ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 29 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections on A1-Ring

  by Roger Horton, England

The McLaren team's one-two in Austria, and Michael Schumacher's early departure from the race due to the attention of Ricardo Zonta's BAR-Honda, continued the trend evident at the French Grand Prix just two weeks ago: the points' gap between the main contenders is tightening up and we now have a three-way battle for the drivers' title.

As further evidence that the battle for the world titles is getting serious, the pre-race driver briefing became heated, with the leading contenders trading insults. This seams to have become something of a ritual in recent years, and once again it was the driving ethics of Michael Schumacher that was the talking point.

David Coulthard started the ball rolling, seeking clarification from race officials of the legality of the so called 'one move' rule, after Michael Schumacher's aggressive lunge across his line at the start of previous race in Magny-Cours. This forced him to lift off the throttle to avoid a collision and he then lost his place to Schumacher's teammate, Rubens Barrichello.

Despite his concerns failing to impress FIA race director Charlie Whiting, who stated that he had broken no rule, Coulthard did receive firm support from one other driver, and one that had witnessed the Schumacher Technique at close quarters. "There are not many people doing this sort of thing on the track," said Jacques Villeneuve. "It is just one person doing it and getting away with it, so why should it be changed? I guess ethics are not only the way you drive, but also the way you live your life and you take them into the car with you. This issue has been raised before, but the drivers cannot do anything about it."

Eddie Irvine also had an advice for Coulthard, stating earlier on that the only way to handle Schumacher was to "dish out a bit of the rough stuff," further adding that: "The only way to deal with his unsporting behavior is teach him a lesson he will never forget."

FIA president Max Mosley was unimpressed with Coulthard's complaints, remarking that: "It's what the lawyers would call a question of fact and degree," which succinctly sums up the difficulty of trying to make up a set of rules to control the actions of 22 racing drivers in the first few frantic seconds of a Grand Prix motor race.

Just where you draw the line at what is unsporting, illegal, or dangerous is not easy, but with no Ferraris on the front row of the grid, the problems at Magny-Cours went unrepeated and the start in Austria was an orderly affair - until the first corner at least. The action here - where both Ferraris were hit from the rear, ended Schumacher's participation in the race weekend and caused Barrichello's Ferrari to handle strangely for the rest of the race.

It was certainly unusual to see both Ferraris suffer more or less the same fate, and raised questions as to whether, in attempting to reverse their order on the track at the first corner, Barrichello had braked early and surprised the following Jordan of Jarno Trulli. Whatever the truth of the matter it was a costly mishap and could hurt Schumacher badly at the end of the season when the points are finally tallied up, although Schumacher looked to be the totally innocent victim of Ricardo Zonta's mistake.

Zonta certainly appeared to have been treated harshly in being adjudged a ten second stop and go penalty for what was a minor error. In the sixteen races over the whole of last year, there were no less than seven incidents leading to the retirement of at least one car during the opening lap of a race. These incidents occurred when the field was still tightly bunched; with most drivers looking to make up a position and in all cases there was no sanction of any kind.

Some drivers were even involved in multiple incidents without any action being taken. Jarno Trulli making contact with Damon Hill in Australia, Pedro de la Rosa in San Marino, and Jean Alesi in Canada. Whilst Marc Gene went un-penalized at Hockenheim when he nudged Jacques Villeneuve into Pedro Diniz, eliminating both drivers on the spot. The message from the Stewards in Austria seemed to be: make sure you tangle with a back marker, and hands off Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher once again showed what a sharp racing brain he has, when - sensing that perhaps the carnage on the opening lap could be dealt with just with the introduction of the safety car - he drove his crippled Ferrari back onto the track and 'stalled' it on the racing line. Unfortunately for him the Austrian marshals proved to be up to the task of quickly clearing the track to enable the race to continue and not be red flagged, which, of course, would have allowed the German back into the race in the team's spare car. But it was a nice try, and a good example why the German is a double world champion.

If there was a whiff of team orders in the behaviour of the two Ferraris early in the race, there was a positive stench coming from the McLaren pit boards once the race had settled down, and an easy one-two finish for the Woking based outfit was on the cards. As early as lap 22 'shift' and 'revs' signs were being held out to the two drivers as Hakkinen drove on the limit to extend his advantage over his teammate.

Team orders have become a very emotional subject in recent years, but it's hard to question their use in the circumstances that occurred in Austria with McLaren. Hakkinen had returned to his top form around the A1-Ring and had dominated Coulthard when it mattered the whole weekend. However hard he drove Coulthard was never going to beat the world champion in this race, so the 'suggestion' from the pit-wall to hold station and guarantee a maximum points finish for both drivers and the team was a sensible decision.

The real worry for Ferrari as they left Austria was that their cars were never able to get on terms with their main title rivals McLaren, and that Mika Hakkinen had somehow managed to rediscover his best form.

Neither development bodes well for Maranello.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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