F1’s a Snore in ’04

INDIANAPOLIS, April 14, 2004&#151

After the 2003 FIA Formula One season showed so much promise for the future, this year’s iteration is looking more like Formula One-Half.

Three races into a long 18-event docket, it seems inevitable that Michael Schumacher is steamrolling to an unprecedented seventh Drivers’ Championship (18-win season?) on the back of a Ferrari Prancing Horse.

Where last year Schumacher had intense competition from BMW-Williams F1’s Juan Pablo Montoya and Mercedes-McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, who challenged the German virtuoso right up to the penultimate race on the calendar, this season it looks like only Schumacher has the “horses for courses” to take what is considered the planet’s preeminent motorsports championship.

That scenario is leading the most fanatic F1 follower to shrug at the idea of going to races this year. Why bother if the season is a wash by June, right? Even FIA president Max Mosley and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone are starting to talk about shaking up the series even more than they already have.

This year’s rules changes were intended to level the playing field, weren’t they? Permitting teams with less than successful results in 2003 an extra car and driver for Friday practices, two single-car qualifying sessions on Saturday only and the one-engine edict for an entire race weekend were devices both Mosley and Ecclestone believed would give other teams a chance.

Wrong, guys. Out of the box, the Ferrari F2004 has been omnipotent. Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello have decimated their “competition.”

Where is the challenge from Mercedes-McLaren and Raikkonen? Up in smoke with three engine failures for the Finn in three races thus far&#151and one for teammate David Coulthard. While the MP4-19 looked good and fast in very early pre-season testing, right now it looks like a barnyard dog.

The British press is having a field day with this situation and placing blame from head man Ron Dennis down to the guy who sweeps floors at McLaren’s Woking, UK headquarters. Quick fixes for the MP4-19 could be&#151should be&#151coming before the first European round at Imola on April 25th. McLaren also needs revisions to its Ilmor-built Mercedes engine.

Mercedes-McLaren would be wise to recall the history of Ilmor-Mercedes in the Champ Car World Series, back when the CART-sanctioned open wheelers were at the height of their popularity and power. Mercedes won the engine makers’ title in 1997 and then designed a smaller, lighter motor for the following year that, quite frankly fell on its face. Ilmor and Mercedes were gone from CART competition by 2000.

Will that occur here? Likely not, as Mercedes have an ownership stake in McLaren, but it will still be a wake-up call for McLaren, for Mercedes and a reminder that, in Formula One fortunes can change quite rapidly.

The current scenario might also be an alarm clock for Montoya, who announced his intention to join McLaren in 2005 before 2004 pre-season testing began. Even insisting that he would give 100% of his energy to BMW-Williams F1, the question arose as to whether his current team would commit their total energy to the Colombian.

Montoya might be rethinking his decision to go to McLaren, despite protestations to the contrary. Would Frank Williams still want him? It could happen; stranger things have in the rarified air of F1.

Elsewhere in the paddock, both BAR-Honda and Renault have promising challengers for “best in class,” which signifies behind Ferrari these days. Jensen Button’s two podium appearances and Takuma Sato’s stirring drives have matched those of Spaniard Fernando Alonso. Watching Alonso’s Renault storm through the field has been among the few moments of excitement.

Giving a wisp of life to F1 processions has fallen to guys like Sato, like Alonso, like Button, even as Jaguar‘s Mark Webber, a man expected to be right there with the Montoyas, the Raikkonens of this exalted world has fallen on hard times. A good qualifying effort in Malaysia notwithstanding, flaws to Webber’s Jaguar R5 chassis have manifest themselves since its first aborted test.

What a shame for those of us who want to see the best teams, drivers and cars shooting through a variety of countries in quest of Formula One glory. The way things are going, this “championship” could be decided before the circus lands on North American soil in June.

The result will be a depleted gate at most races and this scenario is forcing F1 race promoters worldwide to drop some ticket prices. Even before the series begins its European swing, fans are showing their displeasure, voting with their wallets by keeping them securely in their pockets.

It’s not a hopeless situation, of course. Eventually Schumacher will retire and others will win. But in the meantime, we’ll just have to get used to watching the German enjoy his stay atop the podiums, jumping for joy with each victory. While it’s nice to see Schumi’s obvious pleasure, this F1 season is shaping up to be a real bore.

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