On 12th October 2003, Rubens Barrichello won the Japanese Grand Prix, but never before had an eighth place been celebrated as a triumph. The single point scored by Michael Schumacher at the end of a nailbiting weekend gave the German his sixth champions crown, the fourth in a row with Ferrari.
Going into the race, whatever happened to Kimi Raikkonen, the only driver who could still challenge him, Michael only needed one point to be champion. It seemed like little more than a formality but the weather in qualifying played tricks on the Ferrari man, who found himself having to start fourteenth. Fortunately, his team-mate was in pole position, the best tool to ensure that Raikkonen could be denied the win that was the only way the McLaren man could get ahead of Schumacher.
Rubens kept the lead at the start but, with the track being rather slippery, Montoya got ahead at Turn 12. As for Michael, he crossed the line twelfth at the end of the opening lap. At first the Williams driver pulled away from Rubens, but as from lap 5, the Ferrari man closed in again. Then on lap 9, Montoya retired, Rubens was back in the lead, keeping Alonso behind him. In the meantime, Michael who had moved up to eleventh on lap 4 had to pit at the end of lap 6 to change the front wing damaged in a collision with Sato at the final chicane. The leader of the series dropped to last place. On lap 12, Rubens and Alonso pitted together for their first planned stops, with Coulthard also coming in, while Raikkonen did the same as his team-mate on lap 13. The last of the leaders to pit was Button on lap 16. After the run of stops, Rubens led from Alonso, Coulthard and Raikkonen. The Renault man retired on lap 18, leaving the way clear to the two McLarens. In the meantime, Michael had started to move up the order, lying tenth on lap 23. Next time round, Michael made his second stop, rejoining twelfth. On lap 26, Rubens made his second stop when he had a lead of almost 20 seconds over Coulthard. The Scot immediately covered the Ferrari man, which promoted to Raikkonen to second: the Finn made his visit to the pits on lap 33, rejoining third around 40 seconds down on Rubens. On lap 37, Michael made his third stop when he was sixth behind his brother Ralf and Da Matta, who came in next time round. The Ferrari man managed to get ahead of the Williams driver but not the Toyota, finding himself ninth.
On lap 40, thanks a pit stop for Panis, Michael was up to eighth, which guaranteed him the title and he stayed there to the flag. Next time round, Rubens made his third and final stop, followed on the next lap by Coulthard. Michael had a scare on lap 41, when he was hit by his brother Ralf, in the braking area for the chicane. The F2003-GA was undamaged, while the Williams had to pit for a new nose. In the final part of the race, the positions remained unchanged, with Rubens in full control of the race and Michael not taking any risks. At the end of lap 53, the Ferrari team ran to the pit wall to salute Rubens’ win and his team-mate’s eighth place.
“I am proud to have helped Ferrari to win four Constructors’ title in the last four years,” said Rubens. “Finishing first on a demanding circuit like Suzuka is another reason for pride: this and the one at Silverstone are the nicest races of my career. I want to thank all the Brazilian fans who work up early back home to watch the race on TV. This win is a nice reward. All the team, engineers, mechanics, have done a fantastic job to give me such a reliable and fast car.”
“It’s hard to say how I feel right now,” added Michael. “It’s been a difficult season, especially in the last part and this race has also been very tough. However, I can speak about the team: they are even more important and, once again today, they have done a great job. Rubens drove a fantastic race, winning in style. When we were written off at the start of the year, we never thought we were beaten. The team never stopped fighting and that’s its strength. We are a big family and everyone can be proud of being part of it. Personally I feel empty and exhausted after this race. I knew I had to finish eighth, even if Rubens was in the lead, because in Formula 1 you never know what can happen to the car. It was a strange feeling, because usually, I have won the title by also winning the race. Today I had to settle for eighth place and so there are contrasting emotions.”