ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 14

  The Game is On

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

Richard Barnes brings his impressions of the 2001 Brazilian GP

What a difference a day makes. On Saturday afternoon, after Michael Schumacher had taken a comfortable seventh consecutive pole position, all and sundry were proclaiming that only mechanical retirement stood between the reigning Champion and an Ascari-equalling seventh consecutive GP win. Twenty-four hours later, Schumacher was reflecting on the unthinkable - that first Juan Pablo Montoya and then David Coulthard had beaten him on sheer race pace.

To make matters worse for the German, both Montoya and Coulthard are de facto number two drivers, who have been outqualified by their teammates at all three races this season. Had Mika Hakkinen and brother Ralf survived the full race distance, Schumacher may well have found himself with two championship points instead of six for his efforts.

Schumacher exudes sheer confidence, and always gives the impression that he and Ferrari strategist Ross Brawn are in complete control of any situation on the track. After Montoya had pulled off his courageous third lap overtaking move, Schumacher appeared content to sit on the Colombian's tail and bide his time. Surely the inevitable Ross Brawn magic would conjure up track position for Schumacher during the pitstops. And indeed, when Schumacher pitted earlier than expected, it seemed like the beginning of yet another classic strategic win from the Ferrari brains trust. Later, a very different story emerged. Ferrari had planned two stops from the start, and incredibly the one-stopper Williams of Montoya had the legs on the lighter Ferrari.

Montoya's drive was remarkable. Not so much for the fact that he overtook Schumacher - the Williams-BMW had more straight-line speed than the Ferrari all weekend, and the ultra-long straight at Interlagos is the perfect place to maximise such an advantage. Nor was it remarkable for Montoya's composure under pressure, for again Schumacher was in a no-win situation. If he'd managed to outbrake and pass Montoya on the slower sections, the Colombian would simply have breezed past on the main straight again. What really impressed about Montoya's drive was the radical change between Australia and Brazil. At Melbourne, Montoya was over-driving drastically, and it showed as Ralf Schumacher outpaced him easily. At Interlagos, a much smoother and more controlled Montoya emerged. Patrick Head was right: Montoya is a quick learner with the ability to be ultra-fast and smooth.

Put that combination of courage, composure and control together, and Montoya immediately stands out as a clear and legitimate threat to the sport's current superstars, Schumacher and Hakkinen. The Colombian has also arrived in Formula One at exactly the right time. Williams's form so far in 2001 bears uncanny resemblance to 1991. In that year, Ayrton Senna aced the first four races of the season, leaving fans wondering if McLaren wouldn't perhaps go one better than 1988, and clean-sweep the season. Williams-Renault had other ideas, and claimed seven of the next ten races, coming agonisingly close to what would have been the greatest comeback championship triumph ever. Trailing Senna by thirty-four points after four races, Nigel Mansell closed the gap to just eight points with two races to go. It took all of Senna's racecraft and determination to eventually clinch the championship in his favour. After an ostensibly one-horse start to the season, Schumacher may find himself in the same situation this year.

Not even the rain, Schumacher's customary ally, could salvage the German's afternoon as he slipped and slithered his way through two offs to a fortuitous second place. Schumacher's persona draws extreme response from many fans. His dominance in the wet at Sepang attracted immediate suspicions about traction control. Similarly, his dismal pace at Interlagos will raise concerns that he is washed up, unnerved by Montoya's audacity, or was too cockily over-confident going into the race. The truth is somewhat more mundane. No chassis is ideally suited to every circuit, no driver/race engineer pairing can always get the setup and strategy absolutely right, and no driver performs at 100% all of the time. At Interlagos on Sunday, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari simply got it wrong, and were beaten fair and square.

If Schumacher had a miserable afternoon, he could at least draw cold comfort from the misfortunes of his main championship rivals. Mika Hakkinen's start line stall left him in uncharted territory - just one point from the first three races, and a full nineteen adrift of teammate David Coulthard. Hakkinen's overt display of joy at Coulthard's triumph must surely have been just a bit forced. Formula One drivers are simply not programmed to feel overjoyed when a teammate and championship rival wins at their expense. Nevertheless, Hakkinen's gesture showed true sporting spirit in a formula more often characterised by the bitter whingeing of sore losers.

For Rubens Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher, the 2001 season must seem like the realisation of some surreal nightmare. For the third time in as many races, Ralf Schumacher bore the brunt of a rear-end collision. And once again Barrichello was cast as the villain of the piece, glibly absolving himself of any blame in the incident.

There is growing concern that Barrichello has thrice overstepped the mark, and deserves some form of official censure for his reckless driving this season. Certainly both Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli must accept some liability for the Malaysia incident, but Barrichello must shoulder the blame for both the Australian contact with Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Sunday's demolition job on Ralf Schumacher.

Barrichello's explanation that Schumacher had swerved onto his racing line was a weak excuse. The Brazilian has never been known as a reckless or unethical driver, and his current refusal to accept blame for any incident only damns him further. The only thing that can be said in Barrichello's favour is that he isn't the first driver to cannon into the back of a Williams this season. Jacques Villeneuve did it at Melbourne, with tragic results. And Jos Verstappen also found himself travelling way faster than a Williams deep into a braking zone.

Williams Technical Director Patrick Head is adamant that his drivers have not deviated from the standard or expected braking points. Yet all three rear-end collisions involving Williams cars have been serious shunts. F1 drivers are all fantastically talented and all driving roughly equivalent machinery to very defined and narrow traction and braking limits. At best, there should only be a couple of km/h speed differential between fastest and slowest at any given point on the circuit. So when they misjudge, it should only result in light contact.

When F1 cars collide with wheel-shedding intensity, it's usually the result of mechanical failure, extremely poor visibility or gross (and relatively rare) driver error. Mechanical failure has not been cited in any of the three shunts, and visibility and track conditions were perfect in all three cases. Villeneuve, Barrichello and Verstappen are all very experienced and capable F1 drivers. Did they all suffer brain fade, and coincidentally all while racing behind a Williams? Serious rear-end shunts are excusable once or twice per season, but when it happens to the same team three times in two races? That seems more than coincidence.

For the next Grand Prix at Imola, many eyes will be on the Williams cars and particularly their braking points. If a Williams is again seriously rear-ended under braking, the FIA would be justified in launching a detailed investigation. Equally, if Barrichello again tangles with a leading car, he could and should find himself under investigation and facing a possible ban.

Amidst the drama and spectacle of the Williams misfortunes, it was easy to overlook David Coulthard's understated but stunning performance. Brazil 2001 must surely be his most satisfying race win of all. Not only did he break Michael Schumacher's stranglehold on the championship, he did so under conditions tailor-made for Schumacher's wet-weather expertise. Best of all, Coulthard is achieving his championship goals with the minimum of fuss in true Prost style.

Ever the quiet and distinguished gentleman racer, Coulthard was always at odds with the 'in your face' war of words that characterised his 1999 and 2000 championship campaigns. This year, he seems to have taken Mika Hakkinen's cue - that brilliant race performances speak so much louder than words.

Hakkinen's woeful start to the season has revitalised Coulthard. For once, his attention is fully on the championship race rather than trying to play catch-up to his teammate. It is only a temporary situation, and Hakkinen's bad luck must soon turn. When that happens, the Finn will doubtless transform his qualifying superiority into race dominance, taking points away from Coulthard in the process. As long as the Scot continues getting the car to the finish and onto the podium, he will remain a strong championship contender. For this season at least, he also has the Brazil mojo on his side. Every year since 1994, the Brazilian GP winner has gone on to claim the World Drivers Championship at the end of the season. Could this be the year that Coulthard finally makes good on his annual promise of 'This season is mine...'?

For the San Marino Grand Prix in two weeks time, it would not be at all surprising to see an all-silver or all-blue and white front row. Eddie Jordan's gloomy prediction that Ferrari would clean-sweep the season has been eradicated overnight, as have the bookmakers' odds that Michael Schumacher would win every race in the 2001 season. With three cars all proving capable of winning races on merit, the battle for the 2001 championship is well and truly on.

Richard Barnes© 2007
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions