ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 16 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Changing of the Guard

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

Richard Barnes brings his impressions of the 2001 San Marino GP

Every so often, Formula One tosses up a season that simply defies logic and confounds even expert insider opinion. During the 2001 pre-season, there was virtually unanimous agreement that the status quo of the last three seasons would remain firmly in place. Individual teams may make up some ground on the Ferrari/McLaren duopoly, but none would challenge seriously and consistently - not this year, at least.

Since Australia 1998, F1 has belonged to McLaren and Ferrari, and more specifically to Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher. For three long years, the prospect of any other team contesting either Championship has been remote indeed. Certainly there were individual race triumphs for the 'best of the rest'. Jordan snatched a handful of wins, and Johnny Herbert's popular victory at Nurburgring 1999 was like a breath of fresh air. Yet, refreshing as these victories may have been, they were also freak results arising from the vagaries of weather and mechanical mishap. When the red and silver cars remained healthy, and the weather conditions stayed constant throughout the race, Ferrari and McLaren proved unbeatable.

The opening pair of races for the 2001 season may have driven Ferrari supporters into raptures, but fans of closely-fought and exciting racing were left in despair. Schumacher and Ferrari swept away all opposition imperiously, Eddie Jordan muttered dire predictions about Ferrari whitewashing the season, and the bookmakers' odds on Schumacher clean-sweeping every race tumbled to record lows.

Sunday's maiden win for Williams's Ralf Schumacher at the San Marino Grand Prix has literally turned the season around, not simply because it happened but because of the way in which he won. This wasn't a victory tainted by freak showers, safety car situations, mass retirements or fortuitous pitstop strategies. Track and weather conditions were constant throughout, the safety car was never called into action, and Ralf followed the same two-stop strategy as the other podium finishers. The Williams/Schumacher combination simply proved to be the fastest when it mattered.

The only potential blot on Ralf's success was the early retirement of brother Michael following damage from a puncture. However, stuck behind Jarno Trulli's Jordan from his lowly fourth on the grid and on the wrong tyres, Michael was never going to be a major factor in the race. Ralf won it fair and square, and proved that Juan Montoya's sensational race-leading performance at Interlagos was neither a fluke nor evidence that the Colombian is the current field's dominant talent. True to their Williams heritage, Geoff Willis, Gavin Fisher, and the rest of the Williams crew have once again produced a brilliant racing car.

Even Williams must be stunned by their rate of progress, though. Coming into the season, there was every reason for Sir Frank Williams and technical director Patrick Head to be cautiously optimistic. The team had made sound progress during 2000, but at the start of this year they had an engine entering only its second year of competition, a tyre manufacturer in its first year of reinvolvement, and two exciting but largely unproven talents as drivers. BMW and Michelin both have successful racing records and could be counted upon to produce the goods - but so soon?

Twice before, Williams have bounced back from adversity to a position of dominance, due largely to timely deals with major engine suppliers. The first time was with Honda in 1986, and the second with Renault in 1992. It's still way too early to predict that they'll do it again, but Williams have unquestionably become a legitimate third party in what has ritually been a two-horse race for the championship. For the first time in almost two decades, fans can look forward to a Spanish Grand Prix where not two, not four, but six drivers all arrive with a realistic chance of victory. If Honda can up the ante, we could shortly witness races in which ten drivers - nearly half the grid! - are eyeing the top step of the podium. And this from a season which, just three weeks ago, looked set to be the most one-sided in years.

There is still one wild card - the reintroduction of legal traction control for Spain in two weeks time. It could prove to be a spoiler, and catapult one team back into a position of dominance. Thankfully, it seems unlikely among the front-runners. Williams overwhelmed everybody else when traction control was last allowed, McLaren have no shortage of software smarts, and some insiders contend that Ferrari never really got rid of traction control, just the proof of its existence. If traction control improves the performance of all three top teams equally, we're in for a thrilling season. At Imola, Ferrari were fastest in free practice, McLaren in qualifying and Williams during the race. It doesn't get much more evenly-matched than that.

If Imola signalled the changing of the guard in terms of the constructors, the race also added to the woes of some of the sport's established star drivers. Mika Hakkinen is having another of his anonymous spells where he simply vanishes back into the minor placings. The Finn has retained his qualifying superiority over teammate David Coulthard, but invariably blew his chances with a poor start that left him stuck behind slower runners while the leaders disappeared into the distance. Jacques Villeneuve is another ex-WDC with problems. Fast, intelligent and under-rated teammate Olivier Panis may not have comprehensively outraced the Canadian yet, but he's certainly rattled Villeneuve's cage.

After two offs in the wet at Interlagos and a spectacular lockup that ruined his third qualifying run at Imola, Michael Schumacher looks unsettled in the Ferrari. He's still undoubtedly the Ferrari number one on merit, but beating teammate Rubens Barrichello was never his main aim for the year. It must also be a concern that Ferrari, renowned for their strategic acumen, have been wrong-footed tactically in both of the last two races.

The most intriguing aspect of Ralf's maiden win at Imola is the effect that it may have on his relationship with Michael. Despite the Schumacher brothers' very careful and concerted efforts to portray themselves as distinct and independent Formula One professionals, the media has inevitably dubbed Ralf as 'the champion's little brother'. The commonly-used diminutive form of his name, 'Ralfie', says it all. It's grossly unfair to both brothers, but also understandable. Before Sunday, Michael had the second-highest Grands Prix win total in modern F1, Ralf had no wins and only a handful of podiums. The perception of Ralf as 'the lesser-talented kid brother' may change in a hurry.

There is an undeniable closeness, and mutual pride and respect between the Schumacher siblings. Up until now, it has been easy for them to maintain that bond. Ralf was never expected to challenge Michael in his inferior Jordan or Williams machinery. And Michael could afford to celebrate Ralf's occasional successes, as Ralf was never a legitimate championship threat. Blood may be thicker than water, but the Schumachers are nothing if not competitive. During the Spanish GP of 2000, Michael blocked Ralf, allowing teammate Barrichello to pass both of them in the process. Ralf was infuriated by his brother's tactics and made no secret of it either. If the Williams and Ferrari remain equally competitive along with McLaren at the head of the field, and if Michael and Ralf enter the final quarter of the season as main championship rivals, we could be in for the most explosive and thrilling racing since Prost and Senna.

Richard Barnes© 2007
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