By Richard Barnes, South Africa
The battle for this year's drivers' title has been reduced to two men: Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. However, their on-track rivalry is yet to be sparked, with the Spaniard now cruising for points while the Finn's McLaren keeps breaking down. Richard Barnes analyses the Championship fight that was not to be
McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen must really dislike Germany - or, at least, racing in Germany. Prior to Sunday's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, Raikkonen had made nine F1 career starts in Germany, four at Hockenheim and five at Nurburgring for Germany's 'second' F1 event, the European GP.
In his 2001 debut year for Sauber, the Finn managed tenth position at Nurburgring. A year later at the same circuit, driving for McLaren, he finished a distant third behind the dominant Ferraris of Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher. In each of his other seven starts in Germany, Raikkonen had retired. No surprise, then, that the trend continued with yet another mechanical DNF. During what is arguably the era of greatest F1 reliability ever, Raikkonen has suffered an almost unheard-of 80% DNF rate in Germany.
Prior to 2005, his German failures could have been shrugged off as mere racing disappointments. With the exception of 2003, he was usually competing for the minor points positions behind the all-conquering Ferraris. This year, however, Raikkonen is a major Championship contender, and his two German retirements have all but sealed the title for Renault's Fernando Alonso.
The failure of Raikkonen's McLaren on Sunday, the third in as many GP weekends, proved frustrating and disappointing for fans who were still hoping to see a close Championship battle down the final stretch. It has also lent this year's Championship the same sense of disconnection that marked the 1997 season.
In that year, Michael Schumacher and Williams arch-rival Jacques Villeneuve contested an extremely close and competitive Championship without once finishing on the podium together. While that hasn't happened in 2005 (Alonso and Raikkonen both scored podium finishes in Bahrain and Spain), there is still the sense that the two haven't locked wheels in anger yet, and are almost running different races.
2005 has done enough to confirm that Raikkonen/Alonso will be the first major rivalry of the post-Michael Schumacher era. It's not just that they had the good fortune to hold the plum drives in the year that Ferrari faltered, they have cemented their star credentials by beating very accomplished and highly regarded teammates in Juan Pablo Montoya and Giancarlo Fisichella respectively.
It is also setting up what should become a classic struggle over the next few seasons, with all the neat categorizations that fans desire - Spanish fire versus Finnish ice, French engineering innovation versus British engineering excellence. Even the team bosses' characters add to the conflict, with Flavio Briatore's animated and extrovert flamboyance in contrast to Ron Dennis' quiet and stolid determination.
The Raikkonen/Alonso rivalry has the potential to be as good as anything witnessed during the Schumacher era. The only shortfall is that we are not seeing genuine wheel to wheel racing between the protagonists. That is partly due to the 2005 regulations and the near-impossibility of overtaking, even at recognized passing spots. It's also due to sheer unfortunate timing.
Early in the season, Raikkonen lacked the pace and reliability to challenge Alonso. Once the McLaren came good, Alonso lacked the pace and, more importantly, the motive to engage in any heroics. As the McLaren-Mercedes development monolith has steadily and predictably widened the gap over Renault at the head of the field, Alonso has been content to play the points accumulation game. Raikkonen's growing points deficit has forced him to go for broke each GP, Alonso is going for anything but 'broke'.
The vastly differing tactics have undermined what could, and should, have become a great rivalry this season. Nobody is foolishly optimistic enough to expect lap after lap of thrilling lead-swapping. Modern F1 simply doesn't work that way. Instead, it is 99% regulation lapping and 1% heart-stopping racing excitement. The rivalry does need a spark, a head to head incident that will push it to the next level of conflict and competition.
We saw this in abundance with the Schumacher/Hill rivalry, plenty of close racing and almost as many collisions between the two. Although Schumacher and Hakkinen didn't drive into each other as often, there were still the memorable moments - most notably, Hakkinen's exhilarating pass on Schumacher at Spa 2000. There were also many close and utterly engaging tactical battles between the two - Nurburgring and Hungary 1998, Malaysia 1999, Monza and Suzuka 2000 spring immediately to mind. The two rivals brought out the very best in each other.
Raikkonen and Alonso, by contrast, have been distant rivals. They are not yet focused on each other like Schumacher and Hakkinen were. If either one was absent from a GP, there is the feeling that it wouldn't materially affect the other's approach or level of performance. Raikkonen's pass on his Renault rival at Silverstone could have been a classic - if Alonso hadn't been absolutely sure of his race position superiority and let the Finn through unchallenged as a tactical move.
Unfortunately, there is little prospect of this situation changing soon. At Hungary, Raikkonen will be first out onto the dusty track to qualify, while Alonso will be last. So there's every chance that, both in terms of grid position and fuel strategy, they will be in different zip codes for the race start. It's been the story of the season so far. The impossibility of overtaking at Hungaroring will only make the odds of a head to head scrap even longer.
Ironically, perhaps the best chance of serious head to head racing between the two will happen if Raikkonen's unreliability woes continue and Alonso can wrap up the WDC title early. That would free the Spaniard from the shackles of his (and Renault's) current conservative 'reliability first' approach, and allow him to concentrate on racing rather than merely finishing.
Alonso would surely be up for the challenge. As he showed when defending against the charging Michael Schumacher at Imola earlier this year, he is a resolute racer. Grinding the opposition down through superior reliability has worked effectively for him, and will probably lead to Alonso being crowned the youngest ever F1 World Champion later this year.
Still, this is the same driver who, just more than twelve months ago, tried to overtake Ralf Schumacher's Williams around the outside through the Monaco tunnel - and was showing the younger Schumacher the middle finger even as his stricken Renault scraped to inglorious retirement along the Monaco guard rails. Alonso is a purebred racer, he's still way too young to be driving like a latter-day Michael Schumacher or Alain Prost.
Raikkonen, too, will relish the challenge. As he showed several times against Juan Pablo Montoya (when his current teammate was employed by Williams), he isn't afraid to put two or even four wheels off the circuit to make a pass or defend a position. If he can't beat Alonso in the Championship, he at least wants to beat the Spaniard out on the track - without Alonso having the rationalisation that deferring and finishing second was the wiser option in Championship terms.
There is no guarantee that Raikkonen and Alonso will continue their Championship rivalry into 2006. With yet more regulation changes imminent, and a switch to V8 engines, it's possible that either McLaren or Renault will lose their competitive edge and drop off the pace.
Historically, the odds must favour McLaren. The Woking outfit have succeeded in almost every era in F1. Renault do not have such a rich F1 heritage. It is neither Alonso's nor Renault's fault that Raikkonen's car keeps breaking. But, even as it helps Alonso in the Championship, it diminishes the magnitude of his achievement - just as Michael Schumacher's 2001 WDC title was diminished somewhat by Mika Hakkinen's misfortunes.
It's not that there is unfinished business between Alonso and Raikkonen, but rather that their rivalry hasn't yet launched properly. It could take just one thrilling moment on the track to change that. If the remaining seven races of the 2005 season can't guarantee a close head to head Championship battle, here's hoping that they can at least produce some competitive and aggressive head to head racing. Both drivers need and deserve it.