ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 14 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections on Interlagos

  by Roger Horton, England

The track may be bumpy and the facilities run-down, but year after year the Brazilian Grand Prix seems to serve up a race that has even the most jaded F1 followers begging for more. This year's race produced the first non-Ferrari race victory of the season, another great qualifying battle - with the top nine cars separated by just over one second - and showcased the impressive emerging talent of Juan Pablo Montoya.

The race, however, was won by David Coulthard, and in context of the current form of the McLaren team, it was by far the most important win of his career. Never has a previous victory by the Scot been so welcomed by the men from Woking, who have been reeling from the stark reality that, in the first two races of the season, not only have their cars not been winning, but that their cars have just not been fast enough to win even when they finished.

As David Coulthard celebrated his win on the podium afterwards, his body language was so different from the sweating dejected figure, that just over two weeks ago had tried to explain just where his McLaren's speed had gone, after he had struggled to qualify in eighth position in Malaysia. Now, courtesy of his car's reliability if not its speed, he finds himself just six points adrift of World Championship leader Michael Schumacher, and savouring his best-ever start to a racing season.

Coulthard has, of course, flattered only to deceive before. But his driving in the first two races of the season has been solid and mistake free. At Interlagos it was brilliant, enabling him to build a solid early season platform from which to launch a credible title challenge.

If David Coulthard was the winner in Brazil, then Montoya was the star, along with the whole rapidly improving BMW-Williams team. The speed with which the combination of Michelin, BMW and Williams have gelled into becoming such a competitive outfit has surprised most people in the Paddock. No one doubted that they would get there eventually, but the low-key approach of all concerned has worked in their favour and added to the sense of surprise when suddenly they looked to be likely race winners in Brazil.

It's hard not to have respect for many of the senior figures in the various companies behind this developing success story. The highly experienced and respected Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin's motorsport director, whose company has produced such an effective tyre so early in its F1 return, but whose feet are always planted so firmly on the ground; Gerhard Berger, the BMW motorsport boss, whose fun loving and laid back public image belies his shrewd grip on the realities of the F1 game.

For Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head, the growing competitiveness of their team is the result of so many months of hard work and planning, and there will be few in the pitlane that will begrudge them their success when it surely comes.

Montoya's driving throughout the three days of the Brazilian race was plainly brilliant. His raw speed was evident when he topped the time sheets in the Saturday morning practice session. The way he manhandled the spare car to fourth on the grid in qualifying just added to his stature. His passing manoeuvre on Michael Schumacher's Ferrari was a moment of pure F1 theatre, and even if his race had ended there, it would have still ensured that the move of the race belonged to him.

It is always interesting to watch a new driver when he first enters Formula One. All drivers have a different level of initial performance. A lot depends on the quality of the equipment at their disposal and the overall level of their team's competitiveness. Then, you can observe just how steep is their learning curve as the season progresses. Some drivers, like Ayrton Senna, move through the lower Formulas and make the move into F1 in a seamless transition that has a world championship written all over it. Others, like Nigel Mansell, initially appeared to have peaked at a level well below what most observers believed would lead to championship title. But, he continued improving and confounded his critics by eventually winning his title some ten years after first entering Formula one.

Montoya's results in the first three races have been extremely impressive by any yardstick. His qualifying positions have been eleventh, sixth and fourth. His time gap behind the pole man has reduced from 1.846 in Australia, to 0.998 in Malaysia, and to just 0.385 in Brazil. He was heading for a fourth place finish in Melbourne before a mechanical failure intervened. His race in Malaysia was a disaster after his car failed to start on the grid, and he then spun out in the rain, as did many others.

In Brazil, he was clearly heading for a win until the Arrows of Jos Verstappen rammed him from behind. Not a bad record for a three race F1 career, and no one can be in any doubt that there will be much more to come in the near future.

If Montoya has been aggressive inside the cockpit, he has also laid down plenty of markers outside it as well. He turned a few heads in Melbourne by his assertion that he was not in Formula One to win any friends, which clearly he isn't. He has already built up an aura around him that tells other drivers not to bother him by attempting to play any mind games. He has his own agenda, and it is easy to get the impression that, like his great boyhood hero Ayrton Senna, he is not in F1 just to participate, but to dominate it.

It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Ralf Schumacher amongst all this Montoya hype. Ralf has actually done little wrong so far this season. Ok, maybe he could be accused of shutting the door a little too tightly in front of Rubens Barrichello at Sepang, but that aside, he has always qualified and raced in front of his teammate except for the few laps he managed before being rear ended by Barrichello in Brazil.

Some early season results could have helped cushion the pressure that will surely come from his teammate now that he is well and truly into his F1 stride. There has never been anywhere to hide in Frank's team, and the hardheaded Montoya is just the type of driver that the English team owner loves. Ralf Schumacher must be hoping that his luck turns soon, or his career could be swept away by Montoya's momentum.

Jacques Villeneuve's season got no better in Interlagos. He was out-qualified by his teammate Olivier Panis for the first time this year, and once again had mechanical troubles, which hampered him in the race. Villeneuve, remember, is one of the few drivers to actually walk away from the Williams team in recent years. His decision, back in mid '98, to put his bank balance ahead of his racing career, might have looked a reasonable bet at the time, but maybe now, the thought that it could have been him in the cockpit of a BMW-Williams, challenging his old adversary Michael Schumacher for championship glory, has to be nagging away at him.

Rubens Barrichelo would maybe prefer it if the Brazilian Grand Prix was actually struck off the F1 calendar as a result of its many shortcomings. He has never prospered in his home event, and overall his race weekend was another demonstration of just why he may never really make it to the very top of the F1 tree. He was off the pace in qualifying, and after suffering a problem with his car on the way to the grid just prior to the race, allowed his emotions to overcome his judgement when he once again tagged the rear of Ralf Schumacher's Williams. This was a pity, and he has work to do the mend some fences within the totally Schumacher-centred Ferrari team, after some ill-judged comments following the Malaysian event.

So, effectively, after this Brazilian race, we now have a contest between the 'big three' - Ferrari, McLaren and Williams - making it even harder for the likes of Jordan, BAR, and Jaguar to score many championship points. The ever-changing goal post in the F1 power game just got moved again.

Roger Horton© 2007
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