A change in the German hierarchy? 25 May 2005
Is Michael set to lose his home hero crown...
If, before the season started, you had asked for predictions on where Germanys three Formula One drivers would be in the championship standings on the eve of their first home Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring this weekend, very few would have guessed at the current state of affairs: William's Nick Heidfeld and Toyota's Ralf Schumacher in joint fifth, with seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher trailing all the way back in ninth.
Yet that's the position that we now find ourselves in - thanks to Ferrari's poor start to the season, and several strong results for Nick and Ralf. The best of which, of course, was Heidfeld's strong drive to the second step of the podium in Monaco - even more impressive considering he started the race sixth on the grid. After surviving near disaster on the very first corner, where his and team mate Mark Webber's cars touched, Heidfeld moved into a strong position behind the Australian. After the second round of pit stops Heidfeld emerged ahead of Webber, and he passed Alonso's fading Renault with a tidy passing move on his way to the best result of his career so far.
Indeed, looking back to the start of the year, Heidfeld has enjoyed his most successful season to date - more than justifying Williams' decision to give him the full race drive after the Jenson Button move collapsed. Although he's been unable to get close to Webber's famed qualifying pace (the Australian beating him 5:1 on relative grid position), the German's racecraft is more than a match for that of his team mate, finishing higher than Webber on two of the three occasions when both have got to the end of a race. Webber's obvious disappointment at his Monaco third shows just how far his German team mate has him rattled - and if Heidfeld continues to impress then his future looks bright.
Ralf Schumacher has had a more eventful season, although the pace of the Mike Gascoyne-designed Toyota has come as a surprise to many - and Ralf's current fifth-place in the drivers' championship is a fair reflection of some strong drives. Ralf was, of course, replaced at Williams by Heidfeld, and has been anxious to prove himself against his erstwhile team all season - and although he's had trouble keeping up with his new team mate Jarno Trulli (who has taken two second-places compared to Ralf's two fourths), Schumacher has shown consistent form and a maturing attitude to racing as demonstrated by his committed drive from last place on the grid to sixth at Monaco, where, despite a tense battle, he kept brother Michael behind until the end.
But for the elder Schumacher, the season has got off to a miserable start as his Ferrari has struggled for pace, especially during qualifying. We've seen plenty of flashes of brilliance, of course - once the F2005's Bridgestones have bedded in mid-race, Schumacher is still capable of delivering extraordinary pace, as his brilliant drive to second at San Marino demonstrated. But at other times both car and driver have looked distinctly uncomfortable, and without the sort of speed necessary to seriously challenge Renault or McLaren. Few would bet against Ferrari rediscovering their form - the question is, if they do, will it be in time to keep Schumacher's already slim hopes of an eighth drivers' title this year alive? If not then critics could well be saying that Schumacher should have retired at the end of last season.
Don't be too surprised if, come the end of the year, it's Nick Heidfeld or Ralf Schumacher who emerges as the top German driver.