Chops and Changes

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

It had to happen sooner or later. The startline chop has become a fixture in Formula One, and it was just a matter of time before it resulted in a major shunt, influencing or perhaps even settling a Championship battle. When it did happen, mere seconds after the start of Sunday's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, it surprisingly did not involve the controversial chop's most regular practitioner, Ferrari's Michael Schumacher. Instead, it was his traditionally more cautious brother Ralf, in a rival Williams, whose defensive move to the outside initiated the slight but disastrous contact with Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari - who in turn clipped Kimi Raikkonen. The chain reaction went full circle when the spinning McLaren's front wheel slammed into Ralf's side pod, ripping it open and ending his race.

Given that three of the Championship's top five contenders were eliminated from a crucial race in a single incident, it is understandable that the FIA would step in with punitive action afterwards. Yet Ralf Schumacher's penalty, a ten place demotion on the grid for the next GP in Hungary, is unnecessarily harsh and is rightly being challenged by Williams.

Schumacher's move barely qualified as a classic chop. Instead it was more of a gentle defensive drift to the left to block a hard-charging Raikkonen. Compared to the violent startline swerves often employed by his brother, Ralf's move was positively tame. The key difference is that Michael usually only chops one rival, and leaves room for that rival to back off. Ralf left space for either Raikkonen or Barrichello, but not for both. Fractions of a second before the contact, the three had been running in three distinct channels, albeit separated only by inches. Ralf shut that space down to two channels, and three into two doesn't go.

While that might suggest culpability on the younger Schumacher's part, Rubens Barrichello must also shoulder some of the blame. McLaren chief Ron Dennis cited Barrichello's 'slow start' as a causative factor, an assertion that misses the mark completely. On the grid, Barrichello was some eight metres behind Ralf's Williams. If the Brazilian had genuinely made a slow start, he wouldn't have been anywhere near the Williams at the first corner. However, he was still trailing Schumacher, and had been clearly passed by Raikkonen. The contact was between Barrichello's front wheels, and the rear wheels of his two rivals. As the trailing driver in the trio, and with his path being blocked, he had two options - move over or back off. He couldn't move over, as his path to the left was blocked by Raikkonen. That left the option to back off. If the Brazilian did brake early, it wasn't quite early enough, hence the shared blame.

In this instance, the very use of the term 'blame' is harsh. It's easy to replay the video of an incident repeatedly after the fact, analysing what could and should have happened. In the adrenaline rush of a GP start, with the cars reacting to differing launch control systems and a range of different fuel loads, on tyres that don't provide uniform maximum grip immediately, and with systems that may or may not be at optimum operating temperatures, the drivers have thousandths of a second to react to developing situations. Under such circumstances, it's a wonder that there aren't more first corner shunts.

None of the three protagonists had anything to gain by taking their rivals out of the race. On the contrary, they all did Championship leader Michael Schumacher a huge favour. So clearly there was no malicious intent. The negligence charge is not convincing either, as virtually all racing collisions are 'avoidable'. This season has featured exceptionally clean and thrilling racing, the occasional incident goes with the territory. As such, the FIA penalty handed to Ralf Schumacher is overkill.

If Michael Schumacher had maximised the opportunity (and for all but the last three laps it looked like he had), the Championship race would be almost over. Even with Montoya's victory, the eight points for a Schumacher second place would have effectively dropped Ralf and Raikkonen out of the hunt. As it is, Ralf faces a steep challenge, particularly if the Williams appeal fails. Even if he manages to overcome the grid handicap in Hungary and fight through the field to join the leaders, he's unlikely to get past his teammate. The deficit of another two points will put the German fourteen points behind Montoya with just three races to go - although, particularly in this Championship year, that is not an unrecoverable position. It was just two races ago, after impressive back to back wins in Europe and France, that Ralf was deemed to be the man most likely to topple his brother. And just a handful of races before that, Ferrari team boss Jean Todt mused that nobody was talking about Juan Pablo Montoya anymore. How quickly the pendulum swings in 2003.

Only two drivers have been consistently on the Championship dance floor all year - Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher. With the McLaren MP4-17D design increasingly showing its age, Raikkonen's challenge now looks tenuous. At least Ferrari can hope for some improvement from Bridgestone, the McLaren has been comprehensively outclassed by the Williams on the same Michelin tyres. With the sheer depth of opposition from Ferrari, Williams and even Renault, and with teammate David Coulthard unable to provide consistent tactical help, Raikkonen may have the ammunition to beat some of his rivals, but surely not all of them.

If Raikkonen takes one lesson from Sunday's race, it will be to avoid Ralf and Barrichello in future, at least for the first lap or so. At Brazil 2001, Barrichello clattered into Ralf's gearbox on lap 1. A year later in Australia, Ralf returned the favour with a truly spectacular first corner assault on the Ferrari, the impact launching his car over the top of Barrichello's and eliminating both instantly. Sunday's clash was merely the continuation of a trend.

Barrichello and Schumacher have shown that, once the race has settled, they can go wheel to wheel aggressively but cleanly, as they did so brilliantly at Imola. But that opening lap poses a problem. If the two qualify alongside or directly behind each other at any of the remaining races on this year's calendar, none of the other Championship contenders is going to contest that first corner with them. Even Juan Pablo Montoya will be leery of such a daunting situation, and you won't find Michael Schumacher in the same zip code.

For the German World Champion, the bitter disappointment of the left rear tyre failure at Hockenheim is nothing new. In 2000, he saw a comfortable Championship lead whittled away by three successive retirements, and responded with a magnificent three-win streak at Monza, Indianapolis and Suzuka to finally quell Mika Hakkinen's challenge. It'll be a source of comfort to Schumacher that those same three tracks will host the final stanza of this year's Championship.

At the same time, Schumacher is also breaking new ground. Throughout his career, he's had to focus on only a single Championship rival, whether Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve or Mika Hakkinen. Now, he suddenly faces two simultaneous threats in Raikkonen and Montoya, and possibly even a third if brother Ralf can somehow conjure up victories in Hungary and Italy. That makes Ferrari's, and Rubens Barrichello's, job that much tougher. Tactically, Barrichello could be utilised to hamper a single Championship threat. Two or more threats, in combination with the occasional competitive performance from Renault, comprise too many bases for the Brazilian to cover.

With the three week 'summer holiday' testing ban between now and Hungary, Bridgestone don't seem to have any ready solutions. While Hockenheim was predicted to be the low point of the Ferrari/Bridgestone challenge, even a significant improvement in Hungary might not be enough. This is one battle that Schumacher will have to win on his own merits. The German no longer has mechanical superiority, and faces a hefty grip handicap compared to the Michelin runners. In his favour, he has unmatched experience and concentration, uncanny consistency, a ferocious will to win, and the extra incentive of an unprecedented sixth title.

Still, after four straight races without leading a lap and only one minor podium as his best finish in that period, he is looking as vulnerable now as at any time in his career. Discounting his debut season in F1, the German has only twice run four consecutive races without scoring a victory or at least a second position. The first streak started with the eighth race of the season in 1992, and was broken with a Schumacher victory at Spa-Francorchamps. The second streak started with the eighth race of the season in 1996, and was broken with a Schumacher victory at Spa-Francorchamps. The current streak started with the ninth race of 2003, but this year there is no Spa-Francorchamps to break the streak. If any driver wants to step forward and lay claim to Schumacher's crown, now is the time.

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Volume 9, Issue 32
August 6th 2003


The Rollercoaster Rider
by Will Gray

Jordan Vs. Vodafone: The Judgement

Ann Bradshaw: View from the Paddock
by Ann Bradshaw

2003 German GP Review

2003 German GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

That Michelin Magic
by Karl Ludvigsen

Chops and Changes
by Richard Barnes

Stats Center

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

by David Wright

Charts Center
by Michele Lostia


Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Tom Keeble

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