Modern Times

Everyone was delighted by Rubens Barrichello’s triumph in the German Grand Prix — except perhaps Ron Dennis. Unlike so many maiden wins, this was bravely and fairly won, and did not rely on the opposition conveniently dropping out. Indeed, an electrical problem in qualifying had relegated Rubens to 18th on the grid, and nobody has won in Formula One from that far back since John Watson’s great Michelin-shod victory from the 11th row at Long Beach in 1983.

Rubens is probably the friendliest, most approachable driver in the F1 paddock, and remains unspoilt by the prizes and pressures of grand prix life. For several seasons he laboured under the load of the label that Brazil had given him: the successor to Ayrton Senna. Jackie Stewart helped him shed that and learn to race for himself rather than for a hero’s ghost — although, inevitably, Rubens emotionally dedicated his German victory to Ayrton’s memory.

It took Rubens 124 starts to get to his first grand prix victory: but, like Jenson Button, he was only 20 years old when he started in Fl. His last win was as a teenager in F3, when he beat a young Scot called Coultharcl to take the British title. He showed his wetweather talent in his third-ever Fl race, the infamously slippery 1993 European GP at Donington Park. His Jordan ran a startling second to Senna until its fuel pressure sagged with five laps to go.

The rain in Germany wasn’t responsible for the bewildering sight of a mentally unstable protester wandering onto the track, nor for Michael Schumacher ending his second race on the trot at the first corner. But it did produce an enthralling qualifying, when David Coulthard’s charging opportunism earned him a time 1.4sec ahead of Schumacher and Hakkinen in the same track conditions. Then the weather got worse. If it hadn’t begun to dry in the final minutes of the session, one R Barrichello would not have got into the race.

And the same Hockenheim rain gave us treacherously inconsistent conditions in the closing stages of the race itself, with the track dry in some places and awash in others. That was Barrichello’s opportunity to produce the drive of his life. He’d started light on fuel to help his progress up from the ninth row — from 18th to fifth in the first six laps — and had already had to stop twice for fuel. So, after a little chat with Ross Brawn over the radio, he opted to stay out on his grooved slicks. Meanwhile first Hakkinen and then Coulthard, both finding the McLarens very nervous over the slippery patches, came in for wets. So did every other finisher — and, at the chequered flag, the lone Ferrari had won by ‘7.4sec. It was one of the great wet-weather victories.

Those conditions, of course, were tailor-made for Michael Schumacher. But it was nobody’s fault but his own that he had to watch from the sidelines, having taken himself into the barriers on the first corner, and with him poor Giancarlo Fisichella (whom Schumacher blamed, of course). He’s managed to gain official approval this year for his infamous start-line swerve, even though Villeneuve, Irvine and others have said that sooner or later an accident would result. So at Hockenheim Coulthard, grappling with wheelspin, understandably used the same FIA-approved technique. Schumacher, on the receiving end for a change, found out the hard way that if you do your swerve when the rest of the field is already engulfing you, you’re going to get hit. Which is just what happened.

Rain has always been a great F1 leveller. Barrichello’s win made me think of another maiden victory, that ofJean-Pierre Beltoise. At Monaco in 1972 the rain was torrential, the track waterlogged, and this too was no lucky victory, for Jean-Pierre shot into the lead straight from the second row and stayed there for the entire 80 laps, setting fastest lap and leading home Ickx (Ferrari), Fittipaldi (Lotus) and Stewart (Tyrrell). It was to be his only grand prix win — and BRM’s last.

Another memorably wet Monaco was 1984. For five glorious laps, until he slid into the bathers, Nigel Mansell’s Lotus was in front — the first time Our Noige ever led a grand prix. By lap 30, with the conditions worsening, leader Main Prost was gesticulating to clerk of the course Jacky Ickx to stop the race. This had rather a lot to do with the fact that an ungainly Toleman, a car never seen as a serious threat by the top teams, was catching Prost’s McLaren hand over fist At the wheel, in his fifth Fl race, was the young SennaIckx duly stopped the race and Prost was the winner. By then the furious Senna, having set by far the fastest lap, was just seven seconds behind. Ayrton had to wait until the next wet race, at Estoril 10 months later, to demonstrate his superiority and score his first win. By then he was in a Lotus, and he won by over a minute.

Spa has always had more than its fair share of rain. In 1997 the race had to start behind the safety car. Twelve cars piled up on the first lap in ’98, and then Schumacher controversially ran into the back of Coulthard. The part wet, part dry Hockenheim conditions recalled the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix, when the cars rushed away from a dry grid and, cresting the brow at Burnenville, hit a wall of rain. Only seven cars made it round the opening lap, including Jochen Rindt’s CooperMaserati, which had a terrifying multiple spin at over 150mph in the Masta Kink without hitting anything. One of the injured was Jackie Stewart: lying trapped and semi-conscious in his BRM, soaked in fuel, he vowed to make racing safer. Indirectly, that Belgian squall in 1966 was to save many drivers’ lives.

Then there was the hailstorm that ended the 1975 British Grand Prix. Of the 19 cars still rurming when the rain got really bad, 13 went off the road during the closing laps, and Silverstone’s Stowe Corner looked like an Fl scrapyard.

But my favourite is Austria ’75, the mad day when it rained, began to chy, and then rained again. In the murk and spray several cars spun off, and neither drivers nor spectators knew what was going on. When they stopped the race, incredibly, Vittorio Brambilla’s March was in the lead. No works March had ever won a grand prix before, certainly not one driven by either of the Brambilla brothers, affectionately known as the Monza Gorillas. Vittorio was so overjoyed at winning that he raised an ecstatic arm aloft as he crossed the line — and went off the road into the barriers.

There was lots of joy and ecstasy at Hockenheim, with Rubinho’s tears mingling with the champagne and the general damp. But Ron Dennis, as I said, celebrated Barrichello’s win in a more muted manner than most He reckoned the plastic-mac figure that brought out the first safety car lost McLaren a 1-2. Come on, Ron: safety car periods can be part of any race. Fl is about adapting your strategy to the unexpected, on the hoof. And that’s what Ross Brawn is so good at

Nevertheless, I agree with Dennis about one thing. As we noted here last month, the grinding acrimony between Ferrari and McLaren is nothing new, but I have to record a fresh and unattractive facet of this longrunning soap opera. Hakkinen, refreshed after his holiday, scored a born-again victory in the Austrian GP ahead of team-mate Coulthard, but in post-race scrutineering one of the two FIA seals on his car’s electronic black box was found to be missing. The FIA enquiry that followed found that, whatever the explanation for the missing seal, the software was totally legal. Haldtinen kept his victory and the 10 drivers’ championship points that went with it, but oddly McLaren were docked 10 points from their constructors’ score, and fined $50,000.

It emerged later that Jean Todt, Ferrari’s team manager, had written to the FIA, calling on them to disqualify both Haldtinen and Coulthard from the Austrian race. It was an unseemly effort to lobby the FIA over something which wasn’t his affair, and one hopes that the FIA treated it with disdain. But the penalty imposed on McLaren’s score did, of course, give Ferrari back the constructors’ lead.

In Germany there was another Ferrari matter which left a nasty taste. During a yellow-flag period Jamo Trulli was coming into Turn One as Banichello left the pits, and the Jordan was alongside and past the Ferrari as it came out of the pit exit lane. Todt immediately fired off an e-mail via the system that allows teams instant communication with race control, to the effect that Trulli had overtaken under a yellow and should be penalised.

Obediently, the stewards told the Jordan pit to bring their man in for a 10-second stop-go penalty. Jarno was lying second to Halckinen at the time and would surely have finished on the podium: as it was, he finished a bitterly unhappy and mystified ninth.

Methinks it would be better if team managers concentrated on running their own teams, and not trying to do the job of the FIA.