British Grand Prix Review

Juan Montoya and McLaren win the British GP 2005


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In the lead-up to the British Grand Prix this year, I thought I'd get myself into the mood by re-watching the 2003 race. Arguably that had been one of the best races in the past ten years or more, blighted though it was by the Irish priest running down the Hangar straight, but also witness to overtaking galore and some of the most tremendous criss-crossing passes, some spanning up to half a lap from when the move began to when it was finally executed. And so I looked forward to another good race at Silverstone.

Alas, it was not to be. Not surprisingly, McLaren and Renault were to the fore again. Juan Pablo Montoya recorded his first victory for Woking, at last capitalising on the convergence of opportunity and the rapid car beneath him. Not that there was the much-hyped but yet-to-materialise stoush between the Bogota bruiser and the frozen Finn; more pre-race trouble for Kimi Raikkonen saw him demoted ten spots down the grid again, and served eventually to further extend Fernando Alonso's title lead.

Being only seven days after Magny-Cours, a degree of similarity with that race could only be expected, but the level of deja vu was verging on the surreal. The McLarens continued to be fast but fragile. Alonso kept piling on the points. Giancarlo Fisichella had another costly stall. Ferrari again boded well but threatened little. Toyota's race pace was as pathetic as it had been in France. There were more solid points for Jenson Button and BAR. And Williams were still stuck in the same rut as they were a week back.

And so, if France had been a snore-fest, then sadly Silverstone was not much different. One factor here in Britain was the amazing attrition race - or lack thereof. 20 cars started, 19 cars finished, with Narain Karthikeyan's Jordan having the dubious distinction of being the only car to fail. Without checking, the 95% finishing rate probably made this the second most reliable race in F1 history, just short of the 1961 Dutch GP, when not a single car retired, and not a single car pitted either!

One of the other very noticeable features of this race, especially from the on-board shots, was how much the air turbulence off the back of one car was destabilising those following. The reduced front downforce of the 2005-vintage F1 cars meant that most drivers simply could not hold on through the numerous sweepers like Becketts, Stowe and Bridge, which over the years has been fundamental to making a passing move at this circuit.

For many years now journalists, drivers, designers and fans alike have bemoaned the increasing reliance on aerodynamic grip at the expense of mechanical grip. That already made overtaking difficult enough, with the depressing hold-station-until-pit-stops tactic becoming the norm. This year the aero grip has been further reduced, but with no increase in mechanical grip. Whilst the racing generally hasn't been bad this year, these last two races have demonstrated the worst effects of the current technical regulations.

Of course the feeling in the paddock had also been hit by the horrific events in London in the days before the race. Perhaps it's because we live in a world that's now less shocked by terrorism, or perhaps the London bombings weren't anywhere near the scale as the atrocity of September 11, or even the Madrid explosions last year, but there was much less - in fact almost negligible - response from the paddock this time than there had been in the Italian and USA Grands Prix back in 2001.

The Schumacher brothers were not talking about not racing. Only the Jordans painted the tips of their nosecones black. The drivers chatted and joked through the one minute silence - probably through a miscommunication than through disregard or disrespect, but it was an awful faux pas nonetheless. Sure, there need not be a dramatic response every time a disaster strikes, but at the same time a little bit more show of empathy wouldn't have gone astray in this situation.

The sense of unity, co-operation and resolve that tends to follow a terrorism outrage did pervade into F1 circles in another way though. The daggers have for a long time been drawn, by the FIA, by Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, by Ferrari, by the other nine teams and most notably by Paul Stoddart, over just about any issue that reared its head. But just maybe, after the Indianapolis fiasco, everyone had reached the brink and got freaked out by the view.

There were more u-turns in the days before and after the British GP than comes from the mouth of a politician after an election. The FIA reversed its guilty verdicts against the Michelin teams. It made noises about softening its stance on future regulations after - gasp! - listening to the views of the fans through its worldwide survey. The people power was even going to extend to allowing fans to vote on different qualifying systems that had - wait for it - been suggested by the teams!

Flavio Briatore came out in praise of Mosley and showed the GPWC's hand by saying that there would never be a breakaway championship and that compromise would eventually be achieved. Even Bernie was saying complimentary things about Silverstone! What on earth was going on?! Peace in our time? Do I sense rapprochement in the air? Ever the cynic, I'll reserve judgment until the verbal niceties turn into genuine, constructive co-operation and dialogue, but gee, wouldn't it be welcome?

Out on the track, despite having the fastest car in the field, McLaren still are unable to get both cars through a whole weekend trouble-free. For Raikkonen, their main title hope, to suffer his second consecutive engine problem in two races, is inexcusable, even if the two failures were unrelated. Mercedes Ilmor have picked up their game, both in terms of reliability and power output, since the disasters of early 2004, but clearly not all the bugs have been ironed out.

In the end it was another desperately good drive from Kimi, following another awesome display in qualifying on a heavier fuel load than his rivals. Though he didn't have to, or couldn't, pass many on the track, he optimised his strategy with constantly blistering lap times. The trouble is, after round five in Spain he was 27 points behind Alonso. Britain was round 11, and in those rounds in between the MP4/20 has been the quickest machine. Yet the gap now is still 26 points - a net gain of only one point.

With only eight races left, if Kimi concedes any more points to Fernando then he might as well kiss the title goodbye. Likewise, McLaren has only out-scored Renault 50 to 44 in the last six rounds. For a second consecutive engine problem that forced a change of motor, which in turn seriously compromised both Raikkonen's race but more importantly the Finn's championship aspirations, Ilmor Mercedes-Benz gets out 'Reject of the Race' award this time around.

Thus far this year Montoya has struggled to match Raikkonen's raw pace, or his own errors or mechanical problems have kept him off the podium. His maiden win for his new team was more the result of things simply going to plan rather than any earth-shattering brilliance on his part, and that is not meant to be a criticism of Juan. Needless to say he won the race at the start, out-muscling Alonso who had nothing to gain from being caught up in a fracas, whereas JPM had nothing to lose.

From there, for Renault it was more a matter of taking points off Kimi than chasing the Colombian down, and it was a deserved but unchallenging victory for Montoya. As Fernando keeps scoring the points, he keeps turning up the pressure on his chasers. One may look back at the moment mid-race when Alonso, a full stop ahead of Raikkonen, could afford to let the McLaren pass him on the track for position, as symbolic of the comfort with which he's sailing towards being the youngest champion in F1 history.

Reject of the Race: Mercedes

REJECT OF THE RACE
Ilmor Mercedes-Benz
Engine gremlins sabotage Kimi's race yet again

Fisichella's fraught season post-Melbourne continued. He probably should have done his team-mate a favour by backing up a most solid drive and keeping Raikkonen off the podium, but for the second race in succession a stall leaving the pits cost him his place. Although there's nothing to suggest that it was anything but his own error, a look back at Fisi's record since Australia makes you wonder - whisper it - if that second Renault/Benetton seat is as cursed and disadvantaged as some seasons have indicated.

Let's face it, Briatore has his favourites within his drivers. In the mid-90s it was Michael Schumacher, and currently it's Alonso. Riccardo Patrese, JJ Lehto, Jos Verstappen and Johnny Herbert all had disproportionately bad seasons compared to Schumi from 1993-95. Alexander Wurz had a shocker compared to Fisichella in 2000. Cast your mind back also to the pointless second half of the season from Jarno Trulli and Jacques Villeneuve last year. Is Renault also a one-car team?

BAR are in there with the chasing pack behind the silver and light blue cars, but they don't have the speed to trouble the front men. There was little that Button could do apart from just driving around quietly and picking up his points, which lifted BAR ahead of Minardi at the bottom of the constructors' table. Takuma Sato's luckless season continued though with his glitch on the warm-up lap that put him two laps back right from the start. He needs to score points at Hockenheim to rebuild his confidence.

It's amazing to see Ferrari now irrefutably reduced to hapless, bottom-end-of-the-points also-ran. There has been enough time for Maranello to get their act together with the F2005 and the Bridgestones, but their very impotent showing at Silverstone suggests that Indy may well be their only victory this year. And even then, people will probably prefer to say, "Ferrari went from winning 15 out of 18 to winning none out of 18, not counting Indianapolis when only six cars started..."

There was basically no utility in Rubens Barrichello's three-stop strategy, except to make the Brazilian look sort of like he was in the hunt for decent points when in reality he wasn't. And for Schumacher to finish 6th, some 35 seconds behind Button, must have been galling. Michael's qualifying lap had also been messy in the third sector, which put him in a position where he would, once again, be held up by Trulli in the early stages of the race as he had been in France.

There's nothing like success to boost a sportsman's momentum. After so many years of success breeding success, it's no poor reflection on Michael that this year's downturn in Ferrari's fortunes have impacted on his own levels of performance. There's little reason now for him to push frenziedly beyond the capabilities of the car; he did that already in the mid-to-late 1990s when he had something to prove and when he was single-handedly trying to lift Ferrari to the world title.

As a seven-time champion, there's little incentive for him right now. The 34-point gap to Alonso means that in all but mathematics he can hand his crown to someone else this year. No doubt he still admirably loves driving and competing, but there's probably not quite the same urge or need to push if the car beneath him simply isn't going to respond. If Michael can't see improvements going into the new 2006 V8 formula that will put Ferrari back into the winner's circle, then who knows...

If Toyota's race pace had been troubling at Magny-Cours, then here at Silverstone it was purely abysmal. Apart from Monaco, when Trulli was delayed after clouting the Loews hairpin kerb, this was the first time that Ralf Schumacher had beaten Jarno when both cars had finished. There was nothing spectacular from Ralf though; he continues to be mediocrity exemplified this year, although Trulli's inability to push a TF105 that's had difficulties generating grip early in the race has been nothing to write home about either.

With such a high reliability rate, to have qualified a lowly 16th, then dropped behind the Jordans after a poor start, but still climb back to 10th ahead of both Williams and Red Bull cars as well as his team-mate, meant that Felipe Massa's effort was possibly the second-best drive of the whole race, behind Raikkonen's only in quality. Although he's not humiliating Villeneuve as he was earlier in the year, Ferrari are definitely not unjustified in keeping him in mind for the future.

Villeneuve may well have remained on the fringes of the top 10 had he not erred at his first stop, tried to leave the pits before being given the signal to do so, and running over his refueller's foot in the process. An honest mistake, but still not one you expect from a driver of his calibre. Whereas BMW would probably be happy to keep Massa for next year, or the Brazilian might move to greener pastures, on this year's showing BMW would not be unreasonable to look for a replacement for the Canadian in 2006.

Williams are simply going nowhere or backwards at the moment. Little improvement could be expected in the week after Magny-Cours. Mark Webber with the new FW27 aero package and Nick Heidfeld reverting to the old one recorded fastest race laps only 0.069s apart. That said it all, really. Kudos to Mark for bravely racing on despite his burns from the French race, but unless something dramatic happens, Williams might as well sort out their engines for next season and start looking to the FW28.

From 4th and 5th in the championship after Monaco, the Williams duo are now back to 8th and 10th, and though they aren't threatened for 5th in the constructors' title it is most unlikely that they'll climb into the top 3, though overtaking Toyota for 4th isn't out of the question. Although it will be if the FW27s continue to languish around the pace of the Red Bulls. One of the most amusing lines after qualifying was when David Coulthard expressed his worry that in the race Webber's Williams would hold him up!

DC shot himself in the foot by making a poor getaway, and both he and especially Christian Klien pitted comparatively early at their first stops, which put them in poor track position from which they never recovered. Though Red Bull's overall competitiveness has indeed fallen in the middle stages of the season, they have shown enough operational nous to suggest that with Ferrari engines next year they could well be a dark horse for some surprise results.

There was always going to be little in it for Tiago Monteiro, Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher, when you're driving your heart out for, um, 17th, 18th and 19th places. Monteiro's perfect finishing streak continues, and there's much credit for his mechanical sympathy in that. But even if the Jordan EJ15B, due to debut at the next race, proves to be an improvement over their stultifying equipment at the moment, there seems little prospect of clawing back the gap even to Red Bull at present.

The British GP may also have been Friesacher's last Grand Prix. With his money said to have run dry, it looks like either Jordan tester Robert Doornbos or ex-Minardi men Zsolt Baumgartner or Nicolas Kiesa will take the seat. That's a shame for Patrick, because he has occasionally shown great speed, for example at Monaco, but he's also confirmed what many observers have said: he has great one-lap pace but he can be a liability on race day. It's borderline if he has merited his place in F1 on ability.

After two such dreary races, let's hope that the German GP at Hockenheim will produce a less processional affair, and give what is really a quickly dying drivers' championship battle some new life. The new Hermann Tilke-designed layout used since 2002 has proven conducive to some good races, usually in stinking hot conditions, so that bodes well for a little bit more on-track drama. Then again, I thought that Silverstone was bound to be an interesting event...



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