The Red Sea Saga

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

After three consecutive winless years at his favourite Spa circuit, Michael Schumacher ensured that his return to the Spa winners' circle was both memorable and historic. His victory in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix was fitting, as the Spa-Francorchamps circuit has been the scene of many Schumacher career milestones - his F1 debut in 1991, his maiden GP win a year later, his first disqualification in 1994 and, in 2001, his record-breaking 52nd GP win.

On paper, the race will go down as a conventional Schumacher win, leading from restart to finish, with even the trademark Schumacher late-race off, this time at Stavelot as he momentarily lost concentration. What the record books will not reflect is just how bizarre the race was, even by F1's quirky standards.

Saturday's qualifying session provided a foretaste when, with literally only a couple of minutes remaining, Juan Pablo Montoya held provisional pole by the unheard-of margin of almost three and a half seconds. Even on the season's longest circuit, that sort of pole margin is off the scale, and it took successive last-minute hotlaps by the Schumacher brothers to restore some semblance of normality to the grid.

Montoya's dominant pole position provided justified optimism that the Colombian's moment of glory was finally at hand. But, in a season where the opposition has invariably parted like the proverbial Red Sea before Michael Schumacher, we should have known better. And so it was. Murphy's F1 Law states that an engine will stall when you can least afford it. Michael Schumacher learnt that at Suzuka 98, David Coulthard learnt it at Monaco 2001, and it was Montoya's turn at Spa. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, a satisfying twelve grid positions ahead of former teammate Jarno Trulli, was the other to feel Murphy's sting. For Montoya and Frentzen, a minor collision while dicing at the wrong end of the field capped a wretched afternoon.

Just when you think you've seen it all in F1, Williams always manage to conjure up some new and incredible plot wrinkle to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Mansell's blowout at Adelaide 86, the infamous three-wheeler pitstop in 1991, and Hill and Coulthard spinning out of Constructors' Championship contention at the same corner on successive laps at Suzuka 1995. At Spa they even outdid themselves, with a mistake so inept that it almost reversed into genius. The image of Ralf Schumacher's car, stranded on the jacks as the rest of the field streamed past, served as a refreshing and humorous reminder that F1 is often more about human fallibility than technological perfection.

Ultimately, it looked unlikely that Ralf Schumacher would have been able to challenge Michael for the win, even from an inherited pole position. For the first time this year, the Williams was outclassed in straight line speed, their single greatest weapon. ITV commentator Martin Brundle speculated that BMW had limited the high-revving engine to try and improve reliability. If that was the plan, then Montoya's blowup after only five laps does not bode well.

Two interesting trends have emerged with the new driver pairing at Williams. Ralf Schumacher seems able to preserve the car better than Montoya and, when the Colombian's engine does blow, it's invariably the right-hand bank of cylinders that fails. It's unclear whether that is the result of different preparation/specifications, driving style or sheer luck, but the rest of the season may provide an answer.

As ever this year, Michael Schumacher emerged from the chaos unscathed and wondering what happened to the opposition. It's as well that the race finally got underway at the third start. Another half-dozen restarts and we may have had the situation of Schumacher alone on the startline with the rest of the field bunched up behind Tarso Marques' Minardi at the exit to the Bus-Stop.

With Giancarlo's Fisichella's outclassed Benetton as a buffer in second, the race became a leisurely stroll into the record books by Schumacher standards. That doesn't detract from Fisichella's fantastic effort in holding superior cars at bay on a circuit where overtaking is easier than most. The Italian seems to have finally shaken his habit of falling away during the second half of each season. Unfortunately, Fisichella may once again have fallen prey to the most common F1 mistake of all - being in the right car at the wrong time.

All through his career, Fisichella has ritually outperformed his teammates, and all for naught as he's never had the machinery to mount a serious Championship challenge. When he re-signed for his debut team Jordan, it looked like a promising career move. The Benetton has been hopeless all year, and Jordan seemed to provide at least a marginally competitive alternative. After Sunday's race, he must be having second thoughts. Jordan, for all their popularity, Honda support and perennial 'best of the rest' status, have never been able to seriously challenge the big three of Williams, McLaren and Ferrari.

Renault, on the other hand, are modern F1's greatest innovators, the company responsible for the success of both the turbo and the current V10 specification engines. If any team has the potential to topple the Williams/McLaren/Ferrari reign, it's Renault. After Spa, it looks like Jarno Trulli may have got the better long-term deal, and Fisichella may once again end up in the right car at the wrong time. If it does pan out that way, at least Fisichella will have company in his misery. No driver epitomises the 'right car at the wrong time' phenomenon better than future Jordan teammate Jean Alesi.

As a spectacle, Spa 2001 was marred by Luciano Burti's sickening 240km/h accident. It was the Prost driver's third serious shunt of the season, after the Saturday smash at Monaco and the startline incident with Schumacher's Ferrari at Hockenheim. Racing drivers show a remarkable ability to bounce back from the injury and trauma of career-threatening accidents, as witnessed by Niki Lauda, Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Olivier Panis, Johnny Herbert and others.

This ability, to rapidly recover from impacts that would leave a less strong and fit individual with permanent psychological if not physical scarring, counterpoints the reality that modern F1 is an anachronism. In a world ruled by litigation and liability, F1 is an oddity, a sport where a simple human error can result in the death of another.

Ever since Ayrton Senna's death in 1994, F1 has struggled to retain its increasingly tenuous hold on the politically-correct realities of the 21st Century. It doesn't matter that the contestants are willing participants in a sport which could end their lives. The legal profession no longer accepts willingness as a mitigating factor. If someone dies or gets injured, then someone else is liable and must pay. It is only a matter of time before that ethic encroaches into Formula One.

Thankfully, the FIA dismissed the accident as a 'racing incident' with no further consequences for Jaguar's Eddie Irvine. That decision was entirely correct. There have been literally dozens of similar misjudgements this season, the only difference with the Burti/Irvine accident was the high speed nature of the corner where it happened. Finding a F1 driver guilty of misjudgement at high speed would be the ultimate irony.

The FIA decision was also absolutely essential for the sport. Racing literally inches apart at 300km/h, F1 drivers must have implicit faith in each other's ability and judgement. No amount of effort, skill, care or safety measures can preclude the inevitability of the occasional driver error. The day that a driver is held legally liable, to whatever extent, for the death or injury of another driver, is the day that F1 is consigned to the history books. The prospect of legal accountability is a mental burden that no driver needs, and one that would sound the death-knell for all forms of motor sport instantly.

And so to Monza where, apart from a rapturous welcome from the tifosi, Schumacher can look forward to slicing another ten points off Alain Prost's advantage in the all-time WDC points classification. After Spa, Schumacher is only 16.5 points adrift of Prost's benchmark of 798.5. Victory in Italy would set Schumacher up to add yet another record to his staggering 2001 season. He needs just five points from the remaining three races to eclipse his own (2000) and Nigel Mansell's (1992) record of 108 WDC points in a single season. Two wins from those three races would also establish Schumacher as the only driver ever to win 10 Grands Prix in one season.

Somehow though, the imperative passed with the clinching of both Championships in Hungary, and Monza will attract more interest from those who seek to challenge, rather than Schumacher himself. Will Frentzen continue his form for new employer Prost? Can Williams get back on the winning trail? Was Benetton's Spa form a one-off, or the start of a serious Championship challenge? As regards Schumacher, there is really only one question - who will stall, fall off the road or blow up to leave him unchallenged for the win? For one thing is certain - to win, all Schumacher needs to do is pitch up and last till the finish. It's been that sort of season for him.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 36
September 5th 2001

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Bobby's Bad Joke: How Irvine and Lauda Got the Last Laugh
by Biranit Goren

Belgian GP Review

The Belgian GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

The Red Sea Saga
by Richard Barnes

Plain Speaking
by Karl Ludvigsen


Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes - the GP Cartoon
by Bruce Thomson

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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