The 2004 Italian Grand Prix at Monza was a particularly special race. Due to a mix of strategies and weather conditions the six best drivers in the world were all in contention for a podium position if not victory. Schumacher, Barrichello, Raikkonen, Button, Alonso, and Montoya were all racing each other at the front of the grand prix, and with a bit of luck any of them could have emerged the winner.
In the end it was Rubens that took glory after an exciting and fiercely competitive event. It isn’t very often that the top six drivers of the day will be racing in the top six positions, and it’s a shame we won’t see those same guys battle it out again. Schumacher has retired and Montoya has gone stateside to NASCAR. Barrichello and Button have both remained in F1, but their results and careers have been blunted by Honda’s poor form.
That just leaves Raikkonen and Alonso from the class of ’04 leaders, challenging for race wins today. Given their circumstances you’d expect them to be at the very top.
What is going on then? Both drivers have been outpaced by their team-mates and are trailing them in the world championship. Everyone was expecting Alonso and Raikkonen to dominate the 07 title race, but it now looks like they have Hamilton and Massa to contend with as well.
It all started according to script in Australia. Even though Felipe Massa had reliability issues at Albert Park, Raikkonen was the dominant of the two Ferrari drivers all weekend. He set quicker sector times than Massa in practice was on pole comfortably. His fastest race lap was almost two seconds quicker than Felipe’s, and it was without doubt the perfect start to his Ferrari career. Definitely a good way to establish himself as team leader.
The same could be said for Fernando Alonso’s Australian weekend. Lewis Hamilton made a stunning mistake-free debut, but he was no match for Alonso’s outright pace. During the first two stints of the race Fernando ran far enough behind the Brit to ensure his radiators were in clean cool air, and as soon as he got ahead of Hamilton he pulled away by eight tenths per lap.
Malaysia also provided good results for Fernando and Kimi.
Raikkonen may have been outpaced by Massa at Sepang, but he was racing with a detuned engine that had sprung a radiator leak in Melbourne. He would have been much quicker if he had no such reliability concerns, and even with one arm tied behind his back he managed to grab Ferrari’s only podium. Massa made a meal of his racecraft and did little to convince anyone, including his own team, that he was a man to watch out for this season.
Meanwhile, Alonso stormed to victory and never looked like being beaten by anyone, least of all his team-mate.
Since then, fortunes for both drivers have gone downhill. Dramatically.
Alonso didn’t like the harder brakes McLaren were using in Bahrain, which is a serious concern because he will have to use them again in 3 weeks at Montreal. Fernando’s unease resulted in Hamilton being the main McLaren charge and he even pushed Ferrari for the win. He might have got it too, had McLaren put the harder tyres on his car during the middle stint of the race. Alonso was noticeably distressed after the Grand Prix at being outclassed by his rookie stable mate.
Raikkonen wasn’t on the same page as Massa at Sakhir and the Brazilian cruised to an easy victory. Kimi was his usual laid back self after the race but he wasn’t exactly thrilled that Felipe had beaten him, saying “I am happy with these six points but I can’t be completely happy with this result”.
Bahrain should have been a one-off with order restored in Spain, especially for Alonso. Not only was it his home Grand Prix but he was the only McLaren driver to test at Barcelona leading up to the race. It handed the Spaniard a crucial advantage over Hamilton, but it was to no avail.
Fernando’s move on Massa at turn one was a mistake, straightforward as that. Presumably wanting to be a hero for his home crowd at the first corner, Alonso tried to go for glory when it wasn’t really possible. He simply entered the first corner too quickly and was never going to make it around the outside of Massa at that speed. The Brazilian covered his line as he was entitled to do, and left Alonso skating through the gravel.
After the Malaysian Grand Prix very few people would have suggested Massa could outrace Alonso at Barcelona, yet that’s exactly how it was.
Sliding into the gravel trap frustrated Alonso no end, and this was clear when he rejoined the circuit. In an act of desperation he kept his foot to the floor and swerved violently across the track in front of both BMW’s, endangering all of the cars behind. It was not the move of someone thinking with a clear head, and it may be a sign of the pressure he is feeling.
Being beaten by Hamilton in Bahrain was bad enough, but having it happen on his home ground must have hurt Fernando deep. He doesn’t like being beaten by his team-mate.
Alonso did very well during his first season at Minardi but was occasionally outpaced by Tarso Marques whilst he learnt the ropes. More times than not he was the lead Minardi driver, and by seasons’ end he was racing with the Honda powered cars. The only team-mate to have consistently given him trouble was Jarno Trulli at Renault, and Alonso didn’t handle it well.
Their time together in 2003 was mixed with Alonso getting Renault’s only win, but 2004 was altogether different. Jarno killed him in the first half of the season and by the time Trulli was dropped by the team at Monza, he was still ahead of Fernando in the championship.
Alonso didn’t handle Trulli’s domination well and made various errors throughout 2004, notably Monaco, Italy and Europe. With the exception of his two championship years, Alonso’s awesome speed has been punctuated with regular blunders. Throughout his time at Minardi and Renault he was always quick but often mistake-prone. For example, at Brazil in 2003 he was quick enough to finish third (despite being on the wrong tyres) but blatantly ignored the yellow flags twice. On the first occasion he overtook Ralf Schumacher’s Williams and the second time he crashed into accident debris.
Once Trulli was out of the way at Renault he stopped making errors and two world championships came his direction.
Could we be seeing the return of the old Alonso in 2007?
Last year was very telling. At the end of the season Alonso said he “should have had more help” from his Renault team during the US and Chinese Grands Prix. In both races he was beaten by Fisichella, and Alonso “felt a little alone” as a result. It seemed like Fernando simply refused to believe he could be outpaced by another driver in the same car, and it had to be due to something outside of his control. Fernando is a champion, and all champions believe they are the best. However, it is also important to identify mistakes and this may be where Alonso falls down mentally. He does not accept defeat well and seems quick to blame others for his failures. His ‘champions mentality’ could be his very undoing.
It’s early days and Alonso is only 2 points off the championship lead with 13 races to go. Nonetheless, he will need a great drive at Monaco to ease the mounting pressure. Despite winning at the principality last year Alonso has never been remarkably strong at Monaco, and he comes up against Hamilton who is so far undefeated at the circuit. Another loss to the rookie could ruin him.
There is less pressure on Raikkonen in Monte Carlo since he should have a good crack at Massa providing the Ferrari holds together. However, he is being paid five times as much as Felipe and has not looked significantly quicker. Before the Spanish Grand Prix he claimed to have discovered a set-up breakthrough in testing, and it’s a shame we never got to see how good that was due to an electronics failure in the race. Even though Kimi was much heavier on fuel than Massa at Barcelona, he never looked like beating his team-mate. Felipe had him covered all weekend.
Monaco will be a good chance for Kimi to re-establish himself as Schumacher’s replacement, especially because it is a circuit where Massa has never done well. Raikkonen was supreme there last year and will be hoping for a repeat performance.
It’s time for our champions elect to stand up and be counted, as all great champions do. Fangio had to lift his game in 1957 when the Ferraris were quicker than his Maserati. Senna raised his level when he joined Prost at McLaren, and Schumacher stood up to the challenge of dragging the prancing horse from the doldrums.
2007 is another year when the world champion will be the driver who best confronts the challenges put to him. We may found out sooner rather than later who that is going to be.
Going back to that special Italian Grand Prix in 2004, Alonso made a silly mistake and ran off the road whilst Raikkonen suffered a mechanical retirement. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?