Tunnel Vision

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

With Michael Schumacher riding high on a record-equalling five-win streak to start the season, and the year's Championship tension almost extinguished, most expected that Monaco 2004 would provide more of the same - another Schumacher and Ferrari redwash. There is never much genuine wheel to wheel racing around the streets of the Principality, but there is the glamour, the royalty, the history, the sheer excess that marks Formula One. The expectation was that even if we didn't get a thrilling Grand Prix, we'd at least get a spectacle that would befit a black tie casino scene from a 007 movie.

Instead, Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix turned out more like the climactic finale of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, with the cast of drivers engaged in various Mexican standoffs of heated allegations and counter-allegations. McLaren's David Coulthard got the ball rolling with allegations that BAR-Honda should have retired Takuma Sato's when it was clear that his engine was going to blow. In turn, BAR's Jenson Button was furious with Toyota's Cristiano da Matta for holding up his pursuit of the leaders. Fernando Alonso made clear his distaste for Ralf Schumacher's tactics, and a few laps later it was brother Michael hurling his helmet against the wall in frustration after being punted out of contention by Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya.

An incongruous counterpoint to the driver fury, yet in keeping with the Reservoir Dogs theme, was Jaguar's forlorn search for a highly-priced diamond which had gone missing from, of all places, the nose of Christian Klien's car.

It might not have been Monaco's best ever showcase for F1's diamonds and mink set, but it certainly held the attention for the full two hours and revitalised the 2004 season. Prior to the Monaco weekend, the entire circus had seemed to lapse into a collective trance, mesmerised by Michael Schumacher's peerless form this season. Even when rivals managed to snatch a minor advantage, like robbing the German of pole or managing to lead him for the first stint, it was with the sense of resignation that these were merely temporary setbacks on Schumacher's inevitable march to victory.

After the German turned in a mediocre performance in Saturday's pre-qualifying, and could only improve to fourth on the grid in qualifying proper, there was the first glimmer of hope that Monaco could mark the end of Schumacher's winning streak - just as it had ended Mansell's run 12 years ago. The last driver to have won at Monaco from fourth on the grid was Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the BRM, way back in 1972. Surely not even Schumacher could overcome such a handicap?

Ultimately, Schumacher may not have succeeded on Sunday. But, for at least the first half of the race, he surely looked like doing so, thanks to his characteristic luck and trademark tactical savvy. He was handed a double lucky break when Sato's engine expired. The BAR-Honda's retirement promoted him up the field a spot, while the ensuing Safety Car period obliterated the leading Renaults' hard-won early race advantage. As ever, Schumacher made his move during the first round of pitstops. Race after race, it's as though Schumacher and chief strategist Ross Brawn know exactly how much fuel their rivals are carrying - and give themselves a couple of laps more. That results in Schumacher being released into clean air as his rivals pit, and able to set successive hotlaps while they struggle in traffic and on heavy fuel loads further down the field. That was the pattern again on Sunday. Four successive fastest race laps immediately before his first stop were enough to leapfrog Schumacher past both Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button.

With only the closely spaced Renaults ahead of him and another round of pitstops to follow, surely Schumacher would use exactly the same tactic again to gain track position for the final stint of the race. The odds became shorter still when Fernando Alonso's challenge came to a crunching halt against the tunnel wall, and the Safety Car once again eliminated Jarno Trulli's slight but significant lead.

Trulli and Button used the Safety Car period to complete their final scheduled stops. Schumacher, for once wrong-footed tactically, did not. With Trulli and Button both able to match, or at least run within a couple of tenths of Schumacher's pace all afternoon, the German's hopes were shot. He would have had to build a lead of more than twenty seconds with the remaining fuel in his tank. And not even Michael Schumacher could do that. At best, he was aiming for the bottom step of the podium.

Nevertheless, Schumacher had every reason to feel aggrieved about the collision with Montoya. Braking suddenly to locking point in the relatively dimly-lit tunnel might not have been the smartest thing Schumacher's ever done in a F1 car, but such tactics aren't uncommon during Safety Car periods. With tyres and brakes rapidly losing essential racing temperature, drivers will alternate between lighting up the tyres and standing on the brakes to build temperatures. As such, it paradoxically takes as much concentration to drive at relative snail's pace behind the Safety Car than in normal race conditions, where other cars' braking and accelerating points are far more predictable.

With his CART experience, Montoya is the most skilful driver in the field during Safety Car periods, and invariably gets the drop on his rivals when racing recommences. However, he's as prone to human error as the best of them. Even the great Senna found out how costly a single moment's lapse in concentration can be around Monaco. It's this demanding characteristic that makes Monaco the Grand Prix all drivers want to win, even if it doesn't produce the most exciting racing. And on Sunday, it couldn't have happened to a more deserving winner.

Prior to the start of the season, Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button were both rated as marginal Championship hopes. Both had been beaten by teammates in the past, and neither seemed to have the 'rising star' qualities that marked Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. Yet both Trulli and Button have turned their fortunes around in an admirably professional manner - with maximum determined effort and the minimum of complaint and excuses. It didn't really matter which of the two triumphed over the closing laps at Monaco. Both had worked for it, and both deserved it.

As fate (and track position) would have it, Trulli was the first of the two to attain his maiden GP victory. After being overshadowed by teammate Alonso for much of 2003, the Italian has responded brilliantly, and Renault now sport the most competitively balanced driver pairing in F1. Alonso has made several mistakes this season. While that's to be expected from any hungry young driver, Trulli's improved form could also be a contributing factor. The young Spanish star is having to drive that much harder to grab the spotlight at Renault.

Button may not have the same calibre of teammate as Trulli, but his form has been no less impressive and his day is surely not far off. The young Briton is pursuing his maiden victory with his own form of tunnel vision - visible passion and intensity, yet without overdriving or compromising his fast and smooth style. Now that Michael Schumacher's streak and momentum have been broken, a Button victory at next weekend's European Grand Prix is more than a distant possibility.

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Volume 10, Issue 21
May 26th 2004

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Interview with Patrick Head
by Will Gray

Bjorn Wirdheim: Going Places
by Bjorn Wirdheim

Ann Bradshaw: Point of View
by Ann Bradshaw

2004 Monaco GP Review

2004 Monaco GP Review
by Tom Keeble

Technical Review: Monaco
by Craig Scarborough

Tunnel Vision
by Richard Barnes

2004 European GP Preview

2004 European GP Preview
by Tom Keeble

European GP Facts & Stats
by Marcel Schot

Stats Center

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

by David Wright

Charts Center
by Michele Lostia


The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

On the Road
by Garry Martin

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Dieter Rencken

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