Things are looking up for Formula One. After last year’s worries about falling TV ratings and dwindling column inches, we’ve had two stories that were heaven-sent for the tabloids, and just right for getting the Sunday afternoon couch potatoes to switch over from the Eastenders omnibus.
First, the world champion’s car bursts into flames during a refuelling stop. Our superhero sees the flames in his mirror, nonchalantly accelerates out of the pits to blow the fire out, and charges back up the field to win the race. Hollywood couldn’t have done it better. Then the dashing young golden Brit, screaming around the millionaire-thronged streets of Monaco, crashes at 180mph within sight of the yachts in the harbour. From the stretcher he pleads with the doctors: Let me back in the car — I want to race.
That, give or take a dramatic adjective or two, is more or less how the media handled these two incidents. One can be cynical about their coverage, but certainly not about the individuals concerned. Michael Schumacher’s calm reaction in Austria to what might have been a serious fire was courageous professionalism. And Jenson Button’s accident revived frightening memories of Karl Wendlinger’s similar accident at the same spot in 1994, so it was a relief when we learned that, apart from concussion, he was more or less uninjured.
The media must find stories where it can, so Sunday morning’s papers were plastered with lurid pictures of Button strapped to a stretcher as he was removed from the wreckage of his BAR-Honda. He didn’t race, simply because Professor Sid Watkins, the redoubtable F1 doctor, said he shouldn’t. Sid is a renowned neurosurgeon and believes that, if you’ve had a bang on the head severe enough to induce concussion, you shouldn’t run the risk 24 hours later of another bang, because two such traumas close together can combine to produce more lasting damage.
But for those who like racing, the real Button story from Monaco was his performance in first qualifying: third-quickest behind the Ferraris, a stunning performance which boded well for the race. As it turned out, while Bridgestone was the rubber to have on Thursday’s dirty track, by Saturday qualifying and in the race Michelin had a substantial edge. The Bridgestone-shod Ferrari F2003-GA and Michael Schumacher’s genius were only good enough for fifth on the grid and third at the flag, and Button’s BAR, also on Bridgestones, would have had a harder task come race day. But the young Englishman’s driving keeps improving: it’s unjust that, in his fourth F1 season, he has still to make a podium, for he’s turned in several drives that merited it.
As for Schumacher in Austria, the real story for me had less to do with that fire and more to do with his speed on the track, particularly on his Saturday qualifying lap. In the first sector he made a mistake and was a fat 0.16sec down on Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren. But he applied himself to getting that back and more, and took pole by 0.039sec: very rewarding to watch, and a vindication of the one-lap qualifying system. (Even the formerly critical Bernie Ecclestone has learned to love it: on the grid he wandered down to 14th spot, where David Coulthard was languishing, and gave him one of his quizzical leers: “This one-lap qualifying’s great, isn’t it?”).
Come the race, and not only Schumacher but also the entire Ferrari team coped with the fuel-rig drama with controlled brilliance. In the first stops Rubens Barrichello’s rig didn’t work properly, and they had to switch to Michael’s to get the Brazilian filled and out. It was fuel retained in the nozzle from Ruben’s stop that caught fire when Michael came in two laps later. So once he was back in the race the Ferrari mechanics had 20 minutes to take the rigs to pieces and ensure that, out of the two, one would be working properly when the second stops came around. They did so, and Schumacher won.
But the potential disaster of a pits fire once again focuses attention on the wisdom, or otherwise, of refuelling stops. The Austrian incident was the first F1 fire since Irvine’s Jordan at Spa in 1995, a year after the horrendous conflagration at Hockenheim involving Jos Verstappen’s Benetton. But whether we like it or not, refuelling is here to stay, for a race without pitstops today, particularly on a track like Monte Carlo, really would be a procession. And the ebb and flow of the strategies does provide its own opportunity for hard racing. Schumacher’s speed on his in- and out-laps is one of his specialities, and this year at Monaco Fernando Alonso put on a brilliant charge when the scrapping Jamo Trulli and David Coulthard ahead of him made their second stops. So when he stopped he was able to come out of the pits ahead of them, and convert his seventh place into fifth. That’s F1 today: overtaking happens in the pits, not on the track.
Refuelling strategies aren’t new in grand prix racing, of course. In 1950, while the 1.5-litre supercharged 158 Alfa Romeos swept all before them, Ferrari designer Aurelio Lampredi reasoned that a less thirsty, lower-revving, normally aspirated 4.5-litre would have to carry less weight of fuel, and make fewer pitstops. The Alfas were carrying up to 66 gallons of methanol in several tanks spread around the car, and still needed three refuelling stops in the longest races. When Gonzalez’s Ferrari beat the Alfas at Silverstone in July 1951 it was the end of an era.
Fangio’s greatest race, the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in 1957, was also a matter of fuel strategy, although as it turned out he won despite, rather than because of, this. The 2.5-litre F1 cars of the day could carry enough fuel for the 300-mile race distances, but Fangio decided to run light for the first half and make a mid-race fuel stop. The pitstop went horribly wrong and he lost all the advantage he’d built up over the Ferraris of Hawthorn and Collins, and then some: but as we all know he turned in the drive of his life and still won the race. That day, the overtaking was certainly on the track.
In more modern times, refuelling returned in 1982 courtesy of Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team and the ever-ingenious Gordon Murray, who calculated that time lost in a pitstop for fuel and rubber would be offset by the advantage of running lighter before the stop, and the better grip after it. Air jacks were fitted to the BMW turbo-powered BT50, fuel pumping equipment — primitive and dangerous by modern standards — was assembled, and the first stops came in Austria in August. Nelson Piquet arrived in the Brabham pit several laps early, and lost almost a minute in the ensuing confusion. However, team-mate Riccardo Patrese took on four new tyres and 24 gallons of fuel in 15.6 seconds: it was the first modem routine stop. Murray’s wheeze was to have as far-reaching an effect on Formula One as had Colin Chapman’s idea 14 years earlier of painting the Lotuses to look like red-white-and-gold cigarette packets.
Successful innovation soon gets copied in F1, and by 1983 all the teams were getting into routine pitstops and fuel strategies. Concerned about safety, the FIA banned refuelling the following year. A decade later Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, keen to increase the spectacle, forced it in again. Now regulation fuel tank sizes have effectively made it mandatory — although at Monaco in 1997 Mika Salo, in a race slowed by rain, was somehow able to make his Tyrrell go the full distance without a pitstop, and scored fifth-place points. That effort will go into the history books as probably the last full-distance, non-stop drive in an F1 race.
This year at Monaco, Juan Pablo Montoya’s victory was Williams’ first since Monza 2001, and its first on the Monte Carlo streets since ’83, when Keke Rosberg used slicks on a damp track to score the finest win of his career. Montoya had been leading in Austria until his engine failed, and in the closing laps at Monaco the BMW engineers were worried about Juan Pablo’s engine and told him to reduce revs — which is why Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren got so close at the end. But after three wins on the trot, the 2003 Ferrari was this time beaten fair and square, even if the excellent Michelin tyres deserved much of the credit. Improvements to the Williams are clearly bearing fruit, and the new McLaren will be along soon. Now the only team among the ‘Big Four’ without a win this year is Renault, and Alonso’s day can’t be too far away.
So forget all those tabloid headlines. Here’s the real reason why Formula One is back in fashion: the racing seems to be getting better again.