Monday April 2nd, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Ferrari and McLaren have won the last 22 Grand Prix but events at Interlagos showed this amazing sequence may not last much longer.
Williams, the dominant team for much of the 1990s, failed to finish the Brazilian Grand Prix after both cars retired but they left the pit lane in no doubt they now have a good enough package to win their first race since 1997.
"We know this will be a long and difficult season," said Ferrari's sporting director Jean Todt after McLaren's David Coulthard ended the six-race winning streak of world champion Michael Schumacher.
"We have to consider that the fight at the front is no longer a duel as a third competitor has now got involved.
"In the hunt are three different engines and two tyre companies."
Williams have not won since Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, champion that year, triumphed at the Nurburgring in 1997.
But both cars qualified in the first two rows at Interlagos and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya led for half the race in Brazil after an audacious barge past Schumacher on the third lap.
He might have won in only his third Grand Prix had the Arrows of Dutchman Jos Verstappen not crashed into the back of the Williams as Montoya lapped him. Verstappen was fined $15,000 for his carelessness.
Coulthard, who started his Formula One career with Williams in 1994, agreed that the team was a threat again.
"They have a strong package and...they have high speed, the car is working well and so we've got a real battle on our hands for the championship," said the Scot.
"I think you can't dismiss BMW Williams," added Schumacher when asked about contenders for the title.
Briton Johnny Herbert, in a Stewart, was the last driver from a team other than Ferrari or McLaren to win a race when he won at the Nurburgring in September 1999.
"He couldn't have done better. Perfect, a really brilliant performance," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen of Montoya's race in Brazil.
"We know that we did a good job now. (A win) certainly is possible. I hope we have a bit more luck than we had in the past three races."
The next race is the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the first circuit of the season that Montoya is familiar with from his days in F3000.
However, technical director Patrick Head preferred to try to keep expectations at a more realistic level.
"It's worrying that the championship leader's got 26 points and we've got two points," he said, referring to Michael Schumacher's tally after three races.
Coulthard is on 20 while Ralf Schumacher, the second Williams driver who finished fifth in Malaysia, is the only Williams driver to score so far.
"I think it would be unrealistic to think in terms of challenging for the championship," said Head.
"The Michelin tyres were the class of the field today but I think expecting Michelin to get it absolutely right at every track in the way that Bridgestone might do with their experience of the previous years is probably unrealistic.
"But I certainly think we're contenders for race wins and we've got to get as many of them as we can."
Williams use BMW engines and Michelin tyres while Ferrari and the Mercedes-powered McLarens use Bridgestone.
Coulthard said McLaren would only be getting better, intensifying the battle with further improvements coming on stream for Imola.
"We've started a little bit on the back foot these first three Grand Prix, we know that, but there's been an incredible effort from the team back at the factory and we did take a step forward here this weekend," he said.
Since 1993, the winner in Brazil has gone on to win the championship but the Scot brushed that omen aside.
"You know, they had that statistic in '97 in Melbourne. The guy who won Australia went on to win the championship. Clearly I was never going to win the championship that year," he said.
"There's a long way to go. I'm there in the hunt."