Atlas F1   Reflections on Interlagos

  by Roger Horton, England

If you are a believer in the old adage that there is no such thing as 'bad publicity,' then last weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix was a huge success, with controversy and incidents galore. Firstly, the Saturday qualifying session was reduced to a total farce, with various bits of overhead advertising hoarding falling onto the track, causing the session to be red flagged on three occasions.

Then came the statement from Grand Prix promoter Tamas Rohonyi, alleging that the hoardings had been sabotaged, and a picture of the type of race weekend on offer at Interlagos emerges. The 'resurfaced' track proved to be so bumpy, especially on the pit straight, that at least three teams suffered from rear wing failures during the course of the three-day event. Sauber felt that their cars were so affected that they withdrew them from the race on Saturday evening.

To round off proceedings, David Coulthard's McLaren was excluded from his second place finish when it failed a post race inspection some five hours after the end of the race. This is the third time in the last four Formula One races that a car (or cars) has been excluded from a points scoring position. McLaren have appealed their exclusion and it is expected that a hearing will be held before the next race at Imola on April 9th.

The race itself was full of interest right up until the time Mika Hakkinen's McLaren went out just before half distance. Hakkinen had once again dominated qualifying to take yet another pole position, making it 20 from his last 34 starts. In the race he looked to be well in control, having elected to stop only once, and was some 12 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher's two-stopping Ferrari, and pulling away, when his car again let him down for the second time in two races.

Nothing is more frustrating for a driver than losing races through no fault of his own. So far this season Hakkinen has not put a foot wrong. He has been fastest when it matters and driven well enough to win in both Australia and Brazil.

Hakkinen's misfortune, though, should take nothing away from Schumacher's victory. The German double world champion drove brilliantly to yet again make the most of yet another clever Ross Brawn two-stop strategy. Schumacher's second lap pass on Hakkinen's McLaren was a typical no nonsense effort that once again showcased his sublime talent. Ferrari may not yet have the outright pace to beat McLaren over a race distance, but given the way McLaren are self-destructing, they don't need it.

Giancarlo Fisichella drove well in his Benetton and thoroughly deserved his third place (on the road) finish. He drove a really long first stint, not stopping until lap 51 and this strong result will give much encouragement to Renault, having completed the purchase of the team just days before the race. Eddie Irvine went further and faster in his Jaguar than was the case in Melbourne, to give this rather beleaguered team a ray of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Jarno Trulli again enhanced his growing reputation in Brazil. His 1:14.604 Saturday morning practice time was bettered only by the McLarens and Ferraris and then only by the odd tenths. A difficult qualifying session ended with him being twelfth on the grid, but a two-stop routine and a light initial fuel load saw him climb to fifth position by lap 16, and fourth when Rubens Barrichello pitted on lap 22. The way he moved through the field, with just the right amount of controlled aggression, confirms that we are seeing a major new star emerging.

The Williams team once again impressed, getting both cars to the finish-line in just their second race in partnership with BMW. Jenson Button managed to outqualify his teammate Ralf Schumacher, and, just as in Australia, he then matched him for pace for much of the race.

Rubens Barrichello came away from his home race with nothing much to show for it. Once again he almost matched Schumacher's pace in qualifying, and in the race he was almost able to match his teammate's lap times once he found a way past Hakkinen. There is no disgrace to be a close second behind Schumacher, and perhaps he can still find some more speed as he becomes more familiar with the workings of the Ferrari team.

The ongoing headlines over the next few days, however, will be all about the disqualification of David Coulthard's McLaren from his original second place finishing position, when the car's front wing was found not to conform with the technical regulations. With memories just fading of the infamous 'barge board' affair - when both Ferraris were excluded from their one-two finish in Malaysia last year and their subsequent reinstatement on appeal - it looks on the surface as if history is about to repeat itself, only this time with McLaren and not Ferrari in the dock.

This situation is, however, entirely different. Unlike the Ferrari disqualification last year, McLaren will claim that it was external forces - the extremely bumpy nature of the Interlargos track - that caused the damage to the front wing and also to the underside of the car. Credence to their claim will come from the fact that five of the six original finishers were also found to have cars that failed to comply with the regulations. All these cars were found to have excessive wear on their wooden 'planks' on the underside of their cars, which are designed to regulate their ride heights.

Those with long memories will recall that Michael Schumacher was excluded from the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix, when his Benetton was found to have suffered too much wear on its underside plank. Benetton appealed, claiming that the wear was caused by an off-track excursion during the race. The FIA threw out the appeal, ruling that the damage was caused by continuous contact with the track, and as the Benetton was the only car so affected, the fault lay solely with the team.

As always with disputes in Formula One, the politics of the situation will be much to the fore in the coming days. With the much discussed issue of 'driver aids' firmly back on the agenda at Imola, following FIA president Max Mosely recent intervention, then this dispute is likely to play out against the usual backdrop of claim and innuendo which is a constant in F1, especially when McLaren and Ferrari are involved.

The pattern of the 2000 season, such as it is after just two races, would suggest that the Mika Hakkinen - McLaren combination is still the quickest out there, and that he will win when he finishes. But not since 1994 has Michael Schumacher made such a dominating start to a season, leading his main title rival 20-0 in the point standings going into the third event of the season, the San Marino Grand Prix.

Mika Hakkinen and McLaren are under the cosh, and cool nerves will be required at Imola.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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