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When the Unexpected Happens

Its no longer dark when I leave the office. The two bar gas heater doesn't seem quite so vitally important as it did last year. Winter is receding and another F1 season is nearly upon us. I was thinking to myself - am I still interested ? After last year's stage managed Ferrari dominance, I know many who would answer in the negative. But, I am still interested. I want to know if Williams and McLaren have done their homework over the winter - whether either team has done enough to catch Ferrari. I want to see if Toyota's impressive testing times really mean anything, whether Jaguar can finally get their act together, whether Cosworth engines will enable Minardi to make the great leap forward, whether Raikkonen can finally bury Coulthard's career. There are a while host of such questions which I will look forward to seeing answered over the next few months. What I am less sure of, is whether I am still excited. I doubt that I will really be surprised by what happens this year. I would be prepared to bet an internal organ or two, that barring intervention from the heavens, the front row of the grid in Melbourne will be made up of some combination of McLarens, Ferraris and Williams. And somebody driving one of those cars will go on to win the race. Come to that, I could probably be persuaded to stake a tooth, or maybe a toe that that 'somebody' will be in a Ferrari rather than one of their British rivals' cars. Mind, with Montoya around, I might want to check the cost of reconstructive dental surgery before I go getting too cocky.

It wasn't always that way. Time was when every now and again you got a surprise, and not always as a result of attrition. I remember being at an F3 race at Brands Hatch in the mid eighties and hearing that the Ligiers of Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite were running one-two in the Detroit Grand Prix. Although Ayrton Senna was my childhood hero, I still remember being a little disappointed to get home and find that he had reeled in the two Ligiers to restore some semblance of order to proceedings. The French team would have to wait ten years before winning the Monaco Grand Prix in 1996, though that was largely because all the fancied runners self destructed that day.

Three years later, I remember flicking through the paper, looking at the qualifying times for the Monaco Grand Prix. Senna on pole - no surprise there. Prost second - again pretty much with the run of play. But what was Martin Brundle doing on the second row in a Brabham Judd ? Hadn't he barely scraped through pre-qualifying just two days earlier ? And when had Joachim Luhti's reanimated Brabham team been anything other than makeweights ? It lasted into the race too. Brundle ran third, being the McLarens until his battery failed, necessitation a three minute pit stop. This elevated his wild haired team mate Stefano Modena into a podium position. Brundle fought back magnificently to finish sixth. Then of course, in Canada, they went back to not prequalifying. Strange world.

It was a pretty odd year though. Stefan Johannson rarely made in through qualifying in the lurid pink and sky blue Onyx (emblazoned with the legend 'Moneytron' as if competing for some kind of special prize for tastelessness). Then suddenly, in Portugal, he was on the podium. This led the team briefly to talk of challenging Williams and McLaren, before being declared bankrupt barely six months later.

That same race was briefly led by Pierluigi Martini, in a Minardi, no less. If all that was unexpected then dawn on race day at the first Grand Prix was downright weird. Throughout the winter, attention had been focussed on whether McLaren (Senna) would be able to retain their dominance over Ferrari (Prost). Some wondered whether Williams or Benetton might throw the cat among the pigeons, but the rest, it could safely be said, would be bit-part players. Then one scanned down the grid at Phoenix - there was Berger's McLaren on pole - so far so ordinary. But what was the yellow and white car alongside him ? Boutsen's Williams perhaps ? Why no, it was Martini's Minardi. And the Italian red car in third ? Prost's Ferrari ? Andrea De Cesaris' Dallara actually. Next up was Jean Alesi, in a year old Tyrrell , just ahead of Senna's McLaren. Further down the grid, there were more wild cards. Olivier Grouillard's Osella was in eighth, just behind Prost's Ferrari, while Roberto Moreno's Eurobrun - a car which had failed to qualify for a single Grand Prix in the whole of the previous year, was in 16th, ahead of Mansell's sister Ferrari. the race was a return to normal, of sorts. Senna ran out the winner, although he was run unexpectedly close by Alesi's Tyrrell. Why did it happen ? Certainly it helped that all the times were set on Friday, and most of the main players were convinced that they would improve on Saturday, only to find that the skies opened. The nature of the circuit helped too. A street track full of slow 90 degree turns, it bore little resemblance to anywhere else on the calendar - that is to say, it was not really what the cars were actually designed for. Tyres were probably the main factor though. Most of the unexpectedly quick guys were on Pirellis, and at that point in the game, the Italian firm's qualifiers were streets ahead of anything that Goodyear had to offer.

Tyres were a major part of another surprise performance, seven years later. Damon Hill's year at Arrows had largely been wasted experience, but one Sunday in Eastern Europe, it was all very different. Ub 1997, ll the top teams ran Goodyears, but at Hungary, Bridgestones were clearly the tyres to have. Hill was the man to take advantage, dominating the race until his gearbox failed shortly before the end of the race. Even so, he finished second, and came as close as ever anyone did to winning a race for the ill-fated Arrows team.

And the most recent such surprise result ? The last three years have been a big-three lock out, but back in 1999, I found myself stuck in a railway station in Eastern Europe for some thirteen hours. Lacking money, or anything much to do, I sat and watched the big screen Television by the platform, for want of anything better to do. And suddenly, up on the screen flashed a picture of Heinz Harald Frentzen, celebrating victory in the Italian Grand Prix. And as the results scrolled down, it became clear that he had beaten the Ferraris and Coulthard's McLaren in a straight fight - to my mind even more of an upset than Johnny Herbert's freak win for Stewart later in the year, when seemingly nobody wanted to win the European Grand Prix.

So yes, maybe not excited, but interested.

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