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Home is where the art is
May 31, 2004
Of course, some would disagree. Mercedes McLaren, for one. Though the Formula One headquarters are based squarely in Woking, UK, the Nurburgring in Germany is where the corporate bigwigs of Mercedes-Benz annually congregate - loosely translated, they schmooze, drink, and ogle stunning women in the pitlane, all while enjoying their strongest fan base among any stadium audience in the world.
Ron Dennis's scowl has never been as pronounced as it is now, when, after a disastrous showing, Jenson Button, driving a BAR Honda, nonchalantly announces that David Coulthard was holding him up by two seconds a lap. All this year's McLaren has to its credit is the sleekest paintjob in the pit-lane, which doesn't help when the car is running like an unwieldy roller-skate with one bad wheel and frightening handling.
Kimi Raikonnen would attest to this. After leapfrogging to second place by steering well-clear of the first Trulli-Sato battle, he proceeded to hold back the rest of the field, simply because he had nowhere near the pace required, even with a vehicle relatively low on fuel. On lap 10, in what is getting to be a sadly familiar sight, the Finn's engine exploded. Add to this the sight of Coulthard struggling desperately to keep his McLaren on track, before the West-marked machine began smoking as usual, and one can relate to the Merc family not being in the best of spirits.
The European Grand Prix, in extremely congruent vein, also plays host to the BMW fraternity. While not their 'home ground', as that now dubious honour goes to Hockenheim later in the year, this is definitely a cherished track where the team (sponsors included) guzzles great amounts of beer, usually in celebration. Last year, after success at Monaco, it was a magnificent Ralf victory here that brought about the Williams resurgence. Ralf Schumacher loves his 'home-track', knows it like he does the back of his brother's hand, and races well here.
The weekend for BMW-Williams is summed up by the words of Sam Michael. Sam, who has officially taken over Patrick Head's mantle as head honcho, was melancholy yet sardonic as he claimed the cars might have performed, but "it would help if our drivers wouldn't keep crashing". In a rather comical first-turn debacle, the characteristically idiotic Colombian outbraked himself, slamming into his teammate and ending his race there. The wounded Ralf careened into the innocent Toyota of Da Matta, and compounded Christiano's tragedy by revving fatally over his wing. Juan Pablo continued his race, but after having to immediately pit in order to replace his own front-wing, he stayed obviously low-key, coming home with a consolatory single point for the team's abysmal weekend.
Takuma Sato is the most kamikaze driver seen in Formula One for quite some time, and opinions are very divided on his skills. The Japanese suicide-bomber, in perfect position for a first ever podium finish, threw himself at Rubens Barrichello in an insanely frantic dive down the inside of Turn One. He valiantly pushed ahead into second place, but having lost his front wing and damaged his nose-cone, a visit to the pits placed all his efforts firmly in the 'in vain' column. Barrichello, censoring his move as 'amateurish', finds a lot of agreement from every corner, after a foolhardy move that cost Sato dearly.
On the other hand, David Richards, Takuma's boss at BAR, has declared him a "hero". Of course, this is the man who isn't willing to settle for second place, and has declared that he'd rather have his drivers crash and die trying than settle. Fabulous. At least we finally have a team where the boss and the driver see eye-to-eye. Whether they put anyone else's eye out in the process is a different matter altogether. It is too soon to predict Sato's Formula One destiny, or write him off, but what is certain is that this is a driver of great speed, remarkable qualifying ability, and guts made of solid Japanese steel. Plus, he's never boring. Let's just hope he turns into a Jacques and not a Juan Pablo.
Grit is something rather underrated in the sport today, eclipsed by screaming engines and pitstop strategies. For me, one of the greatest drives in the race was Giancarlo Fisichella's. Starting from the back of the grid with a heavily fuelled Sauber, the Italian ran through the crowd ahead of him doggedly to finish commendably sixth. It is one thing to carve your way up the grid if you're an errant Ferrari or a Renault: it is just a matter of time. But with a Sauber, with cars crashing and going up in smoke around you at almost every turn, it is a mammoth effort indeed. Keeping your head down while forcing your chin up is, besides a physically paradoxical proposition, something very few drivers can do. Fisi has always been called potential World champion material, and it bleeds to think of him being wasted in a slow machine.
This year's Nurburgring threw up quite an afternoon of great entertainment, while separating the men from the boys. Following up with the adulthood analogy, one feels Jenson Button's voice has finally cracked, with his startling fifth podium of an extremely consistent season. Ferrari has the dedicated Rubens Barrichello who took the Scuderia to its fourth one-two in a season where one can't imagine a challenge for the Constructor's title, the Brazilian well capable of possibly making a bid for the title himself: In a field littered with pre-teens and adolescent boys, Ferrari have one man.