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

Atlas F1   Reflections on Imola

  by Roger Horton, England

This was Ralf Schumacher's day. He led the race from start to finish in commanding style, finally emerging from the shadow cast by his elder brother Michael's 46 race wins and three World Championships. The win also rewards the BMW-Williams team and their technical partners for the many months of hard work that have now born fruit much ahead of their public expectations.

The race itself was mostly uneventful, devoid of much of the drama of the season's opening three races. This watered down Imola circuit does not lend itself to exciting racing, and all too often the drivers are content to hold station, hoping that their strategy, or their team's slick pit-work, will move them up the order.

The overtaking move of the race once again belonged to Juan Pablo Montoya, whose manoeuvre around the outside of Jarno Trulli's Jordan at the first chicane was a gem. More proof that it is possible to overtake in Formula One, but only if drivers involved have a strong desire to stay in the race and are not concerned about showing their 'weakness' at being passed. As it was, both Montoya and Trulli gave each other enough racing room to avoid serious contact, and so both enhanced their reputations, Trulli surviving to score two valuable points for his Jordan team.

David Coulthard had a mixed day. Disappointed that he could not covert his pole position into a win, but happy, no doubt, that his McLaren team again provided him with a car good enough to beat the Ferraris. His McLaren looked to be well balanced throughout the weekend and rode the Imola curbs with ease. After the first four races of the season he is now joint leader of the World Championship with Michael Schumacher, and now at last, we may get to see just whether the 30 year-old Scot is capable of mounting his first ever serious Championship challenge.

But Ralf Schumacher and the Williams team were the big story at Imola. Ralf has always rather struggled to assert his own identity as a leading F1 driver, and who wouldn't, when you have Michael for an elder brother. His decision to join Williams for the 1999 season was always made with the long term in mind, he was always aware that the rebuilding required by the Grove-based outfit was a multi year project.

Last year, there were clear signs that the combination of BMW power and the Williams chassis were once again emerging as serious challengers. Equally there were signs that Ralf Schumacher was tiring of people asking him just when his first win would come. The arrival of Montoya into the team wasn't good news from his point of view. He didn't need such an obviously talented new teammate sharing his car just when it was ready for wins.

But, four races into the season, it is the German who has scored the breakthrough win, and in the very first race where he managed to get past the first few laps unmolested from behind. If the speed of the Williams was a surprise, so too was the maturity of Ralf's driving. It is one thing to talk a good race, quite another to drive so well under the constant pressure of an experienced winner like David Coulthard.

Afterwards there were many happy faces in the Williams pit. There are few people more respected in racing than the two WilliamsF1 partners, Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head. It was therefore no surprise that their win was so popular with most neutral observers. Despite all their success, the pair remain totally down to earth racers, whose entire lives have been dedicated to winning in Formula One.

It was just five races ago, at the season-ending Malaysian Grand Prix last year, that Frank Williams, in answer to a question concerning his team's prospects for this season, stated: "We have optimism for next year - expectations - but I wouldn't dream of saying that next year we will get in and throttle the Reds and the Greys." He had then paused and added, "Not yet, anyway." Well, at San Marino his team did throttle both the "Reds and the Greys" and in some style too. Given that the package of Williams, Michelin and BMW is still at an early stage in their development cycle, the opposition might just be gasping for air before too much longer.

At the end of most races, Patrick Head will stand at the rear of the Williams garage and sum up his team's race weekend. He can be brutally honest, and he often leaves his drivers with nowhere to hide if he considers that they have performed poorly. In the PR dominated world of current F1 racing, he is a constant breath of fresh air, and so it is little wonder that he is such a popular figure.

Commenting on Ralf Schumacher's impressive charge off the line, Head shrewdly identified the race's most pivotal moment when he stated: "Ralf benefited from a very good start and David Coulthard did not leave the door wide open but did not push him off as others might have done." This was a clear reference to last year's race, when both the Williams driver and Coulthard had their races compromised by Michael Schumacher's defensive driving tactics going into the first corner. David Coulthard, on the other hand, drove this year like a gentleman, and lost.

A few years ago, there were some who were prepared to suggest that with the departure of their design genius Adrian Newey to McLaren, the Williams team might have been heading down the slippery slope to become a permanent member of the mid-field club. However, it has largely been the experience of Head that has held the technical team at Grove together, and who have now arguably produced the fastest car on the F1 grid.

The next race in Spain, of course, sees the reintroduction of traction control, automatic gearboxes and other electronic driver aids. It was the Williams team's mastery of much of this then-new technology and their subsequent domination of the sport, that led to its the initial ban at the end of the 1993 season. It would appear to be fitting, therefore, that the last race to be held under these present restrictive rules, should have been won by Williams in such a dominant fashion.

Roger Horton© 2007
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