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Simon Taylor

After Max Mosley’s comprehensive revamp of Formula One’s regulations, some cynics have been talking about New F1 in tones they normally reserve for New Labour. But they can’t deny that the first three grands prix of 2003 have been dramatic, exciting, unpredictable, and chock-full of good old-fashioned motor racing. Inevitably, however, they’ve also been chock-full of controversy, some of which has not always shown F1 in a good light.

For example the latest tyre rules, in the interests of financial economies, oblige the tyre companies to take just one type of wet-pattern rubber to each race. Mysteriously, both Bridgestone and Michelin chose to arrive in the meteorologically uncertain climes of Interlagos with intermediates only. This potentially very dangerous error must not be allowed to reoccur.

Meanwhile, the same FIA that threatened to drop Silverstone from the F1 calendar because of its poor car park drainage was able to pass Interlagos as fit to run a grand prix, with drainage that carefully funnelled rainwater onto Turn Three, producing a veritable river across the track. The river continued to flow even when the rest of the circuit was drying, and helped the world champion and five more of the world’s top drivers to aquaplane off the road. This, remember, is the same circuit where overhead advertising hoardings have fallen into the path of the cars passing underneath. The cost of the dead car park piled up at Turn Three must have been rather more than the cost either of flying a few more tyres to Sao Paulo Airport, or building a better drain.

Some, at least, of Mosley’s brave new rule initiatives seem to work rather well. But there is a general consensus that the ban on refuelling after qualifying is wrong. You’ll remember that each car now has to start the race with the same fuel it had on board for qualifying. So different race strategies produce different qualifying weights during the single lap that counts.

This may help to shake up the grid, but it has diminished qualifying as a spectacle, because it is no longer a straight contest or a meaningful comparison. The fault in my view isn’t with the single-car qualifying itself, but with the lack of a level playing field during the Saturday afternoon process. Once refuelling is allowed before the race, single-car qualifying should start to work perfectly well.

Enough of the politics: what of the racing? Uncertain weather muddled Ferrari’s thinking in Australia, and a driver error by Schumacher in the first corner hobbled Ferrari’s race in Malaysia. Then Interlagos gave this team its first race without a point for more than three years. McLaren, by contrast, has won three races on the trot. Williams has continued to flatter to deceive, but Renault is coming on strong and now lies second in the constructors’ championship. And Jaguar and Jordan are starting to show useful glimmers of form.

For the Brazilian nation, and for Rubens Barrichello’s friends and fans everywhere, the real story of Interlagos was the cruel luck which forced Rubinho’s ninth consecutive retirement in his home grand prix. He drove a highly intelligent, controlled race, paced himself perfectly, and stayed calmly on the track when his team leader fell off. This time he’d really got this race won. He wanted it so badly, and just about everyone else wanted it for him too. When did a Ferrari last suffer a fuel system failure, for heaven’s sake?

Might-have-beens have never meant much in motor racing but, quite apart from Barrichello’s misfortune, we had plenty of them in Brazil. Giancarlo Fisichella, driving the race of his life, slithered bravely past Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren to take the lead for Jordan. Then Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso had their horrifying accidents, and the race was stopped. But a fairy-tale victory for Fisi (it would have been his first), and for Eddie Jordan’s sorely cash-strapped team, was snatched away by the confusing countback rule, which takes the positions at the end of the lap before the incident that caused the red flag.

There were more: Jenson Button, driving a strong race for BAR and once again outpacing team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, was running ahead of eventual winner Raikkonen when he fell foul of the Turn Three water. (The ever-petulant Jacques got in a dig at his team-mate afterwards by saying the conditions weren’t that bad, it was the driving that was incompetent.)

Webber was in many ways the hero of the weekend: Friday’s weather helped him to be fastest in first qualifying, but he turned this into a strong third place on the grid. Until his accident he’d driven an impressively fast, consistent race, and Jaguar’s strategy had him refuelled to the end ahead of all the cars in front of him. But for his accident, this could have been a podium for Mark.

Alonso must have had his head well down when Webber’s crash happened, and perhaps his radio wasn’t working, for the flags had been waving for some time when he cannoned into the Jaguar’s wreckage. Instead of standing on the third step of the podium, he left the circuit on a stretcher. But this 21-year-old Spaniard, the youngest driver in F1, is a real talent. His Malaysian race was superb: pole position, and third place with raging ‘flu and a dodgy gearshift. His third place in Brazil was just as special, for it included two extra visits to the pits, one for a stop-go because in his enthusiasm he passed under a yellow flag, and one because Renault gave him the wrong tyres during his routine stop.

The might-have-been closest to home, however, is David Coulthard. After winning in Australia, he almost certainly would have won in Malaysia, but for an electrical failure early in the race. And in Brazil he drove a typically mature, controlled race, always very quick, always on the limit — although his Michelin intermediates coped less well with the drying track than Barrichello’s Bridgestones — and he was leading comfortably when he took his final routine stop. The three cars ahead of him still had their stops to come when the race was red-flagged, turning 10 points for him into five. Now he’s 11 points behind his young team-mate, and unsurprisingly he’s not very happy about that.

David’s loss was Kimi’s gain, and either way Ron Dennis was all smiles. It’s not the first time that McLaren has come out ahead in a red-flag situation. For me, the rain-induced chaos of Brazil conjured up memories of the 1975 British GP. During a wet-and-dry afternoon the Silverstone rain abruptly returned on lap 54. Within two laps 13 cars had slithered off into the wire catchfences, which were then the latest thing in safety provisions. Some cars were so wrapped in fencing that their drivers were trapped: a couple were concussed by the poles, one of which flew into the crowd and injured a spectator. Emerson Fittipaldi was declared the winner for McLaren — deservedly so, for he’d stayed on the track. The next four finishers, Pace, Scheckter, Hunt and Donohue, had already crashed, but kept their places on the countback rule.

At Monaco in 1984, at the point when clerk of the course Jacky Ickx decided the soaking conditions were too dangerous and stopped the race, Alain Prost’s McLaren was leading. He was being rapidly caught, as we all remember, by Ayrton Senna’s Toleman, but even more rapidly, as is often forgotten, by Stefan Bellof’s Tyrrell. Actually, the rain was easing. But Prost, in big trouble with the McLaren’s brakes, said afterwards that he would not have tried too hard to hold Senna off. If the race had lasted another two or three laps, Senna would have scored his first F1 win — or Bellof his only one.

As today’s teams return from Brazil for the first European race at Imola, Max Mosley has called two meetings — one with the team managers and technical directors, and one with the team principals — to discuss the new rules. He stresses that no actual rule changes will be permitted. This is just to establish if all the new procedures are working properly. But Max will be aware of Bernie Ecclestone’s surprisingly heated outburst to a Brazilian reporter after qualifying in Malaysia, which he found: “Horrible. They aren’t driving on the limit, yet they don’t have the chance to beat a driver who has bettered their time. There’s no fighting — the excitement of qualifying is gone.” Overt disagreement between FIA President Mosley and FOA President Ecclestone is rare: if they differ on this, a battle between them is an intriguing prospect.

But not as intriguing as the continuing battles on track between the old guard, Schumacher and Coulthard, and the new talent, Raikkonen and Alonso, with Barrichello, Montoya and Fisichella desperate to make up for their disappointments, and more surprises from the likes of Webber, Button and even Wilson. And, on their home ground at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, Ferrari will at last field the F2003-GA, its new car.

Whether because of Mosley’s new rules, or despite them, this seems to be turning into a vintage season.