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.