Cool Schumacher on cruise control; Motor racing

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Date: May 5, 2002
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Article
Length: 928 words

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Byline: Richard Rae

The world champion has won four times this season, and few would bet against him landing his first Austrian victory, writes Richard Rae

FIRST the good news. Michael Schumacher has never won theAustrian Grand Prix. The nature of the circuit, the picturesque A1 Ring in the Styrian mountains, is such that it almost always produces an exciting, incident-packed race. Qualifying position is less important than usual, with winners regularly coming from down the field. The number of slow corners should reduce Ferrari's aerodynamic advantage. There will be more overtaking in the first few laps than in Imola and Barcelona combined.

Straws in the wind. The odds against Schumacher breaking his Austrian duck and making it five wins out of six this season are prohibitively short. Even he seems to have tired of trotting out the "anything can happen" line. The F2002 is so good, he admitted last week, that for the first time there are no circuits at which he believes he cannot challenge for a win.

The record for an individual number of victories in a season is nine, held by Schumacher jointly with Nigel Mansell, but it is hard to see him not winning at least six of the remaining 12 races. Such individual dominance is unprecedented in the modern era. Even in 1988, when McLaren won 15 of 16 races, there was the fascination of a no-holds-barred battle between team drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, two men who cordially disliked each other. Senna won eight races, Prost seven.

This year, with Rubens Barrichello mopping up Ferrari's ration of bad luck and subject to team orders when he does get off the line, there is not even that consolation.

The danger for the casual follower is that this disguises the fact there is consolation to be found elsewhere, as Barcelona confirmed. For the last 20 or so laps, the Spanish television director, as bored as the rest of us by following a red car racing unchallenged, focused on the battle for points going onbehind Schumacher, and it made for interesting viewing.

Juan Pablo Montoya's second place means he has yet tofail to finish, and although Ralf Schumacher made a rare mistake before a last-lap engine failure, Williams BMW have power and reliability, with the overall package not as far behind Ferrari as the Spanish Grand Prix implied.

Although BMW motorsport chief Gerhard Berger replied: "Australia, Malaysia and Brazil," when asked where he expected the team to be genuinely competitive - in other words, at the start of next season - Austria gives them an opportunity to put some pressure on the Italian team.

The immediate prognosis forMcLaren is somewhat less promising. Kimi Raikkonen has taken out his frustrations with ahaircut of uncompromising ferocity, while David Coul-thard, who did at least finish in Spain, has settled into the role of thwarted martyr. The Scot has a good record in Austria, winning last year and finishing second on the previous four occasions, but in his current mood Coulthard would probably settle for beating Jenson Button. It may not be the battle he had in mind at the beginning of the season, but Coulthard's weekend-long duel with the Englishman's Renault looks as though it could run all season.

Button split the McLarens inqualifying and was ahead ofCoulthard in third until a hydraulic problem saw him retire, but Renault's continued advance is welcome news. Significant, too, in terms of what F1 refers to as "the show" was the point scored by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Arrows, who are starting to explore the full potential of their Cosworth engines. The German was closing on Felipe Massa's Sauber at the end, and team technical director Mike Coughlan said the next target was a podium finish. "Scoring points is pleasing, but it's more of a relief to be on the pace and competitive with Sauber. There's a lot of improvement to come, and we need to work out a set-up which suits Heinz-Harald's style, but we've proved to Cosworth we're serious," Coughlan said.

It may not be coincidence that Arrows made the step forward after completing a long test at Silverstone the previous week, a rare event for Tom Walkinshaw's tightly funded team. Testing is the latest expense targeted by those who insist the sport must cut costs ifthe smaller teams are to stay in business.

The top teams put in thousands of laps on empty circuits, refining their cars at huge expense, and the FIA, the sport's governing body, is arguing that the practice would be better confined to the Fridays before races.

However, Ron Dennis of McLaren is among those who claim the issue is not about saving money per se but about "levelling the technical playing field".

Is this really such a terrible aspiration? "No," said Dennis, "but banning testing isn't the way; the cheapest place to develop a car is on the circuit. Testing on Friday would cost a fortune, because instead of making one new part, you'd make four or five just in case itworks and you want to use it in a race."

Of more immediate interest, however, is whether the draconian new penalty looming over drivers deemed to have caused an avoidable collision - losing 10 places on the grid at the next race - reduces the number of shunts for which Austria has become notorious. Given that the next race is in Monaco, where grid position is critical, it probably will, thus reducing interest still further.

oEcclestone to cut costs of F1, Business, Section 3

Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 2002

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