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SCHUMACHER MAKES IT TWO ON THE TROT


Local hero 21 year old Fernando Alonso made sure that the 5 times Champion had to fight to score a first win for the new Ferrari F2003, but in the end he could do nothing to prevent Schumacher from becoming the first man to win two races this year. Behind them, main title rivals, McLaren had a disastrous time. Raikkonen ended up collateral damage of Jaguarís dysfunctional launch control while Coulthard was run off the road twice - first by Trulli, then by Button.


Amid the endless wrangling about traction control, launch control, commercial rights and, quite possibly, maximum motor home dimensions (Ron Dennis beware....) something quite interesting was announced last weekend. Mercedes, the engine builder which has upped its game considerably this year, has announced that, subject to the introduction of a one-engine-per- race rule being introduced next year, they may be willing to sell engines to customer teams for around £10 million - about half of what Sauber and Jordan are rumoured to be paying for their power plants at present. Sauber, in particular have seemed interested in this proposal, and rumours were circulating that the Swiss team might finally ditch its long standing, but expensive deal with Ferrari. If a couple of other engine manufacturers were to follow suit (and there have been rumours that Renault might be willing to consider such a move) then we might finally see the independent teams back on a stable footing.

Ferrari engines still seemed pretty useful things to have though, particularly the ones to be found in the latest F2003. Michael Schumacher was comfortably quickest in qualifying, and had also topped the timing sheets in the usually more representative first qualifying session when everyone (should) be running on low fuel. Juan Pablo Montoya and Ron Dennis were amongst those who affected to be underwhelmed by the pace of the new F2003, which was only a few tenths quicker than the flying Renaults of Trulli and Alonso, but it should be remembered that the F2002 didnít exactly look the class of the field at its opening race either, and in the races after that it was very rarely, if ever, headed.

Behind the two Ferraris, the Renaults of Trulli, and especially, Alonso really were flying. Comfortably quicker than the McLarens and Williams, Alonso nearly displaced Barrichello from the front row while Trulli was a few tenths further back in fourth. Jenson Button was fifth in qualifying, but given that the BAR had hardly been particularly quick in practice, and that Button had appeared to make two mistakes on his quick lap, it seemed safe to assume that the car was running light. Panis was sixth for the Toyota, which, regardless of how light the car might have been running, was progress of a sorts, given that they had run ultra-light at Imola and still only just scraped onto the top half of the grid. David Coulthard split the Williams duo, who were never comfortable with their cars, which they said, were behaving completely differently from how they had all through winter testing. The big loser of the afternoon was championship leader, Kimi Raikkonen, who lost his McLaren on the run up to Campsa and was forced to start from the back of the grid, behind the by now fairly obligatory pair of Minardis. They looked further from the pace than ever - not helped by a wind tunnel which has been out of action for months, and a suspension system designed around the softer Michelin tyresí characteristics. In their private battle, Justin Wilson finally got one over veteran Jos Verstappen but it was quite clear that they were in a different race from everyone else - Formula 3000 and a half, perhaps. It was a good day for the two British rookies, one way or another, with Ralph Firman looking much more assured in the Jordan than he has in the one-lap qualifying thus far and lining up fifteenth, ahead of his team mate Fisichella, who appeared to suffer when a last minute failure on his race car left him running a spare which was set up for Firman.

There seemed little doubt that Ferrari would run away into the distance on race day if given half an opportunity. The odd pundit wondered whether Renaultís spectacular launch control system might enable Fernando Alonso or Jarno Trulli to have a few glory laps at the beginning of the race, but few doubted that the afternoon would be a private battle between Barrichello and Schumacher - if of course they were to be allowed to race in the first place. If there was a consoling factor, it was that Raikkonen was bound to entertain on his run up from the back of the grid.

Except, he never got the chance. Pizzoniaís Jaguar failed to get off the line for the second race in succession and while Justin Wilson just managed to avoid it, Raikkonen scarcely had a chance and hit the stricken cat at full pelt 0 making a mess of the pit straight and forcing a safety car period. Ahead, Coulthard was scarcely having a better time, after being punted out by Trulli, and he was left limping back to the pits for a new nose and tyres. The two Ferraris did indeed face a strong challenge off the line from Alonso, but succeeded in keeping the Spaniard boxed in and scraped round the opening complex in one-two formation, albeit rather messily. The big startline winner was, you guessed it, Justin Wilson who somehow contrived to drag his Minardi up into ninth place - a place where it had absolutely no business being. From thereon in he would enjoy himself by holding half the field up behind him at Minardi pace until the first round of pitstops.

Up at the front, Michael Schumacher steadily edged away from his Ferrari team mate, while Alonso made sure that Barrichello couldnít simply sit back and settle for second. Indeed, at the first pit stops, where it turned out that the Ferraris were in fact running much the same fuel load as Alonsoís Renault, Alonso leapt ahead of Barrichello and into second place. The main victim of the first pits stops was another title contender, David Coulthard, who speared off the road by an overenthusiastic Button, as the younger Brit came out of the pit. Coulthard was out on the spot, completing a miserable weekend for the McLaren squad. Button ended up with a broken front wing and a flat tyre which effectively put him out of contention for the afternoon. He would eventually struggle home ninth, two laps down, just behind Ralph Firman, who was having his best run yet in the Jordan and scored his first championship point in the process.

In the lead battle, Alonso was showing himself more than capable of getting his Renault up close to Schumacherís Ferrari - albeit with the Renault around ten miles an hour down in a straight line, actually overtaking Schumacher was always going to be an altogether tougher challenge. An opportunity appeared to present itself when Michael emerged from his second stop behind his younger brother Ralf, but in the event Michael was able to get past the Williams within the space of two laps, while Alonso, who couldnít rely on the kind of power that either Schumacher had at their disposal, took a while longer to get past Ralf Schumacher.

Thereafter, Ralf seemed to go rapidly off the boil, although his quick trip across the gravel did little to help his cause, and perhaps played a part in allowing Montoya to pass him in the same place that Michael Schumacher had earlier done. He would end up fighting a desperately oversteering car home in fifth, a lap down and just ahead of Cristiano Da Mattaís Toyota. At the front, Alonso was able to put a little pressure on Schumacher, and closed the gap to five seconds, but ultimately could do nothing to prevent a second victory in a row for Michael and Ferrari. Barrichello finished third, around twenty seconds back, while a dispirited Montoya was nearly a minute back in fourth. Mark Webber scored Jaguarís first points for seventh in an uneventful race for Jaguar, after losing a lot of time behind Wilsonís fast starting Minardi in the early part of the race.

It was not ultimately, the most exciting race of the season so far, nor even particularly close. Despite Alonsoís spirited charge to second, there was never any great doubt about the final result. We were cheated of a final showdown between Alonso and Schumacher by the interference of Ralf Schumacherís Williams (he was leading the race at the time, so the interference was entirely legitimate). Neither did we get to see what Raikkonen might have been able to do from the back of the grid in the McLaren - one suspects he wouldnít have spent several laps queued up behind Wilsonís Minardi. But there was enough to be positive about - enough to suggest this isnít 2002 all over again. The new Ferrari was the best car in the field, but the law of diminishing returns has ensured that its advantage over the rest of the field isnít as great as that of the F2002 over last yearís field. Renault have shown that they have a car that is more than capable of taking the fight to the big three, indeed here they completely eclipsed Williams. Toyota have finally begun to show that they have a competitive machine with Da Matta nearly taking fifth from Ralf Schumacher towards the end of the race. Ferrari might well win in Austria, but one rather doubts they will be able to orchestrate the kind of farce that they pulled off last time. There's no need to worry yet. Grand Prix racingís revival is still on track.


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