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The wonder of it all

2005-08-12 13:51

Egmont Sippel

One could easily adapt Rodrigues' famous little tune to describe Fernando Alonso's current situation. As F1 enters its habitual summer break, the young Spaniard has won six times already in 2005.

But one wonders. There may be no more this year. If Kimi Raikkonen's car runs perfectly from Turkey to China, the Finn might just win all of the remaining races - unless Montoya refuses to play the team game, of course.

And there's a real possibility that the Columbian would turn a blind eye - on at least one occasion - to McLaren's desperate need to shrink the gap between the two front runners.

F1 drivers are not fond of playing the sacrificial lamb. Even Rubens, the softest and most malleable and gullible soul in the pit lane, has now had enough.

Hence his departure to BAR, creating space for Massa at Ferrari, because no other driver worth his salt will drive for Maranello under present conditions.

That's precisely because no driver worth his salt will willingly accept permanent No.2 status.

Will or won't Montoya

The question is whether Montoya will do so, for the last third of the season.

Even the hard-headed Columbian must now realise that his shot at the title is dead and buried. Next year, yes, if he plays a bit less tennis, he will certainly be able to mount a serious challenge.

But would he like to do so alongside a teammate already driving the sport's No.1 car?

One wonders - though the chances of Montoya making peace with playing a supportive role for the remainder of the year must be better than the chances of Raikkonen's car running flat out and faultlessly for the next 2 500 km or so.

Right: Ron Dennis - downcast, praying, or both!

It's funny, this marriage between McLaren and fragility. In a very real sense Ron Dennis's team has now taken over the Lotus and Colin Chapman mantle of being innovative and fast, but seriously flawed.

It's funny, because it's been carrying on for such a long time. In 2000 Mika Hakkinen would have sewn up his third consecutive title by Monza already, had his McLaren been as bullet proof as Schumacher's Ferrari.

And it's funny, because it just never stops. Last year I watched from the Nurburgring's BMW tower as first Raikkonen and then Coulthard's mount ground to a halt, both with engine failures.

At the very moment the second car stopped on the back straight, head of Mercedes passenger cars Jurgen Huppert jumped straight into his S-Class and was gone in a flash.

That wasn't so funny, though. Huppert had been crushed by the umpteenth Merc V10 failure in 2004, and it was sad watching a Benz big wig fleeing in shame.

It reminded me of another humiliating moment for Merc at the Ring, when a blown engine turned out to be the difference between Raikkonen and the world title, in 2003.

Which in turn reminded me of yet another humiliating moment for Merc at the Ring, when both Hakkinen and Coulthard's engines expired on the main straight in 1997, right in front of Stuttgart's main and ever-so mighty.

It's sad, so sad

All of this is sad, of course. Which makes it difficult to decide whether Norbert Haug's piffling little excuses for McLaren's recent run of engine failures are even sadder - or just tragically funny.

Haug, who's in charge of Merc's racing programme and carries the responsibilities thereof, habitually starts off with an apology to the driver in question: Montoya at the Hungaroring, Kimi at Hockenheim, Kimi in Britain and France, Montoya in France, Kimi at Imola and so forth.

He then proceeds, time and again, to explain that Merc has never had this problem before. The mysterious forces of evil, he seems to suggest, just wait to pounce on race day. Out of the blue. With no rhyme or reason.

Mysterious indeed. Except that we'd like to explain something to Mr Haug.

There are a million and one things, Norbert, that can go wrong in an F1 engine. Working through all of them, one by one, will thus take a million and one races to solve - if common arithmetics is anything to go by.

But mark these words: After the next failure, Haug will apologise again with the promise that Merc would have to do better. And he and Brixworth (where Mario Ilien builds Benz's F1 V10) will start by saying "that this particular problem has never been encountered before, not even in 3 500 km of testing".

Now, that's either very funny or very sad.

Think about it: Three of Alonso's six victories so far this year have been inherited from an ailing McLaren, whilst Raikkonen was in the lead.

In Imola, a drive shaft cost the Iceman. At the Nurburgring, trying to outbrake a slow Jacques Villeneuve from too far back resulted in a flat spot, with dire consequences. And in Germany the Spaniard once again capitalised on a Kimster's car sans hydraulics.

Reversal of fortunes

Truth be told, Fernando endeavoured to reverse two of those results.

In Canada he clipped the wall, and in Hungary he tossed a good shot at a decent grid slot away by pushing too hard and running wide in qualifying.

A tiny fraction faster would have lifted him out of harm's way as the field bottle-necked into Turn One.

As it was, the younger Schumacher - with road to spare between him and teammate Trulli on the outside of the track, but ever oblivious to what's happening in a crowded F1 scrum - clipped Alonso's front wing, decimating a haul of at least five points for the Spaniard.

Left: Ralf's no scrum half...

If those five points happen to make the difference at year's end, it would be the third time that Ralf has heavily influenced the outcome of the world championship in a sprint down to Turn One, on lap one of a GP.

In 2003 he pushed Barrichello into a flying Raikkonen at the start of the German GP, resulting in the Iceman crashing out of the race, and out of the title.

And in 1997 his car landed on top of brother Michael's, after having been punted into the air by teammate Fisichella's as Ralf squeezed the Italian for space - although a case could be made that Giancarlo simply outbraked himself, trying to undo Ralf's blistering start.

As it is, Ralf seems to get flustered in traffic jams, as brother Michael used to.

Not good in a tight bunch, the Schumachers, although the elder has been free this year of the controversy that has doggedly pursued him throughout his career.

Out of controversy and contention

That's barring Indy 2005, of course. And the summer break that's in effect now, for everyone bar Ferrari.

Summertime, then, and the living is easy. But not for Maranello, which is testing flat out, one suspects, mainly with an eye on readying the Bridgestone tyres for a renewed onslaught in 2006.

For Michael must surely now be out of contention for this year's title, even though he is not totally irrelevant in the outcome of the championship.

Given the improvement of Bridgestone rubber in Hungary, it is conceivable that Schumacher could insert his Ferrari in-between the super-fast McLarens and Alonso's still pretty quick Renault in races to come, helping to create a five point swing every time it happens.

Two such results, and Raikkonen would have to gain 16 points in the remaining four races - which would require a McLaren one-two in each of those to do the trick.

That's if both McLarens run faultlessly in qualifying as well as in each and every race from now on in - and Renault suffers the expected slight sag towards season's end, although there are no real signs of it yet, as many had expected.

Hungary, tyres and Renault's pace

Truth be told, Renault has just about been dead on McLaren's race pace for the best part of 2005, even up to Hockenheim.

Qualifying might be a different story. And in Hungary Renault was overly conservative, racing on the harder Michelin compound with less grip, which always results in a struggle on such a dusty track.

BAR only managed to play in similar compounds right towards the end of the race, which explains some of Renault's less obvious problems (such as Fisichella spearing off the road on two separate occasions, courtesy of a lack of grip).

Alonso's aero, on the other hand, had been so badly influenced after the first lap incident with Ralf, that he could not run at full pace. Which in turn overheated the engine. Which in turn slowed him down even further.

Renault's race pace in Hungary was therefore not a good representation of the car's potential.

What was more worrying than speed, however, was La Regie's need to go for a harder compound. Turkey will again be a severe test of tyres and a car's ability to tread gently without sacrificing grip - especially as the track is brand new and still covered in dust.

On top of that, Alonso will have to qualify fairly early - another major impediment in his quest to slow down the swing of points at the sharp end of the table.

Right: Fernado Alonso won't be looking forward to his early quali time

Some consolation would be that Montoya will have to qualify even earlier than Alonso, having been one of five drivers not to finish in Hungary - the others being a Sauber, a Minardi and two Red Bulls which were both involved in freak accidents.

Hey, that's some illustrious company to be in, Mr Haug, on the list of mechanical failures: a Minardi and a Sauber.

Ah well, that's at least a company with ties to the arch-enemy, BMW, is it not?

So Merc, one could argue (using Mr Haug's special brand of logic) was not the only German marque sullied in Hungary.

Besides, Montoya's failure has no doubt never been encountered before. That's excepting Kimi's broken drive-shaft earlier this year at Imola, of course. And perhaps Mika's broken drive-shaft as well, in Brazil, in 2000.

Apart from that, though, we take the point . . .

Three big questions

Three big questions thus remain, for the rest of 2005:

  • Will Renault, with easily the smallest budget of all the top teams, take a performance dip towards the final flag?
  • Will McLaren be able to bring two healthy cars home in six consecutive races?
  • Will another team be able, on occasion, to insert themselves between the Silver Arrows and the Silver Diamond?

One wonders. On the evidence so far, there is still a performance gap between La Regie and the Scuderia, Hungary notwithstanding.

Renault has never been beaten this year to the tune of half a minute or more, as Ferrari was in Budapest.

And this state of affairs won't change in a hurry unless Bridgestone comes up with a compound that can consistently qualify as well as it did in Budapest - and last till the end of the race.

Nothing, however, changes as quickly in F1 - and nothing changes F1 as quickly - as rubber performance.

Even Toyota might, on the odd occasion, squeeze its nose in front of La Regie's, in which case Woking will laugh all the way to the flag, if not necessarily to the title.

On the old firm Williams, for instance, they surely cannot rely for any assistance.

Over the past couple of years Frank and his boys have descended into a proper midfield team without hope of beating the Renaults. And the rest of the field would not even dare.

Renault going defensive

Which leaves the door open for Renault to go defensive for the rest of the year, concentrating on reliability in just trying to protect Alonso's lead.

It was surprising, in fact, to see the Spaniard muscling inside Ralf into Hungary's Turn One.

Putting up the shades should already have been part of the game plan, unless Renault is reasoning that any one of a myriad of problems that have befallen Fisi's car could easily also strike at Alonso's.

At the moment though, during a well-earned summer break, Enstone (where the R25 chassis is built) and Viry-Chatillon (where the RS25 V10 is built) fully deserve to lead the championship on both fronts: driver's and constructor's.

With barely more than half of the top teams' budget they are doing a job that will even astound the company's super-demanding new CEO, Carlos Ghosn.

For this much is true: Renault has stunned Ferrari and McLaren in 2005.

So, can the team do it for a little while longer, yet?

One wonders.

The wonder of it all

And that is precisely the wonder of 2005: Alonso might hold on, but Raikkonen might sneak in.

It's tighter than it looks, it will probably become even tighter still and the final result will be to crown a new champion - the youngest in history, if it turns out to be Alonso.

This after Kimi lost out on becoming the youngest F1 champion in history, in 2003.

So, who will it be?

Hey, Mr Haug, whoever it is, it won't ever have happened before. This will be the first world championship crown for either of them. And the first of many.

That's the real wonder of 2005. At last we have a proper dice again, between two greats.


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