Atlas F1 Reflections on Nurburgring

  by Roger Horton, England

The European Grand Prix was a great motor race. It was the type of race that blows away all the negative worries about grooved tires, narrow cars, the politics of tobacco, and just about all the other worries that so concern any thinking observer of the Formula One scene - at least for a while.

In the context of this increasingly bizarre battle for the '99 drivers' crown, the story of the race for most was all about the drivers who didn't win and why not. But that would do an injustice to the Stewart-Ford team who scored their first ever Grand Prix victory, and the winning driver, who has endured just about all the emotions it is possible to experience throughout a roller coaster career - Johnny Herbert.

The term "well deserved" is often over-used to describe sporting victories, but it is wholly fitting when applied to the sight of Jackie Stewart receiving the plaudits of the crowd on the winners rostrum. For the team to score its maiden victory in just its third year in the sport at this level, is a fitting reward for an outfit that has already experienced the pain and frustration that comes from being the new boys on the block, interlopers into the exclusive realm of the established Formula One hierarchy.

Like Jordan, the Stewart team has now paid its dues and earned the right to sit at the top table of Formula One achievers. That the victory was achieved under the name of its founder and before the Stewart name is submerged to suit the corporate goals of the team's new owners, is entirely appropriate.

Johnny Herbert of course has won before. But in a strikingly similar way to the current wins scored by Eddie Irvine at Ferrari, Herbert's two wins for the Benetton team during the '95 season were for a team management that didn't much care. Sure they were wins by default, as was this win around the Nurburgring made treacherous by intermittent rain that wet just parts of the circuit to differing degrees. But in the end the many wins are by default to some degree and there is no rule that deducts points for this. A win is always a win.

This time Herbert's victory will be warmly appreciated by a team management desperate for just such a result. There was, of course, much speculation earlier in the season that Ford were casting their net (and dollars) around for two new drivers to replace both the departing Rubens Barrichello and the incumbent Herbert. But Herbert has kept his seat and this win will have done him no harm with the team's new owners so conscious of the value of a winning image. It will also be a timely warning shot across the bows of the incoming Eddie Irvine, that next season he will have to earn his team leadership at Jaguar Racing.

If the European Grand Prix was all about hard luck stories then the two with most merit had a distinctly German flavour. Half way through the race the championship ambitions of Heinz-Harald Frentzen were looking distinctly believable. The pole sitter looked to have the race under control despite the pressure of his various pursuers. That his Jordan Mugen-Honda should choose this race to let him down was especially cruel given that the quiet German is suddenly looking the most confident and consistent of the title contenders.

For Ralf Schumacher this race was another step down the road to becoming a Formula One superstar. The car control he showed as he forced his Williams inside the McLarens of both Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard through the slippery turn 13 will long live in the memory. Clearly the young German is highly valued at Williams, as it is this type of a charging driver that is so admired by team principle Frank Williams. No doubt his watching double world champion elder brother Michael will have appreciated and applauded Ralf's performance, but it will not have escaped him that there is perhaps emerging another threat to his position of pre-eminence in the Formula One driver pecking order.

For the other title contenders there was precious little comfort from these results. David Coulthard once again showed that his claims for a place at the very top of the Formula One tree are not matched by his ability. He was not alone in losing control on a track with constantly changing grip levels, but of the drivers still in contention for the world championship his was the only totally unforced error. He can now have few complaints if the McLaren-Mercedes management call time out on his quest for the title for another year and force him to support the title hopes of teammate Hakkinen. He has been given his opportunities and sadly he has not taken them.

For Eddie Irvine this was another strange race weekend. Ferrari lost the plot somewhat during a hectic wet-dry qualifying session and then misplaced one of Irvine's rear tires during a pit stop that the team itself had called. By the time they had found the missing wheel, some 30 seconds had gone by and with it any chance of a podium finish for their lead driver.

Only Mika Hakkinen came away with any addition to his points total amongst the title hopefuls. The sight of the Finn racing wheel to wheel with his main title rival Irvine - for seventh place - added a slightly bizarre touch to an already unusual race. That he managed to pass the Ferrari and then the Minardi of Marc Gene to finish in fifth place just might prove to be the most significant event in this whole Grand Prix weekend. When he leaves the grid during the inaugural Malaysian race in some three weeks time, he alone of the four drivers still in mathematical contention, can claim the championship there - should the results fall in his favour.

Hakkinen, though, needs a strong finish to his season if he is to go some way to repairing a reputation somewhat under pressure after a series of rather under par performances. From his moody display on the Spa podium, to the tears-inducing mistake at Monza, he somehow doesn't look the driver that so successfully held his nerve and faced down Michael Schumacher with a brilliant drive just one year ago. Indeed, whoever eventually secures this '99 championship crown will be all too aware of their good fortune, in that the sport's most talented driver was cut from the chase by that Silverstone wall. For Michael Schumacher, the '99 title will surely be remembered as the one that got away.

Roger Horton© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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