Race weekend review - Austria 19 May 2003
One of the key elements of what may have been the final Austrian Grand Prix for some time was Michael Schumacher's sheer good fortune.
While sitting in a racing car that is on fire might not immediately spring to mind as a lucky situation, the fact remains that the conflagration that momentarily surrounded the world champion during his pit stop on lap 23 could have been much worse. It could have affected the car, or it could have become the sort of fireball that Jos Verstappen endured at Hockenheim in 1994. Instead, excellent fire-fighting work by the Ferrari crew saved the day, and Schumacher only lost some 10 seconds.
Then there was the reliability of the F2003-GA. Both Ron Dennis at McLaren and Ralf Schumacher have suggested that the new Ferrari is not a "quantum leap" over the F2002, but while rivals have hoped that it might also fail to match that car's reliability, those hopes have not been realised. To introduce a new car partway through a season, and to have it win its first two races and take two third places as well, is remarkable and serves as an indication of the mountain some of Ferrari's competitors have to climb.
The new McLaren MP4-18A will test at Paul Ricard this week, but Dennis said recently that he is still confident that there is race-winning life in the MP4-17D. On the face of it the car was beaten in Austria, but on Saturday evening McLaren received clearance from the stewards to replace an inlet valve and an exhaust valve in the Mercedes V10. For the first time in years an engine was opened up 'in the field' so that the necessary surgery could be carried out, thus avoiding the need to start at the back with a fresh engine. Even so, Raikkonen was unable to use maximum revs for much of the race. Had he been, who knows what might have happened?
Likewise, could Montoya have hung on for victory had his BMW engine not been overheating from the 10th lap as its cooling system became over-pressurised?
Renault had a tough time, but they had expected to struggle on a power circuit. Sauber looked better than they have all season, but only after Nick Heidfeld switched to the spare chassis and found its balance was miles better than his race car.
BAR were stronger than their qualifying performance suggested, because both drivers made errors that cost them places. Toyota and Jordan showed varying degrees of promise that went unrewarded.
But the quiet sensation of the weekend was once again the performance of the Jaguar. Mark Webber was third fastest on Friday (when all the cars usually run in similar configuration), but then suffered a disastrous qualifying lap on Saturday afternoon. Jaguar opted to start him from the pit lane with a full tank of fuel, got caught out by the regulations governing this practise and had to serve a penalty, yet still he finished seventh. And tellingly, the Australian was able to set the third-fastest lap, six-tenths off Schumacher and only thousandths off Barrichello.
The championship battle is reaching fever pitch, with Schumacher closing on Raikkonen and Ferrari easing past McLaren. But best of all, the next round in Monaco is one of those races that is often unpredictable. Will Bridgestone be better than Michelin in the Principality, or vice versa? Austria suggested that the two tyre manufacturers are pretty evenly matched. Will Renault and Jaguar gain advantage from their extra two hours of testing? Will there be a surprise winner?
The next fortnight could be the best so far in the 2003 season.