Saturday, 27 October 2012

2003 U.S. Grand Prix - Indianpolis Motor Speedway

September 28, 2003

As race wins go the 2003 United States grand Prix was one of the best of Michael Schumacher's illustrious career. Certainly it was on of the most important, because it brought him within nine points of a sixth World Championship crown. How he got there though was even more impressive. The manner in which Schumacher had turned around his 2003 season was stunning. Early on in the year his Ferrari had the edge, but they suffered a mid-season slump (largely caused by Bridgestone's inadequacies) and only two races prior to Indy Schumacher was the underdog for the title. Juan-Pablo Montoya (Williams) looked virtually unstoppable for the Driver's title, having won in Germany and finishing second in Hungary.

It was fitting then, that Indianapolis was one of the German's best drives, even if the weather did play so comfortably into his hands. But with Schumacher, as always there was something more. During the 1995 season, Damon Hill once commented on his rival's superiority, "He's very impressive in every respect of the job. It is mental, it is physical and it is to do with teamwork. He has an advantage over everyone." For any sportsman, whose confidence and ability to perform consistently to the best of his ability depends so much on a pig-headed belief that he is the best, it was an astonishing admission for the Englishman to make. But, given the evidence, it was also an inescapable one and Schumacher carried this advantage throughout most of his career.

Schumacher: under pressure at Indy
The grid at Indianapolis was an unusual mix that did the champion no favours, and read like the screenplay for a Hollywood motor racing blockbuster: the third-placed driver in the World Championship fight, Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren), was on pole position, the second-placed man, Montoya, was fourth and the leader, Schumacher, was only seventh. Räikkönen and Montoya appeared to be free and clear to fight for the title, with Schumacher in a vulnerable position. Yet by the first corner it was clear this was not the case. The German sprinted down the outside and, as team-mate Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) faded on the front row and Olivier Panis (Toyota) and Montoya lagged on the second, he pounced into third place behind the leader Räikkönen and brother Ralf (Williams). Already, Montoya’s hopes were looking shaky. He was only seventh.

Up front Räikkönen put on another one of his brave displays that underlined the Finns' natural talent. Ralf went with him, and when it began to drizzle on lap two, their Michelin tyres offered them a significant advantage.

Almost as fast as he had catapulted forward, Michael began to go backwards. He’d overtaken Panis for third on lap 5, but by lap 7 the battling David Coulthard (McLaren), Montoya and Fernando Alonso (Renault) had all clawed past, and Jarno Trulli (Renault) was menacing. Things stayed that way until Ralf pitted on lap 15, by which time the track was beginning to dry. He slipped down to twelfth.

2003 USGP - Despite an impressive start, Schumacher slipped to 12th. 
Coulthard, Montoya and Nick Heidfeld (Sauber) were the next to stop, on lap 17, followed by Alonso on lap 18, Räikkönen and Heinz-Harold Frentzen (Sauber) on lap 19, and Michael Schumacher and Trulli on lap 20. Only Frentzen gambled correctly on wets.

Jensen Button (BAR) and Justin Wilson (Jaguar), running second and third behind an elevated Mark Webber (Jaguar), pitted for wets on lap 21, just as Michael and Heidfeld realized their mistakes and swept back into the pits as the heavens were opening.

Webber’s moment of glory on lap 21 did not last long after he crashed out. That left Coulthard and Räikkönen in a McLaren 1-2 on lap 22, but DC was still on dry Michelins and was soon hopelessly outpaced. Räikkönen pitted for wets, together with Montoya, Alonso and Trulli. Then Ralf Schumacher, running second, spun and bent his car’s rear suspension.

All of this left Button leading a Grand Prix for the first time in his career (and BAR’s) and looking pretty comfortable while doing it. Initially Frentzen hounded him, but Jensen soon dropped the Sauber. Both, however, were being caught by Michael, who was revelling in conditions which suited his wet Bridgestones perfectly. The tide of the Championship, almost literally, had turned.

2003 USGP - Schumacher was virtually unstoppable in the wet conditions. 
The German got another bonus when Montoya carried out a drive-through penalty. He had received it on lap 21 after colliding with Barrichello in Turn Two on lap 3. Most observers felt that was a bit harsh, especially since Barrichello did not attach much blame to the Columbian but regarded it as a racing incident.

Out front Button looked hugely confident, but this was David trying to fend off a very aggressive Goliath. after quickly disposing of Frentzen on lap 33, Schumacher was right with the BAR-Honda passing the pits on lap 37, and going into Turn One on lap 38 the red car went ahead. Button nevertheless kept a respectable distance to the Ferrari until his engine blew on lap 42. It was a tough break, just when Button's first podium finish seemed finally within his grasp.

Now Frentzen was second, and for the first time a Sauber led a Grand Prix as Schumacher pitted for fuel again on lap 48. When Frentzen did likewise a lap later Heidfeld moved to second, but the critical point now was that while the Ferrari led and the Saubers were second and third, Räikkönen in fourth place, was out of the title hunt. The track was drying, however, and gradually Räikkönen was able to start lapping at similar speed to Schumacher and moved ahead of the Swiss cars to take second place. It was the best he could do in the circumstances.

As far as the front end of the Grand Prix was concerned Schumacher was home and dry. Räikkönen was equally secure in second, Frentzen in third after an impressive drive, but Heidfeld could not hold off Trulli in the closing stages and succumbed on lap 43.

Further back, Montoya's desperate pursuit of Giancarlo Fisichella (Jordan) for sixth place finally reaped rewards. The Italian had again driven one of his unobtrusive but productive races, and would probably have stayed sixth but for problems during both his pitstops. On the first, on lap 21, the right front wheel stuck on; on the second, on lap 44, the fuel rig malfunctioned and tricked the team inot giving him twice the load he needed after there was initial doubt that the first load had gone aboard. The Columbian needed another place to stay in the game, however, and Heidfeld was far too far ahead.

Schumacher demoralised his rivals with a relentlessly stunning pace.
Coulthard's day ended on lap 46 with gearbox trouble. To add insult to that, afterwards Schumacher was critical of the Scot's defence of seventh place as they battled for position on lap 25. That, and an allegation from Panis that he had passed him on the pit-straight for third place on lap 5 under waved yellow flags for the Barrichello/Montoya incident, were the only things to mar Schumacher's day. Evidence, however, proved that the German was just ahead before the flags.  

"This was a great and important win." Schumacher said. "It means a lot at this crucial stage in the championship, but the tifosi have carried us to this position."

The victory was the most dominant win of Michael Schumacher's career up to that point. Not in terms of the winning margin he recorded - he had won races by more than 18 seconds in the past - but he utterly demoralised his opposition at Indianapolis in a fashion that is rarely seen in any sport.

The race came to him in the damp middle section, when the superiority of his intermediate Bridgestones allowed him to overtake the Michelin runners at will. But what made this win so special was the patience he showed prior to the rain. Under extreme pressure, he showed none of the impetuousness of Adelaide 1994 or Jerez 1997 (both title deciders, he caused an accident on both occasions) and instead waited for the race to come to him - even allowing title rivals Montoya and Räikkönen to overtake early on.

Schumacher was now poised to break Fangio's amazing record.

Michael went into the final race of the year, at Suzuka, almost certain to clinch a record sixth world title, which would surpass teh legendary Juan-Manuel Fangio's tally of five and leave him undisputed as the most successful driver in Formula One history. Formula One's commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone said after Indianapolis, "I'll give you 5-2 that Michael will take the title."

Of course Schumacher, as always, delivered.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

2008 Italian Grand Prix - Monza

September 14, 2008

The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza is one of those special places at which Formula 1 cars race. It is said by some that Formula One is a religion in Italy. If that is accurate, then Monza is it's cathedral, the Prancing Horse it's cross, and the tifosi are it's disciples.

The 1988 season however, left them little to worship. The McLaren-Hondas in the hands of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were all but untouchable. They had won all the Grands Prix thus far that season, and there was little hope that the tifosi could wish for more than third place for their beloved Scuderia at the Italian Grand Prix. Their one shining star was Gerhard Berger. The young Austrian proved to be the main challenger, how ever hopeless it seemed, to the McLarens throughout the season and at Monza he had the added motivation that the team's venerable Commendatore, and founder, Enzo Ferrari passed away less than one month before. A victory in Italy would be a fitting tribute.

1988 Italian GP - Berger conquers the almighty McLarens. 
Fate did not go McLaren's way that day. This was Monza after all. Prost was out just after half distance with a blown engine. Senna was well in front, but the Honda mechanics had to re-map his engine to ensure that it did not go up in smoke like the Frenchman's. With Senna running more conservatively Berger came back into the picture. Knowing that the Ferraris were catching him Senna came up to lap Jean-Louis Schlesser (Williams), sitting in for Nigel Mansell who was out sick, he didn't have time to waste getting past. Schlesser locked-up his tyres on the entry to the Rettifilo chicane. Senna, seeing the Williams wide to the right, well off line, went for the overtake. Schlesser made the first corner though and was on the apex of the second when Senna arrived at the same point. The two touched and Senna spun across the next kerb and was beached with rear wheels in the air. The two scarlet cars of Berger and Alboreto blasted past now first and second leaving the tifosi ecstatic for the last few laps until Berger took the chequered flag for a remarkable victory.

On that day, in Heppenheim, Germany, Sebastian Vettel was one year, two months and 8 days old.

Fast forward in time twenty years, and three days to the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. Gerhard Berger had become the co-owner of Scuderia Toro Rosso, and Vettel, now  a protégé of the Red Bull Junior Team is his driver. The team (previously Minardi) was formed for the 2006 season to act as a junior/sister squad to the premiere outfit Red Bull Racing. Vettel, the youngest driver to ever take part in a Grand Prix weekend and the youngest to score a World Championship point, joined the team during the latter half of the 2007 season replacing the American Scott Speed. Prior to him joining Toro Rosso the team's best result was an eighth place finish.  In his sixth race for the team Vettel scored a remarkable fourth place finish in China. His talent and potential was plain for all to see, but he was driving a Toro Rosso after all and so it was felt that his true form would only be seen once Ron Dennis (McLaren) or Luca di Montezemolo (Ferrari) came calling. As it turned out, the Toro Rosso was all Vettel would need to fully display his innate ability.

At Monza the young German stunned everyone by capturing the pole position on Saturday in very wet conditions, becoming the youngest driver in Formula One history ever to do so. He was joined on the front row of the grid by Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren) with Mark Webber (Red Bull) in third. An impressive performance for sure from Vettel, but few backed him to maintain this position for very long in the race. Most felt that both Kovalainen and Webber would overwhelm him early and battle for the win. Vettel was expected to score points or perhaps a podium at best .. he was racing in a Toro Rosso after all.

2008 Italian GP - Vettel shows true pace to capture the pole position.
On Sunday heavy rain prior to the race made the track very slippery, with more rain expected throughout the day. It was not too surprising then that all chose to start the race on the extreme wet weather tyres or that the race would begin behind the safety car. After the second lap the safety car pulled off into the pit lane whereupon Vettel got away perfectly. This, of course, was absolutely crucial. With the rain coming down as it was only the leader could properly see where he was going with any confidence. Sebastian made the most of this advantage, and in the early laps the Toro Rosso was as much as 20kph faster than any other on Monza's long straights. By lap 18, when he made his first stop, he had built up a lead of twelve seconds over Kovalainen.

By now the worst of the rain had passed, but still there was no question of switching from "full wet" tyres to intermediates. Vettel temporarily dropped to fourth place, but as Kovalainen, Mark Webber (Red Bull) and Felipe Massa (Ferrari) came in for their stops, he retook the lead, and thereafter never lost it.

By the time of Vettel's second stop, on lap 36, conditions had improved to the point that now intermediates were the thing to have, and this worked much to the interests of the drivers who started the race with a heavy load of fuel on board and planned only on a single stop.

Vettel easily held the lead and never came under the remotest threat. 
With virtually everyone on intermediates, Vettel's performance came into perspective. By lap 38, seventh placed Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) began lapping fastest recording a 1:32.869, more than a second faster than the leader Vettel. Hamilton's team-mate, Kovalainen, however could make no impression on the German.

Asked about the closing laps afterwards, Vettel said, "Sometimes I was thinking 'there is still P1 on my board, how can it be? I am fuelled to finish, there is nothing, no pit stops, so just keep it together.' Then I have to say I was extremely focussed every lap. I didn't lift and try to save the engine or the tyres or anything. Of course I was looking after my car. I was trying to keep attention because especially towards the end when there was kind of a dry line throughout some corners it was crucial to stay on that dry line. Just half a metre too wide and you can be off..."

He did keep it together and was dutifully able to maintain the twelve second gap to the chequered flag becoming the youngest Grand Prix winner in Formula One history. This astounding victory also marked the first win by Scuderia Toro Rosso, who were in the process the first non-Ferrari Italian-based team to win since 1957.

How on earth did this kid and this tiny team pull off such a remarkable victory? There had to be a catch somewhere, didn't there? During the race Vettel set only the fourteenth fastest lap. The only retirement of the race was Giancarlo Fisichella (Force India), so all the top teams and drivers made it to the end. The drivers of the primary Red Bull outfit, Webber and David Coulthard could only manage eighth and sixteenth respectively. This was not luck, nor a fluke. Vettel and Toro Rosso undeniably deserved this victory fair and square. Perfect strategy, excellent decision making, measured aggression and flawless driving in extremely difficult conditions is how the minnow ate the shark(s) that day. And it was beautiful to see.

Those who sold Vettel short before the race witnessed first-hand what this young talent was truly capable of ... even with inferior machinery.

"Obviously I had a bit of an advantage in the beginning when I was probably the only one with trouble-free vision." He said after the race. "But it was never easy. I knew that I would stop earlier than the others. I didn't know how much earlier, so I was pushing very hard . Sometimes I nearly lost the car - I was always trying to drive on the edge."

Remarkable victory - Vettel becomes the youngest GP winner in history.
And while the maturity of his drive was impressive, his celebration over the radio and on the podium clearly displayed the enthusiasm that is the hallmark of youth. This, mixed with the magical atmosphere that is Monza made for something truly special. The uninhibited joy on the face of a winner, and a lovely thing too, to see Berger, who won at Monza twenty years earlier, back on that very same podium, now in the role as a team owner and cheered to the rafters by the tifosi, who do not forget.

Berger had no doubts about the ability of his young star. "His intelligence and the way he works is great," he said. "I have to say I really underestimated the potential of this boy."

Boy indeed, But at twenty-one years, two months and eleven days old, and with just 22 Grand Prix starts to his name, there was very little that could be described as immature about Sebastian Vettel. The fact he won the Italian Grand Prix at all was startling enough, but the manner in which he took this victory was even more remarkable. He won from the front, on merit, beating all of the established aces with a measured, calm performance reminiscent of the great drivers of the past. One had to remind themselves that this was all new to him.

"... it feels just great. The last lap, the lap after the chequered flag, the whole podium ceremony, it was all great."

Giant Killers: Berger and Vettel share a moment on the podium.
It was new as well to the little team from Faenza, Italy ... and the young German realized this to. "I have seen every possible angle of the grid now and it is difficult when you always start from the back and you have to fight your way. You might finish a race in P15 without anyone noticing, but you still might have done a very good job, so you can still be happy and you can walk out of the paddock and be proud of yourself and the team. Now we can be proud of ourselves, celebrating a victory. It is great. To say these words together it sounds unbelievable. From where we started last year the team, the mentality has changed so much. The atmosphere is fantastic. Everybody is extremely motivated. When I jumped in the car before the race everybody said 'ok, now destroy them or push like hell.' All the guys were joking and were happy and looking forward. In that sense you could say we had the balls to do it today. Compared to BMW, or McLaren-Mercedes, or Ferrari we haven't got the amount of manpower at home in the factory .... we have about 160 people working in Faenza and everyone today feels very special and can feel very special. I am one of them."

It was an extremely exceptional performance. One that even their rivals were happy to acknowledge. "I'm delighted for him," said Ron Dennis. "Whatever the circumstances, and they weren't easy in practice or the race, he got the job done. It's easy to create reasons why, but at the end of the day he did a fantastic job, and he deserved to win. I'm pleased for him and Gerhard."

Great drivers are evident no matter what car they drive. And while Italy 2008 was the minnow's day of days, it was clear that Vettel's talent and his ability to galvanize the team around him was the crucial factor in achieving victory.

Monday, 2 April 2012

1986 Mexican Grand Prix - Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez

October 12, 1986

There is an outward effervesence about Gerhard Berger which sometimes disguises the sheer steel and determination which suffuses his character. By any standards Berger's ascent to the upper reaches of the F1 community  was meteoric. He first sprang to prominence in the European Alfasud championship, finishing seventh at his first attempt, then breezed quickly through Formula Ford  and Formula Ford 2000 before making his mark in the hotly contested 1983 European Formula 3 championship. Although he did not win any of the individual races, he managed a couple of second places to finish joint seventh in the final points table, equal with Martin Brundle.

He then distinguished himself with some energetic drives in the European Touring Car championship at the wheel of a BMW 635. These performances attracted the attention of ATS F1 team boss Gunther Schmid, who duly invited him to Zandvoort for a test session. Berger attacked the task with an over-enthusiasm and confidence which, in retrospect, made even him shudder slightly years later. But he certainly made and a favourable impression and was invited to drive for the team at the wheel of a second car in two world championship rounds.

1984 Italian GP - Berger scores an impressive sixth place in the ATS D6.
On home ground in Austria Berger failed to finish, but at Monza a few weeks  later he stormed home sixth in the Italian Grand Prix. Sadly, as he had not originally been entered in the championship as a regular contestant he was not awarded the point normally given to a sixth place finisher.

Barely 25 years old, Berger's racing horizons seemed to be widening dramatically, but his racing career very nearly ended that winter in a serious road accident near his home at Worgl, not far from Innsbruck. He fractured a vertebra in his neck and spent most of the off-season recuperating. He recovered in time to join Thierry Boutsen in the Arrows-BMW line-up, however, highlighting his 1985 season with a fifth place in South Africa and sixth in Australia.

For 1986 he switched to the emergent Benetton-BMW team (formerly Toleman). The team was owned by clothing magnate Luciano Benetton and now with Benetton money and BMW power the team was well placed to demonstrate far more potential to challenge the top outfits of the day. It was with the B186 that Berger really began to mature, displaying considerable flair and expertise. He scored a brilliant third place in San Marino and then led his home grand prix commandingly at the Österreichring, only to be thwarted by battery problems. Unfortunately reliability seemed to be the Achilles heel of the B186 that season. 

1986 Season - Berger makes his mark
Round 15 in Mexico was to be the penultimate grand prix of the season, and excitement was high.  Not only was this the first Mexican grand prix since 1970, the championship battle was approaching it's climax. Nigel Mansell (Williams) was leading the driver's standings by 10 points over his team-mate Nelson Piquet (Williams), with Alain Prost (McLaren) and Ayrton Senna (Lotus) also in the hunt. The Englishman could clinch the title if he were to win or finish ahead of both Piquet and Prost. Considering the fact that Mansell was suffering from Montezuna's Revenge at the time, this seemed like a tall order.

With all of the Benetton's reliability woes Berger was not in the fight for the championship, but in Mexico he was ready to steal the limelight from the contenders. This race was all about tyre management, as the searing heat on race day morning revealed heavy tyre wear during the warm-up. Especially so, for the Goodyear runners. Berger, and Benetton however, were running on Pirelli tyres.

The four title contenders all qualified at the sharp end of the grid. Piquet won the pole position, with Senna joining him on the front row. Next was Mansell and Berger, then Riccardo Patrese (Brabham) and Prost. At the start Senna led off the line from Piquet and Berger. Mansell's Williams however remained motionless. It appeared almost as if his car was not in gear when the lights went gear. The Englishman fumbled in the cockpit and finally managed to find a gear, but by that time the bulk of the grid had swarmed past him and he found himself down in nineteenth position.

Senna and Piquet staged a thrilling duel into the first esses complex. With Senna on the inside line and Piquet outside the two braked as late as possible, but Piquet used the strength of his Honda engine to keep enough of the outside line to give him the advantage for the following left bend and the elder Brazilian assumed the lead. Berger in third, was being pressured by Prost and Stefan Johannson (Ferrrari). He was, however, able to open a gap to Prost and Johannson during the first few laps and as he began closing on the leaders Senna mounted a counter attack on Piquet.

The pace of the first laps was torrid. Piquet and Senna battling for the lead. Prost closed on Berger and used the power of his TAG Porsche engine to pass the young Austrian on the start-finish straight, and Mansell, charging now, was up to eleventh. But all this was taking it's toll on he Goodyear runners.

Mansell had to pit on lap 13 with heavily blistered tyres and by lap 22 the order became static at the front .... Piquet, Senna, Prost and Berger. Each could not close on the car in front for fear of losing grip in the corners and prematurely wear their tyres out.

Prost was the first of the leaders to pit for new tyres on lap 31, and a lap later, Piquet was in. Senna, now free of Piquet began building a gap to Berger, but there were clear signs of blistering on the left rear tyre of the Lotus. Despite this Senna put in some blindingly fast laps before pitting for tyres on lap 36, and he was able to rejoin in second position. The order now was Berger, Senna, Piquet and Prost. Mansell at this point had clawed his way up to eighth.

1986 Mexican GP - Pace and composure allowed Berger to control the race from the front.
On new tyres now, Senna set a series of fastest laps, but Berger was able to maintain a decent pace, relative to the charging Brazilian and in this way he could control the race from the front. It slowly became clear that Berger could manage the Pirellis far better than his rivals on their Goodyears and it was perhaps possible that he would try to run the race without stopping.

This strategy had its pitfalls, of course. If Berger misjudged his pace, or was pressured into going faster than the Pirellis' could manage then a pitstop late in the race would spell disaster, dropping him down the order with little time to recover. But Gerhard was doing a magnificent job. By lap 44 he had a 25 second lead and was stretching his advantage. Piquet had to pit again for tyres and Senna's pace was dropping now due to tyre degradation. The Brazilian pitted six laps later and Berger's lead grew to 35 seconds over new second place man Prost. But the Frenchman ad well had to soon pit again for tyres.

1986 Mexican GP - Berger rewards Benetton with their first Grand Prix victory.
That is really how the race played out. Berger majestically driving on in a flawless effort, while his rivals could not seem to find any solution to their tyre degradation woes. At the flag it was Berger, 27 seconds, from Prost, Senna, Piquet and Mansell. 

It was an incredibly mature and disciplined drive, and while it is clear that the Pirellis offered Berger a decisive advantage it was the Austrian who managed those tyres and fully maximized that advantage. The Benettons were not the only Pirelli runners in the field, and at the finish, the nearest rival on similar rubber was Philippe Alliot (Ligier) in sixth, a lap down.

Even before his victory in Mexico, Berger's signature was already dry on a Ferrari contract to drive for the Scuderia, alongside Michele Alboreto, in 1987. This clearly illustrated how superbly Gerhard had driven in 1986. In fact, he scored all but two of the Benetton team's points that season, an accomplishment made all the more impressive when you consider that he had less than two years of Formula One experience.

An excellent driver and a terrific personality, it was always wonderful to see Gerhard Berger win. He was the kind of driver that you could not help but cheer for. For me he was one of Grand Prix racing's most interesting and likeable characters.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

1986 Hungarian Grand Prix - Hungaroring

August 10, 1986

With ten of the sixteen races done, the 1986 World Championship battle was about to go into its decisive phase in Hungary. Nigel Mansell (Williams) was leading the championship with 51 points. Hot on his heels were Alain Prost (McLaren) with 44, looking to defend his title, Ayrton Senna (Lotus) with 42 and Nelson Piquet (Williams), who was back with the leaders after his victory at Hockenheim, which brought him up to 38 points.

In the first qualifying session, Mansell immediately showed his confidence by driving the fastest lap by far. With a time of 1:30.516, the Briton was nearly a second faster than his teammate Piquet, while qualifying ace Ayrton Senna, who had scored five pole positions in the first ten races of the season, clocked a time 1.7 seconds slower than Mansell. Gerhard Berger (Benetton) set the fourth fastest time in the first session, helped by his Pirelli tyres.

Piquet - Back in the fight for the title.
On Saturday, Senna had sorted out how the track worked, scraping a massive 2.8 seconds off his Friday time to claim pole in 1:29.450. Prost also found his rhythm, improving by over 3 seconds to claim third. Between the two wasn’t Mansell, but Piquet. The Brazilian put his Williams next to Senna with a 1:29.785. Where most drivers found at least one and a half seconds on Saturday, Mansell improved only by half a second, moving him from provisional pole to fourth.

Senna - On pole for the sixth time.
In the race, it was clear, right from the start that this was to be a two man show. The two Brazilians on the front row pulled away, and were only seen again when they showed up in the rear-view mirrors of the drivers they lapped. From the start, even Piquet had trouble keeping up with Senna. The Lotus driver took off with an amazing 1:35 opening lap. Senna managed to create a small gap of about three seconds during the opening laps of the race, but Piquet counter attacked, and after eight laps he was right back under Senna’s gearbox.

For the next four laps, Piquet tried several times to outbrake Senna, but the tight circuit made such a manoeuvre extremely difficult. However, through sheer persistence the Williams driver finally squeezed through on lap twelve, and immediately began striking a gap. While Mansell, Prost and Rosberg didn’t drive badly, the record crowd of 200,000 was in awe with the display the two Brazilians were showing them. In three laps, Piquet increased his lead to five seconds.

Piquet chased Senna down and took the lead before the pitstops.
Then, on lap 18, Senna made a rare mistake, dropping no less than three seconds in one lap. Immediately following this error, the Lotus driver recovered magnificently, driving all out for several laps. He set a blistering pace, while Piquet was suffering from excessive tyre wear. By lap 25 Senna had brought the gap from eight back to three seconds, only to fall back to seven seconds again when Piquet pulled out another fast lap, with his tyres seemingly coming back to him.

After 35 laps, Piquet came in for his pitstop. At that time, his advantage was only five seconds, and so Ayrton Senna easily took over the lead. The young Brazilian then went full throttle until his own pitstop in order to build the maximum benefit from the laps between Piquet’s pitstop and his own. Senna’s plan succeeded perfectly and when his pitstop was completed on lap 42, he came out in the lead with seven seconds advantage. What followed was a frantic battle between the two countrymen on fresh rubber posting nearly identical laptimes for nearly ten consecutive laps.

Senna drove magnificently during the pitstop phase to retake the lead.
By then it became clear that Senna’s car wasn’t 100%. In a period of five laps, Piquet was able to close the gap Senna and began calmly stalking his younger countryman. As lap 53 began, with the Lotus and Williams passing the start-finish line nose to tail, with Piquet perfectly placed in Senna's slipstream. The young Brazilian, despite being in only his third full season of Grand Prix racing, instantly recognized what the wily Piquet was planning and deftly positioned his Lotus in the centre of the racing line to protect his position as best he could. As Piquet went for the inside line, Senna left him room but closed the gap enough to make Piquet's passing attempt as difficult as possible. They both went deep into the braking zone, leaving it all until the last possible second. Piquet reached the corner first, but the inside line that Piquet was on, that Senna pinned him to, was the dirty portion of the track and as Piquet got on the brakes his car immediately began slithering on the edge of adhesion. He could not make the apex of the corner, sliding wide, and this left the door open for Senna to retake the lead. It was riveting stuff from two brilliant racing drivers.

Piquet immediately slotted himself behind Senna once more and calmly took up the chase. In two laps Piquet was again under Senna's gearbox as they went across the start-finish line. The Honda power in the Williams ensured that Piquet quickly reeled in Senna's Lotus. Senna once again expected Piquet to dive for the inside and as before positioned his car in the centre of the racing line. Just as he did so, Piquet dove instead for the outside line. It was a bold move and Senna immediately realized the ruse and attempted to close the gap to the outside line in order to keep Piquet there through the turn. Piquet's bravery and determination, however, was not to be denied and with his wheels millimetres from the grass he went past the Lotus. Again the two daredevils left the braking until the last possible moment, Lotus on the inside, Williams on the outside. Again Piquet teetered on the edge of control, the back end of his car stepping out as he entered the corner, but this time he kept it together, made the apex and left no room for Senna to counter attack. It was an amazing display of car control and a stupefying pass that can surely be considered one of the best ever. In short, it was a work of art. 

Piquet goes around the outside of Senna into Turn 1.
With the job done, Piquet opened a small lead of about four seconds and looked free and clear at last. However, Senna responded yet again and what followed was a stunning race to the flag as the Williams and Lotus raced through the Hungarian hills faster and faster. There was little traffic left, as the number of cars had been reduced to just ten during the race. Each time one of the two leading Brazilians would improve their fastest lap, the other would respond right away with one of their own.

Ten laps from the end, Senna finally got his break as Piquet ran into backmarkers. The Williams driver posted a 1:35 and a 1:36, while Senna was running 1:34s at the time, allowing the Lotus driver to catch up for a grand finale. For the next seven laps there was rarely more than a foot between the two, but Piquet didn’t give Senna a chance to pass. On lap 73 Piquet set the fastest lap of the race with a ripping 1:31.001, two tenths faster than Senna during the previous lap and 1.6 seconds faster than the third fastest driver, Keke Rosberg (McLaren).

On lap 74 the great battle all of a sudden ended in an enormous anti-climax. When Piquet blasted past start-finish, the crowd waited and waited for Senna to show. The black Lotus finally showed, eight seconds behind Piquet’s Williams. As they came around again, Piquet’s victory was clear. The Williams driver had stopped pushing as Senna dropped yet another four seconds. The final lap saw Senna even registering a 1:40 lap as he crawled across the line to claim second. Piquet’s teammate and bitter rival Mansell came third, a lap and 40 seconds behind.

A thrilling display by both, but the wily veteran wins the day.
This was the first of many tough battles between two arch rivals. The rivalry between Piquet and Senna was not a subtle matter. This was Sao Paulo vs Rio de Janeiro, the old fox vs the young gun. Piquet was burning with desire to show the new kid he was still the master, but at the same time he knew that Senna was going to capture his throne as most popular Brazilian driver. This rivalry showed in every inch of the first Hungarian Grand Prix. 

Ayrton Senna, along with Alain Prost, indeed overshadowed their rivals in the Eighties to a great extent. The only man who ever really came close was Piquet, who won three World Championships and 23 Grands Prix. He was a driver full of guile and cunning with a talent that surely places him among the very greatest drivers ever in Formula One. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

1999 French Grand Prix - Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours

June 27, 1999

As Heinz-Harold Frentzen limped painfully around the paddock at Magny-Cours, he did not look like a man about to win a Grand Prix. The bones in his knee that he broke in a crash at the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks earlier were still far from healed, but if his leg was sore, he said, it did not affect him in the car. With a broken knee, the race cannot have been easy, but Frentzen was more than a match for anything the French Grand Prix threw at him.

On the surface the race seemed quite unremarkable. They raced in torrential rain for most of the afternoon Rubens Barrichello (Stewart) in front for the bulk of it; Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) against his brother Ralf (Williams); Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) against everyone; Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) through the field - but ultimately the race came down to the relatively mundane question of fuel strategy.

Not that Frentzen felt it to be mundane. When you consider that he made it through on one stop, running heavier fuel loads than the two-stop opposition at virtually every stage of the race, yet still maintaining their pace, you cannot help but feel that there was more to this race than simple mathematics. Frentzen was helped in his cause by two factors: one, it was wet for all but the opening phase, which slowed the race down and made everything less physical; and, two, the race was neutralized for a while by the Safety Car. That gave him a breather and helped the fuel consumption. More than strategy, therefore, it came down to design. The Jordan Mugen-Honda 199 was built as a car that could run one-stop to the finish. The Stewart-Ford was not. The Stewart was designed with a smaller, two-stop, fuel tank. In the conditions that prevailed in Magny-Cours, that is what beat them.

1999 French GP - Frentzen drove brilliantly on a one-stop strategy.
Designer Gary Anderson is the common thread here. He was involved in the early concept of the 1999 Jordan - and then switched to Stewart, where he took over the Alan Jenkins/Egbhal Hamedy design. By then, it was probably too late for him to design a bigger tank, even if he had wanted to. He would have known, though as the race drew towards two hours, that Jordan had them beaten. All Heinz-Harold Frentzen had to do was not make a mistake.

It wasn't easy. Frentzen did a great job in qualifying, missing the vital, opening minutes but still going out early enough to secure a position near the front. Frentzen drives well in the wet, searching out the grip and using unconventional lines, but he was very prone to locking a wheel here and brushing a kerb there.

That Sunday, though, he kept it all together and Jordan quickly adjusted to a one-stop strategy. Frentzen's race was thereafter comparatively trouble-free.

He didn't, for instance, have a problem with his radio, like Michael Schumacher. Nor did he have a problem with wet or dry settings - again as Michael did. The Ferrari was all over the place in the opening, dry laps of the race. Hakkinen was charging, and so was Irvine, who'd been in neutral for the start, but Michael was ... just there ... tagging along but not making any impression.

Barrichello - on pole, but needed one pitstop too many in the race.
He didn't have a complete electrical failure, like David Coulthard (McLaren), who drove brilliantly past Barrichello into the lead and looked as though he was going to win, pulling away. Schumacher's electrical problem, meanwhile, lost him eight seconds on one lap. He was even forced to swap steering wheels in his pit stop. The problem seemed to have improved, but not enough to prevent brother Ralf muscling past in the closing stages.

Frentzen didn't spin, like Mika Hakkinen, who executed a quick 360 as he left the Adelaide hairpin. Jean Alesi spun out of a points finish just before the Safety Car emerged and Jacques Villeneuve (BAR), Alexander Wurz (Benetton), and Alex Zanardi (Williams) all spun while they were trailing the Safety Car.

Nor did Heinz have a chaotic pitstop, like Eddie Irvine. The Ferrari mechanics were not ready for him and bolted dry tyres on instead of wets. Frentzen's pitstop was surely longer that he anticipated it would be ... but that was only because Mike Gascoyne, Jordan's Technical Director, had switched to the one-stop strategy.

He didn't collect a slower car in the pitlane, as Damon Hill (Jordan) did. The impact punctured a rear tyre and Damon lost an age - and then the electrics limping back to the pits.

And he didn't have to make that second pitstop, as Barrichello did - as they all did. Rubens qualified brilliantly on the pole, taking to the track while everyone was asleep, and his defence of the lead, under pressure from the McLarens, was sensational. Ralf was a great fourth, racing Michael hard, and the Ferraris were fifth and sixth.

Frentzen kept the pace and was error free in tough conditions.
In many ways, then, it was that simple. Except, again, that it wasn't, for here was a guy who'd had a huge accident two weeks before, when the right front brake of his Jordan had exploded at something like 190 kph. He'd hit the wall hard in Montreal, at well over 7g, and his legs in the cockpit had banged heavily against one another. But it was mind over matter in France. You just needed to watch Frentzen through Grande Courbe, the fast sweep at the end of the Magny-Cours pit straight, to see each lap mesmerizing evidence of a confidence level miles higher than the storm clouds that were soaking the track.

The entry to the corner, fifth gear and 275 kph in the dry, maybe 210 kph in the wet, is framed by a wall to the right, parallel to the straight. Every driver, even Michael Schumacher, gave the wall a few inches of respect as they turned in. Apart from Heinz-Harold that is. Each lap he would make you wince as he ran the Jordan into a gap measurable only by laboratory equipment, the better to squeeze just a little more track space, a fraction more speed from the car. But it looked natural, flowing, as though we wasn't even placing it there by sight or reference, but by feel or something even more ephemeral. It made the others appear to be painting by numbers.

Frentzen delivers, to the joy of the Jordan team
Those millimetres shaved didn't necessarily win him the French Grand Prix but they gave an insight into a couple of things. The wholly different state of mind of Frentzen the Jordan driver to that of the haunted, put-down Williams man; and the God-given caressing way he has with a car that was just not apparent before. No question, Frentzen was at home with the Jordan team. 

Maybe it's simply the difference between a team that was looking to get a foothold on the first rung of success and one which had only seen the view from the top for two decades. One was trying to cosset and tease a performance, the other expected it as a given.

It all meant that tensed up within that Williams cockpit for two seasons was a talent most people just never got to see. Many began to think the ability which had so impressed Frank Williams just wasn't there. Because once he'd climbed out of the Sauber and into the Williams , a car which Jacques Villeneuve was taking to the world title, Frentzen looked ragged. Unconvincing. Not only was the form not there, but the style suggested it was never going to be.

Frentzen and Jordan, a combination of confidence and talent.
A marvellous thing, confidence. And a team, like Jordan, that knew how to engender it. Frentzen flourished at Jordan, where he rewarded the team's faith in him with a string of fast and flawless drives. In addition to his victory in France, he also won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The consistency that so eluded him at Williams now underpinned his bid to pull off one of the biggest title upsets in F1 history. Had the Jordan not failed while he was leading the European Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring, he would have entered the final two races as joint leader in the championship.

A talent fully unleashed is a special thing to witness, and when it happens to a genuinely nice person like Heinz-Harold Frentzen it is even more enjoyable.

France 1999 is where Frentzen rose from the ashes.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

1989 Hungarian Grand Prix - Hungaroring

August 13, 1989

Many doubted the wisdom of Nigel Mansell's move to Ferrari, for the 1989 season, particularly over his ability to handle the unforgiving Italian press and the tortuous internal politics of Maranello. But Mansall emerged as a calmer, more relaxed driver and fitted into Ferrari instantly and effortlessly. He couldn't have made a better start, of course. His victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix was a dream debut for Mansell and John Barnard's new chisel-nosed car which had proved so unreliable during testing and practice. After that win he was dubbed "Il Leone" by the Italian fans, the tifosi.

During the first half of the season the Ferrari was rarely reliable enough to reward Mansell's efforts but he produced a typically gritty drive at Silverstone, keeping the pressure on Alain Prost (McLaren) all the way despite the McLaren's technical superiority. And then came his drive in Hungary.

This memorable race had produced a shock even before it started. Riccardo Patrese (Williams), whose only two previous pole positions dated back to 1981 and 1983, produced an astonishing lap on Friday which would stand even on Saturday. Ayrton Senna (Mclaren) qualified second, but the most impressive qualifying performance, was a popular third place for Alex Caffi (Dallara). Mansell found that the softer Goodyear qualifying tyres were difficult to use correctly, and twelfth on the grid was the best he could manage. However, there was an indication of what would follow in the Sunday morning warm-up, when he topped the list.

1989 Hungarian GP - Mansell would battle from 12th on the grid.
The prospect of a duel to decide who would be in front at the first corner, between Senna and Patrese, was something to look forward to. Senna, who had battled here in 1988 for the rights of the person in pole position to choose which side of the grid to start from, found himself on the dirtier inside line in 1989. But although he almost managed to squeeze inside Patrese at the right-handed first corner, the Williams was narrowly ahead and Senna was almost squeezed over the kerbing.

At the end of the lap, Caffi was third, followed by Gerhard Berger (Ferrari), Prost, Thierry Boutsen (Benetton), and Alessandro Nannini (Benetton) before Mansell appeared.

Starting the fourth lap, Berger managed to pass Caffi at the first corner, smoothly moving up to third place. Four laps later Prost also managed to use his Honda power to get ahead of the Dallara, but he would be the last man to pass the well-driven Dallara for fifteen laps, when Mansell at last burst through. But he was 17 seconds behind Prost and it looked impossible to make up the difference although Mansell, of course, had other ideas.  He carved as much as a second a lap out of the Frenchman's advantage, and when Berger stopped for tyres on lap 29, Mansell moved into fourth place, 5.9 seconds behind Prost.

1989 Hungarian GP - Patrese shows that he still has mettle.
For the first part of the race it was impossible to judge the status of the drivers, since most of them were expected to make pit stops for tyres. However, cooler weather than in qualifying, coupled with some gamesmanship by the teams, allowed most of the leading contenders to run non-stop.

At half distance Patrese was defending the lead so firmly that even Senna, tracking his every move, seemed unlikely to pass. However, the Brazilian cannot have felt comfortable, for behind him now was Mansell, who had passed Prost and moved into third place.

Sadly, this promising four-way battle for the lead was brief, lasting until Patrese retired on lap 53 with a steaming engine. It was a stone through the radiator of his Williams-Renault that eliminated the Italian when he was admirably maintaining a narrow advantage. The battle between Senna, now leading, and Mansell was extraordinary given that the McLaren-Honda's power allowed it to pull away noticeably even on the short straights. In braking, and in most corners, the more aerodynamic Ferrari made up all the difference, and on lap times there was virtually nothing between their performances.

1989 Hungarian GP - Mansell doggedly pressures Senna.
The deciding moment of the race came halfway round lap 58. Mansell had been tracking Senna's McLaren within less than a second, and all he needed was a mistake by the Brazilian to let him grab the lead. Senna did not exactly make a mistake: he had the misfortune to come round a corner and be faced with a slower car, that of Stefan Johansson (Onyx). Johansson, in trouble with gears, was reluctant to move off line, despite moving so slowly, and Senna arrived behind him from the previous corner so fast that he almost caught the Onyx. Mansell appraised the situation almost instantly, braking hard and almost hitting Senna as he opposite-locked to his right.

"Ayrton is obviously more difficult to pass than Alain, but he was a bit too close to the car in front, and had to slow in the middle of the corner," said Mansell. "I was very close as well, and almost hit the back of Ayrton, but I was able to throw the car sideways and just have enough momentum to go past." He added that he was tempted to close his eyes...

Split second - Mansell seizes the opportunity to pass Senna.
The large  contingent of tifosi in the crowd got the message that a Ferrari was in front, and Mansell was greeted with huge cheers. He went on to win majestically, with Senna in second and Boutsen gaining third after a late pitstop by Prost to clean his helmet visor.

Not even Ayrton Senna would disagree that Nigel Mansell deserved to win the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix. Only Riccardo Patrese, who had driven immaculately in the lead, from pole position, for 52 of the 77 laps, could offer a better claim than Mansell's. It was a consistently hard, competitive race this - one of the best of Mansell's career by his own reckoning - that took the relentless Englishman from 12th place on the grid into eighth by the end of the first lap, and past no fewer than six rivals by sheer persistence.

1989 Hungarian GP - Mutual respect from the titans of the day.
Determination was Mansell's outstanding quality: it kept him in motor racing when lesser men would have given up and made him habitually drive flat out when the few drivers who have an infinitesimal extra degree of talent might just ease off. This was Mansell's formula for success, fast and strong ... Il Leone indeed.