Monday 29 May at 19:02 :
Monaco 2006 will be remembered by many for all the wrong reasons. While the death of Edouard Michelin came as a shock to all, it was overshadowed by more newsworthy events.
Coming into Monaco, Fernando Alonso was in a strong position, though one that was certainly under threat from a certain seasoned German campaigner. While Alonso was explaining to all and sundry why McLaren was Renault’s biggest threat at Monaco, it was no longer the Silver Arrows and their lightning driver that he was seeing when he glanced back over his blue-clad shoulder in terms of the Drivers’ World Championship.
No, it was Michael Schumacher. Ferrari seemed to be back from wherever it was they went last season and the scarlet peril had been making its presence felt in Fernando’s life as of late.
No surprise then, when Michael set provisional pole during the final qualifying session on Saturday – despite numerous complaints of a lack of grip. Alonso, knowing how vital grid position is in Monaco, was never going to be satisfied with second place of course, and was busy launching a serious assault on the German pole sitter's time when the most mysterious thing happened: A veteran, on pole, seven times world champion, a man who has regularly made his team-mates look like second rate amateurs, lost control of his state-of-the-art Ferrari Formula One car. While going at what could only be described as a snail’s pace. On the very same flying lap that everyone believed he was using to defend a vital pole position.
This did not make sense. To anyone. Anyone but those on his team, that is. Uncle Flavio, as is often the case, was the first, and probably most vociferous, to comment. “He parked the car! He parked the car!”, postulated the Renault boss loudly to a TV crew, followed closely by Villeneuve and Wurz who made it quite clear that Briatore was not the only one to have that opinion. And so followed just about every soul in the paddock. Protests were lodged, Schumacher called in by the stewards, Ferrari questioned and deliberations kicked off. In a shock announcement, Michael Schumacher was declared guilty. In an even more unexpected move, he was actually punished – his qualifying times deleted, as prescribed by Article 112 of the FIA Sporting Regulations: “In the event of a driving infringement during practice the Stewards may delete any number of the relevant driver’s qualifying times or impose a time penalty. In this case, a team will not be able to appeal against the steward's decision.”
To the letter then, did they implement the punishment. There were those that thought that this was uncalled for – including that most ardent of Schumacher fans, Max Mosley. Many believed however, that if he really was guilty, the punishment was not severe enough. Of course at the time that Article 112 was written, the 107% qualifying rule was still in place - meaning the offending driver would not have been able to start the race...
Justice is blind?
In many depictions the Lady of Justice, armed with a sword in the one hand and brandishing the famous Scales of Justice in the other, is blindfolded. She does not see the crime, yet has to weigh the evidence and judge nonetheless. In this case, however, the whole world, including the stewards, did indeed see the crime. Moreover, they were able to watch it over and over, in slow motion, from different angles.
This did not prevent them from hearing Michael and Ferrari out. They examined their own data, they examined Ferrari’s data, they listened to arguments, looked at the evidence, and viewed the crime. Not only the evidence, the crime.
In terms of evidence, the strongest argument for Michael Schumacher was, no doubt, the logic of the whole thing. Why on earth would he risk such a judgement for one grid position? Surely the man has more sense than that? In turn, the most logical argument against that would be the fact that pole means more at Monaco than anywhere else. More so than anywhere else, it could mean the difference between victory and second. And who, in the world of glamour and speed that is F1, wants to be second? At the most prestigious event on the calendar? Certainly not the man who is playing catch-up to what must be one of the three most talented drivers in F1. Certainly not the wounded animal that had yet anonther in an unprecedented run of consecutive championships ripped away from him by a charging young bull and the very team and team boss that gave him his first world championship. No, once again he can smell the world championship, he has the car to go after it and you can be sure he does not believe the points deficit cannot be overcome.
Is the man capable of such a thing? The short answer is yes – history leaves us with no argument on that score. Think Australia ’94, when Damon Hill had to beat the German to take the championship. Hill went for a straight-forward passing move to get past Michael who was clearly slower in what was at that point a damaged car. Schumacher turned in on Hill – taking both cars out of the race. Enough to hand Michael the title. Or indeed let us examine his sudden turn-in on Villeneuve at Jerez in ’97 when the Canadian attempted to pass him on the back straight. This time, of course, our man Michael met with less success and he ended up as part of the scenery, while Villeneuve went on the finish the race and win the title. It was too blatant for the FIA to overlook and Michael was stripped of all his points for the season. One would think that he’d learn.
He did not, of course, and similar incidents followed in Argentina in ’98, Spa in 2000 and the Nurburgring in ’01 (no, not even his own brother would escape his dangerous defending tactics).
Of course this trend did not start in F1 either. Hakkinen will recall with no fondness a certain F3 race at Macau in which Michael ran him into the wall as the Finn tried to overtake - also on a straight.
But let’s forget, for a moment, the surrounding evidence. We know Michael is capable of something like this. Schumacher stated without any hesitation, however, that in this case it really was an honest mistake. Villeneuve, in turn, stated that, if that was the case, the man’s superlicence should be revoked immediately. Which brings us to viewing the crime itself.
If you're lucky enough to have recorded footage of the incident, open it up and watch as you read further: Michael Schumacher, statistically the most successful driver in the history of Formula 1, is on his final flying lap. He is on provisional pole and this is exactly what he is defending at this very moment. His closest rival for pole is also on a flying lap, attacking his time. The scarlet car arrives at turn 18 at what seems to be slower than normal. Its front wheels turn in to the corner as it continues to slow down. In the middle of the corner the front wheels suddenly swivel to point straight at the opposite wall, the car is still slowing down. As the car approaches the wall, the wheels turn right again, but too late. The car’s turning circle will not allow it to clear the wall. The car comes to a halt. Later it will be revealed that there is nothing wrong with the car, yet it is parked squarely on the racing line in a corner with low visibility. Yellow flags appear in the dying moments of the final qualifying session at Monaco. No-one can set another qualifying time.
Examining the footage over and over again can leave no doubt that Villeneuve is correct. If Michael did not do that on purpose, he should not have a superlicence. He turned in at slow speed, then pointed his wheels straight at the wall – the cockpit camera clearly showing him straightening the steering wheel literally mid-corner while braking just enough to enable him to stop right up against the wall once he’d turned right again, supposedly in an attempt to clear the corner. It almost looks like a learner driver’s first attempt to parallel-park – hitting the kerb in the process. Even the speeds are similar.
Yet another brilliant piece of driving by the greatest driver in Formula One.
So, the stewards were too harsh? I don’t think so. They were faced with two options here: This was deliberate or it was not. They had recently revoked Ide’s superlicence on the premise that he needs more track time in an F1 car before he can safely compete in a race. No-one who loses control of a car 10 metres before its brakes (not a wall) brings it to a complete stop can justifiably lay claim to being safe for those around him while he is driving at speeds in excess of 300 km/h. The only logical option was that he did it on purpose. Article 112 refers.
Meanwhile back at Paragon
Of course we cannot look at Monaco 2006 without referring to the relentless assault that McLaren is making on Kimi Raikkonen’s chances of ever winning a world championship. As if Alonso, Briatore and Pat Symonds are not doing enough. Monaco provided further proof that the power plant that currently nestles directly behind the Iceman’s office is either fundamentally flawed or is not being allowed to run to its full potential in a bid to make it last the obligatory two race weekends. Monaco, more so than any other track, asks less of the engine in terms of outright top-end performance and more of down force, chassis, tyres and, above all, driver skill. And so here McLaren, and in real truth Kimi, stands an honest chance of winning the race. Just look again, at him passing Webber like he wasn't there in the opening phases of the race. At Monaco - where it is impossible to pass. Sure, the Australian made the tiniest of mistakes by braking too late but it takes nothing away from that move.
Come Thursday practice though, a heat shield (of all things) catches fire. Not that big a deal you’d think. No serious damage done to the car. Replace it with something better before qualifying (seeing as though there’s no racing on Friday there is ample time) and off you go.
And here the question of logic comes in again: As the safety car returns to the pits and the final round of pit stops are a thing of the past, the race is on in Monaco. It’s the Iceman vs the Charging Bull. They are less than a second apart and the man in front is at a clear disadvantage in terms of pace. This is Monaco, however, and many a time has track position proven to be so much more important than pace in the golden streets of this glamorous, hallowed principality. The F1 world holds its breath as it readies itself for what promises to be the most exciting battle of the season. Only to be let down in spectacular fashion as Kimi’s car expires in a puff (not even a cloud) of smoke. Logic would tell us that the slow speeds behind the safety car was simply too much for an engine on the edge of its operating temperature. Not a soul even considers the heat shield. The heat shield that caught fire in free practice, warning McLaren of a potential problem in the one race they stand the best chance of winning. The same heat shield that caught fire again, thwarting Kimi's chances.
And that is why McLaren faces a long road ahead before its next championship. That is why Kimi Raikkonen will not drive for the Silver Arrows next season. Not because of one incident where the same mistake was made by the same team within four days of course – no, the fact that it is but one of a string of reasons to leave the team. A string that is getting so long that not even the ultra-loyal Finn can continue to ignore it.
Edu de Jager
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