Atlas F1

Reflections On Interlagos

by Roger Horton, England

The Pressure is starting to show.

The sight of the Stewart-Ford team breaking into spontaneous applause, as Rubens Barrichello bumped Michael Schumacher down to 4th place during a tense qualifying duel for the Brazilian Grand Prix said it all.

Success and failure in Formula One is all so relative. The Stewart team's jubilation at being the "best of the rest" was in stark contrast to the glum faces at Ferrari, where the realization that the 1 second gap between Schumacher and Hakkinen was unbridgeable, and that once again Ferrari have failed to build a car that can match its main opposition.

Schumacher, as always, put a brave face on it. What else can he do? He is being forced to lie on a bed of his own making and his comment that "we have improvements to come when we move back to Europe" was just a repeat of sentiments he has expressed every year in South America since '96 when he first joined Ferrari. They are always chasing a moving target and so often one that continues to be just tantalizingly out of their reach.

Schumacher, to his credit, continues to show grace under pressure - at least in public - and refuses to criticize his team or let his frustrations show to outsiders. His support for Ferrari back in mid '96, after they suffered three very public and humiliating mechanical disasters in a row - including a blown engine on the parade lap in France - is still an object lesson in how to make a bad situation work for your long-term advantage.

This lesson was obviously lost on Jacques Villeneuve at Interlagos. Frustrated by the continuing mechanical problems that have beset his fledgeling team since its launch some four months ago, he "spat the dummy" in a highly public way - leaving the circuit before friday practice was over - and also shunning some one hundred team members and guests gathered to celebrate his 28th birthday. Team principle Craig Pollock put a brave face on his absence, expressing the view that "perhaps it was better Jacques worked out his frustration alone in his hotel room rather than vent it on the team." Villeneuve is just two races into a multi-year contract with the British American Racing team and one is bound to wonder just why he would be so surprised and upset with the problems his new team is having.

The sooner Jacques Villeneuve buckles down to be a team leader, rather than just a fast driver, the better. To his credit he put his head down during the race and aided no doubt by a generous helping of retirements ahead of him, managed to get to within sniffing distance of some points before the mechanical gremlins returned.

The Williams team don't know whether to laugh or cry after just two races of their '99 campaign. Ralf Schumacher is turning out to be a revelation. Stuck with a car he obviously cannot win with, he produced another mature drive to achieve a fourth place finish. The pressure will build when the points supply dries up as the faster cars become more reliable. But for the moment he is carrying the team - and no doubt pleasing Frank Williams - the hardest of all team bosses to impress.

For Alex Zanardi the nightmare continued in Brazil. A horror run of mechanical problems of all varieties continued to test his and the team's patience. It can of course only get better, but soon please for all concerned. The specter of Michael Andretti's abortive season in F1 way back in '93, seems to be hovering around this likeable Italian's return to Formula One, despite all the very valid arguments as to the very different circumstances between then and now.

Clearly Williams urgently need to find some reliability to give Zanardi a fair chance to show off his undoubted talents. Battling Minardis and Arrows is not the reason Williams go Formula One motor racing and one wondered just what thoughts Zanardi might have had, as he watched his replacement at the Chip Ganassi team - Juan Montoya - blitz the field at Japan's Motegi oval.

The Mclaren team got the job done, but given the continued frailty of the MP4-14 it must have been a nerve racking race for all concerned within the team. This car is still far from bullet proof and in two races it has a 75% failure rate, not a statistic that will please Ron Dennis. David Coulthard continued to expand his reputation as the "nearly man" and was out-qualified yet again by his team mate. Just how much he was to blame for stalling at the start is still not clear, but so far in the '99 season there is no evidence to suggest that he has found the extra speed over the winter that will trouble Mika Hakkinen.

David Coulthard did show, however, that sensible driving conduct is not entirely dead in Formula One. On rejoining the race some laps down just in front of the dueling pair of Schumacher and Hakkinen, he practically braked to a standstill so as to let them both past cleanly. Another example, if one was required, that David Coulthard is not the type of driver to deliberately "take out" another, as he was so rashly accused of at Spa last year.

For Rubens Barrichello this was a bitter-sweet weekend. He at last showed the world just what he can do given a decent car, and the SF3 Stewart-Ford is certainly that. In the end it broke before the finish, but not before he had led the race around a track so close to his heart and his home. His body language as he responded to the crowd's roars of approval suggests that, some five years after the tragic events of Imola in '94, Rubens has finally laid a ghost to rest.

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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