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Of men and machinations
August 18, 2004
After three weeks Formula One returned to the race track at the Hungaroring, and expectations were up. Nothing unrealistic, you understand, like a Ferrari being lapped by a Renault (like last year), but the media was buzzing like mad regarding next season's dramatically altered racing lineups. Rumours and paddock catfights were in full swing over the short, well-deserved racing vacation, and we had more to pore over and wonder about than in a long, long time this season. For once, the reinmeister showed rare susceptibility, falling prey to the flu, the resultant sniffles blocking any significant German-accented soundbytes. Instead, we were subjected to the Formula One soap opera spotlight glaring brightly across a British visage.
Jenson Button has had a superbly respectful season, with a fantastically consistent run of podium finishes, his maiden pole position, a hard-fought and rather glorious second place, and – something worth all the sweat in the world – the title of 'Challenger' to the unstoppable scarlets. As he soaked up all the headline space, and filled massive column centimetres with media-friendly words of racing arrogance and young pigheadedness, the world smiled indulgently and hoped that his rise would continue to be as meteoric. After all, it was an instance of a young driver putting a promising career on the line and working doggedly towards the development of a struggling team, striving tirelessly under the freakishly haired number one driver in his first season, and then taking over the leader's mantle, working with the most idiosyncratic of young talents as the car and the team picked up speed.
British American Racing finally seem to have got it right. Jense has been an excellent pilot, pushing hard and straight, while Takuma Sato dominated conversations by treating his Honda like the Batmobile. David Richards pampered his drivers famously, proclaiming genius where others saw madness, and channelled the team right in the direction of its Number One driver. As he turned up his Pollock-free collar and gloated rightly about being the only team close to beating the reds, his stubble-sporting driver returned the favour and the plaudits, waxing love and loyalty to a saccharine extreme. All the world of racing can't help but respect a driver helping to actually build a successful team.
So, one cannot but wonder what must have gone through Button's mind as Juan Pablo Montoya muscled effortlessly past him to take fourth place at the Hungarian Grand Prix and stay comfortably in that position for the rest of the afternoon. Being the Williams that he will be driving next season, it would doubtless be a comforting thought to have that kind of power; being shown up as a completely ineffectual driver, would, well, not.
As of now, Button has thrown respect out the window for a better pay cheque, and this, at best, has to be called the most questionable of moves. For one, he has taken on Dave Richards, possibly the most vindictive man in racing today. If Jenson is forced to stay on with BAR, his life will be turned into a grating hell; if not, the rest of this season will. Also, the FIA could – unlikely, yet possible – deem Jenson's "loophole" insubstantial, and pull his Superlicence from under his feet. Goombye, career.
More obviously, and this is something even the evidently superficial wanker should have seen coming, BAR is a team on the up with no signs of slowing down; Mark Webber is going to be an extremely tough mate to outrace, and, as the Colombian so perceptively pointed out, he shares a common flag with his team leader; and Frank Williams won't show any hesitation in axing him if he falls below the bar; plus, the revolutionary Patrick Head snout has been chopped off, as Williams returned to the traditional nose in a desperate attempt to pick up points – not quite the sign of a winning team.
Which all leaves us with an interesting set of drivers in new roles next season: Ralfie trying to do a Jense with the much-moneyed Toyota, alongside Jarno Trulli, the only other man to win a race this season; Giancarlo Fisichella in Renault kit, attempting to desperately qualify for possible Ferrari auditions; and two possible world champions rumoured to stage comebacks with BAR, staving off, in the process, that one Brit who never tires of claiming that it will be his season. Ooh, there's so much gossip.
Fernando Alonso had a relatively lonely Hungarian race, catapulting himself into third place during the first lap and continuing to assert himself there, barely challenged by Montoya in fourth place. Last year, this was where he became the youngest Grand Prix winner of all time with his maiden victory, but this year the Spaniard has been decidedly unspectacular – which, by his standards, means he's been pretty darned good, yet not groundbreaking.
The other newsmaker, the literally freewheeling Sato, drove adequately enough to finish right behind teammate Button, Trulli's engine trouble meaning that the fight for second place in the constructors' championship is closer still, with just eight points separating BAR and Renault.
Kimi Raikkonen staked yet another claim for being The Unluckiest Man In Racing when his onboard computer crashed, and he had to pull out of an assured points position, possibly gunning for more. This has been a horrific season of consistent upsets for the Finn, and he really needs to keep his morale going. McLaren shattered the racing confidence of his forebear, the freakishly brilliant Mika Hakkinen, with an abysmal season leading to his frustrated retirement. Now, as Mika smirks mischievously and evades direct denials, Kimi needs to keep his head and prepare to outrace Juan Pablo next year.
The Hungarian Grand Prix might have seemed another routinely red Sunday, but there was a lot of significance in this sixth successive constructors' title. These have been six years of varying challenge, and 2003 saw the authority established in 2002 erode considerably, as the young bloods sucked up the points, and the Bridgestones struggled furiously to compete with the miraculous Michelins. Ferrari won by a far slimmer margin, and the drivers' title went down to the very last race at Suzuka. This weekend, they have wrapped up both titles in one fell swoop with yet another one-two, making sure that the final trophy can mathematically only be lifted by one of their drivers. This year, they have dominated vengefully, and thrown down the gauntlet for the next season.
Michael Schumacher has constantly played down the importance of his stunning new record, 12 wins in one season, and this is an intelligent tactic. His favourite circuits, Spa and Monza, are coming up, and he wants to make sure the tremendous number 12 is dwarfed over the next few races. On Alonso's challenge of racing in roadcars, the champion has agreed, and even suggested skateboards. As he keeps denying the importance of statistics, he comes yet closer to a big one: just three pole positions away from the Brazilian's record.
Of course, pole positions just mean having the fastest car. The German, with his staggering 82nd victory, must realise that he has won exactly twice as many races as Ayrton, without as many times the fastest vehicle.