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'Formula Yawn' is a distant memory


Alan Baldwin | August 28, 2003 13:11 IST

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The Formula One World Championship


Formula One's rulers have got what they wanted: The heat is on Ferrari, the fans are on the edge of their seats and, with three races to go, it is anyone's guess where the championship is heading.

After a 2002 of 'Formula Yawn', with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher winning race after race as television viewers nodded off in their armchairs, this season has been a delight.

There have been eight different race winners, three of them victorious for the first time in their careers, from five teams in 13 Grands Prix.

Seven drivers remain mathematically in contention for the title and the top three -- Schumacher, Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen -- are separated by just two points.

Schumacher, chasing his record sixth title, leads Colombian Montoya by one point but has not led a race since Canada in June while Ferrari have not taken the chequered flag in one-two formation all year.

The Ferraris have crashed, collided with rivals, been licked by flames, suffered punctures and even run out of fuel where in the past they would have run like clockwork.

Last year, Schumacher appeared on the podium after every race and won a record 11 times. The title was his by the French Grand Prix in July.

He has now not won for five races, not stood on the podium for three and not been on pole for seven. Ferrari, constructors' champions for the past four years, are suddenly trailing Williams by eight points.

NEVER AGAIN

Ferrari won the constructors' title in Hungary last year, prompting president Luca di Montezemolo to speak of "the greatest moment in the history of our company".

After last Sunday's race, Montezemolo sent out a very different message: "A performance and incidents like those we witnessed in Budapest must not be repeated."

Fans have to go back to 1981, when Argentina's Carlos Reutemann and Brazilian Nelson Piquet were divided by just one point with three races remaining, to recall a similar situation.

The obvious conclusion is that a raft of rule changes introduced by International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Max Mosley to 'spice up the show' and revive viewing figures have done the trick.

Changes to the scoring system, rewarding the top eight rather than the first six, and to the qualifying format have certainly helped.

Under the old 10-6-4-3-2-1 points system, Schumacher would be two points clear of Montoya now rather than one ahead under the new 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 format that rewards the top eight.

Whereas Schumacher currently has 72 points to Montoya's 71, he would have had 57 to Montoya's 55. Raikkonen, now on 70, would have had 52 under last year's reckoning.

Montoya's team mate Ralf Schumacher, fourth overall, would have been 16 points off the pace rather than 14 at present.

NO SPARE

In the past Schumacher could switch to the spare Ferrari on race morning, or even take Barrichello's car, but that is no longer an option under new qualifying rules. Neither is changing settings or fuel strategy before the start.

Schumacher, last on pole in Austria in May, has been suffering. He qualified eighth in Hungary, his worst performance for five years.

The German has been subjected more to the rough and tumble while Ferrari have no longer been able to dictate the pace.

But organisers cannot claim the credit for other factors, such as the weather.

Rain played a part in the early races, with Jordan's Giancarlo Fisichella picking up a fluke win in Brazil, before a heatwave during the European summer played into the hands of Ferrari's rivals.

Whereas Bridgestone were clearly the dominant tyre manufacturer last year, with Ferrari winning 15 of the 17 races, Michelin have closed the gap.

In hot conditions they have appeared unbeatable, with the first seven finishers at the Hungaroring last Sunday on the French tyres, as were the top four in Germany.

Di Montezemolo was moved to observe on Monday: "It will be a very close fight and we hope that this summer, characterised by record high temperatures which have caused so much suffering, is also over."

Williams, with an all-new car, have made a big leap in performance as have McLaren's engine partners Mercedes.

And there has also been a welcome element of unpredictability.

Who now remembers that the Williams were being compared unfavourably to a tortoise earlier in the year? Or that Ferrari were being tipped as runaway winners in May?

If Montoya wins the next race at Monza on September 14 he will be the fourth championship leader since March -- and quite probably not the last.


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