My Classic Italian GP: 2004
Of all the circuits on the F1 calendar, Monza is not one of my favourites. Its high-speed straights punctuated by dreary chicanes provide little challenge to the drivers, and its layout in these days of "dirty air" barely lends itself at all to overtaking.
Thus the challenge of picking a "classic" Italian Grand Prix was more difficult than usual. I could have gone for 2008, where Sebastian Vettel picked up an epic maiden win for Toro Rosso in the wet, or 1997, where a five-car battle was won by the quick pit work of McLaren and David Coulthard.
But in the end I have chosen 2004's race, not because it made particularly scintillating watching at the time, but because it told us an awful lot about the state of F1 at the time, and in particular about Jenson Button.
At the previous race at Spa in Belgium, Kimi Raikkonen had won his first race of the season for McLaren. But the rest of the year had been all about the dominance of Ferrari, and in particular Michael Schumacher, who in finishing second behind Raikkonen had wrapped up his seventh world championship.
So with no world titles to fight for, the rest of the field resigned itself to fighting for the scraps in the final four races of 2004. Ferrari's dominance throughout the year had been such that Schumacher had won all but two of the races—Raikkonen's victory in Spa accounting for one, and Jarno Trulli winning in Monaco for Renault after Schumacher had crashed with Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams.
On paper, then, Ferrari were unbeatable, but there was definitely an awareness that if normal service was disrupted by some outside turn of events, then the fight to be "best of the rest" would quickly turn into an opportunity to win, as had happened with Trulli at Monte Carlo.
And therefore, when rain began to fall on Sunday morning, it looked as though the race would not be as straightforward as had previously seemed.
The second Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello had qualified on pole at Monza, with a lighter-fuelled Montoya alongside. Schumacher was third. But with the track wet, then rapidly drying in the build-up to the race, the layout of the grid would be insignificant in relation to the crucial tyre choices made by the teams.
Should the drivers start on dry tyres or intermediates? The majority of the drivers opted for the former, but Minardi, Sauber, McLaren and Ferrari decided to split their drivers, running one on dry tyres and one on intermediates.
David Coulthard changed his mind about his intermediate rubber on the parade lap and pitted before the start, but Barrichello, Felipe Massa and Gianmaria Bruni were all still on intermediates when the lights went out.
Immediately Barrichello shot into the lead, while most of the others struggled to get up to speed on their dry tyres. Schumacher tagged Button at the first corner and spun, while Oliver Panis rammed his Toyota into the Williams of Antonio Pizzonia. The Frenchman was out on the spot, but Pizzonia and Schumacher were able to continue, albeit at the back of the field.
At the end of the first lap Barrichello was an incredible 6.9 seconds ahead of Fernando Alonso, who had started fourth in his Renault, and Montoya. Kimi Raikkonen was in the hunt as well, as was Massa who took full advantage of his extra grip to make up several places. Bruni was doing well as well, rising from nineteenth on the grid to tenth place.
But almost as soon as the intermediate runners had shown their clear advantage, that gain began to drop away as the track dried rapidly. By the fifth lap Alonso had caught and passed Barrichello, at which point the Brazilian pitted for dry rubber and fuel.
Alonso was himself fuelled light and pitted on lap 11, handing the lead to Jenson Button's BAR-Honda. Raikkonen retired a couple of laps later with engine failure, and after the first round of pit stops had all panned out, Button found himself still in front. Finally it looked as though the man from Somerset would break his F1 victory duck. It was Jenson's race to lose—which he did.
Button—by his own admission—had underestimated the speed of the Ferraris. Barrichello was out of sync with the rest of the field on strategy, and was using his dominant Ferrari to full effect. Schumacher, too, was doing a sterling job of fighting through the field, though he should have been too far back to make any real impression on Button's commanding lead.
For whatever reason, however, Button had settled into a rhythm that was not fast enough to fully hold off the charging Italian cars. By the time he realised that his precious first victory was under threat, it was too late and the damage had already been done.
The Briton ceded his lead to Barrichello at his final stop, and when the Brazilian pitted himself he remained ahead of Button. Adding insult to injury, Schumacher caught and passed the BAR on the same lap, putting the Ferraris first and second.
That was how they finished, then, with Barrichello leading home Schumacher for his first win of 2004, the eighth of his career. Button was third, while his BAR teammate Takuma Sato finished fourth to help BAR to second place in the Constructors' championship. Rivals Renault did not score, Alonso spinning out on lap 41 and Trulli, in his last race for the French team, coming home tenth.
Montoya's early challenge faded to put him fifth, a story all too common with Williams that year. Coulthard salvaged sixth from his early strategy switch, ahead of Pizzonia, who had done extremely well to climb from the back of the field. The final point went to Giancarlo Fisichella, who had driven a solid race in his Sauber.
The only other incident of note was the fate of Bruni, who had fallen back from his early charge to tail-end obscurity, then been caught in a fire in the pit lane. Nobody was hurt in the blaze, but the Italian had inhaled fumes from the fire extinguishers and was retired from the race as a precaution.
In 2004 Jenson Button already had his fair share of detractors, and the race at Monza only gave them more ammunition as he conspired to throw away a race that should easily have been his. He did not give enough in mid-race to hold off the Ferraris, and what should have been a remarkable result for the Briton instead became another podium finish, of which there were many that year.
Five years on, we approach the Italian Grand Prix with questions once again hanging over Button's will to win and world championship credentials. In Italy in 2004 the race seemed to be his from an early stage, but he failed to perform when it mattered and ended up losing the race. He will be eager to ensure that his 2009 world championship challenge is not a similar story.
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