Two European rounds so far in this year’s world championship, and two Fenari victories. The trio of season-opening flyaway races gave us lots of topsy-turvy excitement and, once the Brazil timesheets had been disentangled, three different winners. But has F1 now settled back into the same old groove of Ferrari domination?
Not necessarily. M. Schumacher delivered a pole/victory/fastest lap clean sweep in both European races, one with last year’s car, one with the elegant new 2003/GA chassis. But at Imola his brother Ralf’s Williams-BMW was second-fastest qualifier, leading until its first pitstop; and the McLaren of championship leader Kirni Raikkonen came through hard from sixth on the grid to prevent a Ferrari one-two. In Barcelona the biggest Spanish F1 audience that anyone can remember saw local hero Fernando Alonso push Schumacher relentlessly for the full distance, and conquer Rubens Barrichello in the other new Ferrari with some ease.
The Renault’s excellent aerodynamics suited the Catalunya circuit perfectly, while its comparative power disadvantage was less of a handicap there. However, the key ingredient in Renault’s best result in modern times was the calm, confident and consistently hard-charging 21-year-old in the cockpit. Alonso was brilliant in Malaysia — his first pole and his first podium, despite raging ‘flu and a recalcitrant gearbox — and hugely fast in Brazil, earning another third place even though his collision with Mark Webber’s wreckage meant that his afternoon’s work ended in the medical centre rather than on the podium. But in Barcelona, spurred on by all those wildly waved Spanish flags, he was really special.
It’s a cliché the journalists love: a driver who is racing in front of his home crowd can always dig a little deeper, find a little extra something that he didn’t know was there. But it’s an assumption that most Fl drivers privately treat with disdain, notwithstanding the polite noises they make in press conferences about how happy they are to be at their home race. They reckon that, as professionals, they will always race as hard as they know how, whatever the circuit, whoever the crowd. Moreover, they will usually admit off the record that at their home race it’s actually harder to do a good job, because their whole weekend is plagued with more interviews, more publicity shots, more hand-shakings and more media work, all of which get in the way of concentrating on the task in hand.
And yet history doesn’t entirely bear this out. After all, a driver is a human being, not a machine. The excited adulation of a noisy crowd cheering him on has to produce some sort of psychological effect, some extra snippet of motivation, however hard he may try to deny it. Hans Stuck maintains that, during the 1977 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, he could actually hear, despite his earplugs and the scream of his Brabham’s flat-12 Alfa engine, the crowd roaring when he dived out of the forest and into the stadium section and they realised he’d moved into third place. Perhaps that was his imagination, but he would certainly have been visually aware of those massed grandstands erupting with delight.
Nigel Mansell, of course, never made any secret of his love for the British crowd, and his strange internal mixture of exhibitionism and insecurity fed on their worship, producing some of the greatest races of his career — not least those conquests of Williams team-mate Nelson Piquet at Brands in 1986 and Silverstone in 1987.
Fangio, as quiet and undemonstrative as Mansell was neither, was capable of winning anywhere. But his majestic Argentine Grand Prix victories four years on the trot just seemed right and proper: no-one presumed to beat the Old Man at home. Emerson Fittipaldi won the first two Brazilian Grands Prix, and Carlos Pace the third, all to rapturous acclaim from the Interlagos crowds: Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna both won there twice. How ironic, then, that the home win that Rubens Barrichello craves still eludes him.
Gilles Villeneuve’s maiden grand prix win came in Montreal, on the track that is now named after him, and was one of those special moments in motor racing. As was Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s French Grand Prix win at Dijon in 1979, because JPJ had quietly lived, breathed and sweated that Renault turbo project ever since its hesitant first race at Silverstone just 26 races and 24 months before. It was a totally French effort and so it was particularly satisfying that its first win happened at home.
Alonso’s fine race in Spain wasn’t quite a victory, of course, but for me it echoed some other great home drives by youngsters early in their career. Jean Alesi’s first F1 drive was in France — Paul Ricard in 1989 — and resulted in a storybook fourth place. And just last year Mark Webber was fifth in his first-ever F1 race in his native Australia.
In 1986, in his first season with Benetton, Gerhard Berger led his home race at the Österreichring from a front-row start until a flat battery, of all things, sent him into the pits. His climb back to seventh place earned him fastest lap.
More esoteric, perhaps, was Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s brilliant drive in dangerously wet conditions in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. Bridgestone, taking its first hesitant steps in F1, had made a small supply of tyres for his privately-entered Tyrrell. From 21st on the grid, Hoshino was an unbelievable third by lap 13. But, as the track began to dry out, his tyres wore fast. After the third set were used up there were none left, and he was reduced to a spectator.
Alonso’s Barcelona drive was in tune with one of the most pleasing themes of this F1 season: the rise of a new generation. Raikkonen is 23 years old, and little more than three years ago he was in Formula Renault. Jenson Button, with 56 grands prix under his belt now and consistently out-qualifying and out-racing his 32-year-old ex-world champion team-mate, is also 23. Michael Schumacher is 13 years older than the man who was pushing him so hard in Spain, and has started 160 more grands prix.
To many TV watchers Fernando seems a complete newcomer, but of course two seasons ago, aged 19, he was already in F1 with Minardi. To the outside world, qualifying on the back row, and finishing 13th or retiring from a lowly position goes pretty much unnoticed. But insiders watched him doing a sterling job with uncompetitive equipment, and marked him down as a man to watch.
The speed with which Alonso has adapted to racing for one of the top teams underlines the key role that Minardi has played in F1 for so long, both during Giancarlo Minardi’s dedicated reign and now under the ever-determined Paul Stoddard. Some of its apprentices brought cash and little else, and rapidly disappeared again: drivers like Gaston Mazzacane and Esteban Tuero. Others — Giancarlo Fisichella, Jamo Trulli and most recently the impressive Webber — have parlayed their Minardi experience into well-deserved membership of the F1 establishment. Now lying third in the drivers’ championship, Alonso is just about the most sought-after individual in the paddock, although it will no doubt take a lot to prise him from Flavio Briatore’s iron financial grip.
Meanwhile, this year’s Minardi hopeful is reaping much valuable experience from qualifying and racing near the back, and impressing a lot of people as he does so. As those who watched him in Formula 3000 will know, Justin Wilson, quietly spoken and almost bashful out of the cockpit, is hugely brave in it. He is not remotely overwhelmed by racing in the world’s most daunting company, as his extraordinary starts confirm. In Australia, his first grand prix, admittedly on tyres that were temporarily ideal for the changing conditions, he went from the back of the grid to ninth in the opening laps. In Spain, from 18th on the grid, he was eighth at the end of the first lap — and this in a car that not only lacks the horsepower and testing miles of its rivals, but also certainly doesn’t boast launch control. It would be fascinating to see how well Justin could perform, with the experience of this year behind him, in a more competitive car next season. There’s not always much justice in the cruel world of F1, but it would certainly be just desserts for Justin if he were to follow Alonso and Webber into a more competitive drive.
The pundits always reckoned that Imola and Barcelona would be Ferrari races. Looking ahead, Monaco’s result will probably depend on Saturday’s qualifying, as it usually does, but Austria and Canada should be more open. Clearly the new Ferrari is a great car, but Renault’s package is coming on in leaps and bounds, and Williams, after a difficult start to the season, are desperate to start putting it together. And we haven’t seen the new McLaren yet…