Atlas F1 Reflections on Spa

  by Roger Horton, England

What a difference a year can make. Last year's Belgium Grand Prix served up a race so full of drama and action it positively overflowed. The '99 version was just a pale shadow by comparison and should it turn out to be the last Formula One race to be held on this gloriously demanding track, then it will be a double tragedy if the final images and sounds are from a such uneventful and uninspiring a race.

The news that Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is likely to withdraw the race from the 2000 calendar after failing to agree a deal that would exempt the local region, where the circuit is located, from the Belgian government's anti tobacco legislation, shocked and disappointed fans and drivers alike. But like so many things in Formula One, much is bluff and bluster and it remains to be seen just what the final outcome will be.

Only two things carried over from last year's dramatic race. Mika Hakkinen was involved in a shoving match at the La Source hairpin on the opening lap and Jacques Villeneuve again challenged lady luck by testing his limits against the most demanding corner on the Grand Prix circus. The score now stands at Eau Rouge 3, Villeneuve 0 and what an added tragedy it would be if events were to conspire to deny him a re-match!

That the BAR team recovered to get both cars to the starting grid after Ricardo Zonta wrote off his car in a copy-cat accident just moments later, and even managed to get Villeneuve to the finish line in the race, was an achievement of sorts. The fact that he finished in 15th position and only ahead of the low budget Minardi-Ford would have kept the celebrations low-key. All told, it is surprising that the British American Racing team had any reason for laughter all weekend and the fact that they chose to break into broad smiles just minutes after Zonta's accident, was a little puzzling to say the least.

For Mika Hakkinen this was clearly not the result he expected. He has had the measure of teammate David Coulthard all season and was clearly surprised when Coulthard gave him such a firm "don't argue" as they entered the La Source hairpin the first time around. Whether it was fair or reasonable is not the point - it worked, it gave him the lead, it won him the race and re-launched his championship challenge. David Coulthard has received his fair share of criticism for his sometimes tentative performances in recent years and this display will have gone a long way to restoring his reputation.

He just needs to keep doing it and a world championship beckons, but that will be the hard part, for Hakkinen will be better prepared for their next encounter. That Ron Dennis resisted the obvious temptation to issue team orders is again a small victory for the dying breed of racers in the paddock, who believe that racing at this level should be a contest between "equals" as far as equipment and opportunity goes. World championships are meant to be won on the track against all comers, teammates included, and not be handed out as gifts.

The Ferrari team has clearly lost its way a little and the Eddie Irvine starship that burst into such bright light so unexpectedly in Austria has now rather dimmed. It is worth remembering though, that last year the Ferraris qualified fourth and fifth on the grid, Schumacher behind both the McLarens and the Jordan of Damon Hill. So Irvine's sixth position on the grid, although disappointing, was not the disaster that some portrayed.

The team once again came under fire from the Williams technical chief Patrick Head for their tactic of having Salo slow down to protect Irvine from the Williams of the charging Ralf Schumacher. Whatever your view of the way Ferrari plays their team tactics they are at least consistent. Don't be surprised if at some later stage in the championship the Williams cars in some way come to the assistance of their Woking based rivals should they be in a position to do so.

No team can lose such a talented driver as Michael Schumacher in mid-season and expect to carry on as before. That Irvine's performances in these last two races have been less than Schumacher would have achieved should come as no surprise to anyone, and least of all to Irvine himself, one suspects. Behind the sharp wit and barbed tongue, Eddie Irvine has shown that he has a pretty good grasp on the realities of life in the Formula One pit lane. He is not attempting to equal the driving feats of Michael Schumacher, but fate has dealt him a once in a lifetime chance to win the biggest championship in the auto racing world, and he intends to make a grab for it while he can. He knows that he is unlikely to pass this way again.

Frank Williams must have left the Belgium track feeling more confident about the future than for some time. For a change both his drivers looked the goods all weekend and but for a refuelling glitch that forced Alex Zanardi into the pits for an unscheduled second stop, he would almost certainly have joined his teammate in the points. That Zanardi's best showing in his Formula One return was at the circuit that so very nearly claimed his life way back in '93 was an irony not lost on the likeable Italian. Ralf Schumacher added considerably to his growing reputation by putting his Supertec powered Williams much higher up the grid than it had any right to be. If BMW can produce a reasonable "first year" engine then Ralf Schumacher could well break his Formula One duck sooner rather than later.

In the next week Michael Schumacher will again test his Ferrari at the pre-Monza test to see just how his injured leg reacts. If as expected he takes his place in Ferrari number 3 at the Monza race, then Mika Hakkinen will need to be on guard for more than just unexpected moves from his teammate. A returning Michael Schumacher with a point to prove, and with nothing to lose, will most likely provide him with his most formidable challenge.

Roger Horton© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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