Early Sunday morning Formula One fans in Germany woke to see their home favorite, Michael Schumacher, beat out his stiffest rival Kimi Raikkonen to claim a historic sixth world championship in Suzuka, Japan.
Champagne and cheers for Schumacher and Ferrari in Japan.
Just one point short of the ultimate victory, Schumacher only needed an eighth place finish in Suzuka to secure the world racing championship, but a box stop in the sixth lap almost put this year’s title out of reach for the world’s best Formula One driver on Sunday. With Kimi Raikkonen from Finland racing hard to score a first place finish in Japan and snatch the historic crown away from "Schumi," the last race of the season was one of the most dramatic in a turbulent season.
Unlike in 2002, when the German champ wrapped up the title halfway through the season, this year the five-time title holder had to fight a tough battle against rivals Raikkonen from McLaren-Mercedes and Juan Pablo Montoya from BMW-Williams.
"It has been a tough year, a tough late stage of the season and a very tough race, one of my toughest ever," an obviously relieved Schumacher said after crossing the finish line further down in the ranking than usual. He added, "Most of my championships have been secured with a win on the track. Today I did it with eighth place which gives me mixed emotions."
The Ferrari driver is now the only racer to hold six world championship titles (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2002) and has surpassed the record of the Argentinian legend Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five consecutive titles in the 1950s.
Ferrari teammates, Rubens Barrichello (right) and Michael Schumacher celebrate on the podium after the Grand Prix of San Marino at Imola racetrack, Sunday, April 14, 2002.
A little help from a teammate
But Schumi wouldn’t have been crowned champion on Sunday if it hadn’t been for Brazilian teammate Rubens Barrichello, who kept second-place Raikkonen at bay by winning the Japanese Grand Prix.
Raikkonen, who was two points away from the lead, needed a track victory to have any hope of stealing Schumi’s crown. But despite heading the pack early in the rounds, the Finish driver couldn’t outrace Barrichello, whose triumph on Sunday put him in fourth place for the season and helped Ferrari celebrate in style with its fifth consecutive constructors’ title.
But for Schumacher, who started out in 14th position, the Suzuka race didn’t go so smoothly. After quickly advancing to 12th place in the initial laps, the German star collided with the BAR-Honda driven by Takuma Sato in the sixth lap and knocked the front wing off his Ferrari. He dove into the pits where his team changed the nose cone in 18.1 seconds, but the incident dropped Schumacher down to last place.
By lap 17, with the first round of pit stops completed, Barrichello led the pack. Michael Schumacher was in 13th place. One lap later Raikkonen began inching forward and finally took up the lead. But by lap 26 Barrichello was again leading and widened the margin by 10 seconds in lap 30. He kept his front position through the rest of the race, guaranteeing an almost certain title for Schumacher as long as he came in no lower than eighth.
Michael Schumacher has won four consecutive Formula One titles with Ferrari.
Schumi’s race to the title
But the not yet six-time champion refused to rely on help from his colleague. "You never know, what’s going on up front. I just knew I had to focus on myself," he said. And Schumi fought to gain back his standing.
Ahead of his second pit stop, Schumi had progressed to 11th place and was three quarters of a minute behind his race-leading teammate, with the gap narrowing. Then on lap 41 Schumacher was almost shunted out by his younger brother Ralf, who was following close on the wheels of Michael when he hit the back tire of the Ferrari.
"I locked up so tight when Ralf hit me that I was almost losing vision on the straights the vibrations were so huge," a dazed Michael recalled after the race. But the brothers quickly regained control of their machines and raced to the finish line.
Fueled by determination, Michael pressed forward until after 53 laps along the 5.8 kilometer track, he safely crossed the finish in eighth place and rolled into the annals of racing history.