Schumacher makes up for lost time
The 34-year-old German, deprived of victory since success at the Gilles Villeneuve circuit in Canada, was able to deliver a clenched fist in celebration along with his characteristic leap for joy - oddly appropriate from a driver representing the prancing horse of Ferrari.
While his brother Ralf failed to make the race after recurring headaches in the wake of last week’s test crash forced him out, Michael made up for lost time in more ways than one, by recording the fastest race time in Formula 1 history.
The five-time champion’s average speed of 247.585 kph, over 53 laps at Formula 1’s quickest circuit, exceeded the previous record of 242.615 kph set at Monza in 1971.
"I don’t think very strongly about that [the record]. Ten points and fastest lap and things like that, they give me far more pleasure," said Schumacher.
That race 32 years ago was won by Britain’s Peter Gethin in a BRM and remains in the record books as the closest finish - the winner separated from Swedish runner-up Ronnie Peterson’s March by 0.01 of a second. And that statistic, while no doubt rustling a few anoraks trackside, was the only mention of a British driver worth noting yesterday.
David Coulthard retired his McLaren close to the finish with an engine problem when lying fifth, while Jenson Button of BAR developed a gear problem and lost out on the points.
Justin Wilson’s luckless move to Jaguar Racing continued with a third straight retirement, the Sheffield racer stalling on the grid with a gearbox problem. His mechanics got him started but it was not for long.
Schumacher’s win, by a margin of just over five seconds from Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, moved him three points clear of his Williams-BMW rival with just visits to the United States on 28 September and Japan on 12 October left.
"I think this is the greatest day of my career," said Schumacher. "It is a long time since I won. To everyone in the team who were so motivated and worked so hard, from the engineers, the mechanics and even the lady who cleans, I have to say a big ‘thank-you’."
The scowls and recriminations from Hungary three weeks ago when Schumacher was lapped were replaced as the smiles returned to the faces of Ferrari crew and their president Luca di Montezemolo.
The champagne, though, will surely have had a slightly bitter taste with victory coming after the team controversially protested against the Michelin tyres used by their rivals from Williams and McLaren, forcing the French manufacturer to design new moulds.
Montoya refused to blame the change of rubber for the defeat which gave Schumacher the edge in the championship battle. Should they finish level on points the German will take the title on countback courtesy of his fifth win of the season.
What was expected to be a fierce scrap between the duo never quite lived up to expectation despite a first-lap attack from Montoya on the pole winner which sent them skidding through the second chicane side-by-side.
Schumacher clung on to the advantage and managed to keep Montoya at bay until the Colombian’s challenge faded in the closing laps as he struggled to pick his way through backmarkers with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in a Ferrari-powered Sauber, unsurprisingly proving the most obdurate.
Montoya said he had lost "about a year" behind Frentzen.
"The back-markers were very slow to get out of the way but it would have been difficult to pass Michael anyway so I decided to pace myself," admitted Montoya. "We were expecting Ferrari to be strong here so to only lose two points to Michael and be only three behind with two races to go is okay. We will figure strongly at the next two tracks."
Schumacher, his dream of a record sixth drivers’ crown still on course, added: "The championship is very open. It will be down to who improves the most in the next two races.
"I had a good and fair fight with Juan. After that I could build a lead but after my second stop I got a shock because the team told me the Williams was coming.
"I thought ‘How did he do that?’ but then I realised it was Marc Gene."
Schumacher’s title hopes were also boosted by team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who took third, fighting off McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen despite struggling with brake problems in the later stages.
Raikkonen is still very much in contention but is now seven points adrift with team chief Ron Dennis admitting the Finn desperately needs to win at Indianapolis in two weeks.
Gene’s career-best fifth place, in his first race for almost three years after deputising for Ralf Schumacher, helped keep Williams four points ahead of Ferrari in the Constructors’ championship.
Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve equalled his best result of the season with sixth for BAR, whether it will be enough to keep his job is debatable, while Mark Webber was seventh for Jaguar and Fernando Alonso eighth in the Renault.
The Spaniard, who won the last race in Budapest, remarkably picked up a point despite starting last on the grid and flying off Jos Verstappen’s Minardi when the red lights went out.