Atlas F1 Reflections from Sepang

  by Roger Horton, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Two topics dominated all discussions prior to this event. Just what influence would Michael Schumacher's return have on the outcome of the race, and the unpredictable weather. In the end the former would prove to have a much greater impact than the latter - at least until the Stewards imposed themselves upon the proceedings and changed everything.

It did not start out this way. The whole Kuala Lumpur area was hit by a massive thunderstorm in the early hours of Friday morning and with the area around the Sepang track shrouded in low cloud, it seemed that the organiser's worst fear - a washed out inaugural event - was on the cards. Fortunately, the rain cleared and only the first one hour of Friday's practice was held on a wet track. Thereafter the only storm would be of the strictly man-made variety that came when the Ferrari team was provisionally stripped of its one-two finish through a seemingly trivial technical irregularity.

On the track the Ferrari team was a revelation. They did not just defeat the McLaren team, they metaphorically just about crushed them to death, so superior were they in every department. This performance might well have put a smile back on Jean Todt's face but for Luca di Montezemolo these last few months surely must have rung a few alarm bells concerning the longer term future of his team. If one driver's presence - or lack of it - can make so much difference, then the post-Schumacher era for Ferrari looks bleak indeed.

Michael Schumacher, though, looked totally in a class of his own throughout the weekend and he appears to have raised his driving to another level. If it takes a few months' rest for him to drive like this then perhaps Ferrari should send him home from November through March and then let him loose in this form at the start of the season. It worked for Ayrton Senna, who regularly disappeared home to Brazil in the winter months whilst others tested away - and Senna knew a thing or two about dominating his opponents.

Only fleeting did Schumacher err during the 56 lap race, leaving a gap that was just wide enough to let the hard-charging David Coulthard through in a manoeuvre that was startlingly similar to Schumacher's pass on the Scot, during the '98 Argentinean Grand Prix. But once Coulthard's car had once again let him down the fire was gone from the McLaren challenge and from that point on Mika Hakkinen was the lone prisoner caught in the Ferrari-Schumacher-Brawn trap.

For lap after lap he pounded around, unable to make even one serious overtaking move on the No 3 Ferrari being driven tantalisingly fast enough in the places it mattered, and slow enough in between to ensure that the gap to the leading Eddie Irvine was always extending. No wonder Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn would initially describe the 'victory' as "about as good as it gets."

The disqualification of the Ferraris - the moment it was found that their side turning vanes (or barge boards) infringed Article 3.12.1 of the 1999 FIA technical regulations - was the only course open to the FIA. That the cars raced at the Nurburgring in allegedly the same specification is no mitigation, indeed it compounds their offence. In the realm of measurements there can really be no leeway unless the car has been perhaps damaged during the course of the race. It is solely the team's responsibility to ensure that their cars conform to the regulations and clearly the team's senior management will have to accept their responsibility for this debacle. Once again Ferrari has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Their defence that this minor infraction gave them no performance advantage should cut little ice in any impartial hearing. If simple technical rules are not to be enforced then mayhem will surely follow, and anyway the FIA has a poor track record of responding favourably to appeals that it sees as challenges to its authority. But this is Formula One and just about any outcome is possible when the appeal is heard on Friday in Paris.

The sight of McLaren's technical director Adrian Newey chewing away his finger nails as this race progressed seemed to sum-up the whole team's frustration at being unable to influence the outcome of this contest on the track. Out-qualified, out-raced and out-thought the whole weekend by the revitalised Ferrari team, it was little wonder that Hakkinen looked totally shell-shocked again during the podium presentations. Defeat can seldom have tasted so bitter to the normally unemotional Finn. Few drivers can drive at their maximum during the entire season but the fall-off in Hakkinen's performances in recent races has been both surprising and remarkable.

The quote of the day undoubtedly belonged to McLaren boss Ron Dennis. Prior to the Steward's announcement of Ferrari's disqualification, and still smarting from his team's defeat, he launched a bitter attack on the Ferrari team's tactics. "It's not motor racing is it? It may be in the rules but I don't think we would ever do it regardless of what was at stake," he said.

Now Ron Dennis is arguably the most astute team boss in the pit-lane, but his selective memory - when it suits him - is breathtaking. For McLaren employed exactly the same tactics to defeat the Williams team in the penultimate round of the '91 championship in Suzuka. The McLaren pair of Senna and Gerhard Berger occupied the front row ahead of Nigel Mansell's Williams. In the race, Senna held Mansell up whilst Berger ran off into the distance. When Mansell slid off, Senna became Champion and hardly a word was written about team orders. It was on both occasions simply one team against the other and both times the best team of the day won - on the track at least.

All the other drivers and teams were reduced to bit players during the course of this dramatic weekend. The Jordan team was off the pace in both the race and qualifying due to a handling imbalance that the team were unable to dial out, and so Heinz-Harald Frentzen's slim championships hopes ended under the Malaysian sun. The Stewart-Ford team looked good throughout and if the Ferrari appeal is dismissed Stewart will be odds-on to finish fourth in the constructors' standings - pushing Williams down to a lowly fifth spot.

So as the teams move on to Japan for the final event of the season, attention will shift to the FIA's Court of Appeal hearing in Paris. Mika Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine can now only await the outcome of a process that they now have no way of influencing. Whatever the outcome, the incredible Michael Schumacher would appear to have won after all. The returning hero conquered the field and made the "provisional" champion look second rate. In the unlikely event that the Ferrari appeal is successful and Irvine goes on to secure the crown his title will forever be remembered as being bestowed by a gracious Schumacher.

Whatever happens in Paris on Friday - Michael Schumacher wins...

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions