The Frantic Quarter

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

It's that time of the year again - the frantic final quarter of the season in which drivers and teams, sensing fewer and fewer opportunities to redeem earlier mistakes and disappointments, throw everything into each race to try and salvage what they can from the championship campaign. It doesn't matter that Ferrari and Michael Schumacher have already wrapped up the two championships by an embarrassing margin. No team or driver wants to end the season on a low note, and spend the off-season mulling over a below-par finish to the year.

Even the triumphant Ferraris are susceptible to the frantic quarter. After such a dominant season, the loss to McLaren at Spa-Francorchamps two weeks ago was an acceptable and almost inevitable slip. A second loss, particularly in front of the tifosi at Monza, would have set the rumour mills spinning - that Maranello has hit the development ceiling, Michael Schumacher has lost enthusiasm, Bridgestone has lost its advantage.

Yet even the Ferrari faithful were stunned by Sunday's dramatic race-long reversal of fortunes. McLaren chief Ron Dennis' mid-race analysis, that Michael Schumacher simply had too much ground to make up after his opening lap spin, was a perfectly honest and reasonable comment at the time. Even with Dennis' rider clause that Schumacher has turned in some truly startling drives in his career, there seemed little chance of the World Champion salvaging even a podium from such a lowly race position.

That he and teammate Rubens Barrichello not only completed a 1-2 finish, but did so with such a margin to spare, reinforces the truism that F1 racing is truly a two-hour sprint. Upon analysing any race, there is a tendency to identify and isolate the moments that sealed the result - glancing contact during an overtaking move, being held up momentarily while lapping backmarkers, a precious couple of seconds lost or gained in a pitstop, a botched or blitzed start. As Barrichello and Schumacher proved on Sunday, these moments are not always as crucial as we presume, for both were the victims of seemingly insuperable setbacks early on. Yet, very often, the race is won or lost not by a newsworthy moment or incident, but by the sheer accumulation of grinding out lap after lap when all seems lost.

In Michael Schumacher's case, the fight-back from 15th to second wasn't that surprising. Race-long effort and focus is just another facet, probably the primary one, of his 'complete racer' approach to his profession. For Barrichello, though, the win was a career milestone. The Brazilian, like so many others in the field, is an excellent front-runner. Put him in the lead, or at least in sight of it, and he'll churn out hotlaps along with the best and fastest of them. Demote him down the field, and he will often appear to lose focus, accept that it just wasn't his day, and shrug off the loss with "I couldn't have done more". The Monza win will give Barrichello fresh self-belief, in a season where Schumacher's dominance should have had the opposite effect. For Barrichello, the start of the frantic quarter has already provided handsome rewards.

At the other end of the scale, 'frantic' is possibly too mild a word to describe Jarno Trulli's situation at Renault. For the bulk of the season, Renault (with the obvious exception of Ferrari) appeared to be the most balanced and harmonious team in the field. Two fast drivers who didn't show any overt hostility problems, decent reliability, and improving performance literally launched from their superb start system all combined to put Renault into a solid second position in the Constructors' Championship.

Since Trulli's announcement in July that he would be leaving Renault at the end of the season, the conflict between the Italian driver and the team has steadily grown to a political thriller level of intrigue, accusations and counter-accusations. Both of the sides seem to have valid arguments. On the one hand, it's conspicuous that Trulli, a driver who was able to match (and often beat) teammate Fernando Alonso all year, should suddenly become so much slower. On the other, team boss Flavio Briatore's insistence that Renault wouldn't compromise their second place in the championship (to sabotage a driver who was leaving anyway) is also eminently logical.

Trulli's ability to set the fastest first sector of Sunday's race, in a car that was well off the pace for the rest of the afternoon, backs up Briatore's claim. Although Trulli was gracious enough to concede that the car did become better as the race wore on, it's hard to believe that his fastest sectors were purely the result of improving conditions and machinery. Like Heinz-Harald Frentzen before him, Trulli has the maddening ability to pull out the odd stunningly fast hotlap in an otherwise mediocre stint, almost at will.

What the intensifying row at Renault has achieved is to hand temporary ownership of the Constructors' Championship runners-up spot to BAR-Honda, paradoxically the team that faced a potentially even more explosive situation over driver contracts. Whatever ongoing arguments still rage behind the scenes at BAR, the team have not allowed it to ruin an excellent season. Instead, they've put themselves in the strongest position for second heading down the championship stretch.

For the first dozen or so races of the year, BAR's Jenson Button fought a manful but lonely battle against the Renault pairing of Trulli and Alonso, with scant help from teammate Takuma Sato. Now that Sato has put his unreliability and inconsistency problems behind him, the situation has swung about-face. For the remainder of the season, it will be Renault's Fernando Alonso who will have to take on the BAR pairing solo.

BAR could at least rely on Button's implacable consistency and ability to avoid terminal driving errors as he accumulated valuable points race after race. As Alonso's spin on Sunday illustrated, the young Spaniard is not yet able to assume the same level of team responsibility. Alonso may be correct that the Italian marshals didn't offer him enough assistance, but the kneejerk counter-argument is that he shouldn't have put his fate in their hands in the first place.

For Trulli's near-certain 2005 employers, Toyota, the Italian's sudden loss of form will be worrying. Even though Ralf Schumacher and Trulli are a step above the 2004 combination of Olivier Panis, Cristiano da Matta and Ricardo Zonta, Toyota will be all too aware that the younger Schumacher and Trulli are two of the streakiest drivers in the sport, and the most susceptible to disharmony in their team environment. Just keeping the drivers confident, relaxed and focused next season may prove as big a challenge for Toyota as closing the technological gap to Ferrari and the other front-runners.

For the also-rans, the remainder of the frantic quarter will consist of trying to maintain pressure on Ferrari while resolving their own championship tussles. BAR and Renault are still scrapping for second, and Williams and McLaren will need to build some sense of momentum to carry them through the off-season. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya and Renault's Fernando Alonso could either be surprisingly quick or disappointingly off the pace. The only dependable constant is that Ferrari will be up front, with Jenson Button not too far behind. If the Englishman can maintain his poise, third place in the WDC, coupled with the credit for almost single-handedly steering BAR to second in the Constructors' Championship, should round out a most satisfactory season.

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Volume 10, Issue 37
September 15th 2004

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Interview with Martin Whitmarsh
by Will Gray

Interview with Norbert Haug
by Will Gray

The Woking Timeline
by Will Gray

Bjorn Wirdheim: Going Places
by Bjorn Wirdheim

Ann Bradshaw: Point of View
by Ann Bradshaw

GP Review

2004 Italian GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Technical Review: Italy
by Craig Scarborough

The Good Old Days
by Karl Ludvigsen

The Frantic Quarter
by Richard Barnes


Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

by David Wright

Charts Centre
by Michele Lostia


Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

On the Road
by Reuters

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Dieter Rencken

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