ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 27 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections on

  by Roger Horton, England

David Coulthard won more than just a race at Magny-Cours. He beat both Michael Schumacher and his teammate Mika Hakkinen in emphatic fashion and forever laid to rest the 'nearly man' tag that has dogged his career for so long. If you had secretly swapped the number and name stickers of the two McLarens, all the headlines would have been about Mika Hakkinen's dramatic return to form - so 'Hakkinen like' was the Scot's performance.

Coulthard has always had the speed to win, but usually only when all the varying outside elements that make up a typical Grand Prix weekend have suited him. This time he brushed aside a troubled qualifying session, and still put his car firmly on the front row of the grid. In past years the same situation may well have seen him buried in the mid-field, too far back to be a factor in the race.

At the start he was again on the receiving end of yet another 'Schumacher chop', the manoeuvre that has, it seems, become a standard part of the German's starting repertoire. This aggressive lunge across the track is surely something that needs be questioned. It has now become a ritual, and since it comes when the field is bunched closely together the result of a slight 'coming together' could be catastrophic. Once again we see Michael Schumacher interpreting the rules, which state that a driver is allowed to change direction once, to the limit.

Effectively his move ensures that no matter how bad a start he makes he will always maintain his pole position advantage off the grid. It is inevitable that the other drivers will follow his example, and once again the opportunity for a driver to benefit from performing one of Grand Prix Racing's unique skills - the ability to control 800 horsepower away from the line - will be muted.

On Sunday's race, Schumacher's starting manoeuvre forced David Coulthard to lift off the throttle and allowed Rubens Barrichello into second place. Undeterred, however, the Scot stalked the Brazilian for some twenty laps before executing a brilliant pass at the Adelaide hairpin. One Ferrari passed, one to go.

David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher have a 'history' of confrontations going back a number of years. Most famously at Spa in '98, where Schumacher so controversially ran into the back of a slowing Coulthard in the pouring rain; in Argentina earlier that same year, when Schumacher's aggressive overtaking move pitched Coulthard into a spin and out of contention. Like Damon Hill before him, Coulthard came away from these confrontations looking and sounding like a loser.

When Coulthard made his first passing attempt on the number three Ferrari, Schumacher's defence of his position was borderline but legal, forcing his rival very wide on the exit of the corner. Coulthard's attempt to pass him around the outside at the Adelaide hairpin was always doomed to failure, and as we have seen on so many previous occasions, Schumacher is the master of emerging from wheel to wheel encounters with the outcome in his favour.

Hampered by tyres that were losing grip faster than the McLarens', Schumacher's lead was always under threat and Coulthard was able to make his second passing move stick, this time firmly taking the inside line into the same Adelaide corner and emerging in the lead. Once past, Coulthard was never troubled, and unlike on some previous occasions when he has fought himself into a winning position, this time nothing went wrong.

Afterwards Coulthard vented his feeling concerning Schumacher's tactics, which he felt were 'unsporting' - a quaint and little used phrase in Formula One in modern times. But at least his comments were those of a winner, and from a driver who on that day had been the class of the field. David Coulthard is now a genuine contender for the 2000 drivers' title and everyone in the pitlane knows it. Whatever transformation has taken place inside the head of the number two McLaren driver in recent weeks, its effect has been dramatic and the possible consequences far reaching.

While David Coulthard and McLaren came away from Magny-Cours well pleased with their weekend's work, Alain Prost must have been just about at the end of his tether. His cars qualified 16th and 18th on the grid, his drivers managed to run into one another during the race, and they eventually finished 12th and 14th, with Jean Alesi two laps down.

Ever since Prost bought the old Ligier outfit with Peugeot as his engine partner, the whiff of a French national team has spelled trouble. As far back as the end of 1996, when World Champion elect Damon Hill was looking for a new seat following his sacking by Williams, he opined that the team looked to be "too French" and declined Alain Prost's invitation to join his team. Now, some four years on, the picture looks to be pretty bleak as the four-times World Champion driver wrestles with the problems of winning as a constructor.

Peugeot's record of lukewarm enthusiasm for their F1 programme is well documented, but even if Prost lands the now available Mugen-Honda engine supply deal - and there are rumours that the Japanese engine supplier will quit the sport at the end of the season - his troubles are likely to be far from over. His decision to keep the team based in France may play well with his French sponsors, but the record for teams based away from England's F1 corridor are not at all encouraging.

The departure of the respected but sometimes prickly Alan Jenkins as technical director was a major loss, as he was at least one person that worked well with John Barnard, whose B3's Technologies company continues its association with the team. The fact that Jenkins's resignation was forced on Prost due to pressure from a group of well-established long time employees certainly confronted the team boss with a difficult decision, but perhaps the price of industrial peace will prove to be a slow car for many seasons to come.

Right now the Prost team is based in the wrong place, does not have a works engine deal, is struggling to fill some senior technical positions, and has an unimpressive record of retaining its drivers: Alain Prost is learning the slow and painful lesson that although the drivers get the lion's share of the publicity and attention in the paddock, it is the team owners who work and worry the hardest. But being a team boss means just that - being the boss. And being the boss means taking the tough decisions. The time has come for Alain Prost to do just that.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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