A Glimpse of Things to Come

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

Hockenheim's reputation of producing boring races has completely turned around in the new century. The trend started in 2000, with an unexpectedly entertaining race that saw Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello score his debut win with a storming drive in late-race greasy conditions. It seemed unlikely that a dry 2001 race would produce the same level of entertainment. Yet Sunday's race, at least the first two-thirds of it, was an absolute corker that delivered the most thrilling wheel to wheel racing since Malaysia.

The highlight was a rejuvenated Rubens Barrichello taking on, and beating, both McLarens with gutsy and skillful overtaking moves. Twice, Barrichello diced literally inches away from David Coulthard, and a controversial collision seemed imminent. But, with full credit to both drivers, the racing was hard and clean, and hinted that Barrichello may finally have emerged from his post-Austria slump. Ferrari would have delighted in seeing their second driver beating the McLarens - but that joy will also have been diminished by the Williams domination up front.

For all Gerhard Berger's low-key predictions about not being ready for a legitimate championship challenge until 2003, Williams are back with a bang. It's been a long, long time since Ferrari and McLaren have been so comprehensively outgunned by any other team. It wasn't just the fact that Williams took the front row of the grid for the first time since Silverstone 1997, it was their margin of superiority. When qualifying aces Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher are left floundering more than half-a-second behind a rookie pole-sitter not renowned for his qualifying pace, it's evident that the balance of power has shifted, perhaps irretrievably.

Sunday's warmup times gave a glimmer of hope that parity would be restored. But, from the moment the lights went out, the Williams cars were in a league of their own. Even with the refuelling hose drama at his pitstop, Montoya would still have easily claimed his third six-pointer of the season. When last could a team totally botch a pitstop and still comfortably beat both Ferraris and McLarens?

That will be cold comfort for the Colombian, who must be wondering when the tides of fortune will finally turn his way. After a wild and erratic start to his F1 career, Montoya has improved race by race in impressive leaps. The antagonistic, glowering 'rebel without a clue' has been replaced by an altogether more focused and controlled driver, and the results are showing where it counts most - on the track.

Although Montoya has been branded as an all-out aggressive racer, he is also clearly a deep strategic thinker. In France and Britain, Montoya gambled by opting for different tyre and pitstop strategies than teammate Ralf Schumacher. On both occasions it paid off, and it was only Schumacher's refusal to follow team orders that kept the faster Montoya pinned behind him. Until now, the Colombian's primary weakness was his lack of qualifying pace. During Saturday's qualifying, a searing final sector through the tricky stadium section gave him the pole and track position he needed and, with a clear track ahead, Montoya was peerless.

Montoya has done more than enough to merit a debut win, and could be excused if he suspected some clandestine conspiracy against him. All season, the Colombian has lost both track time and points-scoring opportunities from the Williams' poor reliability, and Sunday's problems represented yet more heartbreak. During the post-race conference, winner Ralf Schumacher emphasised that he had taken care not to overstress the iffy BMW engine, hinting broadly that Montoya may well have been the architect of his own downfall.

Williams Technical Director Patrick Head leapt to the Colombian's defence, and probably with justification. Montoya's reluctance to run extensively during the warm-up indicates that he was well aware of the BMW's limited lifespan. If he is overstressing other parts of the car, it is probably with a purpose in mind - to dominate and unsettle his teammate. Jenson Button showed late last season that Ralf can get rattled under teammate pressure. When Montoya does score his maiden win he'll want to do so as convincingly as possible, and up the psychological ante against Ralf. If he suffers a few mechanical gremlins in the process, the game may still be worth the candle.

For the meantime though, he'll have to bide his time and accept that the technical problems are all part of paying his dues in F1. He'd do well to consult Nigel Mansell about the realities of driving for Williams. The 1992 WDC could doubtless enlighten him on the issues of bitter teammate rivalries at Williams, as well as the team's uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory - Mansell's blowout at Adelaide 1986 and the infamous three-wheeler pitstop at Portugal 1991 serve as the best examples. The upside is that when the team do get it right, the Williams drivers need only to beat each other to ensure the WDC title. Hockenheim may well have provided a sneak preview of what we can expect in 2002. That is not good news for Ferrari and their aims of 'total domination'.

Michael Schumacher's run of good fortune had to come to an end, and did so in the most roundabout way. Just like last year, his race should have been run by the first corner. With no drive from a failed transmission off the start line, Schumacher's chances were history. F1 must be the only sport in which being clouted from behind at more than 100mph can constitute 'good luck'. Some have suggested that luck had little to do with it, and that Schumacher could always count on the officials to red flag any GP in which he was eliminated from the race. For the officials, it's a case of 'damned if they do, damned if they don't'. In this instance, they took the safe and sensible option. The rumblings of Schumacher/Ferrari favouritism would be nothing compared to the outrage if a debris-related blowout had led to another F1 death.

Ultimately it didn't matter, as Schumacher's spare car expired with fuel pressure problems. But, typical of the good fortune that has characterised his year, Schumacher's anguish was only temporary. David Coulthard's retirement a few laps later effectively added another nail to the coffin of the Scot's faint Championship hopes.

Eddie Irvine was right - Schumacher could sit out the rest of the season and still win the Championship comfortably. With just five races left, Coulthard needs a minimum of two wins and three second places, even if Schumacher fails to score any more points. With three of the remaining five circuits (Monza, Spa, Suzuka) being ideally suited to the Williams-BMW's power advantage, the FIA can already start inscribing the Drivers and Constructors trophies. Coulthard is putting on the bravest of faces, but the conviction of the first half of the season has given way to dogged wishful thinking.

For the moment, Ferrari and Schumacher can enjoy the remainder of a season well executed. However, there must be nagging doubts about their ability to continue the winning form into next year. Hockenheim's unique nature means that it is never a good indicator of overall season pace, but it must be disturbing for Maranello that the Williams pair were walking away from superstar Michael Schumacher at more than one second per lap, and on roughly the same fuel load to boot. With Michelin improving constantly, and Ferrari locked in to Bridgestone for the foreseeable future, the Scuderia's reign of 'domination' could be a lot shorter than they had anticipated.

Ferrari thrives on momentum and, for the second time in as many years, that's been disrupted. Last season, Schumacher battled for four long races in his quest to match Ayrton Senna's mark of 41 GP wins. This season, he's making equally heavy weather of the next milestone - Prost's record of 51 wins. For the last two races, the F1 world has fully expected to hail Schumacher as the new co-record holder, and both times he's come up short. Although Schumacher would doubtless love to equal the record in front of the tifosi at Monza, waiting is a luxury that neither he nor Ferrari can afford. The next event on the calendar, the claustrophobic twists and turns of Hungaroring, is the perfect setting for Ferrari to reassert themselves over a resurgent Williams outfit. If they fail again at Hungary, Williams could steamroll the rest of the season - and carry that momentum with them into 2002.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 31
August 1st 2001

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Interview with Montoya
by Biranit Goren

The Frentzen Affair: A Question of Trust
by Biranit Goren

German GP Review

The German GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

A Glimpse of Things to Come
by Richard Barnes

Winner Walkinshaw
by Karl Ludvigsen


Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes - the GP Cartoon
by Bruce Thomson

Rear View Mirror
by Don Capps

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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