He had been crowned champion for the seventh time just days earlier. Now Michael Schumacher was pounding around Monza at the annual pre-Grand Prix test.
Blasting down the start/finish straight at 200mph a tyre exploded without warning. The car whipped round into the barrier on the right, then flew across the track into the other barrier.
When the car finally came to a stop he climbed out, unhurt, and lay besides the wreckage for a few minutes.
Over the final races of 2004 we often saw a very different Michael Schumacher. Was his crash at Monza the moment began to serious consider retiring from the sport?
It doesn’t often rain on the Italian Grand Prix. But the 2004 race began on a greasy surface that played to the strengths of Michelin’s dry weather rubber and exposed the only real flaw in Ferrari’s Bridgestone armour.
Schumacher’s team mate Rubens Barrichello’s qualifying lap of 1’20.089 (161.820mph) failed to surpass Juan Pablo Montoya’s record-breaking effort in practice of 1’19.525 (162.968mph), but it put him on pole position.
Mistake number two came on the run down to the first corner. He braked too late, cut the chicane, and had to yield third place to Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya’s Williams struggled so badly for traction that Kimi Raikkonen and Takuma Sato also passed Schumacher as they sprinted towards the della Roggia chicane.
Mistake number three saw the German understeer into the side of Button at the chicane, spinning to a halt and watching the entire field pass him. Was this the same man who had won 12 of the last 14 rounds?
From that moment on he certainly was, as he carved his way from the back of the pack into contention for the lead.
Up front Barrichello’s intermediate tyres were proving the better Bridgestone choice – but not half as good as Michelin dry tyres. Fernando Alonso pinched the lead off him at Ascari on lap four, and Barrichello dived into the pits for dry weather rubber.
By lap six Barrichello was ninth, Schumacher was 11th, and Alonso and Button were up front – Alonso’s early pit stop on lap 10 handing the initiative to the Englishman. He held the lead for 24 laps until his final pit stop.
But by two-thirds race distance the Ferraris were back at the sharp end. The track had dried quickly and the F2004s instantly assumed their usual crushing advantage, Schumacher cutting a second per lap off Button’s lead.
When Barrichello made his last stop on lap 42 he resumed in the lead. As he returned to the track, had he looked in his mirrors he would have seen Schumacher flying past Button so quickly the BAR driver couldn’t even catch the Ferrari’s slipstream down the Monza straight.
The opening laps had been an illusion. Able to lap up to 1.5s faster than any other driver on the track the Ferrari decimated their opponents despite their early handicap.
There were other headlines at Monza. Minardi driver Gianmaria Bruni retired from the race after inhaling fumes when a petrol fire started during his pit stop.
Alonso’s chase of Button ended when he spun at della Roggia on lap 40. He gestured in vain for the marshals to give him a push start – just as Schumacher had got at the Nurburgring the previous year – and was furious when it was refused.
His team mate Jarno Trulli never breathed a word to his team throughout the entire race. He circulated with a lack of conviction, finished tenth, and was never seen in Renault overalls again. Jacques Villeneuve returned from retirement to fill his seat for the final races, before Trulli made an early appearance for his new team Toyota.
It was Barrichello’s first win of the year but it wasn’t his last. He triumphed at the next round, the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix, after Schumacher made another uncharacteristic mistake in qualifying. The German did it again at the final round in Interlagos.
After a near flawless domination of the first two-thirds of 2004, it all ended rather messily for the newly crowned seven times champion. And it all seemed to have started after that testing crash at Monza.
Knowing what we know now about his poor 2005 season, and his decision on retirement early in 2006, was that crash the moment he first began to seriously contemplate leaving the sport?
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