While in 2003 Michael Schumacher and Ferrari had to sweat until the very last race of the season before victory was theirs, 2004 was a different story altogether as the German driver and the Maranello team returned to runaway success. Their performance even surpassed the 2002 season when they clinched the title in July. In 2004, they had to wait a little longer but the result was the same: another record-breaking year.
Schumacher nailed five early season wins, for a start: Australia, Malaysia, the new Bahrain round, San Marino and Spain. Going into the Monaco GP, Michael had racked up 50 points, 18 more than his team-mate team Rubens Barrichello and more than double the tally of his only real rival, Jensen Button in the surprisingly impressive BAR. Victory seemed assured in the Monaco Grand Prix but then the Monte-Carlo roulette wheel spun and stopped instead on number seven, Jarno Trulli. In fact, a paradoxical incident put Schumacher out of the race while the Safety Car was deployed. The Ferrari driver was in the lead, but alternating between accelerating and braking to keep the brakes of his F2004 warm. Inside, the tunnel there was a misunderstanding with Juan Pablo Montoya. To avoid hitting the Ferrari, the Williams driver hung a sharp right. Schumacher, who had not noticed him, also swung right. A collision was inevitable and the German’s car ended up against the barrier, wrecking his front suspension. It was, however, just a blip as Michael immediately returned to obliterating the competition from the next race, the European Grand Prix, at the Nürburgring on May 30. His victory in the Eiffel Mountains marked the start of a string of seven triumphs, ending at the Hungarian Grand Prix in mid-August. The most memorable of these included the French Grand Prix on July 4. At this point, Ferrari’s strategists had blind faith in Michael’s ability to beat the Renault of Fernando Alonso, and decided on a four-stop strategy. To win, Schumacher would have to drive almost 70 laps as hard as if he were in qualifying. Needless to say, the German did his job to perfection, beating his Spanish rival by almost nine seconds and his team-mate Barrichello by more than 31.
Ferrari took its 14th Constructors’ title on points at the Hungaroring. However, Schumacher had to wait until the following GP in Belgium, for his seventh title, an achievement that no other driver has ever even come close to equalling. The legendary German driver was second behind the McLaren of Kimi Räikkönen on the day, but it mattered not a whit: he had clinched the title a full five races before the end of the season.
Schumacher and Barrichello, who won in Italy and also took the very first GP ever staged in China, triumphed in 15 out of 18 races that season, absolutely obliterating the competition and setting a slew of new records. Michael took 82% of the available points. He finished the season 34 points ahead of Barrichello and a massive 63 in front of Button. Ferrari was the undisputed king of Formula 1. It had won every Constructors’ Cup since 1999, while Schumacher had delivered five consecutive Drivers’titles since 2000, a feat that made him far and away the most successful driver not just in Ferrari, but also Formula 1 history. He was, quite simply, a legend, who would never be replaced in the affections of the Tifosi – not even when he returned to Formula 1 in 2010 at the wheel of a Mercedes after a three-year retirement.