Modern Times

Every so often, Formula One delivers up a special moment. At the time it may merely be part of the general excitement. But, as the dust settles, you decipher a greater historical significance, and you realise you've been shown a glimpse of the future.

When Juan Pablo Montoya dived inside Michael Schumacher at the end of that bumpy, undulating 190mph straight at Interlagos into the plunging second-gear Senna S, we witnessed such a moment On the third lap of only his third grand prix, the young Colombian was elbowing through to take the lead, rubbing wheels with the Ferrari and edging it briefly onto the grass. And there was nothing that Schumacher, so talented, so experienced, so hard, could do about it.

Afterwards — sinprisingly for today's F1 — there was no acrimony, for Schumacher realised here was a new rival he had to respect. "He got it right," said the world champion. "He braked very late, he pushed me wide, we touched. It is not a problem. It is normal racing." Reading between the lines, that says Schuey is relishing further battles with Montoya, and on the track rather than in the press room. In Formula One, the pendulum swings slowly: but it is certainly swinging up now for Williams and for BMW, who are generally believed to have produced the most powerful engine on the grid. Nevertheless, a mass of power in a chassis that needs lots of wing to get around the corners isn't going to win races, and it's clear that the Michelin-shod 2001 Williams makes up an excellent package.

And Montoya is making wonderful use of it Almost more impressive than his race performance was his wild qualifying session. It isn't in Juan Pablo's nature to be daunted by an Fl car, as his opposite-lock slides around Turn Eight at Interlagos bear witness. On his first flyer in qualifying, he got out of shape at Mergulho, a 120mph left. Rather than aborting the lap, he kept his right foot buried and fought the car. After a tank-slapper of heroic proportions, the car won, and on his pits TV, Patrick Head saw the upsetting sight of the Williams in the barriers. Expletives deleted.

But Montoya redeemed himself by pounding back up the hillside in the heat — the accident had happened far away on the other side of the circuit — to be strapped into the spare can That he followed all this by qualifying it on the second row shows we are dealing with someone special.

The next day, as Montoya drew away from Schumacher, we all surmised that the Williams had to be carrying less fuel than the Ferrari, and was on a two-stopper. Actually it was the other way round. Montoya had 40kg more fuel on board than did Schumacher, as we realised when the Ferrari came in atone-third distance, and the Williams sailed serenely on.

The ridiculous incident when the lapped Jos Verstappen missed his braking point and slammed into the back of the Williams leaves us guessing how Montoya and the Michelin wets would have dealt with the rain, let alone an inspired Coulthard in a McLaren set up for a wet track. As it was, the shunt brought more proof of Montoya's mental strength: back at the pits afterwards he was relaxed and good-humoured. "In racing," he said, "I have learned to be patient" I don't think he'll have to be patient for long before he's an F1 winner.

If Juan Pablo had won his third grand prix, he'd have been — apart from Giancarlo Baghetti's freak 1961 Reims win — a record-breaker.

Emerson Fittipaldi, won his fourth, the 1970 United States Grand Prix. It was a moving day for Colin Chapman, whose Team Lotus had been devastated by the death of Jochen Rindt four weeks before. That, plus the departure ofJohn Miles, had abruptly elevated the 23-year-old Brazilian from apprentice to team leader, and the Watkins Glen win did a lot to put Lotus morale back together — not unlike Damon Hill's 1994 Barcelona win for Williams, four weeks after Senna's death.

Jacques Villeneuve, like Montoya a ChampCar champion, equalled Emerson's mark when he won his fourth F1 race, the 1996 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

Equally impressive in its way was the achievement of Clay Regazzoni. The moustachioed Swiss started his F1 career in 1970 at the ripe old age of 30, finished third in that year's championship behind Rindt and Ferrari team-mate Icloc, and won his fifthever grand prix, in front of the ecstatic tifosi at Monza. Watching Montoya pulling away from Schumacher in Brazil, my mind was rewinding some special moments of the past.

Senna, in the lorry-like Toleman, closing in on Proses McLaren in the wet at Monte Carlo in 1984. It was his fifth grand prix; but, unlike Montoya, he was in an uncompetitive car. Mike Hawthorn outfumbling Fangio to win the French Grand Prix at Reims in 1953 — he'd done a handful of grands prix the year before in an F2 Cooper-Bristol, but it was only his fourth Ferrari drive. Jochen Rindt coming alive in the closing laps of the 1970 Monaco GP, his Lotus 49C bearing down on Jack Brabham's leading BT33 and pressuring him into a mistake on the final comer of the race. But that was Jochen's 54th grand prix, and only his second victory. The man of whom Jenks said: "If he ever wins a grand prix, I'll shave off my beard" drove only six more grands prix. He won four of them, and by the time we were mourning his loss, he was champion.

And I thought of other moments that marked a change in F1's direction. Stirling Moss in Argentina in 1958, of course, beating the Ferraris on threadbare tyres and heralding the coming of the rear-engined revolution. But also Jackie Stewart in the rain at Zandvoort 10 years later, using Dunlop's latest wet-weather tyre on the Matra-Ford to score the first of 25 grand prix victories for Ken Tyrrell. And the maiden Williams win, ironically for Regazzoni after Williams' main man Alan Jones had retired with water pump failure, at Silverstone in 1979. It had taken Frank 88 hard and rocky grands prix to get to that first win, but of the next 290 his cars won an extraordinary 102. That was a change of direction right enough.

There hasn't been a Williams win since they lost the Renault engine at the end of 1997,54 races ago; but now the BMW engine deal is bearing fruit And while we fete Montoya, let's remember that Ralf Schumacher qualified on the front row and, after being another victim of Barrichello's earlylap enthusiasms, restarted after repairs and conclusively set fastest lap. But most of all, seeing Montoya lead Michael Schumacher put me in mind of another seminal moment on the same circuit seven years ago, when the young Michael Schumacher in a Benetton was outpacing three-times world champion Ayrton Senna in his Williams — until Senna spun off.

Most people think of Alain Prost as the major rival of Senna's career, but the man a top driver most fears is the one on the way up who shows he can beat him. (It's no coincidence that the wily Fangio was keen to have Stirling Moss join him at Mercedes in 1955.) Senna's tragic death robbed us of mighy battles to come between the greatest driver of his era and the young pretender. Now Michael is where Senna was, the greatest driver of his era. After Brazil, he may well see Montoya, in terms of aggressiveness and threat, as the young pretender.

Usually, Michael will acknowledge only Mika Haltinen as a rival whose talent he takes seriously — although this may have something to do with winding up David Coulthard. And David certainly did the job in Brazil.

In Malaysia, Ferrari had the luck — both cars off the track meant they were slightly later in the pits for their change to rain tyres than were the McLarens, and those vital few extra seconds were enough to tell Ross Brawn that the Safety Car was coming out and that intermediates would therefore be a better bet.

In Brazil, by contrast, David's insistence on going for a wet-weather chassis set-up played a major part in his win — and it makes his aggressive charge in the early laps all the more impressive, for his McLaren can't have been nice to drive during the majority of the race, when it was dry. It was perhaps the strongest and most mature of David's 10 victories, and it was water in the desert for the beleaguered McLaren team.

But Schumacher's defeat in Brazil, initially by Montoya and ultimately by Coulthard, doesn't mean the end of Ferrari's superiority quite yet. Schumacher's car wasn't handling as he wanted over the Interlagos bumps, and the degree of wing needed on this circuit meant that the lack of balance the McLarens had shown in Australia and Malaysia was less in evidence. So, while Coulthard has put a stop to Schumacher's run of wins, Michael has to remain favourite for the championship. It's just great news that, thanks to McLaren's recovery, the rebirth of Williams, and a sparkling new recruit to the ranks of the world's real racers, he may have to work alit debit harder for it.