Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mountain High

F1 left Austria for more money. More money has brought it back. All hail more money. (RedBull photo)


Race Preview…

The 2003 Austrian Grand Prix takes place in one of the most glorious settings for a race anywhere in the world. Snow-covered peaks towering majestically overhead, brown and white cows cows grazing contentedly on lush green mountain meadows, spring flowers blooming, ancient church bells ringing, charming villages sleeping, birds singing in the clear, cool alpine air - the A1- Ring track presents a picture of postcard perfection.

It may look like a trophy destination but after performing amidst such scenic splendour 26 times F1 seems hellbent on bidding it a fond farewell. Next year the much-loved Austrian race will likely be dropped from the calendar to make room for either of two new events. The Austrian venue’s glorious setting will be forsaken in favour of a track now being constructed on a sandpile in a barren desert somewhere in Bahrain or another being floated in a festering swamp outside China's largest city, Shanghai.

Before it’s consigned to the scrapheap the Austrian organisers have invited past winners of the event here for the weekend to commemorate what has gone on before. Among them is the country's most successful F1 driver, the three-time World Champion Niki Lauda.

"I am sorry to see this go," Lauda said, "not just because I am Austrian but because the environment here is a big plus for F1. But the modern sport does not rest on tradition. It goes where the money is, so it is better to have a race in China or the Middle East than Austria."

Recently fired as Jaguar team boss and now a TV commentator, the outspoken Austrian is notoriously unsentimental, not to say fatalistic. After being nearly burned to death in his flaming Ferrari in an appalling accident in Germany in 1976 he said the loss of his ear was not a problem because it made it easier to talk on the telephone.

Talking about the modern version of the sport Lauda noted that it is mercifully much less dangerous, and that the last fatality here was in 1975, when the American driver Mark Donohue was killed in a Penske. Like all the other modern tracks the A1-Ring has been sanitised in the interest of safety, a situation he feels has led to a new breed of driver.

"In the old days each year a driver died," Niki noted. "Racing drivers were a different kind, no family types like today. Everything has become a lot safer, and death is not part of racing any more. This means the tension for the driver is smaller. It has become another sport, but not less interesting. There is a lot more going on, a lot more angles for fans to consider. Remember what Ferrari did here last year? People are still talking about that."

Lauda, the most successful Ferrari driver until Michael Schumacher came along, was referring to Ferrari's now infamous decision to order the 2002 race leader Rubens Barrichello to move aside on the last lap and let his team mate Schumacher win.

Their appearance on the podium provoked an outburst of jeers and catcalls from thousands of incensed spectators who felt they had been robbed. Schumacher, who was visibly shocked by the crowd's hostile reaction, made an impromptu attempt to smooth things over by paying tribute to the moral victor. But his hauling Barrichello up onto the top step of the podium and presenting him with the winner's trophy resulted in even greater outrage.

It also resulted in Ferrari being fined US $1 million, for not observing the correct podium protocol, thereby bringing the sport into disrepute. But the incident - on the track, not on the podium - escalated into an internationally-condemned sporting scandal. In a knee-jerk response to this the F1 governing body, the FIA, this year instigated a new rule banning team orders.

Many observers think the new regulation is unenforceable, and that teams will continue to play the game the way they want, though perhaps more surreptitiously.

"Certainly, obvious team orders will be enforceable," said Michael Schumacher, whose Ferrari was fastest here in Friday's qualifying session. "And that's obviously what the public wanted. But we have already stated that we will continue racing for the good of Ferrari."

The Race…

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong - but that is the way to bet on it, as Damon Runyon once sagely observed. And yes, Ferrari superstar Michael Schumacher started from pole and eventually won an extraordinary Austrian Grand Prix, but his 67th career victory was on several occasions during the drama-filled race a very long way from being a sure thing.

Schumacher had a torrid time of it, surviving first of all some fierce in-fighting that followed the three separate race starts, then needing all his skill to handle a track made treacherous by a brief rainshower, before having to make a stirring comeback from a potentially catastrophic pit stop fire, and, finally, pulling off a breathtaking overtaking manoeuvre to wrest the lead from McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen.

Raikkonen then hung on to finish a worthy second, having for the last few laps had to fight off the best efforts of Schumacher's hard-charging team mate Rubens Barrichello, who finished third. Jenson Button's BAR-Honda and David Coulthard's McLaren, were fourth and fifth and the last unlapped cars among the 13 survivors from the 20 starters.

With Ralf Schumacher's BMW-Williams, Mark Weber's Jaguar and Jarno Trulli's Renault collecting the remaining points, six different teams made their mark in the thrilling race, albeit playing supporting roles to the scintillating performance put on by Michael 'Showmaker.'

"It was an interesting and entertaining race, wasn't it," understated Schumi, whose third win in succession brought him to within two points of league-leading Raikkonen, while Ferrari moved one point ahead of McLaren in the team standings.
"I guess my mechanics wanted to warm me up," Schumacher said of the conflagration that erupted beside his right ear, when spilled fuel dripped onto the Ferrari's hot engine. "Seriously, seeing the fire wasn't very nice, and it could have been a big problem. But the team did a good job to control the situation, reacting quickly with the fire extinguishers. It also proved how strong our car is because it went through a lot, right from the start."

In light of his pit stop fire, the race winner was asked if he considered himself to be a lucky man.

"I don't know whether you should call it lucky," smiled Schumacher, who does have a sense of humour. "I think it was unlucky to have the problem."

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