|ATLAS F1 Volume 6, Issue 39||Email to Friend Printable Version|
|by Richard Barnes, South Africa|
It's odd how often the most unfamiliar surroundings can bring about a return to normality. For while Sunday's United States Grand Prix represented new territory to most of the drivers and fans, it also embodied much of what we've come to expect over the last few years.
Of the current Formula One field, only three drivers (Johnny Herbert, Jean Alesi and Mika Hakkinen) had ever competed in a United States Grand Prix, and that was on the streets of Phoenix. It was there, at the 1990 US GP, that Alesi literally burst onto the scene, with the sort of audacious and committed driving that instantly established his reputation. In a marginally-competitive Tyrrell-Ford 018, Alesi not only outqualified the great Ayrton Senna, but went wheel-to-wheel with him, cheekily retaking the lead when an over-optimistic Senna move left the Brazilian out of shape.
A year later, Alesi would impress again at the US GP, running second and recording fastest lap in the Ferrari 642 before engine problems ended his race with ten laps to go. Another victim of engine failure on that day was the sole Lotus qualifier - a young Finn named Mika Hakkinen.
Hakkinen's performance at Phoenix in 1991 was altogether more low-key than Alesi's, as were his hopes for the future. Alesi was the rising star, set to inherit the throne when Prost, Senna, Mansell and Piquet departed. Hakkinen, debuting in the uncompetitive and near-extinct Lotus-Judd, had a mountain to climb. How ironic then that Hakkinen would go on to win more World Drivers Championship titles than Alesi would win Grands Prix. And how fitting, in a sport where history invariably repeats itself, that both would again succumb to engine failure during this year's US GP.
For Alesi, yet another smoke-billowing Peugeot powerplant was just another shoulder-shrugging continuation of his season's woes. For Hakkinen, the repercussions were far more devastating. Yet, in a cruel way, the MP4-15's blown engine represented a return to normality. Since the start of the 1998 season, we'd become used to the McLarens' dominant speed and iffy reliability - and to Schumacher being on hand to maximise any points-scoring opportunities which arose therefrom.
This season, the established contest of Ferrari reliability versus McLaren pace has been turned on its head. Ferrari finally delivered a car that was both reliable and fast. To date, the F1-2000 is the first Ferrari since 1983 to take more than half the pole positions during the season.
For their part, McLaren also upped the ante by addressing their sole weakness - reliability. After a disastrous start to the season, McLaren have since turned in a reliability record that even had Ferrari shaking their heads in disbelief - 22 consecutive starts without a mishap. Even that streak was only broken by Coulthard's accident at Monza, and not by mechanical failure.
The Indianapolis circuit is an exercise in schizophrenia. Not only is it the only new layout to be dubbed 'the oldest track in Grand Prix racing', but the configuration itself swings from one extreme to the other. The layout is reminiscent of Mexico's Hermanos Rodriguez track - wide open and mega-fast for one half, while slow, twisty and claustrophobic for the other half. As the Formula One circus headed for Indianapolis, it seemed that the banked final turn and main straight, which sees the cars at full throttle for an unprecedented 22 seconds, would pose more problems for Ferrari's V10 than its Mercedes/Ilmor rival. Yet, in a turnaround of recent form, it was the McLaren that lived up to its 'fast but fragile' reputation.
Even the elements seemed undecided what to make of Indianapolis, with the infield remaining damp and slippery long after a dry line had formed on the old Oval. In such changeable conditions, you could normally bet your bottom dollar that Alesi, Barrichello and the Schumacher brothers would be among the first to trade safety for pace, and make the switch to dry tyres.
Three of the four followed the script to perfection, stopping early, with only Michael Schumacher continuing on wets. Initially, it seemed that the German had made a rare tactical error. With even Mika Hakkinen comfortable enough to switch to dry tyres, surely Schumacher's hard-won lead would come to nought as his wet-weather tyres blistered? Again, the German's all-weather skills proved to be so much more than mere car control. For a lesser driver, a severely blistered left rear would have had him scurrying for the pits and a fresh set of rubber. Schumacher, as he has done so often in the past, not only drove around the problem - he revelled in the conditions.
Setting fastest lap after fastest lap on blistered wets was just another illustration (as if any was needed), that Schumacher currently has the coolest, most calculating approach to the tactical art of Formula One driving. The body language of the car said it all - 'Yes, my left rear is shredded. What of it?'
Another all-too-familiar and vintage Schumacher touch was the traditional late-race spin and recovery, at exactly the same point where Jacques Villeneuve had earlier lost the BAR, and an all-important place to Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello. Whereas Schumacher's spin was caused from deliberate slowing down and consequent loss of concentration, Villeneuve's came from characteristically pushing the BAR beyond the limits of traction. Unsatisfied with just one off, Villeneuve then added another under braking for the first turn, to the immense enjoyment of the crowd.
Love him or hate him, you have to admire Villeneuve's sheer commitment. Although his bravado is often misplaced, his successful moves often become instant classics. Formula One cannot afford to have a charger like Villeneuve in a midfield car. Hopefully Honda's direct input at BAR will bring the same results as it did in the turbo era, providing fans with a three-way Schumacher/Hakkinen/Villeneuve battle for supremacy.
Of all the familiar sights which Indianapolis provided, possibly the most predictable was the 'David Coulthard Syndrome'. It beggars belief that one driver could manufacture so many different ways to drive fans and detractors alike into fits of despair. Whether it's spinning on the warm-up lap, hitting the pit wall while leading, disastrous manoeuvres while being lapped, or simply punting his teammate off the track, Coulthard will invariably find a way to do the wrong thing to the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the more pressurised the situation, the greater the likelihood of it happening.
From the moment that teammate Hakkinen gave him a friendly tow to start his final qualifying run, the Scot was destined to be drawn into controversy yet again. As if the jump-start wasn't bad enough, Coulthard then indulged in a bout of blocking, so ham-fisted that it almost became comical. When Schumacher blocked Hakkinen at Sepang 99, it was with efficiency and skill. Even when Schumacher is deliberately driving slowly, he does it superbly well. Coulthard, by comparison, looked about as deft as a bear pursuing a fieldmouse.
The irony of Coulthard's monumental gaffes and air of injured innocence is that it really couldn't happen to a nicer guy. He is probably one of the most honest and least malicious people in Formula One. Questionable ethics and marginally-legal tactics don't form part of his driving style. Despite his years of experience with hard-fighting and cynical F1 teams, Coulthard seems singularly at odds with the cut-and-thrust of the sport.
Even when he is the aggrieved party, such as at France earlier this season, Coulthard's middle-finger response seemed clumsy and unnecessary. By comparison, Schumacher's pass was a model of gutsy and skilful racing. Perhaps Schumacher is simply less expressive, perhaps his style of driving requires both hands to be on the steering wheel. Whichever, the German emerged from the two incidents with far greater integrity than the Scot. Schumacher has always claimed that racing is a man's sport, and his fearless overtaking move backed up his words perfectly.
It's as well that there was not serious contact between the two, for the sake of the race and the Championship. If there had been, no track in Formula One would be wide enough for the two of them, and the already bitter relationship between Ferrari and McLaren would have escalated into full-scale war.
Four weeks ago, after the crushing disappointment of Spa, it seemed that Ferrari and Schumacher would again fail in their quest for Drivers Championship glory. Sunday's race win has put Schumacher into new territory. For the first time since joining Ferrari, he now has two opportunities to wrap up the title. Victory at either Suzuka or Sepang would do the trick, as would second places at both events.
Just as in 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999, the early-season Championship leader has seen his lead reduced or even eradicated from the halfway point, only to emerge triumphant after a strong finish to the season. Few would bet against Schumacher following this trend in 2000. Although, in a sport which contains more twists than even the most improbable soap opera, only one thing is certain - either Michael Schumacher or Mika Hakkinen will win his third World Drivers Championship this year. Suzuka may only delay the final outcome by another two weeks.
|Richard Barnes||© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.|
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