By David Cameron, England
Autosport-Atlas Features Editor
Formula One is like a game of snakes and ladders: sometimes a driver can get a push to reach his goal, while at other times the circumstances conspire to make him slide backwards. The 2005 season has been no exception so far, with several men having moved up or down from their previous positions. After the first three rounds, and before Formula One goes racing in Europe, David Cameron analyses who has moved up and who has dropped down in comparison with the pre-season predictions
Formula One is like a game of snakes and ladders - the object is to get to the end, get to the goal, but along the way there are things that can help push a driver forward to the goal, and there are things that can slide a driver backwards, down and away.
With just twenty racing seats in the series, just getting into Formula One is now a goal in itself, but the ultimate ambition of any racer is to take the title, as any of thousands of interviews will attest - any driver when asked will say that he wants to be the Formula One World Champion, whether his abilities are sufficient to the task or otherwise.
Ability will help you to get there, but luck will always play a part - every driver needs to come across a ladder in their career, all the while looking out for the snakes. Kimi Raikkonen had a manager he trusted to help him move up, but it wasn't until Peter Collins told David Robertson "you should take a look at this guy - he is good"; wasn't until Robertson paid for a year in Formula Renault; wasn't until he told Peter Sauber what he'd been told himself; - that the ladder appeared. Even talent needs a ladder, a step up along the way.
But we can't judge luck, we can't measure it against another's luck and make an empirical decision about its worth. What we can judge is talent, how it manifests itself, how it makes itself known.
Ferrari have come in for a beating this year for failing to live up to their recent past, for failing to dominate Formula One as so many people have become accustomed to them doing. In a way the team have been a victim of their own success, but the comparison needs to be against their competitors and not their history, and in that comparison Ferrari are coming out behind.
By racing in a version of last year's benchmark car, no matter that it's a highly modified version, and failing against the competition shows more irrefutably the levels of improvement in Formula One year on year than any collection of words could. Put plainly, the car that was the class of the field has been improved, but the competition has come up with new cars that make their own older ones look like a different, lesser, series.
So it's clear to see that Ferrari have found a snake - their modifications weren't good enough, nor those of their effectively exclusive tyre manufacturer Bridgestone - and the decisions they are making with the new car bear the hallmarks of plans made in haste.
The old car wasn't quick enough, but it was reliable and known - Rubens Barrichello pushed it onto the podium from a lowly start in Melbourne, through a combination of familiarity and dependability - while the new car, rushed to the racetrack to answer the improvements of the other teams, seems fast but fragile, lacking in the bulletproof consistency that has been a hallmark of Ferrari's cars this decade.
Perhaps it's to be expected that Ferrari would slide backwards one day - no team dominate a sport forever, no collection of people can excel permanently - but what of their drivers? Barrichello, once derided for his impetuous nature which manifested itself in wildly differing performances, has been fairly metronomic in his driving this year - he is not improved, he is not sliding back, he is driving at Barrichello level, which despite the thoughts of his critics is better than a number of his competitors week in, week out.
His drive in Melbourne from eleventh on the grid to second was flawless, an example if it were needed of the level Barrichello performs at after so long at the heart of the Ferrari machine, when the competition doesn't perform to perfection. His Malaysian qualifying was indicative of the reduced abilities of his team against the others, but nonetheless he managed to push his recalcitrant machine into the points before its untimely demise, while Bahrain was a further indication of the decline of his team.
Schumacher, on the other hand, has underperformed relative to his own, admittedly towering, history, even taking into account Ferrari's slide. Caught out by the weather in qualifying in Melbourne, the expectation was of a masterclass of overtaking and pure racing ability, such as he has provided so many times in the past.
That he struggled comparatively to his teammate was clear, but his part in the collision with Nick Heidfeld was amateurish at best, a possible indication that so many years at the front of the grid have dulled his ability, or appetite, for wheel to wheel racing in the pack. In Malaysia too he looked anonymous, following Barrichello at some distance while he was in the race, and then taking advantage of retirements to scrape a points finish.
Against this is Bahrain, of course, when a fast but fragile new car allowed him to compete from the front after qualifying, until his first car malfunction in years took him out of the event. The performance was what we expect of the seven times Champion, but not enough to outweigh the poor performances of the opening two rounds. While it is safe to assume that Schumacher will improve over the season, at present he has found a short snake backwards.
In comparison Renault have found a large ladder, and they are climbing it with gusto. Three pole positions, three wins and a commanding lead in both Championships are all the proof needed.
Fernando Alonso too has stepped up after sliding backwards last year in comparison to then teammate Jarno Trulli - his storming drive through the field in Australia was second only to Barrichello's equally meteoric rise, while his dominant performances in Malaysia and Bahrain point to a young driver who has found the maturity needed to pair with his already sparkling pace.
Giancarlo Fisichella's start has been markedly different to his teammate. A lucky result in qualifying gave him a race result on a plate in Melbourne, where the Italian's composure shone through - while his race looked simple on the outside, a quick look at the laptimes shows that, when needed, Fisichella could increase his performance at will to keep a steady gap behind him to his pursuers.
This composure abandoned him in Malaysia, however, when struggling with an ill-mannered car threw Fisichella into the clutches of the pack. There was no sign of his maturity in an ill-conceived attempt to keep a fast charging Mark Webber behind him, sliding through the dust off the racing line and into the chasing Williams. An awful second qualifying session in Bahrain is all that we have to look at for the weekend given his car problems in the race, but the season so far has been a slight backwards step from pre-season expectations.
Toyota's ladder has been almost as high as Renault's. While performance at the top is different to that further back - the fiercer the competition, the more difficult it is to take the fractional improvements on offer and utilise them to positive affect - the fact that Toyota have leapt out of the backmarker pack and are now competing towards the front is proof positive of a genuine rise.
Jarno Trulli, long derided for his lack of race results in underperforming teams until a stunning first half of 2004 regenerated his career, has improved again this year, running as comfortably at the front as he did all those years ago in Austria driving a Prost that had no business leading a race but nonetheless was.
A fortunate qualifying result in Melbourne flattered to deceive, with a tyre-chewing rear end pitching Trulli back into the pack, but the level of improvement both team and driver could force upon the car was an indication of the steps forward both have made. Top three qualifying results in the next two races were no flukes, and Trulli annexed second place behind a better car, and ahead of other superior vehicles, on talent alone. Results this year have shown the Italian has stepped up into the top flight of drivers.
On the other side of the garage Ralf Schumacher has seemed to be marching on the spot. It's a harsh representation, but for a man hoping to come in and dominate a team in the manner of his brother, he has been handed a beating by his less fancied teammate. Trulli has long been considered a master of qualifying, which has gone against him when his car wasn't able to manage the race performance he coaxed out of it in a fast lap, but the comparison in qualifying was always going to be a harsh one for Schumacher.
Unfortunately for the German, his race performances have been similar to those seen in his past; he looked ordinary fighting for position in the first two races, and while Bahrain was a marked improvement in that area he has always managed to compete on his day, albeit inconsistently. In a field full of ladders and snakes, young Schumacher has rolled the dice and landed on neither, but he will need to take a step up soon if he wants to be more than a speck in his teammate's mirror.
After an off-season more notable for the battle over the second race seat than for impressive laptimes, Williams bosses admitted that all was not well within the team in respect to pushing the car forward. Problems with the new windtunnel were the main culprit, and the team sheepishly confessed that a lot of the work would need to be reconsidered.
It was a surprising admission, yet more remarkable was the turnaround in performance between the last few tests and the first few races - for a team who were so harsh in their self-criticism, their performance looks worthy at least of podium finishes at present, which against recent times has to be seen as at least a slight step forward.
The question has been whether, after the much-discussed dispensing of former drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, Williams had the driving talent to push the team up the grid. Both Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld have looked impressive in their former teams while driving in the midfield, but what people wanted to know was could they transfer this talent into the front end furnace.
Webber has always looked as though he would end up in a front running team, and now it has come to pass. With a qualifying talent comparable to Trulli - he has put a wayward Jaguar on the front row of the grid - this season was going to show if he had a racing ability to match.
So far he has lost a spot at the start in his home race but was unable to find a way past a slower car on a narrow track, run at a strong, podium level pace and overtaken cars before being taken off in a racing incident, and defended strongly but ultimately futilely against a clearly faster car. Against this he has had a car with a detuned engine for at least one race, and been driving with a broken rib that just last week forced him out of a test early because of the pain. A push, then, but Webber will need improvement from both his team and himself.
Heidfeld and Webber seem to be alternating in performances - the German slipped backwards in Melbourne, was there to pick up the pieces after Webber dropped out of Malaysia, and was the innocent victim of an engine problem in Bahrain. While Heidfeld has been slower than his teammate, the gap is not huge, and if anything the competition between the pair has been entertaining to watch. However, like Webber, Heidfeld will need to improve his game if the team do.
On pure speed, McLaren have stepped up a level from an incredibly disappointing 2004, but the team haven't been able to show it when it counts. Third driver Pedro de la Rosa showed this by claiming the fastest lap in Bahrain, but changes to the tyres have meant that McLaren are as yet unable to generate enough heat into their rear tyres in qualifying to push the drivers up the grid and give them the opportunity to fight at the front. Until they solve this problem, the step forward is a small one.
Kimi Raikkonen's season with a misbehaving car last year has given him the ability to wait for a race to come to him, and the podium in Bahrain was due reward for his patience. His driving has been solid rather than inspiring, but car problems and wayward driving in Melbourne, and a tyre blowout in Malaysia, have conspired to make his results look less than they otherwise might. Bahrain was a good race for the Finn, but at present Raikkonen is largely meeting expectations, rather than exceeding them.
Teammate Montoya is not yet performing at Raikkonen's level - any driver new to a team can be expected to struggle slightly in his new surroundings, but for a man tipped for Championship glory the results have been disappointing. Montoya was unruly in Melbourne and appeared sluggish in Malaysia, running off the pace of his teammate despite picking up points in both events. For a top line driver in a pace-setting car his performance has not been up to expectation, although his off track injury ahead of Bahrain has denied us the opportunity to see if an improvement is underway.
Of all of the teams, BAR had found the longest snake, falling well away from their top line performances of 2004. BAR are the only team to have failed to reach the finish with either driver in any race, and when their drivers have been on track they have generally been down the order before the onset of car problems. In testing they've shown the pace they've been missing in public, but there are no prizes for winning outside of the races.
Given these problems is it hard to evaluate just how the drivers have performed - other than in Melbourne, where both drivers were pulled into the pits a lap before the end, Jenson Button has 51 race laps, Takuma Sato has 28, and fill in driver Anthony Davidson a mere two.
Button and Sato spent most of the Australian race sandwiched between the Sauber pair, while they both struggled in minor points positions in Bahrain before succumbing to car problems. Sato appears to have come to terms with his teammate's race speed, which indicates a small step forward, but with insufficient laps and an ill-performing car the only thing that is certain is that the team's current woes are not induced by their drivers.
In stark contrast, Red Bull have turned around the inadequate performances of last year's Jaguar to put the team far higher up the grid than anyone gave them any prospect of reaching. With a new management organisation, as well as a lot of change of personnel in the team, the improvement can't be attributed to any one thing, and the only question mark will be how long they will last against competitors with far more resources at their disposal.
David Coulthard is used to running at the front of the field and has used that experience to be one of only two drivers - the other being Alonso - to have scored in every race this year. In many ways, the move to Red Bull has done Coulthard wonders; he looks refreshed and happy, and that has translated into better performances on track. A fortunate qualifying session in Melbourne was filtered through experience into points, while some strong showings in the next two races point to a step up from the underperforming McLaren driver of last year.
Christian Klien has possibly made an even larger step up from the surly, wayward driver of 2004 - this year's model seems to have opened up and looks to be even enjoying himself after a year where he seemed at times to be in the paddock against his will. Two solid points' finishes were an indication of the move forward Klien has made, while a breakdown on the grid in Bahrain was merely unlucky ahead of handing over the drive for the time being to Vitantonio Liuzzi, rather than a reason to sulk. Their advertising seems to be true - in motor racing at least: Red Bull does seem to give you wings.
Sauber, having had their wings clipped when their sponsor turned competitor, are on a slide down the grid this year. Propping up the back of the grid is not where the team wanted to be when they commissioned the new windtunnel and supercomputer for their design team and, a lack of sponsorship notwithstanding, the sudden slide in performance is as alarming for the team as it is surprising for everyone else.
The most obvious change in a team who pride themselves on consistency is Jacques Villeneuve, whose loss of form is less blip, more nosedive, even after an erratic 2003. The Canadian looked lost at sea filling in for the final three races last year, and if anything has fallen back since then, admitting as much to reporters in Malaysia.
After a lucky break in qualifying in Melbourne he dropped like a stone in the race, finishing the race behind teammate Felipe Massa, who had started at the back of the grid. In Malaysia he was again off the pace before throwing the car off the road in the race, while in Bahrain he outqualified only the Jordans and Minardis before following his teammate around in the race. With question marks over his continued future in Formula One, it just remains to be seen how long the snake Villeneuve has found will stretch.
Massa is perhaps being flattered by the poor performance of his teammate, but it is hard to tell how well he is driving without an effective yardstick. His drive in Melbourne was impressive, jumping up to thirteenth on the first lap in a very heavy car and holding on for a tenth place finish, while a points finish in the ill-handling car in Bahrain and keeping Michael Schumacher behind him until his first stop in Malaysia were notable achievements. The results point to a small step up, but it is hard to point to more until he has some competition from the other side of the garage.
Behind Sauber is the second race, the effective Scholarship Class of Formula One. Jordan and Minardi are unable to hope for more than to race against each other this year, somewhat through problems of their own making.
Jordan have been sold to the Midland Group, who have stated that they will put in the bare minimum of funding this year ahead of a re-launch as Midland in 2006. They've been true to their word - all three drivers are bringing funds to the team, there is apparently no one looking for addition funds in the form of sponsorship, and with a large number of staff having left in the off-season, the team are relying on the input of a number of inexperienced ex-Carlin Formula Three mechanics and engineers, which has resulted in the inevitable slide backwards.
Narain Karthikeyan has achieved as much as could be expected - he has mostly kept his car on the road and has shown good speed relative to his competition. Qualifying 2.5 seconds faster than teammate Tiago Monteiro in Melbourne showed what he was capable of, and he wasn't overawed by the more experienced drivers around him on the grid. Malaysia was another solid race, while Bahrain saw a dip in form in second qualifying to drop behind Monteiro on the grid ahead of an early retirement. Apart from that lap, Karthikeyan has been a worthwhile addition.
Monteiro, on the other hand, has struggled with the car from day one. While the inability of his team to do anything more than field a car hasn't helped, he has been left behind by his teammate and is struggling for form. Monteiro has made the finish of all three races and been ahead of the Minardis when he did, but that's no great recommendation for a driver.
Minardi, as ever, have struggled at the back with cars that almost creak with age in the pitlane. After a dramatic first weekend back in Melbourne, where team boss Paul Stoddart went to court to ensure his team's entrance to the grid, the Italian team have gone on with their business and awaits the debut of the all-new PS05 in the hope that it will at least push them past the Jordan pair. It's hard to slide backwards from the rear of the grid, but they aren't stepping up either.
Christijan Albers was highly rated before arriving in Formula One but hasn't got much speed out of a chassis which, to be fair, was raced by Mark Webber as far back as 2002. He had car problems in both qualifying and the race in Melbourne, limped around to finish last in Malaysia, and finished behind Patrick Friesacher in Bahrain. While no one could expect miracles in a Minardi, he needs to at least match his teammate.
Friesacher knows all about the snakes and ladders of motorsport, having gained sponsors, lost sponsors, done the same with his management, and spent more time in Formula 3000 than was strictly wise. However, he is in Formula One at last and making the most out of it - he has outqualified his teammate twice, and outraced him as well. Some poor luck in Malaysia where he spun on oil deposited by an exploding BAR has been the only blot on his copybook so far.
But perhaps Friesacher's most important performance was finding the ladder into Formula One in the first place. By getting in he was given the chance to show that he can perform at the top level, and by default that many other drivers could too, if they had the possibility.
Which is what each of the drivers wants to do - having found the ladder into the sport, they are all hoping that their abilities are enough to keep them away from the snakes.