Ferrari on top of its game

Updated: July 1, 2004, 6:37 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The fifth running of the United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway produced yet another 1-2 finish for Scuderia Ferrari.

However, this one wasn't a "team orders" procession. There was actual racing between Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello on this Sunday afternoon. The six-time World Champion actually passed his teammate for the lead on the track following an early restart and he fought off a stiff late-race challenge from the Brazilian before prevailing by 2.9 seconds for his 78th career Grand Prix victory.

Takuma Sato claimed a career-best third place finish for BAR-Honda. It was the first time a Japanese driver finished on an F1 podium since Aguri Suzuki finished third in the 1990 Japanese GP at Suzuka.

At times, the only American stop on the F1 calendar resembled a Champ Car or IRL IndyCar race with multiple outings for the safety car and a big oval racing-style accident for Ralf Schumacher in Turn 13 of the IMS road course.

But while clearly concerned for his brother's well-being, nothing fazed Michael Schumacher, who seemed to derive as much joy from his most recent triumph as he did from his first more than a decade ago. The German ace has won at Indy three times and never finished lower than second.

Schumacher's victory was keyed by an aggressive move on a restart after a first-lap accident that eliminated four tail-enders. He darted past Barrichello onto the pit straight and held the lead into Turn 1.

"I didn't get much warning that safety car was pulling off and my tire pressures were down," Barrichello said. "I had a lot of wheelspin on the restart which allowed Michael to get in my slipstream and get past. I tried a different line through Turn 13 but the car bottomed out and I had oversteer. So I didn't have a chance to close the door."

After another caution period caused by Fernando Alonso crashing at Turn 1 due to a rear tire failure, Ralf Schumacher lost control of his Williams-BMW before the apex of Turn 13 of the IMS road course on Lap 9. The car spun twice before making a direct rear impact with the concrete wall, coming to a stop on the pit straight where it sat for nearly a minute with the driver slumped motionless in the cockpit before a course car arrived. After a lengthy extrication process, Schumacher was transported to Indianapolis Methodist Hospital complaining of back pain, but no broken bones were reported.

Michael Schumacher immediately ducked into the pits for his first routine stop and kept the lead due to the track being almost blocked by his brother's accident. Barrichello stopped a lap later, dropping to sixth place -- which might have cost him the race. By the time the cars in between pitted to elevate Barrichello to second place on Lap 36, he was already 13.2 seconds behind his teammate. The gap was 15.5 seconds when Michael pitted for the final time on Lap 42 of 73.

Barrichello then led until he made his final stop on Lap 50. Two laps later, he got a good run on Schumacher and almost got alongside in Turn 4, but the World Champion took his normal line and forced Rubens to abort the move. Thus endeth the Barrichello challenge.

"I knew I had a short stint first and a long stint last and that it was the other way for Rubens," Schumacher said. "I guess it balanced out. I didn't have a good second stint -- the car didn't respond well to the second set of tires. I couldn't push very hard, then for the last stint I had a lot of fuel and Rubens was very fast. So it was very difficult to manage the situation.

"Obviously that was the biggest concern I had was seeing Ralf sitting so long in the car," he added. "That's the worst thing. I was shocked when I saw it. The team kept telling me things weren't too bad, but I had heard that many times in the past and it turned out differently."

Barrichello seemed to have the measure of his teammate all weekend but he came up just short on the day that counted. "I had a big chance," Rubens said. "I thought I had the car to win the race today and that's why I'm a little disappointed with a decent result. Another 1-2 finish must make the team very proud.

"I'm just very disappointed because even more than Canada, I thought I had a win in hand. I had a quick car and I pushed like hell, it just wasn't enough. Michael and I are pushing each other very hard and that is putting us further ahead of the other teams."

Of course, Indianapolis was the scene of Ferrari's most controversial 1-2, when Schumacher clumsily attempted to hand a gift win to Barrichello in 2002 under the guise of creating a photo finish. This year the battle between the two Ferraris was absolutely genuine.

"We are delighted that Rubens has come back so strongly after a bit of a tough year," remarked Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "I don't think Indianapolis is a track which plays to Michael's strength, which is high-speed corners. They raced freely and the strategies were open between the two drivers. They each knew what the other was doing and our only concern is that they would knock each other off."

Meanwhile Schumacher and Ferrari continue to re-write the F1 record book. Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt believes that setting the mark for most Grand Prix wins and most World Championships has taken pressure off Schumacher and that he is driving better than ever. But Todt stops short of saying that Michael and his team are F1's all time greatest.

"In the last 10 years, definitely yes," said Todt, who assumed his post in 1993 when Ferrari hadn't won a race in three years. "This has been a fantastic period for Ferrari. But Ferrari has always had fantastic drivers, like Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel-Fangio, John Surtees and Niki Lauda.

"I'm not able to judge the best period, in the same way that you can't judge the best driver ever. How can you compare Fangio to Michael? It's two different times."

But the same kind of masterful domination.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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