The Strongest Virtue

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

Ralf Schumacher's second win of the season was even better than his maiden triumph. At Imola, brother Michael was sidelined early in the race, diluting the value of the victory. At Montreal, Ralf won in the most convincing way, by beating the reigning World Champion fair and square, with both in healthy cars.

The Schumacher brothers are justifiably proud of their 'clean and careful' record while racing against each other, and Canada was no exception. It was more of a chess match than a brawl, with Ralf's cautious feints refuted firmly but politely by his older brother. At times, the tussle may have given the visual impression that neither driver was really on the limit. One look at the laptimes relative to the chasing pack, or the way in which Michael literally shaved the wall at the final chicane on each lap, showed the intensity of the sibling rivalry.

Even still, the battle for the lead was not the classic that it could have been. With no realistic hopes of lifting the WDC this year, Ralf had the luxury of racing purely for the win. By contrast, Michael had his mind on the longer-term goal of a second successive championship, and his fourth career title. As long as arch-rival David Coulthard trailed the leading duo, Michael was always going to favour a safe second over a risky push for the ten points.

Michael Schumacher's earlier championship campaigns were often marred by the impetuosity that goes hand-in-glove with aggressive, enthusiastic racing. The prime examples are Monaco and Spa 1998, where the German lost sixteen priceless championship points via collisions with slower cars. Over the past two seasons, Schumacher's driving has mirrored the lessons learnt, and he has well and truly adopted the Fangio credo of 'winning as slowly as possible'.

It is unlikely that we will see many more classic Schumacher drives, in which the German tears the field apart in the first half of the race and then goes even faster in the second - just to rub it in. Like Prost before him, Schumacher has learnt that it is better to race efficiently than aggressively. That is partly a natural development. In virtually all fields of human endeavour, youth is driven by energy and experience is driven by efficiency.

However, Schumacher's approach is also mandated by necessity. In 21st century F1, reliability is paramount, and no World Championship candidate can afford unnecessary DNF's. Mika Hakkinen's 1999 campaign was almost derailed by the ultra-reliable Eddie Irvine, and Schumacher's three successive mid-season retirements transformed the 2000 season from cakewalk into cliff-hanger. The Ferrari may be the most reliable car on the grid, but it's far from flawless. Time and again over the past two seasons, technical niggles have affected the car, from oil temperature problems to suspension and brake concerns to tyres turning on the rim. Schumacher has developed exemplary mechanical sympathy in getting marginal cars to the finish. At Canada, he illustrated this to the point that he will now drive around potentially radiator-blocking plastic bags blown onto the circuit. It's a small and seemingly insignificant attention to detail. But, over the course of a full seventeen-race season, those little details add up and translate into championship points and, ultimately, titles.

David Coulthard has also learnt the benefits of patience. Twice this season, he's had to fight his way through the field from stone last. On both occasions he's been stuck behind slower cars, and the hair-tearing frustration may well have pushed a lesser driver over the limits dictated by common sense. Even Coulthard's manager, ITV commentator and ex-F1 driver Martin Brundle, felt that Bernoldi's sluggish pace at Monaco merited a do-or-die effort from Coulthard to get past. Yet the Scot stuck to the gameplan, kept his head and emerged with two valuable championship points. Coulthard's two victories at Brazil and Austria were also the result of patience. Both times, he seemed beaten. And both times, he kept up the pressure and allowed the race to come to him.

Patience and maturity can be expected from Schumacher and Coulthard - they've been around the block enough times to develop racing wisdom. To see that same approach from the youngest and most inexperienced driver in the field, Sauber's Kimi Raikkonen, is truly remarkable. At the start of the season, there was outrage in some quarters that the FIA were even allowing Raikkonen to compete. Just four months later, it looks certain that the young Finn will not only scoop 'Rookie of the Year' honours, but will become one of the hottest properties in F1.

At the other end of the patience scale, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are showing signs of desperation. Their physical confrontation during the drivers' briefing probably had more to do with their respective team situations than any incident on track. After a brief resurgence at Monaco, Villeneuve has seen his stock plummet again as teammate Olivier Panis regained the upper hand in Villeneuve's own backyard. Montoya's unabashed cheap shot remark put the seal on what the Canadian admitted had been his worst Grand Prix weekend ever.

If Montoya's remark - reportedly blaming Villeneuve for the death of the marshal in Australia - caused insult to Villeneuve, it is nothing compared to the longer-term consequences against the Colombian. Racing deaths are an understandably emotional issue among the drivers. Ayrton Senna, for all his egocentric bullying tactics on and off the track, would never have stooped to using a marshal's death against another driver. If Montoya had made the remark to Villeneuve in private, it would have been tasteless. Doing so in the presence of the other drivers was just plain foolish.

There is a rising groundswell of criticism against Montoya - Michael Schumacher, Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine, even mild-mannered David Coulthard has got in on the act. If Montoya finds his progress blocked by less-than-cooperative drivers in the future, he will have only himself to blame. Aggression, arrogance and extreme self-belief all have a place in F1; cheap shots do not. Worst of all for the Colombian, Patrick Head has started to criticise the driver's performance as well. Williams have never been the most patient team when they feel drivers are underperforming, and Montoya will be only too aware of the treatment meted out to his CART and Williams predecessor Alex Zanardi.

A decade ago, Montoya would have had the luxury of a couple of seasons to get up to speed in F1. But Jacques Villeneuve, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen have effectively scotched the notion that a rookie can't be expected to deliver. And Button and Raikkonen entered F1 with far less experience than Montoya. Williams have a right to demand more from the Colombian, and he has an obligation to himself to do better. In career terms, his saving grace at this point is the dismal form of Williams's other contracted driver, Benetton's Jenson Button.

At the start of the season, Williams looked set in the driving department. They had a consistent and dependable 'banker' in Ralf Schumacher, and if Montoya didn't live up to the pre-season hype, they could always fall back on Button. Pre-season, all the question marks surrounded the car. BMW and Michelin have answered those challenges superbly and, ironically, Williams's only dilemma now is the choice of a driver to partner Ralf Schumacher. Unreliability is still an issue, but it usually is during a team's ascendancy. In 1997, McLaren seemingly couldn't buy a finish. A year later, they were the class of the field.

Sunday's victory dispelled all notions that Imola was a once-off fluke. Williams will compete for the remainder of the season. Even if inconsistency and unreliability continue to hamper their efforts, they will be mixing it up with Ferrari and McLaren, and taking points away from the main championship contenders. In such a scenario, Michael Schumacher must be heavily favoured. Unlike Coulthard, Hakkinen, Barrichello and the Williams pair, he excels at every track and is seemingly always in the frame. Over the season, he will aim to just grind the opposition down with relentless consistency and patience.

Coulthard's suspension problem and expired engine, Mika Hakkinen's continued poor form and the Adrian Newey controversy are all good news for Ferrari and Schumacher. Even with the launch control problems ostensibly resolved, McLaren are looking fragile. By contrast, Ferrari's only Achilles heel is their fuel consumption. Twice this season already, in Austria and Canada, Ferrari have sacrificed probable victories simply because they had to refuel earlier than their rivals. Fuel load remains the critical factor that determines race pace, and not even Ross Brawn's tactical acumen can compensate for the extra low fuel load laps gifted to Ferrari's rivals. It's not a critical weakness yet, and Schumacher's overall consistency should see them home to another championship triumph in 2001.

But, with Williams looking increasingly menacing, Ferrari will need to up the ante and find solutions for 2002. If Williams can find reliability, we may well witness Schumacher family duels where both brothers are competing for the race and the championship. Alas, it will only happen next year, and that is a prospect to test the patience of any fan.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 24
June 13th 2001

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Interview with Trulli
by Roger Horton

BMW-Williams-Michelin Q & A
by Roger Horton

Atlas F1 Special

Team Connaught Part II: Remembrance of Things Fast
by Thomas O'Keefe

Canadian GP Review

The Canadian GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Reflections from Montreal
by Roger Horton

The Strongest Virtue
by Richard Barnes

Fishing for Future Designers
by Karl Ludvigsen


Elsewhere in Racing Special Edition: Le Mans Preview
by Mark Alan Jones

The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes - the GP Cartoon
by Bruce Thomson

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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