The Reign in Spain

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

In recent years, the Spanish Grand Prix has been a low-key event. Scheduled too late to capture the early season unpredictability and new car launches, and too early to be vital for the championship battles, the Spanish event is further hampered by the unspectacular Circuit de Catalunya track and the customary indifference of the bike-crazy Spanish fans. It is fitting that, in one of the most dynamic season starts in memory, Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix should also have figuratively risen to the occasion and proved memorable in its own way. Although the organisers did receive some welcome assistance to boost interest in the race.

First was the delayed launch of the new Ferrari F2003-GA. For the first eight weeks and four Grands Prix of the 2003 season, the F1 world had wondered how Ferrari was going to top the monumental dominance of its F2002 championship-whitewashing car. The answer, unsurprisingly, was 'little by little'. Much to the relief of Ferrari's rivals, the F2003-GA didn't show a quantum leap improvement in any area, just a further and incremental refinement of its predecessor's flawless pedigree.

That in itself was not surprising. Any design that follows a record-setting car like the F2002 is likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There is little motive to change a dominant package and, as the design evolves towards perfection, there is also that much less space before the design team hits the development 'ceiling'.

While the grid 1-2 and debut win will have satisfied Ferrari's immediate expectations, there are still unanswered questions. On Saturday, the car looked invulnerable as both drivers slung the F2003-GA around Barcelona's high-speed curves like it was on rails. By late Sunday afternoon, the outlook was considerably different. Just how good are the new Ferraris, if one of them could be beaten fair and square by an underpowered Renault? But this wasn't just an underpowered Renault, it was one driven by a local Spaniard. And that was the real key to the success of this year's Spanish Grand Prix.

Catalunya may not be the most distinctive circuit on the calendar, nor is it likely to be many drivers' favourite track. Yet the fast sweeps do have a habit of drawing something special from emerging talents. Michael Schumacher built a large part of his legend on two jaw-dropping performances at Catalunya.

The first, in 1994, saw Schumacher's Benetton stuck in fifth gear for much of the race. Utilising the Ford Zetec V8's broad power band, Schumacher made light of the problem, piloting the stricken car home to a creditable second behind arch-rival Damon Hill's Williams.

Two years later, Schumacher shone again, this time in his debut Spanish performance for new employers Ferrari. Starting from third on the grid, almost a full second adrift of Hill's pole-sitting Williams, Schumacher put on a master class of wet weather driving. His eventual 45-second victory over fellow rain-master Jean Alesi didn't do justice to Schumacher's performance on that day. His fastest race lap was a full two seconds quicker than anybody else, and more than five seconds faster than championship leader Hill's.

In 1994, Schumacher's team boss was Benetton's Flavio Briatore. Nine years later, and now the head of Renault's F1 effort, Briatore must have had the same smile on his face at Fernando Alonso's impressive drive to second. That it happened in front of Alonso's home fans, reigniting F1 interest in Spain, was just an added extra. Critics had attributed the young Spaniard's second-row qualifying performance to a low fuel load on Saturday. How wrong they were, as Alonso went head to head with the Ferraris for the entire race distance, drawing the very best out of Schumacher to secure the eventual Ferrari win.

When he signed for Renault, Alonso faced a genuinely daunting introduction to competitive F1. With only one season at perennial tailenders Minardi to his credit, the young Spaniard was immediately paired with one of the most intimidating teammates in the sport. Although Jarno Trulli is neither the luckiest driver nor the most consistent racer in the field, his one-lap speed - the benchmark routinely used to compare teammates - would prove the undoing of most young pretenders.

Alonso has taken just five races to reverse that situation and put Trulli on the defensive, a feat that matches Kimi Raikkonen's stellar progress at McLaren. It was perhaps indicative of the pressure on the two senior drivers that Trulli and Coulthard tangled on the first lap in Spain.

But for once, Raikkonen was unable to capitalise on his senior partner's failure to score points. Both McLaren drivers have looked at sea with the new qualifying format. Rain, and the McLaren's ability to run longer stints than its rivals, have given them a viable plan B for the first four races. At a dry Spain, that advantage was moot. Catalunya is one of the few circuits where tyre wear plays a greater role than fuel load in setting fast lap times. The Ferraris confirmed that on Sunday, by setting their respective fastest laps of the race two laps after their third pitstops, with a heavy fuel load but fresh rubber. McLaren couldn't let the race come back to them, and Raikkonen's failure to even reach the start line and begin his first lap will be a cruel reminder, if any was needed, of how fickle F1 fortunes can be.

Raikkonen's limelight has been stolen temporarily by Alonso, and the young Finn has nobody but himself to blame. The significance of the result will not be lost on McLaren. This used to be their favourite circuit. From 1998 to 2000, the Woking outfit registered three straight 1-2 finishes, and they looked to be headed for a fourth triumph until Mika Hakkinen's clutch expired on the last lap in 2001. Since then, they've had to suffer three successive Schumacher and Ferrari triumphs.

It's not just the turnaround in fortunes, but also Catalunya's accuracy as a barometer of the championship outcome. Traditionally, the Brazilian winner is viewed as the historical favourite to take the WDC, but Spain's results have proved just as reliable. Since 1997, only one Catalunya winner (Hakkinen in 2000) has failed to go on and capture the Drivers' Championship as well. If a driver reigns in Spain, he's likely to be crowned as the season's champion too.

Superstitions and historical streaks aside, the McLaren failure has more serious and measurable consequences for the team. They took four races to build solid leads in both championships, and Ferrari took just one race to virtually eradicate both advantages. Michael Schumacher's claim that the championship is 'wide open again' is typical conservative caution from the German. The advantage has swung dramatically overwhelmingly back in Ferrari's favour. In championship terms, it doesn't matter that Renault managed to beat one of the new Ferraris on debut. Ferrari are masters of development and, even with the limitations on testing, the F2003-GA will only get better from here on. Renault are also not consistently quick enough to be legitimate championship challengers this year. Only McLaren and Ferrari are, and as long as red beats silver, that's all that counts in championship terms.

Ron Dennis will be realistic enough to acknowledge that McLaren's season-opening streak of good fortune couldn't last indefinitely. At the very least, Schumacher wasn't going to keep spinning out of contention. Nevertheless, the suddenness of the turnaround will have Woking's engineers toiling through the night with renewed urgency to ready the new car, if they weren't already.

Even with the prospect of a fast, reliable and established new Ferrari to beat, the situation isn't hopeless for McLaren. They will have noted with some satisfaction that, despite Ferrari's ongoing special relationship with Bridgestone, the tyres continue to grain and degrade too quickly on the Ferrari, as on all Bridgestone runners. By contrast, McLaren has predicted that their new car will make better use of the Michelins than before. Although, if Woking can concoct a solution to Michelin's quirky 'go off then come back again' characteristics, they'll have found the magic bullet that has eluded all the other Michelin runners so far.

Even if the McLaren challenge evaporates or materialises too late, this season will have seen the emergence of two potentially great talents in Raikkonen and Alonso. That is at least one more than we have any right to expect from a single season. Even if Ferrari go on to record easy victories in both championships, there is still the anticipation that 2003 will be remembered as a standout year in modern Formula One.

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Volume 9, Issue 19
May 7th 2003

Atlas F1 Special

View from the Paddock: Special Edition
by Ann Bradshaw

Lost Weekend: Interview with Pizzonia
by David Cameron

Renault to the Fore
by Will Gray

Spanish Moss
by Thomas O'Keefe

Spanish GP Review

2003 Spanish GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Technical Review: Spanish GP
by Craig Scarborough

Racers or Timeservers?
by Karl Ludvigsen

The Reign in Spain
by Richard Barnes

Stats Center

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

by David Wright

Charts Center
by Michele Lostia


Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

by Marcel Schot

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Tom Keeble

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