By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix was an incident-filled race. It was also the first wet race since the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2003 and, in many ways, both events were similar. Richard Barnes analyses the similarities of two races separated by over two years
Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps proved, as is customary, to be a standout event on the Formula One calendar. It wasn't just the challenge of the Spa layout, with its classic and instantly familiar corners like La Source, Eau Rouge, Pouhon, Blanchimont, and the Bus Stop. Belgium also proved memorable for one factor that the 2005 season has lacked - the infamous unpredictability of the Spa weather.
Wet (and even damp) races have become such a rarity in F1 that they immediately invite comparison with each other. Such is the case with Spa 2005 and the most thrilling and surprising wet race of recent years - Brazil 2003. A comparison between the two events illustrates just how much - and sometimes how little - F1 can change in two years.
On a wet circuit where no significant rainfall occurs after the start of the race, it almost invariably unfolds that a dry line emerges, forcing the drivers to switch to dry tyres at some stage. The timing of that switch, and the high risk and reward associated with it, has created some classic races and even some careers. Former Ferrari and Benetton driver Jean Alesi's enigmatic reputation was built largely around his supreme confidence and willingness to change tyres early, risking disaster at every turn in exchange for a few precious ticks on the stopwatch.
Not even Alesi could have made that call at Brazil 2003 where, on an otherwise dry track, a storm drain torrent gushing across the racing line at Turn 3 kept the competitors honest to the point of outright fear. Likewise, Spa 2005 went against the F1 norm, the track stubbornly refusing to dry out completely even though the forecasters (yet again) got it wrong in predicting fresh showers midway through the race.
However, there was a sufficiently dry line to tempt the gamblers, and gambling was the only way that the rest of the field was going to sniff victory as long as the McLaren duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya remained healthy. Gilles Villeneuve or Jean Alesi might, incredibly, have been able to coax a respectable laptime from dry tyres in the greasy conditions. Although if Ferrari's Michael Schumacher couldn't get any benefit from the dry tyres, then the same tactical decision by BAR, Williams and Toyota, among others, was an exercise in futility.
For Toyota, the bungled gamble was particularly frustrating. On the correct intermediate tyres, both Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher had been able to match the pace of the McLarens. A potential double podium finish (particularly given Juan Pablo Montoya's later retirement) was in the offing, and ruined by one hasty but understandable decision.
Toyota's decision also gave new insight into the hierarchy within the team. Ralf Schumacher made the decision to switch tyres in consultation with his engineers. Trulli asked for intermediates and was given dry tyres by the team. So Toyota's dominant driver is not only paid less but is granted less autonomy in making his own decisions. How much more must Trulli do in order to win the respect that he deserves?
Michael Schumacher's race ended, as it had at Brazil 2003, in incident. The circumstances were vastly different - in 2003, Schumacher's failure was the continuation of a surprisingly indifferent start to the season, from which he would bounce back to eventually claim the WDC title. At Spa, it was more of the same in a truly wretched year that will have no fairytale ending. Nevertheless, Schumacher's anger at BAR's Takuma Sato, who punted him into retirement at La Source, exemplifies just how serious the German remains about his racing.
With the 'best of the rest' falling away on the wrong tyres, it was left to the two season-long frontrunners, McLaren and Renault, to vie for the honours. Going into the race, Giancarlo Fisichella must have been hopeful. Both his previous career victories, Australia 2005 and Brazil 2003, had been affected by rain. Even with a ten-spot grid penalty for changing an engine, Fisichella looked to be a factor, particularly if the projected rain had materialised later in the race.
The Italian's debut triumph at Interlagos had been achieved by keeping his head down, his car on the circuit, and benefiting from the early stoppage of the race. How ironic, then, that in a much more competitive car than the 2003 Jordan, Fisichella should be the first of the frontrunners to succumb to the slippery conditions. It will only add to the gloomy realisation that, even Fisichella's machinery has improved, his Championship prospects remain as dim as ever.
Like Michael Schumacher, Juan Pablo Montoya had been a helpless victim of the Turn 3 torrent at Brazil 2003. Like Schumacher again, his race on Sunday ended in incident. At Interlagos, Montoya wasn't to know how significant his retirement would eventually prove, as he only mounted his Championship charge later in the season.
In Belgium, Montoya realised all too well the significance of his retirement - both for McLaren's Constructors' Championship challenge and the dwindling WDC hopes of teammate Kimi Raikkonen. The Brazilian connection goes even deeper. In 2003, Montoya's Championship charge was effectively halted by an incident with Brazilian Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari. At Spa, it was another Brazilian, Williams' Antonio Pizzonia, who clashed with Montoya and brought dismay to McLaren faces.
In terms of Championship-affecting shunts, the only active Brazilian F1 driver who has managed to avoid Montoya thus far is Sauber's Felipe Massa. With Massa being one of the most incident-prone drivers in the pack, with the next race being the Brazilian's home GP, and with the Sauber driver keen to perform well to justify his Ferrari signing for 2006, there will be crossed fingers and silent prayers in the McLaren garage every time Montoya and Massa get within sight of each other at Interlagos.
That left the season's two standout performers, Kimi Raikkonen and Renault's Fernando Alonso, to occupy the top two steps of the podium at Spa. No surprises there, it's what they've been excelling at all year. Once again, Raikkonen lifted the silverware, and once again Alonso reaped an unexpected points bonus and left the weekend with the broader smile on his face. But, again, there is a link back to Interlagos 2003.
Kimi Raikkonen was initially granted victory in Brazil, only to be demoted to second position later when the results were reclassified following the early red-flag race stoppage. As a result, he lost two points. His final deficit to eventual Championship winner Michael Schumacher - two points. The reason the Brazilian GP of 2003 was red-flagged - a high speed crash by a young Renault driver named Fernando Alonso.
Both drivers have changed markedly since that wet Sunday afternoon in Brazil. At that time, Raikkonen was viewed as an improbable and hesitant challenger to the might of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. Today, he's acknowledged as the benchmark for speed and sheer single-minded racing passion. Back then, Alonso was an explosive but rash young hot-head. Today, he's developed into the most dependable and consistent driver in the field. If Raikkonen-Alonso is to become the next big rivalry in F1, Brazil 2003 will be remembered as the day when their on-track fortunes first intertwined.
It will be fitting if Raikkonen can take victory at Interlagos in two weeks' time, to atone for the 2003 disappointment. It will be equally fitting if Alonso can complete the circle, avoid a repeat of his 2003 mistake, and put in another trademark solid 2005-style performance in Brazil. Despite his accident, Alonso was classified third at Brazil 2003. A repeat of that result will be enough to clinch the 2005 WDC title for the young Spaniard.