On Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004, on the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix, only an earthquake could shake the calm of the pair Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, one champion, the other deputy. And earthquake it was: 5.6 on the Richter scale. But our heroes are in Tokyo, a city that is as used to tremors as London is to rain: the buildings are all earthquake-proof and the damage is measured in broken dishes and glasses. The reactions of the two? Exactly what one might expect from two such different characters. The German:
"It was 20 minutes to midnight and I was in bed. Suddenly I saw the walls warping as if they were made of rubber and wondered if I had had too much. Then I remembered that I had only had water and realized it was the earthquake".
And what did you do?
"Nothing. I turned away and continued to sleep".
"Unbelievable. Everything shook for 10 seconds. I grabbed my things and threw them in my suitcase. I was ready to escape: the only way was the stairs, because I could not throw myself from the sixth floor. In São Paulo we are not used to such things".
And after that?
"Ah, after that I was even amused. I started calling home and friends to tell them about it".
Having overcome the seismic excitement, the Scuderia Ferrari drivers moved on to Suzuka, where the Japanese Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the World Championship, will be held on Sunday, October 10, 2004. They were having a chat in the circuit paddock when news reached them that a typhoon was looming. According to forecasts it could hit the track between Saturday and Sunday, that is, between qualifying and the race. Well, a downpour is announced.
"Driving in a typhoon is another experience I've never had".
Michael Schumacher comments.
"Tornadoes, earthquakes, but where did I end up?"
Rubens Barrichello replies between ironic and concerned. It is an unnamed typhoon, because it is still forming. For now, meteorologists have given it only one number, 22, as many as have hit the Pacific area this season. In Japan, eight have passed through, an all-time record, leaving behind 80 dead and 20 missing. Last time the wind was blowing at 216 km/h. Overflowing ponds at the Suzuka racetrack flooded some pits, and the water still has not completely drained away. Japan had been the scene of weather-plagued Grand Prix in the past. Recovering from a horrific accident, Niki Lauda lost the title at Fuji in 1976 to James Hunt because he stopped in the pits after a few laps, frightened by the rain, while in 1994 the Suzuka race was interrupted by cloudbursts. Michael Schumacher is optimistic:
"Often the weather forecast is wrong".
Jarno Trulli, who will drive a Toyota for the first time since his divorce from Renault, preaches caution:
"The Federation will not let us race in case of danger".
Rubens Barrichello hopes for a quiet race because he has a small record to defend and grow: he has managed to win two races in a row (Monza and China) and twice on the same circuit (Monza). In addition, he has finished first twice this year:
"As the Italian proverb says, there is no two without three".
However, on Friday, October 8, 2004, Formula 1 enters the eye of the storm. No metaphor: free practice has been canceled, qualifying postponed until Sunday, people invited to lock themselves in their homes for safety reasons until the alarm ceases. Passing over Japan is Ma-On, saddle horse (named after a Hong Kong piceo): it is a typhoon that blows at 180 km/h and in a day dumps 500 to 600 millimeters of rain. Overnight, Ma-On hit the Kii Peninsula, Mie Prefecture, where the Suzuka racetrack is located. Before the typhoon arrived, heavy rain was enough to send drivers into a tailspin. Streams were already flowing on the track. The comment was unanimous:
"Useless to drive in these conditions. If you go fast, you risk going off the track in a straight line".
The drivers themselves asked to avoid a qualifying-car crash, and the race officials wisely decided to run the two sessions on Sunday. Meanwhile, local authorities had already ordered the facility to be closed for safety reasons, while civil defense urged everyone not to go outside. Stalls and tents were removed and equipment crammed into the tiny pits. Power and telephone communication outages have been pre-announced, while the very punctual fast trains will be stopped if conditions become extreme. Once the storm passes, rain is expected to fall. The Japanese Grand Prix is in danger of being canceled due to bad weather. There is no precedent in Formula 1 nor has the eve ritual ever been skipped. It was tormented the weekend at Spa in 1994: everyone forced to test under water and race in dry conditions, then with improvised set-ups. Just at Suzuka the same year the race was interrupted because of a storm and then resumed. In 1996 Michael Schumacher achieved his first victory with the Maranello team in Spain under the deluge. In 2003, a tropical downpour poured over Interlagos, and Giancarlo Fisichella in a Jordan won his only Formula 1 victory. At Suzuka, the penultimate round of a season already decided in favor of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, he could skip any negative record. Ma-On has a diameter of 150 kilometers. Meteorologists explain that it is a small but nasty cyclone that will sow destruction in its path. It is worse than the eight that occurred between June and September. Another anomaly is the period. Locals recount:
"In October we never saw any".
In the course of the evening, satellites photograph Ma On approaching the southern coast of Japan, from where it will rise northward at a speed of 30 km/h. The Circus trusts Japanese efficiency and precision. Michael Schumacher's confidence is unwavering:
"The organizers know about typhoons. I am sure that it will be run only under safe conditions".
Sunday morning the track will partially dry, but dangerous puddles or rivulets may remain. The very wet asphalt favors Bridgestone tires. The two free practice sessions - only 5-6 laps each on average - end with identical rankings: Michael Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello in that order. The top seven even include the Jordans of Nick Heidfeld and Timo Glock.
The values are reversed in the case of wet asphalt: then it is the Michelin cars that dominate. For Rubens Barrichello, there are two cases: either there are conditions to run, or there is no point in starting and then waiting for the safety car to enter the track at the first incident. And even if safety will be guaranteed, he foresees a lottery race:
"The track will dry a little at a time, there will be overtaking, comebacks, emotions".
Michael Schumacher explains why beyond a certain limit Formula 1 cannot go:
"There are no more sculpted tires that guarantee better grip. A production car in these conditions should not exceed 80 km/h. However, we are Formula 1 and we push to the maximum, to the point of aquaplaning. Many have ended up on the grass, including me. Concerned? If I were fighting for the World Championship I would feel a lot of tension. The advantage of the Bridgestones? With certain rain no one has an advantage. The stop day? We will look for a soccer field to organize a tournament".
Protagonist of the craziest Grand Prix in recent years, so much so that not even the Brazilian timekeepers realized he had won, Giancarlo Fisichella remembers with pleasure. Typhoon aside, a light rain Sunday he heartily wishes for it:
"Behind Schumacher was me. With water we go very strong".
And finally he admits:
"Michael wasn't kidding. We really looked for the soccer field, but they told us to forget it".
In the meantime, the F2004 B, the Ferrari that will run the first races of the World Championship next year, has already debuted in testing. It is the current version adapted to the new regulations, which call for a single set of tires for qualifying and the race, a single engine for two consecutive Grands Prix and other changes that reduce aerodynamic load. Admits Michael Schumacher:
"The first impact was negative but that is normal. The new rules are designed to make us go slower. As development has progressed, things have improved".
In the opinion of Scuderia Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn:
"The initial aerodynamic load loss was 25 percent, then we managed to reduce it to 20 percent and we expect to recover up to 15 percent".
"Now two to three seconds more per lap, then we will drop to 1.5 seconds".
Saturday, October 9, 2004 Typhoon Ma-On spares Formula 1. The strongest typhoon in a decade in Japan grazed the Kii Peninsula and the city of Suzuka. It was headed right there, toward the heart of the circuit hosting the Grand Prix, but when it came within a hundred kilometers it turned east, venting its 240 km/h winds and torrential rains into the Ocean.
Then it headed back up toward Tokyo. It rained heavily in Suzuka, but at 2:30 p.m. a ray of sunshine came out. Almost a mockery for the race organizers, who had canceled all Saturday's events, closed the racetrack to the public for safety reasons and dismantled tents and stalls. A mockery gladly accepted because, barring any new precipitation (local meteorologists are no longer trusted by anyone), qualifying and the race are safe. Ma-On is renamed saddle horse for its leniency toward Ferrari. And some jokingly suspect that Bernie Ecclestone enjoys such high favor that he can even influence weather events. Nevertheless, the state of alert remains high.
"There will certainly be racing, although it is difficult to predict track conditions after two days of rain".
Technicians spend an unusual Saturday: first barricaded in the hotel, then wandering through streets, stores and hypermarkets that have neither the charm of Eastern tradition nor the cold beauty of hyper technology. Michael Schumacher forgoes the soccer game he had been pondering, falling back on a more comfortable indoor soccer match with his mechanics and colleagues Rubens Barrichello, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli and Felipe Massa. Then bowling and backgammon. German's comment:
"It was a different way to prepare, but definitely not the worst".
Jacques Villeneuve works out at the gym, Kimi Raikkonen watches television, others bowl with Michael Schumacher at the hotel inside the circuit that hosts the protagonists. Ma-On disasters they see on television: images of flooded roads and subways, stopped trains, wind-bent trees, landslides are aired throughout the day. One of these, in Mie prefecture (where Suzuka is) forces 1.600 people to evacuate. In the Tokyo area, 300 millimeters of water falls in a few hours with one dead, two missing and several injured. Quiet the racetrack area until 4:30 p.m., when it is officially announced that the race would be held. Within a few dozen minutes, a kilometer-long queue formed to buy the last remaining tickets on sale at 9.000 yen, about 70 euros. Already sold out, however, are those for the 220-euro main grandstand. 150.000 spectators are expected. Organizers perform overtime work to rearrange tents and other mobile structures dismantled before Ma-On's passage. Mechanics get back to work, taking away the sandbags put up to protect the pits and those on which the single-seaters had been placed to protect them from the dreaded flood. Before qualifying they have little time and no data to adjust the set-ups. Friday's free practice in the rain provided no useful indications. Ferrari has a car that has proven to adapt to all circuits, and Michael Schumacher particularly likes this very technical track where he has won five times. The only unknown: the damp track favors Michelin. The home idol is Takuma Sato, the best Japanese ever to finish in Formula 1. Jarno Trulli also enjoys an active fan club that has recruited new members since his switch to Toyota. For the Italian driver, it is his debut with the Japanese team. Sato dreams of a victory. Trulli a small satisfaction: to finish ahead of Villeneuve, who replaced him at Renault.
On Sunday, October 10, 2004, qualifying takes place on a track that is still damp, but which is drying out; Michael Schumacher takes advantage of this and, taking to the track among the last thanks to an excellent performance in the first session, takes pole position, with a wide lead over his rivals. Second is Ralf Schumacher, while third place is surprisingly taken by Mark Webber, a good one second off the pole position time anyway. They are followed by the two BARs of Takuma Sato and Jenson Button, who precede Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, David Coulthard and Jacques Villeneuve. The difficult track conditions put several drivers in trouble: mistakes were made by Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen, Juan Pablo Montoya and Rubens Barrichello, who were relegated to the second half of the grid. After a few practices plagued by bad weather, the Japanese Grand Prix begins in sunshine. At the start Michael and Ralf Schumacher have no difficulty in keeping the lead; on the other hand, Mark Webber takes a bad start and is passed by Jenson Button, Takuma Sato and Jarno Trulli. Michael Schumacher immediately gains a considerable lead over his rivals; the only one who seems to be able to keep a similar pace is Ralf Schumacher, who, however, is also the first to refuel, on lap nine. When Michael Schumacher refuels, on lap 13, he re-enters the track in the lead, ahead of Jenson Button (who started with a two-stop strategy and therefore had not yet pitted).
The race for first place is virtually over; with the two BAR-Honda drivers, Takuma Sato and Jenson Button, vying for third position (Sato with a three-stop strategy, compared to Button's two), the race is enlivened by the comeback of Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso; instead, Jarno Trulli drops back, who, having started with little fuel on board, has to deal with a Toyota that is very difficult to handle with a full tank of fuel. On lap 20 Mark Webber retired for a rather peculiar cause: the cockpit of his Jaguar had in fact inexplicably overheated, so much so that the Australian driver suffered minor burns to a thigh. After the first series of stops, Jarno Trulli, Juan Pablo Montoya, Rubens Barrichello and Giancarlo Fisichella give life to an intense duel, with the Abruzzese driver having to give way to the Ferrari's Brazilian in difficulty with his tires, but managing to defend himself from the other two until his own second refueling on lap 24. Michael Schumacher continues to lead undisturbed, not surrendering the first position for a single lap; Ralf Schumacher also has no particular difficulty in defending his second place. David Coulthard, who left to make only two stops, rises in the standings; with about twenty laps to go the Scot is in fifth position, having already refueled for the second time. Behind him, Rubens Barrichello quickly makes a comeback; on lap 38 the Brazilian attempts an attack at the chicane, but the McLaren driver closes the line and the two end up coming into contact; the two single-seaters are damaged beyond repair and both are forced to retire. Fernando Alonso thus climbs to fifth position; meanwhile, Jenson Button gets the better of his teammate in the duel for the podium. In the final laps, there are no twists and turns, and Michael Schumacher wins the Japanese Grand Prix, edging out Ralf Schumacher, Jenson Button, Takuma Sato, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen, Juan Pablo Montoya and Giancarlo Fisichella at the finish line. For Ferrari, it is the fifteenth win of the season, which means equaling the previous records of the McLaren MP4/4, which in 1988 took fifteen wins out of sixteen Grands Prix, and the Ferrari F2002, which won fifteen out of seventeen in 2002. Pole position and victory on the same day, a record that did not exist. Now it exists and is held by Michael Schumacher. Suzuka Sunday is unprecedented for Formula 1. All in one day the program of a weekend. Only the best, spectacle and pace. The Japanese public likes the show: 156,000 spectators in the stands, another record that falls.
"Fun, but it can't be replicated".
Insiders explain, because three takings are better than one and organizers pay millions to host the Circus. This time there was a just cause to cancel Saturday's placid ritual, a typhoon that wreaked havoc around Tokyo but at the last moment spared Suzuka province. Michael Schumacher's race can be summed up in a few words: the German retained first place at the start and held on to it until the finish. It is victory number 83 in his career, the 13th of the season, and number 182 for the Maranello team. He races alone and leaves the field to others. Ralf Schumacher chases him for nine laps, then refuels and loses contact. Jenson Button is happy with third place and dejected by so much gap:
"Michael? I waved to him before the start and met him again on the podium. In the race I never saw him".
He is followed by Takuma Sato, the only Japanese in the race and a crowd favorite, who chose a different strategy from his teammate - three stops instead of two - and finishes behind him. Fernando Alonso raises the white flag: his fifth place means that Renault has definitively ceded to BAR the second position in the Drivers' World Championship standings behind the impregnable Ferraris. Alone, good Fernando cannot work miracles. As a teammate they have put him alongside Jacques Villeneuve who is still a former pensioner, 11th in China, 10th in Japan, overtaken and mocked by Felipe Massa, 23 years old and talent to prove. Someday perhaps they will explain what need Flavio Briatore and Jarno Trulli had to divorce with three races to go. In the group, there are those who overtake and those who fail to overtake. Juan Pablo Montoya screws it up on lap 23: he fails one on Jarno Trulli and suffers two from Rubens Barrichello and Giancarlo Fisichella. The same Rubens Barrichello collides with David Coulthard away from the eyes of the cameras: attempt on the inside and opponent closing the trajectory. The stewards absolve both, especially since they punished themselves because the suspension did not withstand the blow. The two show serenity, but offload all responsibility. The Scot says:
"Maybe Rubens was too optimistic, as happened to me in Shanghai when I hit Ralf".
And the Brazilian responds:
"It is likely that David didn't see me or didn't notice that I was much faster than him. That's too bad, because the car was running so well that I had the fastest lap. However, I wouldn't have finished higher than fifth place".
Rubens Barrichello toma in Brazil while waiting for the race that will close the season, but work continues in Maranello for 2005: on Thursday, October 14, 2004, at Fiorano, with Andrea Bertolini, and Friday, October 15, 2004, at Vallelunga, with Luca Badoer, a car adapted to the new regulations will be tested. Jarno Trulli, who started with the sixth fastest time on his Toyota debut, is happy:
"More I could not do. I got up to fifth place and kept the BAR pace for a few laps, then the performance of the tires collapsed and I had big problems with the balance of the car".
Giancarlo Fisichella explains what happened to him in the race:
"My mistake. The fuel sensor had turned on, I was talking on the radio with the pits, they were telling me not to worry but I got distracted".
Two curiosities at the end of the race: Takuma Sato's mechanics came to the pits with the hissho, the traditional samurai sash, on their foreheads. The symbol brought good luck to the Japanese driver, who finished the race in fourth place. The BAR team is celebrating Grand Prix number 100 in five years of operation. In the constructors' standings it is 16 points ahead of Renault: barring any sensational results in Brazil, second place overall is its. Michael Schumacher has the courage to say it was a tough race, except to add:
"Until the first pit stop".
Michael Schumacher had to work hard for 9 out of 53 laps, about 50 kilometers in all. Then he saw Ralf Schumacher return to the pits and understood:
"He could only keep up with me because he was low on gas. At that point I realized I had the race in my hands and I just controlled it".
Maintaining the initial pace would have lapped almost everyone. He didn't, just as he didn't at other times that he had the means, for example in Hungary. Only the Brazilian Grand Prix remains. Rubens Barrichello is keen to win it: will he give him a helping hand?
"Everyone would love to win their home race, however, I would love to win another race this year. I'm sure Rubens is strong, he loves competition and likes to earn his successes without anyone's help".
How is the experience of taking pole position and victory on the same day?
"Exciting, although I prefer the old way. On the one hand I liked it because it suits my fighting style, on the other hand it is unnecessary stress for engineers and mechanics. We have a weekend at our disposal, and it would make no sense to toil like this all the time. This was an exceptional case, not the future of Formula 1".
Why was his last lap so slow?
"I'm old, I can't see well and I felt tired. No, joking aside I had Massa behind me fighting with Villeneuve. They lapped each other, then engaged in a duel and increased the pace. I gave way so as not to be in the way".
Did the defeats at Spa and Shanghai give her imo extra stimulus?
"I didn't think much about what happened in the last Grand Prix. I'm not in the habit of looking back and pondering the past. The only pressure I felt was the duty to do well for Bridgestone. Having won the World Championship, the goal is to win the individual races. It's especially good to have succeeded here, at a technical circuit that exalts me".
"Qualifying. We knew that on the wet asphalt we were likely to be in trouble. Having obtained the pole, everything became easier. In a way I was favored by the 12th place I got in China, which allowed me to tackle pre-qualifying when the track was drying out. Then the sun did the rest".
Last year did not go so well: a narrow eighth place in the race that would have awarded you the world title...
"I actually made mistakes, like two weeks ago in China. Here, I would say it was two strange races for me, similar in a way".
Different strategies were seen here in Japan.
"Yes, and especially no one was able to guess the opponents' moves, because they skipped Saturday's free practice and Friday's session in the rain was dumb. That's why I pulled hard in the first few laps".
Was he scared when he found himself in front of Glock's Jordan stopped in the middle of the track?
"The yellow flags signaled danger and there was plenty of room to pass. I just decelerated".
Is it easy to run in the lead all the time? Doesn't one risk losing concentration by always driving out of the fray?
"It depends. On a demanding circuit like Suzuka, concentration is key from the start until the checkered flag. My consistent lap times are a good indicator".
Ferrari's supremacy appeared stark, even embarrassing.
"I admit it, we dominated. We are always focused, hungry and motivated. Our successes are the result of fantastic teamwork".
Do you have any more tests planned?
"No, I'm done for this year".
Are you sorry that such an exciting season has come to an end?
"I'm glad to be back with my family. I can't wait to start again, though. We have a new challenge ahead of us with new rules. I tested in Jerez the car with which we will start the 2005 championship. It is an adapted version of the F2004. I wanted to evaluate how much slower it is. It is a disappointment at first, because the new rules are meant to slow us down. My challenge is to be able to go just as fast".
The commitment of the top teams is all about 2005. Particularly Ferrari, which has long since achieved its goals for the season. Scuderia Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn makes this clear:
"The car that will face the first races has already been committed to testing".
It is the current F2004 revised and corrected to adapt to the new regulations.
"The new single-seater will debut at a later date. The rules, changed late, have not yet been ratified, so we could not anticipate the design".
According to Brawn, the other top teams will also follow the same strategy. This means that, at least in the first three or four Grands Prix, the balance should remain unchanged. The changes will be ratified by the FIA World Council on Wednesday, October 13, 2004, but teams still have two weeks to submit counterproposals. The aim is to slow performance for safety reasons and reduce costs. If the discussed assumptions pass, the engine will have to run twice as many kilometers: from 700 to 1400, equal to two race weekends. The aerodynamic load will decrease: the front wing will be 5 centimeters higher, the rear advanced by 15 centimeters. Tires will not be able to be changed after qualifying. Mercedes, Bmw and McLaren do not like the engine regulations. Used to the pace of the current F2004, after the first test Michael Schumacher got out of the car and said he was not comfortable. Then he adapted:
"The riding style doesn't change much. It's a new challenge and I'm looking forward to it".
The 2005 lineup still remains incomplete. Scuderia Ferrari will have the Schumacher-Barrichello pair for two more seasons, Renault Alonso and Fisichella, McLaren Raikkonen and Montoya Sauber Massa and Villeneuve, Toyota Ralf Schumacher and Trulli. BAR confirmed Sato and quarrels with Button, disputed by Williams: arbitration this week. Alternatively, Coulthard would arrive from McLaren. Mirror situation at Williams: sure Webber, if Button jumps, Nelsinho Piquet or David Coulthard could arrive. However this story ends, for the first time a top team will not find a star driver. Unless some contract is snatched up. Geoff Willis, technical director of British American Racing, cautions Jenson Button:
"He has to choose: either us or Williams".
Ford has decided to put Jaguar up for sale and shut down Cosworth, supplier of engines to Jordan and Minardi. Which will disappear unless they find someone to sell them an engine and consequently have not chosen drivers.