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CHARIOT OF FIRE

Michael Schumacher survived a pit lane fire and a brief shower to win his third race in a row for Ferrari. Behind him, Kimi Raikkonen was made to fight for second, but after six races, we are still to see the first Ferrari 1-2.


Austria, where as Clive James so memorably put it in "All over down under", "the Waldheims sing Kurtly among the edelweiss.". There are, thankfully, no aging Nazi war criminals in the Austrian government any more, but what Bernie Ecclestone would doubtless call the 'health fascists' have decided there shall be no tobacco sponsorship of sport from 2004, and so it would seem this will be the last time that we visit Austria. Instead, F1, which has never been shy of the odd visit to a banana republic will be moving the show to Bahrain, or China or some other such enlightened place.

"All over down under" was of course Clive James' review of the 1986 Formula One season, and while he may have publicly avowed never to watch another F1 race again after last year's Red Farce, he might want to come back in three years or so for a mini-me sequel. A quick look through the junior formulae results show that one Nelson Angelo Piquet is winning in British F3, while Nico Rosberg is scoring well in German F3. And to cap it all, Nicolas Prost made his single seater debut the other weekend. I must get around to checking what the results of the various Senna paternity suits that came out of the shadows following his death were......

For now, we will have to make do with Jacques Villeneuve, and on the evidence of first qualifying, it might be enough. The Ferraris were, predictably enough, first and second. After that though, it was funny-pills time. Mark Webber continues to emphasise the fact that he is a much better F1 driver than his junior career would lead anyone to suspect by hauling his Jaguar up to third, and behind him, no McLarens or Williams, but instead Jacques Villeneuve's BAR, closely followed by Jenson Button's sister car. The really big loser of the day was Ralf Schumacher, who spun on his quick lap up at turn two and would have to start the second session first.

The fight for pole was of a more conventional nature. Of the early runners, Nick Heidfeld was impressively quick, but Sauber have a long established tradition of running one of their cars light for Saturday afternoon glory, so this was not the surprise it might have been. He would end up fourth. The top three slots were filled by the official or unofficial number ones at Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. Michael Schumacher edged out Kimi Raikkonen by a handful of hundredths, and Juan Montoya was third and a couple of tenths back. Further down the grid, Giancarlo Fisichella was among the unexpected winners of the afternoon, lining up ninth in his Jordan despite a costly slide out of the last corner. Ralph Firman looked set for a similar sort of time in his car until losing a second or so in the last corner and ending up sixteenth. The big losers of the afternoon were Fernando Alonso, who went off at turn four and ended up nineteenth, Coulthard, who had a wild and error strewn lap, to line up fourteenth, Jacques Villeneuve, who was similarly all over the place in his BAR and ended up twelfth, and finally Friday's man, Mark Webber, who went seriously wide on at least two occasions and ended up seventeenth. When asked why, he blamed Villeneuve for making such a mess of the track on his lap. Miaow. Jos Verstappen failed to record a time when his Minardi's gearbox broke a few hundred metres into his lap, but it was hard to discern exactly how this disadvantaged him really, as he would have probably ended up around about last anyway.

It took three attempts to get the Austrian Grand Prix under way. The culprit on each of the two aborted starts was Cristiano Da Matta, or rather his Toyota's launch control electronics - all of which is further ammunition for the argument that the systems are simply more trouble than they are worth. The result was that the teams had to keep coming back over the pit wall and stuffing the radiators full of dry ice in an attempt to keep the engines cool - all of which meant that the start finish straight was covered in ice, something even the most well programmed of launch control systems would struggle with. This might have explained why Kimi Raikkonen was so slow off the line. Defensive driving ensured that Rubens Barrichello stayed behind him, but Schumacher and Montoya were well gone up the road. At the back, Jos Verstappen's singularly frustrating weekend ambled to a halt when his launch control (a new feature on the Minardi, we are led to believe) got confused and decided to cut the engine. Heinz Harald Frentzen didn't have much of a weekend either. After qualifying a lowly fifteenth in a fuel heavy Sauber, he burned out his clutch at the second of the three attempts at starting the race, and spent his thirty seventh birthday watching the race in the garage.

Schumacher streaked away at the front, until rain began to fall, swinging the pendulum dramatically in favour of the Michelin runners. Montoya closed at a rate of up to three seconds a lap while the rain fell, but it wasn't long before the drizzle ended, and Schumacher began to regain the advantage. McLaren and Williams can hardly have been encouraged by the fact that they had to pit before Schumacher either - it all pointed towards the fact that the new Ferrari was really something special indeed. Barrichello at least, didn't seem to be able to do anything about Raikkonen and his race appeared to be effectively destroyed when his refuelling rig failed and his first fuel stop took twenty seconds, leaving him behind Jenson Button's rather rapid looking BAR.

Michael Schumacher was to suffer worse at his pit stop. He came in around three laps after Raikkonen and all seemed to be going alright until fuel leaking from the nozzle caught light on the engine cowling, causing the team to have to drop the refuelling rig and rush for their fire extinguishers. Schumacher eventually got going again after twenty seconds, with only five seconds of fuel actually going into the car. On the plus side, he could count himself lucky that his car was still running and not a blazing inferno. On the minus side, he was now stuck behind Raikkonen while Montoya ran off into the distance.

Schumacher didn't have as much to worry about as he might have thought though - Montoya's engine had been slowly cooking itself for a while, and on lap thirty three, it finally let go, and in the ensuing confusion, Schumacher found an opportunity to outbrake Raikkonen into turn three and move from third to first in a single lap. From there on in, Schumacher was never really headed. The second Ferrari of Barrichello was also making progress further back down the field, outbraking Button into turn two to take third - albeit the Briton never really put up much resistance against the inevitable red tide. Raikkonen was hobbled by an engine that was giving concern on the pit wall, and was told to short shift in order to make sure it got the finish - enough to guarantee that he would pose no threat to Schumacher s the final stops played out. And so the first three finished as they were. Barrichello was able to catch Raikkonen in the closing laps, and nearly found a way past on the exit of turn three, but the McLaren, while considerably slower in a straight line and under braking, held a narrow advantage over the Ferrari in terms of mechanical grip out of the slow corners, and so Raikkonen was able to maintain second and his increasingly slender lead in the manufacturers championship.

Behind them, Jenson Button had a very good day for BAR, briefly mixing it with Barrichello in the middle part of the race, and eventually running home fourth, comfortably clear of David Coulthard's McLaren. Coulthard finished an uninspired fifth, and even that position was as much a result of others troubles as of his afternoon's work. Ralf Schumacher had led him for most of the race, but found his final set of tyres had upset the balance of the car and caused it to understeer horribly. He eventually fell off the road while running fifth, and would finish an equally uninspired sixth. Both Coulthard and Schumacher Jr have blown somewhat hot and cold this year. Coulthard was mightily impressive in Malaysia in qualifying, and throughout the race in Brazil, but elsewhere has been decidedly lacklustre. Ralf Schumacher had an appalling start to the year but later showed well in Imola and looked to have the edge on Montoya as the two Williams struggled round Barcelona (he was eventually beaten by his team mate after he fell off the road and damaged the underside of his car). Both drivers must be painfully aware that they might find themselves dropped by their respective teams at the end of the year if things continue as they are.

High on the list of people who might replace them would be one Fernando Alonso. He recovered well from his pitlane start and looked set to finish as high as fifth before his engine seized in the latter part of the race and he posted his first retirement of the season. In doing so, he hammered another nail in the coffin of Jarno Trulli, who qualified sixth but spun in the brief wet spell during the race and could finish no higher than eighth - more ammunition for those who say he simply hasn't got what it takes over a race distance. Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher might both be glad that Mark Webber has re-signed with Jaguar for another couple of seasons, for he has very much emerged as another potential star this season. In Austria, he started from the pit lane, picked up a ten second penalty after his team broke one of the arcane parc ferme rules, and still finished seventh, ahead of his comparatively untroubled team mate Pizzonia.

Jacques Villeneuve started out the weekend well, but never really recovered from his messy qualifying lap;. He spent much of the early part of the race stuck in traffic and hampered by electronics problems. He might have succeeded in separating Coulthard from fifth place had he not lost a lap when his car refused to pull away from its final pit stop - seemingly a side effect of the electronics problems, and one which was fixed with a change of a steering wheel. He would finish twelfth, ahead of Wilson's Minardi and behind everyone else.

Jordan had an uninspired weekend. The cars ran well over a single lap but seemed to destroy their tyres very quickly and spent much of the race engaged in a battle with the equally sluggish Toyota of Cristiano Da Matta and Pizzonia's Jaguar. Firman kept Fisichella honest until the Italian's car broke - so it was at least a good weekend for the rookie who had looked so out of his depth in the first four races.

The most disappointing weekend was had by the Sauber team. They have been having a difficult year with the new C23 which has 'aerodynamic issues' (a phrase last used in connection with that other problem child of recent times, the Jaguar R3). The car was a bit more competitive here, but Heidfeld failed to finish while Frentzen didn't even start.

After the farce of Austria 2002, this was a proper motor race, but it is a real shame that Montoya's Williams failed to go the distance. There is no doubting that Schumacher had the quicker car, but with his strategy thrown out by a pit fire, he might well have had to pass Montoya on the road in order to win the race. And that, he might have struggled with. As it is, the title fight now looks like it is between Schumacher and Raikkonen. And if Raikkonen is to maintain a challenge, the McLaren MP 4/18 had better be one hell of a car, and it had better arrive soon.


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