Atlas F1

Reflections on A1 Ring

by Roger Horton, England

The Austrian Grand Prix was an exciting race, and most of the leading players emerged from the 71 laps, of sometimes frantic action, with something.

Eddie Irvine got the ten points he came for, Mika Hakkinen came away with a substantially enhanced reputation and Bernie Ecclestone's circus came away with a championship battle that is still alive and kicking.

After Saturday's qualifying session it all looked so different. Eddie Irvine was over a second behind Hakkinen's pole time - light years in Formula One - and the sound of the Italian media baying for his blood could be heard far and wide. It was not so much the sound of knives being sharpened, more like the sound of picks and shovels as the burial party made ready.

For around half the race it looked for all the world that "fast Eddie" was going to come up short. But when Ross Brawn called, Irvine answered - in the only way that matters to a serious racing driver. Five on-the-limit laps after Coulthard's stop saw the usual Ferrari tactic work, only this time it was Michael Schumacher's faithful shadow that did the business.

Those laps could well be the making of Eddie Irvine's career.

Those laps sealed a win that had looked unlikely. They opened up a serious championship challenge that few had believed he could mount. They doused the flickering hopes of David Coulthard, that he might win back to back races and exploit the opportunity, afforded by the absence of the only driver that the men from Woking fear, to mount his own championship challenge. However grudgingly, the Ferrari team now belongs to Irvine for the next few races. He does not own it, as Schumacher did, it is only his on loan.

The "war of words" between Irvine and his team, have been like manner from heaven for a rather desperate Formula One media machine, suddenly robbed of their star attraction - Michael Schumacher. No one can, however, miss the edge that has crept in to these exchanges. From the moment Schumacher hit the wall at Silverstone, Ferrari needed Irvine and he knows it. He has chosen to talk up his chances, raising the stakes for both himself and his team. In Austria he came up a winner and silenced the clamour of his detractors - for a while.

Mika Hakkinen came away from the A1 Ring with just the four points for a third place finish. But he left us all with some memories that will long out - live those that would have almost certainly have been on offer, had it not been for his teammate's ill judged lunge on the opening lap. In days gone by it was called "tiger". The reaction of a driver engulfed in a cold rage to strike back at the racing gods that had treated him thus.

Sure he was aided by having the best car in the field underneath him, but his passing moves were clinically executed, with just the right amount of aggression to leave the pursued driver little option but to yield. This was hard but fair driving of the highest quality, and you can be sure that the other drivers will have taken notice.

Years ago now, it was Ayrton Senna's yellow racing helmet. In more recent times the red Ferrari no.3, which spelt out the message that the driver closing in would take no prisoners. The effect can be magical and its dividend can yield race wins and championships. Lack it, and you suffer, as Coulthard did with such disastrous results at Imola. Now Mika Hakkinen is adding his name to a select list of ruthlessly efficient overtakers, that one day may pay him back more than the six points he lost in Austria.

That Mika Hakkinen was not impressed with his teammate's actions was plain for all to see. The minimum time on the podium, the minimum amount of energy expended on the press, then into the McLaren motor home to find Coulthard and the answer to the inevitable question of "why".

For David Coulthard the timing of his indiscretion was about as bad as it could get. Just days before, team chief Ron Dennis had indicated that an unchanged driver line up would shortly be announced at McLaren for next year. No doubt David Coulthard will sweat a little before his contract is inked in.

As has become the norm, both BAR cars failed to finish. Seldom can a Formula One team have spent so much money to have achieved so little. Clearly, to be almost totally unable to get a car to the finish at all, let alone in the points, with the resources at their disposal, is rapidly becoming impossible to explain away. It is starting to look likely that other, more senior heads will roll unless the money men start to see some return on their considerable investment in terms of results on the track. Shiny new motor homes may boost the egos of the hangers-on that gravitate to the Formula One paddock, but it will cut no ice with the results-orientated Japanese from Honda, so soon to be "partners" with the BAT backed team.

For the luckless Alex Zanardi, time is surely running out. For the first time this season, the team's technical chief Patrick Head recently voiced concern over Zanardi's lack of pace relative to his teammate Ralf Schumacher. Although the official line is still that his three-year contract is not under threat, Zanardi's emulation of Jean Alesi's running-out-of-petrol feat in Australia '97, is hardly likely to have endeared him to the team, faulty radio not withstanding. Those with long memories will recall that it was Monza time before Ron Dennis ran out of patience with the under-performing Michael Andretti back in 1993. It would be a shame for all concerned if history were to repeat itself.

For Formula One's ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, Austria provided the perfect result - the title race extended. No matter the circumstances, the unlikely challenger triumphed. As the teams set up shop to do battle around Hockenheim's long straights the message is clear - there is life in Formula One without Michael Schumacher.

But if Formula One can survive without him, can he survive without it?

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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