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

Atlas F1   Reflections from Sepang

  by Roger Horton, England

Roger Horton returns from the Sepang paddock with some insight on the topics that most preoccupied the Formula One players

There were two clear messages from the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix. One: If you want to have great racing with these current cars, some rain is required - preferably after the race is underway, so it takes everyone by surprise. And two: roll on the Spanish race in late April, when traction control makes its (legal) return on the cars, so we can all be spared this constant innuendo that surrounds the sport and undermines the credibility of some of its greatest names.

With two races now having been run and won there are some pretty clear trends for all to see. The Ferrari team are well ahead of everyone else, and the strength of the team to react to all sorts of mini problems in quick succession is at an all time high. For just about the first time in his career, Michael Schumacher has by far the best car at his disposal, and there is no finer driver to exploit its advantage.

Rubens Barrichello seems to have grown some hair on his chest over the winter, because, for the second time in two races, he held his line and came out ahead in a wheel-banging contest. In Melbourne he barged his way past Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and at Sepang he stuck it out with Ralf Schumacher into the first corner and the contact between the two cars pitched the German into a spin. Obviously this Ferrari is so good that the Brazilian's confidence is being boosted by the race, and his overall speed and commitment is becoming impressive.

The surprise in Malaysia was that it was Williams, and not the McLaren team, that took the battle to Ferrari, at least in qualifying if not the race. BMW motorsport director Gerhard Berger, who confirmed during the weekend that his BMW engine was now revving to 18,000 rpm, expressed the opinion after the Australian race that Michael Schumacher had been rather "playing" with the opposition to disguise his car's advantage. During qualifying in Malaysia, though, Berger opined that suddenly the elder Schumacher was forced into using all his potential to fend off the challenge of his younger brother, whose sudden speed surprised everyone, including Ralf himself.

"We changed quite a few things overnight which made our car very drivable, as well as the changing conditions regarding more rubber on the circuit - more grip - which seemed to help the Michelin tyres as it did in Melbourne. But yes, our speed was a nice surprise," said Ralf, after taking third on the grid, equalling his best ever qualifying performance.

But, as mentioned earlier, much of the talk in the Malaysian Paddock centred around the thorny issue of traction control, after Frentzen made some pretty strong suggestions on his own website, that all was not strictly Kosher with the Ferrari engine in the back of Nick Heidfeld's Sauber in Melbourne. Frentzen, remember, spent the last part of the race trying to pass the Sauber to take fourth place from his compatriot.

Frentzen spent most of his media time explaining that he was not accusing anyone of cheating, but that his comments had been taken out of context, or, as Williams technical director Patrick Head observed dryly: "He didn't say what he said, and even though it was on his website, he takes it all back."

Strangely, even though he was put under extreme pressure, he never backed away from his original comments that the Sauber had extraordinary traction out of slow corners, and a stroll out to observe Friday's practice from turns 12, 13 and 14 certainly made for some interesting observations when comparing the Ferrari engined cars and the rest. F1 rookie Kimi Raikkonen was busy learning the circuit, and although he missed his braking point a few times on the entry into the turn 14 hairpin, he never seemed to struggle on the exit, appearing to be able to get on the power earlier and more consistently than most of the other drivers, including a couple of former World Champions.

Later, F1 newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya, who had spent most of the first session sitting on the sidelines as his Williams was worked on to cure a succession of mechanical problems, chimed in with his own very direct comments on a subject that was hard to escape in Sepang. "You look at the McLarens, they are actually getting a lot of wheel spin out of the corners, but if you look at a Ferrari, you never see the rear breaking away at all, or the Sauber or the Prost. I wouldn't think they are cheating, but I think their (engine) mapping is brilliant."

There were many other senior F1 figures that, off the record, were not prepared to be so charitable, and once again, Patrick Head spoke for most people in the Paddock when he gave a qualified endorsement to its return in Spain. "Inside the sport," Head said, "the innuendo of who is running traction control and who isn't has been going on for a long time but was very strongly there last year. But if you firmly believe that you are racing against someone who is very cleverly finding a way around what's written in the regulations, then (legalizing traction control) is the least satisfactory solution, but a solution nonetheless."

Another trend that is now clearly defined is just how far off the pace the Benetton team is this year. But worse than that, the car is unreliable as well. Jenson Button managed to get his car to the finishing line, but both he and his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella are constantly losing running time with a host of mechanical problems.

Button, who last year came to this race in a buoyant mood, after his strong fifth place finish in his BMW-Williams in Japan, was clearly not happy with the current state of affairs within his team, but still trying to put a brave face on his problems nonetheless.

"If it stayed the whole season like this, then it wouldn't be great, but it's not going to. It's going to improve when we get to Europe, and it's going to continue improving, I am sure it is," Button stated firmly. "There is so much to aim for as well, it's quite good fun and I think that next year we will have a very good package."

Button admitted that his new team boss, Flavio Briatore, is quite relaxed about his team's situation at the moment, but he has no doubts about Briatore's goals for the future. "He has won the World Championship in Formula One and he isn't here for anything else. He is very good at getting the right people together to start with. He has only been with the team a short while and already there are a lot of new people in the team, and the package is so much better now than it was just a year ago."

As always, positive spin put on a difficult situation, but the British Media entourage that was so conspicuous around the young Briton last season has all but disappeared this year, although it's not something that appears to bother him at all. But, given the current level of his car's performance, it could well be late in the season before he is in demand by the Media again.

In the end, what started out as looking like a rather low-key race, in a country where F1 is still struggling to really establish itself, turned into an exciting spectacle that saw most of the 75,000 fans return home happy that they had witnessed a great sporting contest. Fortunately this time the Ferrari team got to celebrate their win in some style, and on this form, just who can stop them doing it all again in Brazil?

Roger Horton© 2007
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