Surprise Surprise

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

Mika Hakkinen's clutch failure in Spain, David Coulthard's stall at Monaco and Ralf Schumacher's stop-and-go penalty at the Nurburgring have turned what should have been a close-fought season into a triumph of epic proportions for Maranello.

Let's quantify that with some numbers. Michael Schumacher is averaging 7.8 points per race this season, and Ferrari 10.8. If they can maintain those scoring rates, Schumacher will win his fourth WDC title with 132 points, and Ferrari will rack up 183 in the Constructors Championship. The most recent pairing to show such domination was Williams and Nigel Mansell in 1992. Mansell won the WDC with a season total of 108 points, and Williams ended the year with 164 Constructors points. Although 1992 featured one race less than the 2001 calendar, even another victory would have left Mansell a full 14 points shy of Schumacher's projected total for this year. 'Dominance' doesn't even begin to describe it.

For all its one-sided statistics, the 1992 season was not nearly as boring as it would seem. And, in hindsight, the same will apply to 2001. Just five races ago in Austria, Ferrari were worried enough by David Coulthard's challenge to institute team orders. The two points that Schumacher gained from it now seem irrelevant. During 2000, Mika Hakkinen never trailed Schumacher by more than 24 points. Even a storming Hakkinen, in a McLaren that carried him to twelve successive points finishes without mechanical mishap, couldn't breach that gap. With David Coulthard's championship deficit now at 31 points, his title hopes are somewhere between zero and slim - with slim having already left the building.

From the time Coulthard arrived at Magny Cours, stating boldly that nothing less than a win would suffice, his race was doomed. Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna could indulge in that sort of fighting talk and get away with it. For a driver of Coulthard's perennial underdog status, it was tempting Fate. The most maddening aspect for Coulthard is that, for the first time this season, his woes could not be blamed on the car. Ron Dennis studiously avoided any 'brain fade' comments, leaving Mercedes boss Norbert Haug to break the news that it was driver error, and not further malevolent mischief from the enigmatic McLaren software, that resulted in the pitlane speeding penalty.

Mika Hakkinen could be forgiven if he just started laughing at his problems now. One man can only do so much, and Hakkinen's best-intentioned efforts have been swept aside by a run of bad luck that would have even Johnny Herbert shaking his head in disbelief. About the only positive thing that the Finn can take from this season is the knowledge that he has mastered the most useless skill that a Formula One driver can possess - the ability to alert other drivers to his stall by frantically waving his arms about in the air. Not that he really needs to; most of the cars directly behind him have come to expect it nowadays.

In a French Grand Prix of few surprises, Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya again managed to distinguish himself from the crowd. His decision to go with the harder of the Michelin compounds was both surprising and refreshing. Montoya has the reputation of being an out and out Senna-style charger, a man who will happily roast his tyres if he can set four or five blistering fast laps in the process. It's refreshing to see a driver, in only his tenth F1 race, willing to sacrifice qualifying pace for race performance.

Alas, Montoya's decision didn't work out well for him. If he was truly losing six-tenths of a second to Ralf Schumacher (on the softer compound) in qualifying, then he got the short end of the stick. For although he was able to keep Ralf in sight during the opening stanza of the race, Montoya's harder tyres certainly didn't hold up any better over time than the soft Michelins on Ralf's car.

Since the advent of grooved tyres, tyre wear seems increasingly less significant than it was in the heyday of slicks. During the mid 1980s, a telltale dark streak of blistering on a slick tyre would often see the driver dropping five or six seconds per lap off the pace of rivals with fresher rubber. Ralf Schumacher raced most of the first stint at Nurburgring with a clearly blistered front tyre, yet was all over brother Michael in terms of sheer pace. Ralf also invariably uses race sets that are well and truly scrubbed. The Michelin grooved tyres only seem to attain their best pace after a mileage that would consign yesteryear's slicks to the recycling bin.

The difference between hard and soft compounds has also become less significant. Given their difference in both qualifying and race pace over the season so far, Montoya's hard and Schumacher's soft tyres appeared to be equally matched in both short- and medium-term pace. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise to see Montoya's mature and tactical approach to the issue of tyre choice.

The Colombian certainly has the capacity to change and adapt, overnight if need be. At the first race of the year in Australia he was all over the place, over-driving wildly. Two races later in Brazil, he was smooth and controlled. Until Canada, he seemed hell-bent on intimidating every other driver. A word of warning from Frank Williams and he's become a quiet and sporting gentleman racer. The man does possess the capacity to change, to the extent that we must now wonder which Montoya will turn up for the next race - the robot or the beast.

The most notable surprise about Sunday's French Grand Prix, however, had nothing to do with the racing but rather the television coverage. Of course, there were far too many shots of Erja Hakkinen and the back of Ron Dennis' head, not enough in-car footage, and far too much qualifying coverage of one driver on a slow-down lap while another was setting provisional pole. F1 television coverage is dire, and is probably the only sport in which telecast quality has deteriorated from the standard set fifteen years ago.

Yet France featured one tiny spark of hope. Somebody had the bright idea of locking off a camera, recording the two Schumachers under braking for the same corner and superimposing the shots over one another. Voila - instant and visual brake performance comparison. Outside of broadcasting, it's not a particularly novel idea. Racing computer and arcade games have been using the 'ghost car' idea for well over a decade. But it did illustrate just how much more informative and entertaining F1 broadcasts could be, if the production crews realised (or were allowed to realise) the television potential of the sport.

And so to Britain, the home Grand Prix of McLaren and David Coulthard. They must be saying 'After France, things couldn't possibly get worse'. Ross Brawn in turn believes that Ferrari's good fortune can't last forever, and has warned Michael Schumacher against complacency. In a world where logic prevailed, both Brawn and McLaren would be right - the luck would have to turn soon. But the way this season is panning out, I wouldn't hold my breath on it.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 27
July 4th 2001

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Interview with Gascoyne
by Roger Horton

Behind the Scenes of 'The Fast and the Furious'
by Fred Topel

French GP Review

The French GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Reflections from Magny Cours
by Roger Horton

Surprise Surprise
by Richard Barnes

Down with Downforce
by Karl Ludvigsen


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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