Simply Supreme

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

After failing at both Silverstone and Hockenheim to equal Alain Prost's record of 51 GP wins, Michael Schumacher finally ended the wait with an emotional victory at the Hungaroring on Sunday. The win turned into a double triumph, as it also secured another Prost-equalling achievement, Schumacher's fourth WDC title. To cap a glorious afternoon for the entire Ferrari outfit, Rubens Barrichello's second place was enough to earn them a third consecutive Constructors Championship trophy.

Amidst the tears and emotion during the post-race celebrations, Schumacher admitted that he had 'a bad feeling' going into the race weekend. That sentiment was echoed by Ross Brawn, who expressed surprise that Ferrari had been so competitive in qualifying. Whatever their private misgivings, Ferrari's public display at Hungary was of a team in total control. If an air of assumed self-confidence is half the battle, little wonder Ferrari have been so dominant this year.

Earlier in the season, Schumacher occasionally limited himself to just three qualifying runs, ostensibly in order to save tyres for the race itself. At Hungary, the German needed just two runs, and comprehensively blew the opposition away on both. When a driver's 'banker' first qualifying attempt is almost a full second faster than anybody else, then the rest of the field start scrapping for front row rather than pole position.

At times, Schumacher is guilty of pushing that fraction too hard in qualifying, losing precious tenths as the car gets out of kilter. But both of Saturday's efforts would have had the great qualifying master Senna nodding in admiration. Schumacher himself admitted that neither he nor the team could do anything to better those two laps, so they didn't bother trying.

But there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, and even ultra-professional Schumacher is prone to the occasional brain-fade lapse. His excursion across the gravel-trap on the way to the grid, combined with David Coulthard's surprising pace advantage in the warm-up, gave a hint that we may see a repeat of Hungary 2000, when McLaren race pace won the day over Ferrari qualifying superiority.

Ferrari's fears came to naught though. Rory Byrne's chassis is tailor-made for the tight twisty circuits, and it was notable that Ferrari employed fewer add-on aerodynamic bits than their rivals to get to grips with the unique demands of Hungaroring. For once, Rubens Barrichello enjoyed a great start and the Barrichello buffer in second place made life considerably easier for Schumacher. Not that he needed the luxury.

Schumacher has taken the Fangio ethic of 'winning as slowly as possible' to new heights. For the first fifteen laps or so, a circumspect Schumacher looked unable to break the shackles between himself and his pursuers. When he did decide to put the hammer down, it was with startling speed and efficiency, stretching his lead to a comfortable fourteen seconds in a matter of a few laps. Even when Coulthard got past Barrichello at the first pit-stops, the Scot was unable to close down the gap to Schumacher. It's unlikely that the German pushed his Ferrari anywhere near the limit all afternoon. Such was his control and dominance that he could concentrate on the most critical factor - preserving the car until the finish.

In the post-race press conference, Schumacher refused to draw comparisons between this title triumph and his previous three, stating merely that all were special in different ways. For all his tearful emotion, one sensed that this Championship lacked a vital ingredient for the German - strong competition.

Schumacher has always relished a tough challenge, rightly claiming that it makes victory all the more rewarding and enjoyable. 2001 provided Schumacher with individual race challenges - Coulthard at Austria and Brazil, Hakkinen at Silverstone, brother Ralf at Canada. But none of these rivals could get it together for a sustained season-long assault on the Schumacher crown.

Beating David Coulthard in an iffy McLaren is not the stuff of legends, and Schumacher will be looking wistfully back at the lost opportunities for greater glory in the late Nineties, when his Ferrari was nowhere near as competitive as the 2001 car.

1997 was a topsy-turvy season in which fortunes swung literally from one race to the next. But if any single event embodied the whimsical nature of the 1997 championship, it was surely the freak race at Hungary. Hill's throttle problems in the woeful Arrows handed victory to Jacques Villeneuve in the Williams. In hindsight, a bitterly disappointed Hill must have drawn some satisfaction from the fact that his loss was also arch-enemy Schumacher's. For without the bonus four points gifted to Villeneuve at Hungary, Schumacher would have had no need to defend his position at Jerez. Villeneuve would have started Jerez five points adrift in the Championship, and second would have been enough to secure the 1997 WDC for Schumacher.

Schumacher's 1998 campaign was derailed by a pair of accidents in very different circumstances. At Monaco, desperate to stay in touch with runaway race and championship leader Mika Hakkinen, Schumacher forced the issue against Benetton's Alex Wurz, the resultant wheel-banging ending the race for both. At Spa, Schumacher was way out in front when the infamous collision with Coulthard's McLaren once again dashed his hopes.

1999 was a year of physical and mental anguish for the German. While Schumacher's broken leg relegated him to the role of helpless onlooker, teammate Eddie Irvine and the McLaren duo of Hakkinen and Coulthard played pass-the-parcel with a Championship lead that nobody seemed to want. Even an off-form Schumacher could have cakewalked the 1999 title.

Against that backdrop, it's perhaps surprising that Schumacher hasn't won more titles during his career, when he so easily could have. But such are the swings and roundabouts of F1 luck and, for the moment, Schumacher must be content to match Prost's total of four titles. A comparison between the two reveals some fascinating similarities. Both entered F1 as raw, fast and aggressive youngsters, before maturing into tactical car-preserving multiple champions. Both embodied the principle that you only need to lead for one lap - the final one - and that you only need to lead that lap by a fraction, not by a minute. It doesn't make for heart-stopping and spectacular racing but, as Schumacher proved this season, consistency beats spectacle over the long run.

ITV commentators Murray Walker and Martin Brundle made much of the fact that Schumacher is the only driver in history to have won two championships for each of two different teams. Against that, he's had the services of the same designer (Rory Byrne) and technical director (Ross Brawn) for virtually his whole career. Prost also won championships for two teams, McLaren and Williams, and could so easily have added further championships for Renault and Ferrari. Like Fangio, the Frenchman had a knack for securing the plum drives.

Both drivers succeeded through technical regulation changes - Prost from normally-aspirated to turbo-charged engines and back, Schumacher from slick to grooved tyres and manual to semi- to fully automatic gearboxes. Both also raced through the comings and goings of traction control and active suspension.

The greatest difference between the two is that Schumacher never had a Senna to bring the best, and possibly the very worst, out of him. Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen all stepped up to the plate, and each enjoyed limited success against the German. But none had Senna's brilliance or career-long consistency.

When Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost wrapped up early championship wins for Williams in 92/93, both lost focus for the remainder of the season, allowing their rivals some consolation wins. There is no chance of that happening this year. Schumacher simply doesn't operate that way and, after two decades of frustrating failure, Ferrari will feast on their new-found success. Schumacher still has Senna's record of 65 pole positions to chase, as well as Fangio's five WDC titles, and it will be business as usual at Maranello.

Jaguar's Eddie Irvine has predicted a total of seven WDC titles for Schumacher. While it's possible, maybe even probable, that the name 'Schumacher' will be inscribed on seven WDC trophies, the burning question is whether all seven will be preceded by the initial 'M'. Gerhard Berger may feel that Williams-BMW are not yet ready to win the championship. But, twelve months ago, he would have felt that they weren't ready to take one GP win, let alone three thus far, in the 2001 campaign.

F1 dominance is a cyclical and fleeting phenomenon, rarely lasting longer than two or three years. Ferrari have been top of the constructors heap for the last three years. Extending that run for another three years, until the end of Schumacher's current contract in 2004, will prove an extremely tough challenge. If Ferrari can do it, Schumacher will set benchmarks that may never be beaten.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 34
August 22nd 2001

Atlas F1 Special

1 to 51: Comparative Victories
by Atlas F1 Writers

Simply Supreme
by Richard Barnes

Time to Move On
by Barry Kalb

Hungarian GP Review

The Hungarian GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

It's Magic!
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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