ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 12 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Truth, Justice and the
F1 Way of Life

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

Richard Barnes brings his impressions of the 2001 Malaysian GP

The Sepang circuit in Malaysia is, to all appearances, the epitome of what modern Formula One is all about. The spectacular hibiscus-shaped roof of the main grandstand, the smooth wide overtaking-friendly track surface and the sumptuous amenities all reflect F1's global status of a glamorous corporate showcase. It's an arena in which the world's best give of their best, separated into orderly performance tiers by micro-second advantages gained from a superstar driver or brilliantly-designed car component - all funded by corporate megabucks, of course.

During the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix, it took nothing more than the briefest of monsoon storms to turn that perception on its head. The rain transformed what should have been an orderly victory procession for Ferrari into a free-for-all more suited to dunebuggy racing on a backwoods dirt-track. And how refreshing and dramatic it was for the fans.

The drama had started long before the rain-clouds gathered on Sunday. Earlier in the week, Heinz-Harald Frentzen's thinly-veiled allegations against Sauber and Ferrari had re-ignited the thorniest and most heated controversy in Formula One - the legality (or otherwise) of any car driven by three time World Drivers' Champion Michael Schumacher.

Frentzen's air of injured innocence seemed genuine enough as he repeatedly stressed the legality of Ferrari's and Sauber's engine mapping. An odd turnaround, considering that he had found the same mapping to be 'dubious' just a few days earlier. Whatever the real truth, Frentzen emerged from the furore unscathed, but the suspicions against Ferrari remained. A cynic might claim that was Frentzen's intention all along. Sweet irony, then, that he should end up trailing the field on the formation lap with a misfiring engine - the very phenomenon of which he'd accused Ferrari and Sauber.

Allegations of cheating against rival Formula One teams are extremely serious, and justice would have been served if Frentzen had ended up at the back of the grid. Fortunately for him, Giancarlo Fisichella's inability to find his own grid spot spared the German driver further embarrassment. Frentzen's claim that the Press drew the wrong conclusions from the articles on his website is naive at best. He's been around the Press a long time, and presumably has editorial control over the content of his own website. If his intention was never to cast suspicion on Sauber or Ferrari, he certainly went about it in the worst possible way.

Ralf Schumacher's Malaysian GP was another travesty of justice. When Williams signs a deal with a major engine manufacturer, it usually culminates in Williams domination. It happened with Honda, it happened with Renault, and Saturday's qualifying session gave the first ominous warning that BMW would also catapult Williams back into ascendancy. It took stunning qualifying laps from first Michael Schumacher and then Rubens Barrichello to keep Ralf off the front row, and the younger Schumacher's disappointment was both palpable and genuine. Still, with Barrichello's reputation for sluggish starts, there was every prospect that the two Schumachers would be fighting for the lead of the race right from the start.

That mouthwatering prospect was wrecked at the first corner. For the second race in succession, Ralf Schumacher received an uninvited and unwelcome boost from the rear. And for the second race in succession, Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello stood accused of punting out the car in front of him. This time, Barrichello was only partly to blame. Three cars, all on cold brakes and tyres and all fighting for the same apex, is the classic recipe for a 'racing incident'. If Barrichello had left it at that, he may have emerged from the incident and the race with credibility. That was ruined by his absurd complaints about teammate Michael Schumacher's passing move. Wasn't Barrichello the one clamouring for 'fair racing' between the two Ferrari drivers? He'd be well served to avoid any suggestions of further team orders. If team orders do become more overt, there are no prizes for guessing which driver Ferrari will favour.

Like David Coulthard, Barrichello may well have consciously decided to toughen up his attitude. That is beneficial up to a point, and both Coulthard and the Brazilian have been more competitive this season than last. But that commitment needs to be tempered with some discretion and responsibility. Barrichello's post-race comment that "Michael is one hell of a driver, but I wish I had his luck" was ironic. With Schumacher's 'luck', Barrichello wouldn't have scored a win at Hockenheim 2000. He'd have been punted off at the first corner by Giancarlo Fisichella.

Ralf Schumacher's demotion to the back of the field should have left the Ferraris comfortably in formation and in control of Malaysia 2001. Fate had other ideas, as first the oil from Panis's blown engine and then the flash downpour turned the race around completely, leaving the Ferraris stranded towards the back of the field. It's astonishing that Ferrari, despite their reputation as pitlane's best-prepared and most thorough tacticians, are so often caught out by rain. You'd think they'd have learnt from Eddie Irvine's infamous three-wheeler stop at Nurburgring in 1999. Yet again the Malaysian rain saw Ferrari's cars in the pits, with no new tyres ready. But such is the composure of the Schumacher-Brawn partnership that, even amidst the frustration and near-panic of a disastrous pitstop, they made an utterly brilliant tactical decision to go with intermediates rather than full wet tyres.

Predictably, McLaren chief Ron Dennis attacked Ferrari's decision, claiming that it endangered the drivers. Dennis seemed to miss the small but vital detail that it was Schumacher himself who ordered the intermediates fitted to his car. Was non-driver Ron Dennis really suggesting that he's in a better position than driver, World Champion and 'regenmeister' Schumacher to know what is safe in wet conditions? And if driver health is such a concern to Dennis, why did he not order David Coulthard to withdraw from the Australian race after teammate Mika Hakkinen's front suspension failed, causing a high-speed crash and concussion for the Finnish star? Was there not a clear possibility that the failure could repeat on Coulthard's car, with similar or even worse consequences? Clearly, Dennis's comments are routinely spurred by vitriol against his Ferrari nemesis rather than any noble sentiments concerning driver safety.

With Ferrari having the best car, two of the very best wet-weather drivers and the only correct tyre choice in the field, the fat lady didn't even need to warm up - as a contest, the race was over. The extended safety car period did help Ferrari's cause, reducing a deficit of more than one minute to around ten seconds. But such was Ferrari's and particularly Schumacher's dominance in the varied conditions that they were likely to win whatever happened. The race director cannot be faulted for keeping the safety car out until conditions improved. With one death in F1 already this year, and with the cars starting to aquaplane at just 100km/h, reverting to racing speeds sooner would have been simply too dangerous.

As impressive as Schumacher was, the real star of the race turned out to be his former teammate and much-maligned Dutchman Jos Verstappen. If any driver in modern F1 rivals Alesi's enigmatic character, it must be 'The Boss'. Indeed, Verstappen's never-say-die retaking of Hakkinen was an instant reminder of Alesi's audacious and career-launching move against Senna's McLaren more than a decade ago.

Only the two Ferraris and Ralf Schumacher's Williams proved to be a match for Verstappen, as the Dutchman doggedly held off the attentions of first Hakkinen and then Frentzen. If Sauber's Kimi Raikkonen fully deserved his debut championship point at Australia, then Verstappen deserved at least six for his heroic drive at Sepang. Yet again, F1 showed that sheer luck will often hold sway over true justice.

The record books will show that Malaysia 2001 ended with two Ferraris and a McLaren on the podium, and Michael Schumacher taking his sixth pole and race win combination in succession. In the distant future, fans will look at the race classification and statistics and conclude that Malaysia was true Formula One - a processional race predictably dominated by the era's two most finely-engineered machines. And they'd be wrong. Malaysia 2001 wasn't about the sterility of mechanical perfection, nor about the pomp and splendour of corporate showcasing. It was about human failings and driver errors, wounded pride, flying allegations, battered egos, lovable villains, irrepressible rogues, and the gutsy heroics of drives like Verstappen's. And that is the true appeal of Formula One.

Richard Barnes© 2007
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