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Unruly Sunday across Monaco's streets
May 25, 2004
Monte Carlo, that most romantic of motor races, has come and gone. Young Jarno Trulli drove reasonably flawlessly throughout an eventful weekend to take his first, well-deserved victory. Jenson Button, another youngblood longing for the top step of the podium, came within a hair's breath, and, had it been a circuit where it is humanly possible to overtake, might have even got there.
Of course, Monaco always provides more than its fair share of excitement (read: retirements), and this is why the annually irregular 'race of attrition' has an eclectic set of one-time winners, drivers who manage to make it through the murk, to just stay on track. For God's sake, it's a track where David Coulthard has actually won more than once. That is really as random an occurrence as we can see in Formula One.
This season, Jarno has been consistently outshining his immensely talented teammate, Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard with the bizarre headgear and the 'next generation' Schumacher tag. Both these boys, driving the way they are, can battle for the world championship soon. After 2006, shall we say?
The man Jarno staved off by less than half a second to pick up the biggest bottle of champagne was Britain's best racer, Jenson Button. Button's second successive second-place position is just going to spur this surprisingly consistent young talent into desiring that maiden win even more. Do not bet against that happening sometime this season itself. The BAR-Honda is proving to be a superb vehicle — smoother than most, extremely user-friendly, stunning handling — for Button, giving him an easily earned Driver No 1 tag without making him break a sweat while doing so.
Teammate Takuma Sato has been called the modern-day Jean Alesi. I think that's an incredibly insensitive tag. Sato, and I do enjoy the man's racing, is the unpredictability of Alesi with the mad guts of Jacques Villeneuve, spiked with an occasional flash of pure Damon Hill. Alas, all with the talent of a Ralf Schumacher. Yesterday, Takuma jump-started the race [David, our resident hotelier, swears by the fact, and television replays don't deny it], and, in his impetuous haste, violently nudged Car No 1. He then proceeded to drive an engine that seemed to be addicted to Lucky Strikes, and finally exploded, blocking a lethal street circuit with a massive wall of smoke.
It is at moments like these when we see the pure genius of a Kimi Raikkonen. Kimi, after a spectacular last season, has been out of the points almost entirely in 2004, and yesterday was no exception. He was crawling noxiously up the exhaust of Sato's smoking Honda, his vision compromised considerably by oil splotching onto his visor with alarming consistency. As if reduced visibility and following an oil slick in Monaco isn't a nightmarish enough proposition, the young Finn had to deal with the fact that a certain Mr Michael Schumacher was breathing down his neck.
Then, suddenly, all was smoke. Kimi, with the kind of cool that holds the promise of multiple world championships, instantly darted left. Avoiding any kind of collision. Stirring stuff under as immense pressure as you can get. The fact that the black-and-silver tin box he drives overheated and forced him into yet another retirement does not, in the least, reflect on his superlative skills.
In the midst of the smoke, a slowing David Coulthard was shocked to see Giancarlo Fisichella's Sauber leapfrogging him. Both cars retired instantly in a spectacular shunt where neither driver was so much as scratched. The modern-day Formula One car is spectacularly safe, yet such advertisements are frightening. Of course, we are talking about Monaco, and mayhem is par for the course. Alonso and Ralf, after a mid-tunnel disaster, will argue about right of way for quite some time to come, but Alonso's argument that it was "Ralf's fault, like most of the accidents Ralf is involved in" does, unfair or not, have its merits. Little brother had best sign his Toyota deal as soon as possible for a continued future in the sport.
The world champion did not have a very good weekend. Topping all the practice sessions, he only managed a fifth best time in qualifying, but it became obvious as the race began that the Ferrari was running relatively heavy. Michael was slow off the tracks, but a rocketing Takuma Sato shoved him hard, throwing him insanely down the running order. The Ferrari growled to life. Soon, as the race leaders pitted, Michael kept going, running faster and faster, in record-setting speeds, his top lap actually better than his qualifying time. After a topsy-turvy beginning, the world seemed to be setting itself right.
After the Alonso-Ralf incident, the safety car was out again, and Michael led the field. As he smoked his tires and warmed the brakes repeatedly, standard practice for the last lap behind the safety car, Colombian backmarker Juan Pablo Montoya, for some bizarre reason, tried to stay within a hair's breadth of the world champion inside the tunnel. How this would help him is inexplicable, as he was more than a lap down. The only possible explanation, and this is not outlandish, given the usual idiocy of F1's resident jerk, is that he forgot Michael was actually race leader, or that he himself was a lap down. Either way, Michael braked hard, Juan Pablo tried to insanely go down the inside and slammed into the Ferrari, and it emerged from the tunnel with a broken nose cone and a uselessly dangling front tire. Schumacher's race was over; the streak of pure perfection crashing to a halt.
Michael Schumacher, world champion, hit twice during the course of a single race by the most erratic drivers on the circuit. Is this a not-so-isolated case of 'Beat 'im if you can't join 'im'?
So what does Monte Carlo 2004 mean for the future of Formula One? Well, we have a new winner, which is always a good thing. We have Renault and BAR promising consistent challenges, which augurs rather well for the rest of the season. And we have a certain Mr Michael Schumacher playing the part of the wounded tiger. The hornets have stirred up his nest, and the game is on. A fantastically motivated and fatally furious Schumacher — at the Nurburgring. In just one week. What else can we pray for but rain? *evil grin*
The most surreal moment of the race: Hearing the Italian anthem play for the race winner without the German anthem preceding it. Habits are hard to get un-used to.