But Indy’s September date presented some inherent weaknesses, not the least of which was the weather. For teams, the cost of two trips to the North American continent didn’t add up to good sense. For the American fans, it didn’t pay to come watch a race when the championship had long been decided. This year the USGP once again follows the Canadian Grand Prix in June — which by all rights should prove better for weather and drama.
But just when you thought they finally got it right, Ferarri has stolen the show … again. Sure, the championship is still technically wide open — if you can call six victories in seven races and a 14-point lead “up for grabs.” The reigning USGP champ appears well on his way to an incredible seventh title, with no contenders able to harness Ferarri’s prancing horse.
Despite Bernie Ecclestone’s 2003 rules changes to end the Ferarri/Schumacher dominance, Ferarri delighted the tifosi by giving notice in Australia that the prancing horse intended to re-establish its devastating domination. Schumacher and teammate Rubens Barrichello qualified more than half a second ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams, and the duo in red crossed the finish line half a minute in front of Fernando Alonso’s Renault. The new one-engine-one-weekend rule didn’t put the brakes on anybody, but the two-part qualifying session was such a snooze, it was dumped.
Hopes for competition were raised nearly as high as Sepang’s temperatures in Malaysia, because Michelin rubber should have provided an advantage. Mark Webber generated excitement when he stuck his Jaguar on pole ... for a few minutes, until the German “machine” stole fast lap and top spot along with it. At the start, Renault’s Jarno Trulli tested the limits of launch control, gaining 10 spots, and Montoya played cat and mouse with Schuey. But the outcome remained familiar — including the second consecutive retirement by Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren, originally thought to be a championship contender. Results were kept from being too routine by the addition of a BAR driver (Jenson Button) on the podium.
A new track in Bahrain attempted to pique interest as viewers watched cars slide around a sand-blown track that almost vanished into the Middle Eastern desert. But the yawn-fest had already begun by Round 3: all-red front row with Schuey’s third pole, a distant P3 for Montoya, another retirement for Raikkonen (and his teammate, David Coultard — leaving the beleaguered McLaren team with no points for the weekend and barely four for the season) and Button filling out the podium.
A return to the European playground brought the F1 circus to the notorious track at Imola, where everyone recalled the tragic weekend 10 years ago that took the lives of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. In a fitting twist of irony, Schumacher’s string of poles ended at the Italian track where Senna lost his life. In addition to his six world driving titles, the German has 76 career wins (surpassing second place Alain Prost’s 51 wins), but one record that hasn’t succumbed to the German steamroller is Senna’s record for poles.
Instead, Button scored BAR’s first pole. Although the familiar red car wasn’t at the front of the grid, Raikkonen’s car was in its usual spot at the back, following yet another engine change after qualifying. Button put Schumacher in his place with a brilliant sprint when the lights went out, but the wily German implemented his impeccable pit stop strategy to make a pass for the lead, and once again landed on the top step of the podium. The few surprises glimpsed at Imola included both Renault drivers topping Rubens, and Kimi finally scoring a point.
Button faltered in Spain, but the torch was picked up by his teammate, Takuma Sato, who qualified third behind — you guessed it — Schumacher and bitter rival Montoya. But it was Trulli who rocketed from fourth to first at the start. Predictably, he lost the lead during the first round of pit stops, when Schuey ripped off blindingly fast in- and out-laps to gain track position. Once again, Williams and McLaren faltered, due to equipment failures and lack of power. The resurgence of Renault rivaled the astonishing battle from BAR. Still, the Scuderia remained unstoppable.
Then came Monaco. Trulli won his first pole, and the only Schumacher on the front row was Ralf, in a Williams. Not only was the champ relegated to the third row, but Sato shoved him out of the way on the start, clawing his way from eighth to fourth. His blistering run went up in smoke on Lap 3, and the resultant oil he laid down on the track sent Giancarlo Fisichella’s Sauber up over Coultard’s McLaren in the smoky aftermath. After the restart, Alonso handed Schumacher second place in a tunnel mishap. The safety car made pit stop strategy a free-for-all, but it was a backfired ruse in the tunnel that changed the course of the race: Schumacher erred, and Montoya took him out. Suddenly, the battle was between Trulli and Button, with the Renault driver getting to shake Prince Rainier’s hand.
After a brief respite of topsy-turvy drama, normality returned at the Nurburgring, where Ferarri’s procession was like Sherman’s march. After seven laps, Schumacher was 17 seconds ahead of the field. The Scuderia scored its fourth 1-2 finish, Button earned another podium and Sato — after qualifying on the front row — blew another engine. Trulli and Alonso were knocking on the door. McLaren’s nightmare season continued.
Can anyone stop the Michael machine? Schumacher owns 60 points, followed by Rubens with 46 and Button with 38. More importantly, Ferrari holds 106 points, followed by Renault (61) and BAR (46).
McLaren tested a barely-changed chassis. All the mechanical parts remain, although the aerodynamics have been improved, the weight is reduced and the center of gravity lowered. The biggest problem is an uncompetitive, unreliable engine.
Despite the move of Patrick Head from technical director to director of engineering, Montoya bemoans the lack of development at Williams. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “Simple. No development. They’re working on it, but they haven’t been able to find anything yet. We need 3 to 4 percent more downforce to get back in the game, and also some more horsepower. I think Honda has got the most power, without a doubt; then Ferrari, Toyota, BMW, Ford are about the same. Last year we started the season really badly and then we made good progress. This year we started OK, and we’re going backward.”
Webber outpaced Button’s new spec Honda V10 engine, Rubens and Montoya at a recent Silverstone test, which also saw Raikkonen ahead of both Renaults.
Still, as Button said, “The way it’s going at the moment, it’s going to be very, very difficult for anybody to challenge, except for Rubens.”
Schumacher downplays his dazzling scorecard. “There is no secret in what we are doing. Every weekend you get out there and try to do your best. I believe we have a fantastic package on the tire side, on the car side, the engine side. That is why we are where we are. We work very hard for that.”
Jackie Stewart calls the USGP “the crème de la crème. Because it is international. Because it is the Rolex of motorsport. Quality, substance, history, great names. There is the mystique of Formula One. The sophistication. It is rare air. Not everyone is allowed in the paddock. People sometimes object about that, but nevertheless it is rare air to get the privilege. So there is a quality about it. Where there is rareness, there is exclusiveness, and it is an exclusive type of environment.”
But this year ticket holders can walk the paddock on Thursday, June 18. The race starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 20. For ticket information, call 317-492-6700 or 800-822-INDY.