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The Iceman cometh

2005-05-24 09:30

Kimi Raikkonen after winning the Monaco Grand Prix (Luca Bruno, AP)

Tragedy is no stranger to Monaco. Even in the ebullient efforts of the Red Bull Racing Team to hoopla the latest Star Wars movie, we were reminded in no uncertain terms - via bold marketing slogans on Coulthard's car - of the Dark Side's ever-present threat.

And so it was, eleven years ago and almost to the day, that yet another minute's silence was called for. On that occasion though, the school of 1994 was to assemble around two vacant slots at the sharp end of the grid.

Position Two had been left open in honour of Roland Ratzenberger, the Austrian who had died at Imola barely two weeks prior to Monaco when his Simtek headed straight for the barriers after the car's front wing had flown off in the fearfully fast Villeneuve corner.

And Pole Position was vacant because nobody could ever have had the audacity to usurp the King's personal piece of real estate. Rainier might have been the Prince of Monaco, but Senna was the King. The King of Speed. The King of Pole. Even to this day Ayrton holds the record - 65 from 161 races, compared to Schumacher's 63 poles from 217 races.

Six times then, Senna had lifted Rainier's trophy.

But on that day, in the middle of May 1994, Ayrton was no more. The minute's silence in his and Ratzenberger's memory had indeed signaled a changing of the guard. Michael Schumacher was the heir apparent and on that day, in the absence of the greatest driver ever, he picked up the baton and ran with it.

And he ran until Sunday's minute of silence, this time not for the King, but for the Prince - after which another young man stepped up to the plate and lifted the trophy that Schumacher himself had almost made his own, in the way that Senna had before the Dark Side's cruel intervention.

Six victories then, for Senna. Five each for Schumacher and Graham Hill. Four for Prost. And three for Stirling Moss.

A Great in the Making

If this sounds like a pantheon of greats, then Kimi Raikkonen is heading that way as well. The young Finn is as naturally gifted as any driver who has ever been born, with an unflappable temperament and quite a steely resolve, his love for the wild life notwithstanding. As a driver he is fantastically quick, scarily committed and wonderfully precise. Raikkonen then, makes racing - and winning - look as casual and easy as his illustrious compatriot Hakkinen did.

In fact, an even bigger name springs to mind - especially when the Kimster slams in a corker like he did on Saturday, during empty tank qualifying.

Senna-esque then, was the blitzkrieg. Raikkonen beautifully played himself in during Thursday and Saturday testing, shunning the limelight in his quest to prepare the car for Sunday's race, yet slowly working himself up to fever-pitch.

Those who watched carefully then, would have seen the Kimster creeping up the timing sheets, from session to session, ever closer to the top - until he banged in that devastating lap on Saturday afternoon, crunching Alonso's already impressive time by half a second, and obliterating team mate Montoya's in the process.

This after the Columbian had arrived in Monaco full of spunk and confidence. Having won here two years ago, beating Raikkonen of all people to the chequered flag, could only have served as a sorely-needed psychological tonic for a much-embattled Montoya.

Two missed races and a drubbing in Spain at the hands of a team mate who serenely sailed off into the distance whilst Juan was battling to stay within a second per lap of Kimi's times must have shocked the Colombian. But at least he had an excuse: race rustiness and a sore shoulder. And yes, the MP4/20 was not such an easy car to drive after all. Not if you didn't get it right into the zone, which - according to Montoya - is confined to an extremely narrow band.

On top of that, McLaren must have been worrying about the car's excessive understeer in slow corners, earlier in the season. In the three-week period between Bahrain and Imola they seemed to have eradicated this problem to a large extent, Imola also being a circuit calling for heavy braking and sharp directional changes. And Kimi looked odds on for a win there, the truth be told.

Specifics of the modern Grand Prix track

But Monaco is a circuit in extremis. Pushing a car through the narrow confines of the principality, with the nose running wide and scrubbing off speed, can wreck lap times. What's needed is a nimble car, above all - but also good traction. On occasion, even inferior drivers in inferior equipment - like Stefano Modena in a Tyrrell - have planted cars on Monaco's front row.

And a quick, swift and accurate turn-in has always been the key.

This year though, traction was on everybody's lips. Trulli had won in the principality last year, in a Renault, after Schumacher had obliterated the opposition in the first five races. Trulli's feat was heavily dependant on Michelin tyres, of course; before him Montoya and Coulthard had been victorious in Monte Carlo, both on French rubber.

But Jarno's other secret had been Renault's quite extraordinarily successful philosophy of good fuel consumption coupled to a weight-bias over the car's rear axle, for better traction.

The nature of the modern Grand Prix circuit has changed, see. Acceleration out of corners could, at most tracks, be as important as top end speed - as Alonso has proved so dramatically last year, when Jenson Button's vastly more powerful BAR-Honda had struggled in vain for many laps to pass the Renault at Hockenheim.

Coupled to this was the memory of McLaren's understeer and Woking's struggle to channel enough energy through the MP4/20's rear tyres to generate sufficient heat for a fast qualifier - pretty much a problem that Ferrari is still suffering from.

McLaren improvements

There were signs though, that Woking had addressed their ills successfully. At Imola the car started to turn in beautifully and in Barcelona the MP4/20 was supreme, proving that aero, balance and engine package have been improved tremendously.

At least in Raikkonen's hands.

So, the table was set for a great Monaco slugfest between the Renaults and McLarens, with most experts favouring la Regie's traction.

And it was a big factor - but in a completely unforeseen way, although the signs had been there from Imola onwards.

In Bahrain, Alonso was still super-confident in his car's ability to grow stronger and quicker over a race. Schumacher then, would have been no problem in the later stages, he said.

At Imola though, the tables were turned. The Renault's Michelins got progressively worse, whereas the Ferrari's Bridgestones seemed to improve with each passing lap. Freezing temperatures played into Bridgestone's hands, of course.

But the niggling question was: Why did the Michelin's go off by that much?

In Barcelona, Alonso again struggled with blistered rears.

Tyre wear then, had been playing on Renault's mind as of late. Not for nothing did they choose the harder Michelin compound for Monaco. And they still lost out. Badly.

All of this, at a time when McLaren suddenly found a way to optimize Michelin rubber. In Malaysia and Bahrain, the Renaults seemed perfectly suited to French compounds and construction, from the start of qualifying to the checquered flag. During the same period, McLaren struggled to generate the necessary heat (and therefore grip) for qualifying.

Then, from Imola onwards, the whole Michelin equation seemed to have changed. McLaren suddenly found a way to qualify and race well - whilst Renault started to lose race performance at exactly the same time.

How will this impact on the rest of the year?

BAR's back

Assuming that Renault and McLaren are the main title protagonists, we have to factor BAR and Ferrari into the equation, with Williams and Toyota as legitimate spoilers at every second venue or so.

McLaren has the upper hand at this point, the car working beautifully on all kinds of tracks and equaled in pure, raw race pace only by Ferrari's F2005.

Maranello's problem however, is qualifying speed.

The question then becomes: How many teams can pour into this qualifying gap, between McLaren and Ferrari - if we assume that it will take Bridgestone a couple of weeks to come up with an answer? If it rains, they will be in play, of course - and probably win.

Renault certainly would find themselves in this gap - and BAR has the potential, but come Sunday they will run first on a green top, in the new, one-lap-only system. Sunday qualifying thus falls by the wayside; everything is done and dusted by 3 o'clock on Saturday afternoon.

Schumacher and Barrichello, mind you, would have to run relatively early as well; Ferrari is battling to break out of their Catch 22-cycle of finishing badly because they qualify badly. Another problem for the Scuderia is that everybody knows what their strategy will be; they simply have to run fat with fuel.

Given this, it might just be possible for Button to sneak ahead and target the Renaults. And if the latter's rear tyres go off again, it might just happen that the McLarens, a BAR and even a Ferrari pushes Alonso down to fifth.

Which means that Alonso might, from now on, drop more than two points per race to Raikkonen, so that the pair of them would most likely be neck-and-neck by the time we enter the season's final phase, in September and October.

BAR's return will thus be good news for McLaren, not such good news for Renault and perhaps even bad news for Ferrari. The last thing Schumacher needs now is another Michelin runner pushing him down the finishing order, something of which Button would be quite capable of in the next few races.

Unless, of course, Bridgestone finds the magic formula - and sometimes these things happen overnight, in F1.

But even if it doesn't - and especially if it does not - the times will be a-changing in F1. A minute's silence then, for Michael Schumacher. If Bridgestone does not bail him out, the seven times champion is on his way out.

The guard is a-changing. The Iceman cometh.

  • Egmont Sippel is the motoring editor of Rapport newspaper


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