The Arnie Magic

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

Formula One racing doesn't get much better than the feast of wheel to wheel scrapping laid on by the ten constructors and twenty drivers during Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone. For almost two hours, the spectre of aerodynamic disturbance, grooved tyres and absurdly short braking distances was forgotten. The reasons offered for the dearth of overtaking in modern F1 no longer held true, as twenty of the world's top drivers rediscovered the true art of racing - to outwit, out-hustle and (in Michael Schumacher's case) outwait the opposition.

It wasn't just the thrilling racing or the wildly fluctuating fortunes that made the Silverstone event so gripping, it was also the context of the event. A noted bodybuilder once remarked how a single Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstration workout at his gym had forced him to redefine his limits. Until that day, the bodybuilder was convinced that he was at the limits of his ability, pushing the heaviest weights that he could possibly handle and regularly working his muscles to the point of failure. Until he saw Schwarzenegger in action. Awed by the enormous poundages shifted by the Austrian legend, the bodybuilder was inspired to up his own ante and pile on the weights in subsequent workout sessions. The inspiration and extra effort brought immediate results, as the bodybuilder's muscles responded to the new demands with a fresh spurt of growth and muscle mass. How fitting, then, that Schwarzenegger should be among the celebrities on the grid at Silverstone. Schwarzenegger has long since made the transition from bodybuilding legend to screen star. But some of the old Arnie magic rubbed off on the Silverstone field on Sunday. For this season, and at Silverstone in particular, F1 has similarly upped the ante, and set new standards of performance for all within the sport.

Dismay greeted the pre-season announcement that, under the new rules, cars would be confined to parc ferme for approximately sixteen hours between the end of qualifying and Sunday morning. Race weekends have always featured hectic activity in the pits, and countless Grands Prix have been decided by the Saturday all-nighters put in by mechanics desperate to sort out problems and repair damage. At the very least, it was reckoned that mechanical retirements would increase because pit crews could no longer carry out the exhaustive triple and quadruple checking that goes thorough with race preparation.

Yet the top three Championship contenders coming into the Silverstone weekend (the Schumacher brothers and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen) had a grand total of one mechanical DNF among them in 30 starts this season - Raikkonen's blown engine at the Nurburgring. At Silverstone the trend continued, with all the top teams and drivers running to the finish, and only three retirements from an unusually combative and competitive race. The long-accepted supposition that finely engineered cars must break down occasionally has been challenged. During 2002, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari showed that it was not only feasible to finish every GP in a season but to do so on the podium each time. The traditional thinking has been redefined, and the field has responded this season - even after losing the traditional opportunity to refine and repair cars on the night before the race.

The change has not been mandated purely by the inspiration of Schumacher's 2002 example. Under the new points system, non-finishes are punished harshly. So teams have ensured that they are more reliable, and the drivers have also responded by becoming more consistent. The British Grand Prix featured more overtaking and close aggressive racing than any other GP in recent memory. Yet not once did any driver overstep the mark and collide with another. In an extraordinarily close and balanced 2003 Championship, the points premium for such errors is simply too steep.

That's not to say that there weren't close calls. Some of the overtaking moves were quite literally breathtaking, none more so than Rubens Barrichello's pass on Kimi Raikkonen for the lead. Raikkonen has shown refreshingly little regard for the conservative option. Even though he's a consistent and fast racer, the young Finn is never afraid to put rubber on grass in his attempts to defend or take a position. It's the sort of approach that should have resulted in disaster by now. Yet, with the single exception of the start-line shunt with Jaguar's Antonio Pizzonia in Spain, Raikkonen has emerged unscathed.

On Sunday, he left the track twice in his efforts to maintain track position and drive home a rare advantage over Michael Schumacher. With the Championship screws tightening by the race, Raikkonen could be excused for adopting a safety-first approach, if only to stay in the hunt. Instead, he is loath to let the Championship come to him, and wants to win it on his own terms.

Race winner Barrichello, David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya and even the normally cautious Ralf Schumacher also got in on the Silverstone action, each enduring white knuckle moments as they dived aggressively for half-gaps that could have spelt Championship disaster. It was a credit to the entire field that the racing was relentlessly hard but fair. Even in a runaway Championship year like 2002, it would have been thrilling to watch. With this year's Championship still locked in an absorbing five-man struggle, the higher stakes rendered Silverstone 2003 an instant classic.

It's natural that any classic race would involve the dominant driver of his era, and so it was on Sunday. At first glance, Michael Schumacher would appear to have suffered a mediocre and disappointing race. But never has he been forced to work or think so hard, be so patient, and balance caution and aggression as finely as he did on Sunday.

Schumacher is defined by his exhaustive preparation and tactical approach to races, in tandem with Ferrari strategist Ross Brawn. Fortunately, not even their game plan accommodates a lone interloper who chooses the Hangar Straight as an appropriate venue to spread his message to the world. And not even Ferrari's clockwork pit routines can prevail when almost the entire field decides to pit simultaneously.

Until that point, Schumacher had already experienced two heartstopping moments during the race weekend. The first was when he ran wide onto the grass during his qualifying run, and the second when a charging Montoya launched an assault on Schumacher's Ferrari immediately after the first safety car period. On both occasions, Schumacher had managed to skirt disaster. Emerging in a stunned 15th place after the pitlane chaos, it all seemed in vain. Stuck behind a doggedly defiant Jacques Villeneuve, and losing more than two seconds per lap to race leader and main Championship rival Raikkonen, Schumacher's position looked hopeless.

The German could have tried to muscle his way through the pitlane traffic jam, or attempted a series of rash moves on the slower cars hindering his progress. He's done it before, and often got away with it. However, 'often' is not a viable proposition in the context of this year's Championship, and the disastrous exceptions (like Spa 98) have tempered Schumacher's previously bulletproof self-belief. Instead, he had to be patient and be sure of at least getting to the finish. Any points would be an unexpected bonus, and even a single point for eighth beats a trip to the gravel or a broken car.

His eventual fourth place was a disappointment by Schumacher's high standards, especially after his teammate won with the same equipment. Still, ultimately losing only one point to Kimi Raikkonen was an almighty reprieve and validation of Schumacher's patience - particularly considering that it was Raikkonen, and not Schumacher, who sacrificed points by pushing too hard. Typically, Raikkonen views the glass as half-full, publicly stating that the single point advantage may prove crucial at season's end. Privately, he must surely concede that the two points, lost to Montoya when the Finn ran out of road under braking for Stowe, could be even more decisive in Championship terms.

Both drivers will be relieved that Ralf Schumacher's momentum has been disrupted, and both Ferrari and McLaren will try to keep the younger Schumacher off the front row at the next event in Germany. Like Damon Hill, Ralf is an outstanding race leader who is often made to look ordinary when forced to battle his way to the head of the pack. However, simply denying Ralf will not be enough for either of the two Championship frontrunners. With Montoya and even Barrichello rejuvenating their Championship aspirations at Silverstone, the WDC equation grows ever more complex.

Even in a season of astonishing reliability and remarkably few race ending driver errors, this Championship could still turn on a single moment - a heartbreaking retirement or a controversial collision between two Championship contenders. However it pans out, one conclusion is certain - the 2003 World Drivers Champion will have earned his title, more so than any other champion of the past decade and longer. No team or driver is handing out any gifts to the opposition, and it will take season-long consistency and pace to ensure the ultimate triumph in 2003. That is how Formula One should be.

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Volume 9, Issue 30
July 23rd 2003


Interview with Chris Dyer
by Timothy Collings

Rookie at the Ring
by Thomas O'Keefe

Ann Bradshaw: View from the Paddock
by Ann Bradshaw

2003 British GP Review

2003 British GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Tilting at Tilke
by Karl Ludvigsen

The Arnie Magic
by Richard Barnes

Stats Center

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

by David Wright

Charts Center
by Michele Lostia


Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

On the Road
by Garry Martin

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Tom Keeble

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