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RAIKKONEN’S LOTTERY WIN


It was a ceaselessly baffling Brazilian Grand Prix. A wet race in which none of the teams had access to true wet tyres. A race in which the safety car put in four appearances in the course of the 53 laps that the race ran for. At various points it seemed as though both Barrichello and Coulthard had the race in the bag. In the end, it was Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan which took the chequered flag, but the day wasn’t yet over......


Interlagos is one of the finest Grand Prix circuits in the world. It may be but a shadow of its original self, but it remains one of the best places in the world. Those who actually have to go to the place moan endlessly about poor facilities, the bumps and the fact that the city is a complete dump. As if you could expect anything else in the Third World. Those of us watching on television on the other hand, need not worry about such things, and as such it is one of the highlights of the season.

Friday qualifying provided us with the first all wet session of the season. This was always going to be an unpredictable affair, not least because neither Michelin nor Bridgestone had brought a full wet tyre with them. New rules, aimed at reducing costs, forced tyre companies to bring only one type of wet tyre to Grands Prix, and both Michelin and Bridgestone opted to bring an ‘intermediate’ tyre, rather than a full wet. The theory being that the majority of a race is more likely to be run in wet-dry conditions where an intermediate comes into its own, and that if it really poured down, the cars would presumably line up behind the safety car until it dried up a little. Of course, if it kept raining, then it was far from clear how exactly we were going to have a Brazilian Grand Prix, but there were two days to find a solution, or perhaps just hope and pray that Sunday would remain dry.

Juan Montoya and Jenson Button both spun in a rather bizarre session that ended up being headed by Mark Webber’s Jaguar but the consensus of opinion was that this didn’t mean all that much, as the track was considerably drier by the time he came out at the end of the session. Back in the paddock, David Coulthard was moaning about the new regulations to anyone who would listen. Whether he is being paid to agitate on behalf of Ron Dennis, or is too old for this game now, or simply feels that as Ralf Schumacher has been put under strict orders to stop bloody whinging, someone has to pick up the baton is unclear. Either way, he should simply get on with it and accept that everyone is playing under the same rules - rules which have produced some very exciting racing at that.

Coulthard wasn’t much happier on Saturday, despite the fact that it was dry and he had put his McLaren on the front row. It could have been pole, he told us, if he had had a second run with which to improve his time. This rather misses the point - which is that every driver could probably have improved their time with a second run. Quite why the best drivers in the world are so insistent on being given endless amounts of track time to perfect their technique and their race set up isn’t clear but the new one-shot sessions give the viewing public a chance to see every driver in action and judge exactly how they and their car are performing.

One man who was performing very well indeed was hometown hero Rubens Barrichello, who looked like he might finally get things right on home soil this time round, taking pole away from Coulthard by just 11 thousandths of a second. The man of the moment though, was neither Coulthard nor Barrichello, but Friday’s star, Mark Webber, who had somehow put his Jaguar on the second row, just 5 hundredths off the pole spot. Of course, he was probably running less fuel, his team mate was back in fifteenth, but if the Jaguar didn’t peel into the pits after ten laps, then we could safely assume that the Ford works team might finally be pulling in the right direction, and that Webber might at last be emerging as a man worthy of the hype which has surrounded him since his debut for Minardi last year.

Elsewhere down the order, Michael Schumacher paid the qualifying penalty for running wet settings on his Ferrari and ended up seventh, his worst qualifying position in four years. He could console himself with the thought that if it rained on Sunday, he would be looking very clever indeed, but if it stayed dry then a final victory for the F2002, at least in Schumacher’s hands, was looking a little unlikely. Ralf Schumacher seemed to do a good job of putting all the press speculation about his relationship with Williams behind him and outqualified Montoya for the first time all season to line up sixth. Another man who was most assuredly on the move was Giancarlo Fisichella. The talented Italian, voted ‘driver of the year’ by his peers, has not really made much of an impact on 2003 until now but eighth position, ahead of Montoya was impressive, albeit with the inevitable caveat about fuel loads that applies under the new qualifying system. The big losers ? With the first thirteen cars on the grid covered by less than a second, there was little margin for error. Whatever way you look at it though, the Toyota team were having a depressing weekend, way off the pace despite looking impressive throughout the Winter. The two Minardis, now that Arrows and Prost have departed the scene, don’t really have anyone to play with any more, and were nearly a second slower than anyone else, albeit engaged in a hard fought internal war of their own to avoid the back of the grid. This was won by Jos Verstappen, though only by hundredths.

Race day turned out very wet indeed. So wet in fact, that the stewards decided in the interests of safety, to allow the teams to make adjustments to the wing settings of the cars to make them more driveable in the wet. Much of Schumacher’s wet settings gamble was instantly lost - something which doubtless pleased the German little. What would have pleased him even less was the fact that the Bridgestone intermediates were decidedly less like real rain tyres than the Michelins - it seemed as though all was set for McLaren and Williams to disappear off into the distance. The race started under the safety car, in the hope that if the cars were allowed to run along behind it for long enough, the beginnings of a dry line might emerge. On lap eight, the race proper finally got underway. Coulthard immediately outdragged Barrichello’s Ferrari, either a crushing demonstration of Michelin’s new-found tyre supremacy, or an indication that Mercedes have achieved an awful lot over the winter. Behind them, Montoya was making up ground while Barrichello fell back. The next few laps were somewhat confusing. Raikkonen took the lead from Coulthard, and Montoya followed through into second shortly afterwards. This left Coulthard third and under pressure from Michael Schumacher, who had earlier passed Mark Webber, who was putting up a decent fight himself in the Jaguar. Somewhere in all the confusion, Justin Wilson had made another of his customary lightning starts and was running twelfth, while the two Jordans circulated at the back having opted to pit when the safety car came in to take on a full tank of fuel.

As the track dried, Montoya’s tyres began to cook themselves, and Schumacher and Coulthard both quickly picked off the Colombian, then the race was interrupted by the first of what would be three further safety car periods. Ralph Firman’s Jordan suffered a spectacular suspension failure on the main straight, spearing him off the road and into the back of the luckless Panis’ Toyota. Fisichella, who was between the two on the track, was very lucky to escape unscathed. Everyone except Raikkonen and Da Matta took the opportunity to refuel and re- tyre as the pace car circulated - the result was that the order changed little. Around five laps later, the safety car came out again. In the space of three laps we had lost Wilson’s Minardi, Montoya’s Williams, Pizzonia’s Jaguar and most shocking of all, Schumacher’s Ferrari, all at turn three. Raikkonen peeled in for fuel and tyres while the marshals worked to clear the outfield at turn three of wrecked racing cars. Thus the battle lines were again redrawn: now the lead was to be fought out between Coulthard, who led, and Barrichello, who was shadowing him closely in the Ferrari which was getting quicker and quicker as the track dried out. Another safety car period followed when Button put his BAR into the wall, again at turn three. A shame, because he was apparently fuelled to the end and on the right tyres as the track dried out. On lap 44, he finally found a way past the Scot, who braked too late into turn one. That done, the Brazilian scampered away, looking certain for a home win. For about two laps. On lap 46 his car stopped dead coming out of turn four apparently suffering a ‘fuel feed’ problem. Paddock cynics wondered whether this was some kind of Ferrari newspeak for the fact that his car had simply run out of fuel. It mattered little in the end what the problem had been, Barrichello had been robbed once again of a chance of victory in his home Grand Prix. Doubly robbed, because a win at Brazil would have handed him a clear lead over Schumacher in the Ferrari title race. As it is, the F2002 suffered an ignominious end to an incredible year in service. For the first time, neither Ferrari finished.

Coulthard now looked to be home and dry. He pitted for tyres on lap 51 and, although he was now behind Alonso, Fisichella and Raikkonen, he looked a shoe-in for victory. Alonso and Fisichella would almost certainly require a final stop for fuel, and while Raikkonen might be in a position to make it to the end on fuel, his tyres were clearly finished. Indeed on lap 53, Fisichella, whose Bridgestones were clearly in a better state than Raikkonen’s Michelins, forced his way through into the lead at Mughilio. For the first time in a very long time, a Jordan was leading a Grand Prix.

A lap later, Mark Webber lost his Jaguar in the biggest possible way coming onto the start/finish straight. It was a strange accident, in that no car had looked in the least unstable through that section all afternoon, but it was an ignominious end to what had been a promising afternoon for the Jaguar team. He was fuelled to the finish as well, which put him in a rather good position, assuming that plenty of those running ahead were not. The safety car was deployed for a fifth time in the afternoon, but before it could come into play, Fernando Alonso hit debris from Webber’s accident at great speed, destroying his Renault in the process. It was a strange accident, in that other drivers had seen the yellow flags, or saw the debris, or perhaps been warned over their radios, but Alonso seemed blissfully ignorant as he ploughed on through the debris. Jacques Villeneuve’s comments are perhaps enlightening. "A number of people were driving like idiots today." Alonso, who had earlier been penalised for passing under yellows, and whose overtaking manoeuvres had teetered on the thin line between bravery and stupidity on a number of occasions through the afternoon might well have been one of the ‘idiots’ Villeneuve had in mind. In Alonso’s defence, it must be remembered that unlike Villeneuve, he is all of 21 years old, and still only in his second full season of Grand Prix racing. The Spaniard was able to climb out of his car, but was clearly in considerable pain, and was later stretchered away. With the track absolutely littered with debris and over 75% of the race run, the race was red flagged and a chaotic Sunday came to a close.

For a few minutes, it appeared that Giancarlo Fisichella had scored a freak victory at Jordan’s 200th Grand Prix appearance. He had after all been leading when the red flags came out. Ron Dennis, on the other hand, was quietly confident that his man had won, when a race is red-flagged, the results are calculated from the standings two laps before the race is stopped. At that point, Raikkonen held a lead of under a second from Fisichella, and so the Finn was duly declared the winner of the Brazilian Grand Prix, his second in a row and enough to give him a clear lead in the championship. Giancarlo Fisichella was remarkably calm in the circumstances. In the post race interviews, he started by wishing Alonso (who was classified third, although absent from the podium) a speedy recovery, dutifully remarked that the rules were rules, and Raikkonen had won and added that a podium in Brazil was more than he could possibly have hoped for at the start of the weekend. The disappointment was clear from his body language, although he perhaps looked a little less upset than team boss Eddie Jordan. One can imagine certain other drivers throwing a monumental tantrum over the whole affair, throwing their trophy at the stewards and refusing to get up on the podium. Fisichella is undoubtedly a class act, but he fast looks like becoming one of the great lost talents of the sport. A man who has many of the qualities required to win the world championship, but may never find himself in the right car to win races. On Sunday he had a real shot at victory, and he knows only to well that such an opportunity may never present itself again. If there was any consolation for Fisichella, it is that many will forever regard him as the moral victor, and that, if nothing else he knows what it feels like to win a Grand Prix. In reality, of course, he was lucky to have finished second. His Cosworth engine grenaded itself in the pits, and had the race run its full distance, it seems unlikely that he would have finished it at all. Even if the engine had somehow remained intact, it seems very unlikely that he would have made it to the end on the fuel he had left.

There were plenty others with reason to feel they were unlucky on Sunday. Coulthard had the race firmly in the bag, and would surely have run out the winner had the race gone the full two hours. Barrichello had even Coulthard beat until his Ferrari broke/ran out of fuel. Jenson Button and Jacques Villeneuve were both in good shape and on the right tyres. Heinz Harald Frentzen was lapping as quickly as Fisichella and might not have had to stop......an awful lot of drivers must have gone home believing that it was within their grasp to win the Brazilian Grand Prix. If many were disappointed they did not win, then they could at least console themselves with the thought that none were seriously injured, in a race where over half the field ended their race in the wall.

Ever the optimist, Paul Stoddart believed that even Minardi would have been in with a shot at victory had their two drivers not both spun at Curva Du Sol. A little far fetched, perhaps, but this was a day in which almost anyone could have found that their numbers came up.


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