Three Grands Prix in and we finally get a race. After two events in which first corner collisions pretty much did for any kind of real fight for the lead, this time we got it.
And for the first time in Formula One, we got a hard fought battle for the lead between two brothers. For sure, others may point to Canada last year, but on that occasion, there could be little doubt that Michael didn't really have the means to put up a proper fight against little bro. All this of course, looked like a far-fetched scenario back at the beginning of the weekend.
For the past few years, the Brazilian crowd have rallied behind their man in the Ferrari, the oft overlooked Rubens Barrichello. This time round, it looked as though he overlooked even by the Ferrari team he drivers for. While Michael Schumacher was to get his hands on the new Ferrari F2002, the team somehow couldn't quite marshall the resources to get two of the new cars out to Sao Paulo, and Rubens was stuck driving the old car. Something he didn't appear to be over the moon about, not least because of talk that the new car was a second a lap quicker than the old. The Brazilian fans reacted by staying away....little chance of a victory for the home town hero who hadn't finished a race at Interlagos in seven years. The Columbians, by contrast, were present in droves. They'd seen the first two races of the year, and were more than aware that their man, Juan Pablo Montoya looked the only man really capable of taking the race to Michael Schumacher - and remember, he almost won the Brazilian Grand Prix at his first attempt last year.
Montoya didn't disappoint either, sticking his Williams on pole, having looked the dominant force throughout free practice. The new Ferrari, depsite rumours that it was a second a lap faster than the old one, was clearly no match the Williams around Interlagos, but Michael Schumacher almost did the impossible and qualified second, just a tenth behind Montoya. His brother must have been a little disappointed to end up only third, having had the fastest time for much of the session. The locals were right abotu Barrichello, who was outqualified not only by both of the McLaren boys, but by a pair of Renaults as well. He lined up only eighth on the grid. The Renaults were in fact, something of a revelation; barely slower than the McLarens of Coulthard and Raikkonen in qualifying. Elsewhere down the grid, Jaguar appeareed to have taken a big leap forward, to line up eleventh and thirteenth on the grid, while Toyota continued to underline their potential, with Mika Salo lining up in tenth. Jordan had another forgettable Saturday afternoon, with Fisichella lining up fourteenth, and Sato, who seemed to be going off left right and centre all weekend, a dismal nineteenth, barely ahead of Webber's Minardi. Arrows, too, had little to smile about. Frentzen lined up eighteenth, while Bernoldi fell victim to Webber's Minardi to line up twenty first. Alex Yoong once again underlined the fact that he doesn't belong in F1 by qualifying last, some 1.5 seconds off the pace of his own team mate. And when you consider that only 2.2 seconds separated Webber's time from that of Montoya, you begin to see just what a huge gap that is.
One way or another, thoughts of the first corner incidents at the last two races must have been on peoples minds come Sunday. Williams and Ferrari were probably keeping their fingers crossed that there would be no repeat. Paul Stoddart, most likely was not. When the green light came, it was Schumacher Sr who capitalised from the front row, just squeezing his way past a scruffy Montoya at the first corner. There was, miraculously, no contact. It didn't last long. On the run down to turn three, Montoya clipped the back of Schumacher's Ferrari, dislodging his nosecone in the process. There were no retirements, but Montoya, Fisichella and McNish would all have to pit at the end of the lap for new front wings. Montoya may well be a championship contender, but if he is to rack up the necessary points over the course of the season then he's going to have to remember that races are not won on the first lap. Behind the lead two, the Renaults got away well, passing both McLarens, while Barrichello began to climb up the field from his lowly starting position. By lap thirteen he would be in the lead, his fuel load obviously somewhat lighter than anyone elses. The Brazilian crowd were pleased nonetheless, if a little surprised. It didn't last, a fuel pump failure made it eight retirements from eight starts at Sao Paulo for Barrichello. With Massa flying off the road, Bernoldi off the pace and soon out of the race, and Montoya having to fight his way back through the field from near last, it wasn't a great day for the South American contingent.
By contrast, things were looking good for Schumacher Jr. He wasn't quite on the pace of his brother, but with everyone convinced that Michael would be making one more tyre stop, it all looked set for a repeat of his victory at Sepang. Behind him, Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button were running in formation ahead of the two McLarens. Coulthard was finally able to dispense with Button, but this only left him trailing Trulli. Raikkonen couldn't even deal with Button. All in all, progress has certainly been made by the Benetton/Renault team since a year ago when they were tailing around at the rear of the field, being embarrassed by the Minardis. Whether the team can keep up the momentum and find themselves in a position to win races before the end of the year remains to be seen. Whatever, it was a refreshing upturn in fortunes for the team, and Trulli was at last given an opportunity to show that he could keep it together under race conditions, providing he was given a car that did not eat its tyres.
The balance of power in the private Schumacher battle up front changed dramatcially at around half distance, when it became apparent that Michael, as well as Ralf, was only planning a single stop this weekend. Sure enough, come the pitstops, both were fueled with enough to get to the end, and it was still Michael that came out ahead. The Mclaren boys benefitted from the stops, leapfrogging the Renaults for third and fourth, while Montoya hovered just outside the points, behind Heidfeld's Sauber. Ralf showed he was capable of catching Michael, but he could not find a way past. The two brothers didn't run each other off, and came home in formation to go first and second in the drivers' championship (possibly another statistical first for the Schumachers). Behind them, a fine drive by Trulli came to an end when his engine let go, which allowed Montoya into the points (Heidfeld's Sauer having by now departed the scene.) A few laps later, Raikkonen's McLaren followed suit when a broken wheel hub pitched him off the road. All this left Button claiming a lucky fourth place, just two weeks after his rather unlucky fourth place in Sepang. Montoya finished within a second of him in fifth, while Salo claimed another point for Toyota, having successfully seen off the Jaguars, which finished seventh and eighth. The Bridgestone runners didn't have such a good time of it. Neither BAR finished, Fisichella lasted just four laps, while a somewhat unhinged drive could only land Japanese wild man Takuma Sato a distant ninth. All had been forced to make rather more tyre stops than the Michelin runners, or Michael Schumacher.
Once more we were left with a race that Montoya would probably have won, had he not tried to win it on the first lap. Whatever, there can be little doubting that we will have a three way fight for the title, between two brothers and newcomer Montoya. The new Ferrari proved effective, but did not apear to be in possession of any earth shattering speed advantage. Williams continue to look a force to be reckoned with. McLaren still need more horsepower and more reliability...though if they get these, then the chassis is more than up to the job. In a curiouse way, its looking like the most interest season in a long time.
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