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Off track Intrigue - On track Tedium - European Grand Prix 2002

Lots of interesting things were going on around Grand Prix weekend at Nurburgring. None of them whatsoever were taking place on the track, so I’ll ignore, for the most part, what took place between 2 and 4 on Sunday.

Pole position, as is increasingly the custom, went the way of Juan Pablo Montoya, who is beginning to inherit the mantle of fellow Latin American, the late Ayrton Senna, as the master of the single fast lap. Just few thousandths behind him, narrowly missing out on what would have been the first pole position of his career. Two Ferraris lined up behind them, and these were followed, Noah’s-ark like by the two McLarens and the two Renaults. Nothing too exciting on the track, it would seem. Off the track, there seemed to be plenty going on. The eccentric Flavio Briatore, it was rumoured, was intending to dump Jenson Button next year. As Button has looked to have had the measure of his team mate Trulli, this seems to be an odd decision. On the other hand it was Briatore who got rid of Fisichella last year after the Italian had spent the season developing the troublesome Benetton and consistently outpaced Button. Of course, Briatore has plenty of options when it comes to replacing Button. Both this years and last years surprisingly quick Minardi drivers, Webber and Alonso are on his books. It is hard to assess exactly how quick this pair really are - Alex Yoong does not exactly constitute a good yardstick by which to measure emerging talent, and Webber had never been a match for Justin Wilson in F3000 - but rumour has it that the man whom Briatore is really interested in is Villeneuve. Villeneuve spent much of the weekend looking remarkably unhappy about the fact that he was driving a BAR and being both French-speaking and a former World Champion may make him attractive to the men at Renault.

All of which brings us to the situation at BAR, and at Jordan. Both are chasing Honda’s works engine supply next year, and it would appear that here again, results are not paramount. The Jordans have generally been quicker than the BARs this year, and have scored all of Honda’s 6 points this year. But received wisdom is that Honda are set to go with BAR. David Richards is supposed to be the key to this -he has more of a substance called ‘industry credibility’ thanks to his work with Subaru amongst others. Such things are not necessarily any guide to a man’s ability to run a race team. Tom Walkinshaw spent much of the last two decades successfully running manufacturer programmes in touring cars and Le Mans for such as Jaguar, Rover and Volvo. His Arrows Formula One team have signally failed to do anything much besides accumulate debts to rival the GDP of some third world countries. Whether Richards will be able to do more for Honda remains to be seen - his last attempt, over at Benetton was far from successful. All this leaves Eddie Jordan chasing an engine deal for next year when none appear to be available. He can at least console himself with the thought that if Honda disappear, then there will be no need to keep Sato on board, which should cut his repair bills a little. His situation can hardly have been made any easier when his two drivers ran into each other at the start of the Nurburgring race, effectively eliminating each other.

Over at Jaguar, too, there are rumours of driver changes. How much the lacklustre pairing of Irvine and De La Rosa are to blame for their lack of success this year is debatable, but Niki Lauda appears to think there is no harm in shaking things up little. To that end, he has put Webber and Alonso in his cars lately, with the aim of ‘evaluating their current test drivers’ or some such nonsense. They are also, apparently, interested in Jenson Button. It is doubtful whether this interest is entirely reciprocated by the young Briton, who must be feeling that his career has largely involved driving for ever less competitive teams, but if Briatore shows him the door, then the Jaguar seat may be the only one available. To further complicate matters, it is generally thought that Toyota are looking for at least one new driver as McNish has been far from outstanding in the number two car this year.

At the sharp end of the grid, the interest lay mainly in what was going to happen at the FIA appeal court in Paris regarding the Ferrari team’s team orders debacle. Rumours were rife that the governing body intended to come down hard on them, if only to spice up the championship battle a little (though they would have to hand out a pretty ludicrous penalty to even up the unequal fight between Schumacher and his so-called rivals). It all seemed a bit contrived really - what Ferrari did at Spielberg may have been contrary to the spirit of competition, and was probably not entirely justified by the championship points situation - but it was not against the rules. The decision to haul them up before the court on trumped-up charges of breaking with protocol during the podium celebrations seemed more than a little ridiculous. In the event, they escaped with a fine of $1,000,000 which undoubtedly is easier for them to cope with than it would be for you or I. Their case may or may not have been helped by their decision to let Barrichello win the Nurburgring race after Schumacher spun out of second place around mid distance. He caught Barrichello again after the final pit stops, but was not allowed to challenge for the lead. Whether Barrichello needed that kind of assistance to win the race is a moot point - Schumacher looked faster all weekend, but overtaking remains something of a black art in Formula One, and the German hasn’t had to do an awful lot of it in recent times.

Behind them, Coulthard and Montoya eliminated each other while fighting for fourth place. Montoya spun on badly worn rear tyres and Coulthard was unlucky enough to be in the way when he did. This left Raikkonen to run out ahead of Schumacher Jr’s Williams to claim the final podium place. Button showed that, whatever the doubts may be about his future, he was still quicker than Trulli, and he claimed fifth sport. The Saubers continue to have respectable but unspectacular campaign. Massa was sixth, and Heidfeld finished just behind him. It was to be honest, a pretty pedestrian affair - the new hairpin section at the track did little to improve the action. Of course, if they really wanted to improve the show, the old Nordshliefe is on hand, if somewhat unsuitable for modern sensibilities.

The circus moves to Britain next for the mud and traffic jams extravaganza that is Silverstone. I haven’t been in a decade now, and I have no intention of changing this in two weeks time. It might be time to start sitting by the TV with a calculator though, working out exactly what permutation of results would be required to make Schumacher a champion in record time.

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