Full House

By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Atlas F1 Magazine Writer

Despite the pre-season optimism that 2004 was shaping up to be as close and unpredictable as 2003 had been, Michael Schumacher has had other ideas since the season-opener in Australia. Such has been his form that, prior to Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix, there was little speculation that he would equal Nigel Mansell's 'full house' feat of acing the first five Grands Prix of the season.

Most observers took it as almost a fait accompli that Barcelona would subtract another of the dwindling handful of F1 records that don't yet belong to the six-time World Champion. And, true to form, Schumacher once again made it look ridiculously easy. Not even the mechanical uncertainty and lost horsepower of a cracked exhaust would deny him.

At Imola, Jenson Button had provided token resistance by robbing the German of pole. At Barcelona, it was Jarno Trulli's turn to step up to the plate, courtesy of the unmatched efficiency of Renault's launch system. Predictably, it was a one-stint challenge which evaporated as soon as Trulli pulled in for his first pitstop, obligingly handing Schumacher track position and clean air in which to stretch the F2004's legs.

It may be an exaggeration to claim that he used the next few laps to push the car to its limit. For, all season, Schumacher has given the impression that he is driving with plenty in reserve, following the Fangio credo of winning as slowly as possible.

In the absence of genuine competition to challenge Schumacher, the focus turns naturally back to 1992, and the last time similar dominance has been displayed at the start of a season. At first glance, there are many similarities between the two feats - five straight victories in a dominant car, setting up a championship-winning platform that would not be contested all season. However, there are also intriguing differences that serve to highlight just what a lifetime 12 years can be in Formula One.

A five-win streak has to start with superior machinery. While Mansell's 1992 Williams FW14B was undoubtedly the class of the field, there was nothing to suggest it wouldn't be. In the 1991 championship, Williams' main rival, McLaren, had just managed to prevail, thanks largely to Ayrton Senna's skills and the residual competitiveness of Honda's 3.5 litre V12 engine. With Honda having already decided to terminate its F1 engine programme from 1993, McLaren were stuck with an underpowered engine that would see little works development throughout the season. Williams, by comparison, were approaching the development peak of their relationship with Renault and its 3.5 litre V10 RS4 engine.

The McLaren MP4/7 chassis was a success but, with Adrian Newey as Chief Designer, Williams produced a chassis that epitomised the advantages of driver aids like traction control and active suspension. With Ferrari back in the doldrums after a disastrous 1991, Williams faced no serious competition.

Ferrari entered the 2004 season not as an ascending power, but one which has been at the top of the heap for four straight years - even with the inflow of major manufacture support for rivals Williams, McLaren, Renault, BAR, Jaguar and Toyota. Each season, the plaintive cries that Ferrari must hit the technological development ceiling soon, allowing their rivals to catch and pass them with new and revolutionary designs, have come to nought.

2003 provided some hope for Maranello's rivals, with Michelin producing a tyre that could surpass Ferrari's Bridgestones at many circuits, especially in the dry. The rule clarification at Hungary, requiring Michelin to alter its winning design for the final three races of the season, was a blow from which the Michelin runners haven't recovered.

The difference between the two drivers, Mansell and Schumacher, is even more marked. Until 1992, Nigel Mansell's career had been dogged by bad luck and missed opportunities. He could, and should, have won two WDC titles during the turbo era of the late 1980s. In 1986, a blown tyre in Australia robbed him of certain victory, and a season-ending injury the following year saw Mansell watching helplessly from the sidelines as Williams teammate Nelson Piquet snatched title glory.

Mansell's move to Ferrari brought even worse fortunes and, after a bitter 1990 season in which he was outperformed comprehensively by Alain Prost, the Englishman considered retirement. Frank Williams lured Mansell back to Williams, with the promise of the same dominant machinery that he'd enjoyed in 1987.

1991, Mansell's first season back with the Grove outfit, was another disappointment. After Senna's McLaren had blitzed the first part of the season, Williams and Mansell came on strong in Europe, before his challenge ended in the gravel at the second last race of the year.

1992, however, would be different. For once, everything fell into place for Mansell. Prost was on a one-year sabbatical, Senna was stuck in a fading McLaren, old nemesis Nelson Piquet had retired, and only Williams stablemate Ricardo Patrese stood between Mansell and a long-overdue WDC title.

He attacked the season with a vengeance, maximising the car's dominance. During those victorious first five races, Mansell took pole position on each occasion. He would go on to record another nine poles during the year. It wasn't just the fact that Mansell was securing poles, it was the margin to his rivals that illustrated his dominance. Ayrton Senna, arguably the greatest qualifier ever, didn't get closer than three quarters of a second to Mansell in the first half-dozen GP - and, on two occasions, was more than two seconds slower.

Teammate Ricardo Patrese only failed to complete a Williams 1-2 once during Mansell's historic five-win streak. The venue? The Catalunya circuit in Spain. The driver who finished second behind Mansell? An exciting young Benetton driver named Michael Schumacher. On that day in May 1992, the entire field must have been wondering what they had to do to beat Mansell, and what it must be like to enjoy such dominance. Twelve years later, Michael Schumacher has a real perspective on the latter.

If Nigel Mansell circa 1992 was a man with everything to prove, Michael Schumacher circa 2004 has nothing left to prove. He is no longer racing to prove his championship credentials, nor even to exorcise the ghosts of 1997 and 1998. His apparent lack of a motive, other than his stated desire to 'have fun', makes his relentless consistency all the more astounding.

Mansell's 1992 streak was finally broken at Monaco, appropriately by Monaco master Ayrton Senna. After he'd finally secured his long-awaited WDC title at Hungary, Mansell also appeared to tap off mentally, allowing his rivals some consolation successes late in the season.

For Schumacher, neither eventuality seems likely. Nobody in the field knows Monaco better than the German, and it doesn't matter whether he wins ten races in a row and clinches the championship shortly after mid-season. Irrespective, he still wants more.

The rest of the field may be fast losing hope that they'll manage to deny Schumacher a seventh WDC title much beyond Hungary or Belgium. However, the growing predictions, that Schumacher will win every race of the season, are ludicrous. Even Schumacher and even Ferrari fail occasionally. The more intriguing bet concerns who will finally end the German's streak. Even with Schumacher's current form and vast experience of the street circuit, Monaco may provide the answer.

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Volume 10, Issue 19
May 12th 2004

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Exclusive Interview with Mike Gascoyne
by Biranit Goren

Bjorn Wirdheim: Going Places
by Bjorn Wirdheim

Ann Bradshaw: Point of View
by Ann Bradshaw

2004 Spanish GP Review

2004 Spanish GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Technical Review: Spain 2004
by Craig Scarborough

Full House
by Richard Barnes

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

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Dieter Rencken

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