I said I expected things to be different when Formula One came to Europe, but I didn't think they would be this different. Ralf, Williams, BMW and Michelin winning at their first opportunity in the Old World! Michael and Mika - my candidates for success in 2001 - nowhere. Now that is different. I guess we can look at the long-haul races as continuations of the last season. San Marino marked the first real race of the 2001 season, bringing big surprises. We can expect lots more before the year is out.
I came away from San Marino with an assortment of inklings.
In spite of his car problems in practice Juan Montoya showed exceptionally well in the last two races. He led in Brazil and qualified well up the field in Imola, racing well too. I think one reason for this is that both races are run counter-clockwise. Juan Pablo has been racing predominantly to the left in CART for several seasons now, so his neck muscles are accustomed to that direction, as are his senses and reactions. What a nice gift to this talented racer early in his season with Williams!
Although all praise has to go to Ralf Schumacher, contrary to whatever you may have seen and heard he didn't win at Imola. No sirree. Rather, David Coulthard lost. He as much as admitted it. From his pole position he moved a bit on his grid spot, then had to brake his car. By the time he'd done that, to avoid a 10-second penalty delay in his pit, the race was on and he muffed his start, letting Ralf get ahead. If Coulthard had made a decent start and kept Ralf behind him, the latter would have had extreme difficulty in getting past. There wasn't that much difference between the cars and it's not at all easy to pass at Imola. David's McLaren would have been very wide. The younger Schumacher would have made a good try or two, but he would have been quite happy to settle for second. Instead, now that he's finally won on his 70th Formula One start, Ralf will have a lot more confidence. That one little slip by Coulthard helped create a formidable future rival.
Michelin was incredibly lucky to get its first win since - what? - 1984. It's obvious that the tires are good but not that good, considering where the rest of the Michelin runners were racing and finishing. The Williams chassis is making the tires look a lot better than they are. Ralf's car was phenomenally well-balanced, letting him drive the tricky Italian circuit without having to struggle with his Williams. Makes you wonder how the BMW Williams would go on Bridgestones!
I'm disappointed in Jacques Villeneuve so far this year. The man is tremendously talented, of that there's no doubt. He can cope with a car like few others. But sheer driving skill is not enough to get the job done in Formula One today, with so little difference between the cars and engines. Just as important, if not more so, is setup skill, and in this category Jacques is being outclassed by his teammate Panis. Olivier's spell with McLaren certainly polished his chassis-setup know-how. There is so little time to adapt the car to each track, especially if the weather's changeable as it was at Imola, that you and your race engineer have to know exactly what you're doing and why. Here Panis has the edge over his teammate, and it looks like paying off over the season.
Jordan's hugely enhanced budget is showing. How is it enhanced? Eddie doesn't have to pay for engines! With free motors from Honda he can spend tens of millions more on every other aspect of his team, and the results are starting to show. Jordan announced plans to expand his operations at Silverstone, where Jaguar has abandoned its scheme to install a facility. I said that putting a plant at Silverstone was a bad idea for Jaguar; do you suppose they were listening?
After Malaysia I mentioned that the powers that be in Stuttgart are going to be mighty unhappy about the rapid progress being made in the engine department by Munich's BMW. Mercedes-Benz is now going to put even more pressure on England's Ilmor Engineering, the maker of its engines, after the BMW victory in Italy. I forgot to mention another reason why Mercedes is going to feel that Ilmor should be making better progress: it gave up its CART engine campaign at the end of last year. Its reasoning will be that Illien, Morgan and company should now be able to concentrate all their efforts on the Formula One engine with no distractions from a North American program. Consequently I expect a big step forward from McLaren-Mercedes in the season's second half.
Those are my inklings from Imola. And by the way, wasn't that a barn-burner of a qualifying session? Better than the race, really. That's where Ferrari lost the plot with a duff choice of tires. It's a mistake they won't make again.