British Grand Prix Review

Victory for Schumacher in an action packed British GP.


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What happens when you get the best two drivers in the world in slippery, damp conditions, in the best cars, on the best tyres on a drizzly Silverstone afternoon? You get yet another command performance by Ferrari that sees the peerless Michael Schumacher notch up a record-equalling 15th consecutive points-scoring finish, his 60th career victory, and his 7th this year that takes him to the stage where he can wrap up the championship earlier than anyone else has ever done before.

Having said that, the vagaries of the British weather did perhaps rob us of a true battle for the race win between Schumi and Juan-Pablo Montoya. Ferrari have a habit of leaping right out of the blocks on a race weekend, and Silverstone was no exception, with the red machines dominant in free practice. Williams tends to work their way into the weekend more, and for the fourth race in succession, JPM snatched pole at the death in yet another last-second special qualifying lap.

However, at previous weekends the Colombian's number one grid slot always somehow seemed to be gloriously unindicative of Williams' true pace, especially when compared to the Ferrari. In the same way, there was a sense of inevitability hanging over the result of this race before it began, and eventually the weather made sure of it. But then again, JPM did win the start, and in the first few laps looked like he could hold Schumi off. One wonders if Montoya could have kept it going for a full dry race.

That's more than a bit speculative though, but still worth mentioning before we wax too lyrically about Ferrari's performance. Once the intermittent showers set in, however, the race was Ferrari's to be signed, sealed and delivered. The only question should have been, which Ferrari? Rubens Barrichello, having been freed of team orders now that Schumi's fifth title is almost assured, has recently been living up to his promise that he could indeed match if not beat the great German.

After his fantastic drive at the Nurburgring, at Silverstone it was Rubinho's Ferrari that topped the free practice time sheets, and until Montoya's last lap it looked as though he was going to pip his team-mate for pole by 0.01s. In the end, Schumi's victory margin roughly matched the time Rubens lost by having to start at the back after stalling on the warm-up lap, and by spinning mid-race. If Rubinho had started from 2nd, this race could have been another close-run thing between the Ferraris.

It is doubtful that Barrichello's failure to get off the dummy grid was human error. A software glitch appears more likely, but either way we were treated to yet another Hockenheim 2000-like charge through the field, and there are few better at it than Rubens. His speed over a single lap is undoubted - his qualifying lap and his new lap record in the race were testament to that - but he has racecraft to match, and he is now giving Ferrari every reason to keep him for when Schumi retires.

But as entertaining as it was, the fact remained that Barrichello was fighting his way back from behind, and as such in reality he was not able to challenge his team-mate. As soon as the rain came, Michael was imperious. Though his gap to Montoya initially see-sawed, one got the feeling that the German was more in tune with the conditions. Sure enough, when the rain started falling more heavily, it was JPM who started losing control at every turn, allowing the Ferrari to catch up.

To say that Juan-Pablo was ragged would be a terrific understatement. Perhaps not only ragged, but also a touch desperate, considering some of the blocking moves he pulled on his rival. At this point, Michael showed the maturity worthy of the best driver in the world by using his discretion, holding station and biding his time, knowing that getting past the Colombian's Williams was not a question of 'if' but a question of 'when'. And as soon as the time came to change off the grooved slicks, we had our answer.

Ah yes, the tyre question. The conditions called for intermediates. Bridgestone have very good intermediates. Michelin have such undeveloped inters they were not worth using, and their teams were left with a choice of either useless full wets or even more useless grooved slicks. Game over. Sure Michelin are still relatively new and still gathering data, but in about two years they have come up with an as-yet inconsistent dry tyre, a full wet effective only in a Sepang monsoon, and no useful intermediate to speak of.

No doubt that the Michelin can be a very good tyre in the right conditions, especially when it's hot, but more often than not the French products have tended to underwhelm. Here they were found wanting in an almost humiliating way, as the Ferraris leapt to the front and the Arrows, BARs and Saubers, also on Bridgestones, scythed through the field, whilst the Michelin users (Montoya excepted) were left gripless and helpless. Though there were other strong contenders, Michelin get our 'Reject of the Race' award.

But whilst tyres played the major part, there were other reasons why the Ferraris came into their own in the wet conditions. Their organisational and pit work skills especially came to the fore. Ferrari were the only team to service two cars on the one lap successfully, and without delay for the second car, although admittedly it did help that there was a slightly larger gap between the Ferraris than there was between the Williams, McLarens and Renaults.

Still, when Ralf Schumacher came in right behind JPM to change tyres, the Williams crew didn't have his wets ready for him. When Jenson Button came in behind Jarno Trulli, he had to slow down in the pit lane to give the Italian time to leave first, almost causing a nasty incident when Michael came out of his pit bay only to encounter the unexpectedly slowing Renault. All three of Ralf, Button and Trulli then progressively slipped back on the hopeless Michelins and dropped right out of contention for points.

Reject of the Race: Michelin

REJECT OF THE RACE
The Michelin Man
No intermediates left Michelin runners gripless and helpless

And speaking of organisational stuff-ups, the demise of the usually ultra-professional McLaren challenge in this race was something to behold. First their radio frequencies got jammed, and David Coulthard stayed out on grooved slicks far too long. If anything, it was the wrong McLaren that stayed out. In the last lap or two before most people came in, Kimi Räikkönen in 3rd was eating JPM and Schumi alive. Although it still wouldn't have worked, he would have made more of a fist of staying out than DC.

Eventually DC had to come in, but then, with both silver cars now on full wets, even though the lap times were not fast enough to go back to grooved slicks, the McLaren team pulled them in to change back to dry tyres just as the rain got heavier, forcing them to make yet another stop! Add to that DC's multitude of spins and offs as he looked increasingly disinterested, the problems they had with their fuel rig, and Kimi's eventual engine blow-up, and it was a race McLaren would want to forget in a hurry.

Ralf's Williams also had fuel rig problems, robbing him of a potential minor points finish, but in the wet conditions he had been no match for Montoya. JPM was the only man on Michelins to not be affected too adversely by the inferiority of his tyres, helped by the fact that as he wore out his wets and the track dried, he effectively had makeshift intermediates at his disposal! This put him in a position to be able to catch and dice with Barrichello near the end, but in the still-damp conditions the Ferrari was always going to prevail for 2nd place.

So with the Ferraris dominant, Montoya hanging on for 3rd, and Ralf and the McLarens and the Renaults out of the picture, the minor points were well and truly up for grabs. Not surprisingly, the Bridgestone intermediate users took full advantage. More of a surprise, though, was that the first team to challenge for points was Arrows, a team which days earlier did not even know if it would race at Silverstone, and whose future still hangs in the balance.

Arrows' imminent demise on the eve of the British GP came as a shock. We all knew that Tom Walkinshaw was running the team on a shoestring, on perhaps even less than Minardi, but the Scot had made no noises about their financial difficulties, unlike Paul Stoddart. Maybe this explained why Walkinshaw had been so opposed to Minardi getting Prost's TV money, in the hope that his team could share in the spoils should that money be divided up between all the teams instead of just going to Minardi.

But the previous weeks have meant that people aren't quite sure whether to respond to Arrows' plight with sympathy or a nice big 'serves you right'. Either way, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was flying in the wet conditions, and was on the verge of passing Ralf when his engine blew. I doubt a podium was within reach, but 4th place was. Likewise, Enrique Bernoldi ran in the points before he had driveshaft problems. A points finish would undoubtedly have been the fillip that might have ensured the team's survival.

Arrows may have been quick from time to time this year, but reliability has been their biggest problem. Reliability has rarely been a problem for Sauber though, but their challenge faltered. Felipe Massa was quicker than Nick Heidfeld in the race, but the rookie showed that he had brilliance and madness in equal measures by indulging in several mindless spins, including one inept masterpiece off the start line. An eventual one point for Heidfeld in 6th place was just reward for another solid if unspectacular outing.

If any of the Bridgestone teams might have been expected to take advantage at Silverstone, it should have been Jordan, whose premises are at the track's doorstep. But in yet another horror weekend, Takuma Sato outqualified Giancarlo Fisichella yet again and both of them were mired towards the back of the field during the race, dicing with the Jaguars and Mark Webber's Minardi. Fisi did indeed make it up to 7th by race's end, but never seriously looked like challenging Heidfeld for the last point.

So in the end, it was left to the BARs to clean up, with Jacques Villeneuve in 4th and Olivier Panis in 5th, to record the Brackley team's first points for the year. Indeed, the five points lifted them up to 7th in the championship, just one point behind Honda rivals Jordan. In truth, it was not a particularly brilliant drive from either the Canadian or the Frenchman, but on a day where experience counted for as much as bravado, they took advantage of the right tyres on a reliable car, and they deserve credit for that.

Toyota showed once again that they had speed in qualifying, Mika Salo doing especially well by starting 8th, but unreliability and driver errors again struck in the race, Allan McNish not even getting off the line after a clutch problem. The new Jaguar R3B, meanwhile, proved to be absolutely no improvement in terms of results. Pedro de la Rosa tried to do a DC by staying on dry tyres, but if David couldn't do it then Pedro had no chance, while Eddie Irvine's spin and crash looked a touch careless, despite the clear tyre difficulties.

Minardi's lack of cash, and hence lack of development, is beginning to show. Webber did very well in qualifying just to get close to the rest of the midfield, while the hapless Alex Yoong emulated his predecessor Tarso Marques by failing to qualify at Silverstone. The Australian then made yet another good start and ran ahead of Fisichella's Jordan, before spinning out after hitting a white line, although the official line was that there was a clutch problem. A bit of helpful damage control as Mark seeks a better ride for 2003?

As the circus heads to France, there is indeed a possibility that Michael Schumacher can indeed wrap up the title at Magny-Cours. To do so, he will need to pull another 6 points on Barrichello, 5 on Montoya and 4 more on brother Ralf. No one has ever sealed the title with six races left in the championship. But in all likelihood Schumi will probably have to wait until the German GP at the revised Hockenheim before confirming his fifth world title. That would be a perfect scenario, and a perfect homecoming.



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