How did McLaren lose a Grand Prix by finishing first?

Alan Henry

Since today is April 6th, we thought you might like to re-read a wise and whimsical blog that the late and much missed Alan Henry penned on this day exactly three years ago, and which referred to the weird and wonderful events of April 6th 2003...

April 6th is quite a significant date for sports fans. It was, for instance, in 1896, the opening day of the first Modern Olympic Games, in which 176 athletes (all of them male) competed for honours in the Greek capital, Athens. The first event on that inaugural day was a 100-metre heat, which was won by a 21-year-old American sprinter from Princeton University, Francis Lane.

Lane’s winning time, 12.2 seconds, made the term ‘sprinter’ barely credible, however, since the men’s 100-metre world record was at that time a far more sprightly 10.8 seconds; but it was a historic day nonetheless, for the simple reason that the most recent Olympic event prior to Lane’s lacklustre victory had taken place fully 1503 years previously, in the year 393.

What other significant sporting events have taken place on April 6th? Well, try this for size. Exactly four years after the opening day of the first modern Olympic Games, in other words on April 6th 1900, in Detroit, Michigan, USA, the 240lb (109kg) giant Jim Jeffries recorded the first ever first-round knockout in a World Heavyweight Championship boxing match, felling poor little Jack Finnegan in 55 seconds flat. Finnegan, who weighed only 180lb (81kg), was dubbed by the attending press corps “the human punchbag”.

You want another bit of April 6th-related sporting trivia? Okay, here goes. Precisely 56 years after the human punchbag had endured his 55 seconds of infamy, in other words on April 6th 1956, two great Asian test-match cricketers were born: Dilip Vengsarkar, a prolific right-handed batsman from Rajapur, India; and Pakistan’s mercurial all-rounder, Mudassar Nazar. Between them they scored 27 test-match hundreds, and by any measure they were sportsmen greater by an order of magnitude than the sluggish Lane, the flawed (and floored) Finnegan, or even that burly bully, Jeffries.

But on Vengsarkar’s and Mudassar’s shared 31st birthday, in other words on April 6th 1987, two even greater sportsmen would meet in one of the most viscerally competitive contests in sporting history: at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, USA, the magnificent middleweight Sugar Ray Leonard returned from a three-year lay-off to defeat the legendarily fearsome Marvin Hagler in a bout that has gone down in the history of boxing as one of the best fights ever. Hagler, furious and disillusioned, would never box again.

Okay... enough boxing, cricket and laggardly sprinting. I want to tell you about April 6th 2003 – which, as I say, if you’re reading this on the day it was first uploaded onto, is the day, precisely 10 years ago, on which Giancarlo Fisichella ‘won’ the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix for Jordan. Why the inverted commas around ‘won’? Ah... I’m about to tell you, because it’s quite a tale.

Before we even touched down at Sao Paulo’s tatty Guarulhos International Airport that year, we felt momentous portents, not least because the race would be the 700th Grand Prix in the history of World Championship Formula 1 racing. Spirits were particularly high at McLaren, for the forgivable reason that the Brazilian race would be the third Grand Prix of the year, and the team had won both the first and the second Grands Prix of the season, in Australia thanks to David Coulthard and in Malaysia courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen.

Things appeared to be following a similar pattern in Brazil. Coulthard qualified his McLaren in second place, just two places ahead of his team-mate, Raikkonen, in fourth. Pole position was won by local hero Rubens Barrichello, in a Ferrari. But, despite Barrichello’s impressive pace, my impression as I chatted to the McLaren engineers in the congested Interlagos paddock was that they had the scent of a hat-trick in their nostrils.

On race day it rained, however. No, let me correct that: on race day the heavens opened, and the notoriously bumpy Interlagos tarmac was under a thin layer of water everywhere and hidden by deep puddles in many places. The race was delayed for 15 minutes while the stewards stared at the rain in the hope that it would desist, but desist it refused to do. When the race was finally started, it was therefore decided that the Safety Car should be deployed for the first few laps.

The cars got away smoothly enough – but, when the Safety Car was eventually called in, Barrichello, who had been leading from Coulthard, misjudged the mobile restart with the result that the McLaren driver was able to pass the Ferrari man for the lead under braking for Turn One. Coulthard then quickly put daylight between his McLaren and Barrichello’s Ferrari, as Raikkonen in turn caught Barrichello and began also to look for a way past. That he managed to do in impressively short order, also under braking for Turn One, and, that done, he hurried off in pursuit of Coulthard. The McLarens were running first and second – and, as the TV monitors in the press room briefly showed a close-up of Ron Dennis on the McLaren pitwall, I fancy I caught a flicker of a smile flash across that famously inscrutable countenance.

The race was now 10 laps old, and Raikkonen had caught Coulthard, passing him with impressive dispatch more or less as soon as he’d done so. If the Scotsman was disappointed to have been overtaken by his Finnish team-mate, the mood on the McLaren pitwall was still buoyant – for then, as now, the Woking boys cared not which of their joint-number-one drivers was leading, but only that their desired race win still looked to be on the cards.

On lap 18, though, Olivier Panis’s Toyota and Ralph Firman’s Jordan collided at high speed on the start-finish straight, and the Safety Car was deployed again while their accident debris was being removed. Coulthard took the opportunity to dive into the pits for fresh tyres and fuel, but Raikkonen opted to stay out.

Meanwhile, in the middle of that long downhill left-hander, Turn Three (or Curva do Sol, not that there was much in the way of ‘sol’ to be seen that day), as the rain continued to fall, a small but free-flowing ‘river’ had begun to run across the track from right to left, clearly visible from the press room window.

The rain was truly torrential by now. Indeed, a powerful roof-leak suddenly developed on the pitlane side of the press room, rendering a number of journalists' desks unusable and creating pandemonium as the press room staff began to slip-slide around as they tried to mop up gallons of rainwater on the soaking-wet lino.

Such was the level of precipitation, indeed, that many of the drivers were also unable to cope. In short order, the following hapless chaps all aquaplaned off on the Curva do Sol ‘river’, thumping their gyrating cars into the tyre wall on the Turn Three perimeter: Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams), Antonio Pizzonia (Jaguar), Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) and Jenson Button (BAR). Mayhem!

Out came the Safety Car yet again – and Raikkonen responded by making a pitstop for new tyres and a fill-up of fuel.

By this time many of our press room lap charts were in disarray, but the timing screens showed Coulthard in the lead, with Barrichello in second place, Ralf Schumacher in third, Fernando Alonso fourth, and Raikkonen fifth. But Kimi was clearly on a mission, and his silver McLaren soon flashed past Alonso’s Renault for fourth and Schumacher’s Williams for third.

At the same time Barrichello overtook Coulthard to retake the lead, and I well remember the thunderous cheer that immediately went up from the grandstands all around Interlagos, audible even above two competing noise sources: the fever-pitched wail of the high-revving 3.0-litre V10 engines in the 11 cars that still remained running by that point, and the rat-tat-tatting of the rain on the press room roof (or what remained of it, because the leak had now developed into a bloody great hole). Indeed, I remember blinking at the surreal sight of hapless hacks stoically hammering away at their laptops even as rainwater lapped at their ankles.

Anyway, out on the track, Barrichello, the local boy, appeared to be reigning serene – and, to celebrate having taken the lead of his home Grand Prix, he cut the fastest lap of the race so far and began to motor off into the distance. Hearts sank on the McLaren pitwall.

But the drama wasn’t over yet – far from it in fact. Suddenly we spotted Barrichello’s Ferrari – slowing – and then it stopped, trackside, and out climbed the disconsolate Brazilian, the victim of a faulty fuel system. So McLaren were sitting pretty again, or so it seemed, Coulthard first ahead of Raikkonen second, with Fisichella’s ill-fancied Jordan in third, discounted as a threat by almost all of us in the press room since it was a significantly less competitive car than the McLaren and Fisichella had managed to qualify it only eighth.

Unfortunately, though, it soon became clear that Coulthard would require another pitstop – and he duly made one, letting Raikkonen and Fisichella through to first and second places in so doing. And then something rather astonishing happened: on a drying track, Fisichella’s Jordan began to find grip where Raikkonen’s McLaren couldn’t, and to an incredulous collective gasp from within the press room the Italian passed the Finn at the famously daunting Mergulho left-hander to take the lead.

While all eyes had been on the battle between Raikkonen and Fisichella, though, Mark Webber had had a truly enormous shunt, his Jaguar rendered an ugly wreck when it finally came to rest among shards of metallic green bodywork strewn all over the circuit. And worse was to come, for soon afterwards Alonso lost control of his Renault on the Jaguar’s accident debris and had an even bigger crash. Eventually, he staggered from his car, then sat by the guardrail at the side of the circuit, having taken a bit of a battering but thankfully not having been seriously hurt.

Enough carnage was enough, however, and the race was now stopped, since the area of racetrack tarmac on which Webber and Alonso had gone off now looked like a scrapyard and would have taken a very long time to make safe.

The winner, then, we all assumed, was Fisichella - who, in a final pyrotechnic twist to a truly extraordinary race, found that his Jordan had developed an angry engine fire as he brought it to what should have been a triumphant stop.

But, no, we were soon told by the FIA stewards that we were wrong, and that Raikkonen had won on ‘countback’, on the basis that when a Grand Prix is prematurely stopped it’s the positions at the end of the previous lap that prevail. McLaren, it seemed, had won after all.

Five days later, though, the result was reversed, again by the FIA, the ‘countback’ having been construed differently, and Fisichella was declared the winner – his first Grand Prix victory. Sportingly, Raikkonen publicly handed him his Brazilian Grand Prix winner’s trophy at Imola, scene of the next Grand Prix. All in all, the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix has to be classed as a very odd, if very exciting, race.

So that’s what April 6th means to me. April 7th? Please don’t even talk to me about April 7th. Why not? Because April 7th 1968 is and will always remain one of the darkest days in motorsport history, as those of you who have been around as long as I have will have no need for me to explain.

So I’ll say only this about it: Jim Clark RIP.