Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Archive: The 2004 Chinese Grand Prix

After three years of absence, Formula 1 is about to return to the Shanghai International Circuit to revive the Chinese Grand Prix for the first time since 2019. Conveniently, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the first Chinese Grand Prix, which took place on Sept. 26, 2004.

At the time of the 2004 F1 season, the landscape of the sport looked very different. The season was 18 rounds long: Australia hosted the season opener with Brazil hosting the finale, two tire manufacturers were vying for preeminence in the series, and the grid included two Schumachers, one Juan Pablo Montoya and, of course, Fernando Alonso.

Perhaps most importantly, 2004 marked one of F1’s largest endeavors in geographical expansion. The traditionally European-focused series added not only the Chinese Grand Prix to the calendar but also ventured to the newly-opened Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, which remains on the calendar 20 years later.

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In a season where Michael Schumacher had been absolutely dominant, winning 12 of 15 races to that point, balance was brought to affairs in Shanghai when the German was forced to start from the pit lane after the team opted to swap his engine shortly following a spin which eliminated Schumacher from qualifying. Schumacher’s pit lane start meant he rolled off 20th, dead last. The worst starting position of his career to that point.

This left Ferrari bookending the field after Rubens Barrichello placed his F2004 on pole ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button. Barrichello had won the previous race at Monza, bringing his total victories to eight. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was still three years away from taking his only F1 title with Ferrari in 2007, and third-place-starter Button was still searching for his first win; the Briton’s 2009 title with Brawn GP wasn’t even on the horizon.

Also floating around the sport in 2004 was the specter of a tire war between Bridgestone and Michelin. To this point, Michelin seemed to be gradually winning control of the series, with only Ferrari, Sauber, Jordan and Minardi using Bridgestone rubber. However, this cold war of tires had yet to rear its ugly head in full – that would come the next year at the now-infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix.

Barrichello led the field off the line for the 56-lap race, while Alonso used a blistering start to jump from sixth on the grid into third place by the end of turn 1. Riakkonen kept Barrichello in sight throughout the race, however the driver everybody else was keeping in sight was Michael Schumacher. Fans, commentators, and competitors alike were expecting a massive charge out of the seven-time champion, but that failed to materialize in the race’s early stages.

Schumacher’s gap to leader Barrichello was 16 seconds at the end of lap one, that gap increased to over 30 seconds during the race’s early phases. Though part of this discrepancy in pace could be attributed to Schumacher running a full tank of fuel, whereas the rest of the field did not (refueling was permitted back then), the gap being opened up between the two Ferraris was a shock to many.

Barrichello and Raikkonen made stops on lap 12 and then on lap 29 and 27, respectively. Button, pursuing a two-stop strategy, briefly led the race from laps 13-14 and 30-35.

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In the meantime, Schumacher struggled to keep his race car in one piece despite showing very strong pace at certain moments. Early on, Schumacher had a run-in with Christian Klien, but was able to continue on. Later, he spun while running in the slipstream of Alonso, costing himself even more time in an already frustrating attempt to salvage a worthy day.

The final nail in the coffin for Schumacher and his side of the Ferrari garage came on lap 35 when a left-rear puncture nearly sent the German veering off course. Though he was able to nurse the car back to the pits at a painfully slow pace, Schumacher’s misfortunes had piled up to the point that any silver lining for the day would have been too little, too late; he crossed the line in 12th place out of 16 cars running, one lap down.

As Schumacher limped back to the pits, McLaren also called in Raikkonen in an attempt to undercut Barrichello and secure the lead for the Finnish driver. However, having already made the final stop in his two-stop strategy, Button jumped Raikkonen in the pits and claimed second place for the time being. Barrichello, meanwhile, was pushing to extend his lead over Button and did so effectively enough to ensure he could make his final stop on lap 42 and maintain the lead of the race. The Brazilian kept control from that point on to take his second win in as many weeks in front of an enthusiastic crowd.

Button beat Raikkonen to the line by four-tenths of a second with Montoya and Alonso wrapping up the top five.

For a time, this looked to be Barrichello’s last win in F1. The 2005 season proved fruitless, and he was replaced at Ferrari by fellow countryman Felipe Massa in 2006. Barrichello then fought through three seasons with the midfield Honda Racing team, scoring only one podium at Silverstone in 2008. It wasn’t until Honda was reorganized into Brawn GP in 2009 that Barrichello got another shot in a competitive car. He made good on the opportunity, winning twice in 2009 and finishing third in the Drivers’ Championship behind teammate Button.

Schumacher got even with Shanghai in 2006, where he took his 91st and final Grand Prix victory after battling the Renaults of Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella.

Turning attention to the back of the pack, four drivers failed to finish the 2004 edition of the Chinese Grand Prix. Gianmaria Bruni was forced out of the race after his Minardi suddenly lost a wheel in turn 2, Ralf Schumacher retired late after contact with David Coulthard, Klien retired after his contact with Michael Schumacher, and Ricardo Zonta suffered a transmission failure on lap 35.

Jacques Villeneuve returned for a three-race stint with Renault to close out the season after Jarno Trulli was unceremoniously released from his drive with the team. The 1997 champion finished 11th, one lap down.

Lastly, one Zhou Guanyu, then only five-years-old, was in the crowd when F1 and China made their partnership official at lights out in 2004. Now, 20 years later, Zhou gets to contest his first home race in F1, having never driven the circuit in his F3 or F2 years. It’s only fitting that F1 and China will mark their 20th anniversary with the sport’s first Chinese driver on the grid.

Many things have changed in the 20 years since F1’s first race in China. The expansion into the Middle East and mainland Asia in 2004 looks amateurish in retrospect, as the calendar now features four rounds in the Arab world and three races in the United States. The cars have become much larger, with numerous safety innovations leaving the machines of the early 2000s nearly unrecognizable in comparison. What’s more, Michael Schumacher’s title as the most dominant driver in F1 history is now held by Lewis Hamilton, who was still driving F3 cars in 2004.

The only constant, it seems, is Fernando Alonso, who will contest the Chinese Grand Prix for the 16th time this weekend.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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