least making it clear that he was not serious. Emergency doctors entered the circuit with an ambulance, a tractor to remove the damaged car, and a vehicle to clean the asphalt. It took about ten minutes to get Ralf Schumacher out of the cockpit. The pilot was loaded onto a stretcher. The doctors, led by the expert Professor Sid Walkins, scrambled around the injured man together with the nurses. Then Ralf Schumacher was blocked with straps to avoid further trauma. The ambulance left towards the internal rescue centre, while the public sportily applauded the perpetrators of the intervention and also the pilot. The news came in piecemeal fashion. A lot of tension obviously at Williams. Michael Schumacher also had difficult moments: leading the race behind the safety car, the Ferrari driver passed by the scene of his brother's accident. The World Champion turned his head, looking at the scene, but above all he radioed Ross Brawn and Jean Todt to get detailed information. The men from the Maranello team relayed to the Williams garage and passed on to Michael all the news that was gradually being provided by the medical centre. The first unofficial bulletin reported reassuring information:
"Ralf Schumacher undergoes a CT scan. He moves all his limbs and appears to have suffered no fractures. He is conscious and speaks. But when they asked him for what reasons he went off the track, he replied that he remembered absolutely nothing".
The internal hospital of the American circuit is particularly equipped to help injured drivers, in fact during the Formula 1 races, including the famous Indy 500 which is held on this oval, unfortunately, due to the external walls, they often see serious accidents . Ralf was then flown by helicopter to Indianapolis Main Hospital for further checkups. Now more than ever there are many clouds over the future of German. Sunday night Frank Williams says:
"Ralf will be in the hospital for many days".
Although she survived with many bruises and various abrasions. Even if the first diagnosis will be confirmed, Ralf Schumacher, who is seventh in the standings with 12 points, will hardly be able to resume activity in the next race at Magny Cours, Sunday 4 July 2004. The answer will only be forthcoming in the next few days . Overall it went well for him. Williams is ready to let Spaniard Marc Gene, the team's official test driver, race. After a night under observation in the Indianapolis hospital, Ralf Schumacher was discharged on Monday, June 21, 2004, at 5:00 p.m. Tuesday he will return to his home in Salzburg. After the great scare in the United States Grand Prix, the Williams driver, who doesn't remember anything about the impact against the wall, underwent a series of medical checks. The diagnosis:
"He has only bruises and muscle pain, especially in the back".
Meanwhile, already enraged by Fernando Alonso's accident, which forced him to retire, Flavio Briatore accuses Jarno Trulli of having wasted an opportunity to conquer a reachable podium:
"He had to resist Sato's assault, we told him to push on the radio".
Yet Jarno Trulli, for the eighth time in the points in 2004, had a great race starting from the last position after having missed qualifying on Saturday due to a gearbox problem. He made a myriad of overtaking moves before giving in to the Japanese
"In the final stages, the car didn't allow me to push. There was nothing to do, I had grip problems. And that caused me to make a fatal mistake, just as Sato was trying to pass me. I ran slightly wide and he passed. We haven't been touched by a whisker. All in all I am satisfied. It was a tough race. However we are always progressing, we will still be protagonists in the next appointments. I'm sorry for Alonso, I think he was very scared, but luckily these cars are extraordinary, the survival cell is resistant to impacts exceeding 300 km/h".
It had been since the first race in 2002, in Australia, when Mark Webber finished fifth, that Minardi hadn't scored in the points. He took one thanks to Zsolt Baumgartner, the first Hungarian driver in Formula 1, classified eighth with three laps behind. A fair reward for the team from Faenza which fights not only with giant opponents, but also against the management of its current owner, the Australian Paul Stoddart, who invests very little in the team. The technicians led by Gabriele Tredozi work wonders, but there is often a lack of spare parts and those available have mileage beyond the norm. The team, among other things, has only three power steering systems at its disposal. If one breaks down the pilots can be forced to drive without this assistance, with a lot of effort. The point won is precious, but it may not have a positive effect on Minardi's future.