The F1 Season: A Done Deal

INDIANAPOLIS, October 1, 2003&#151

Is it over in Formula One this year? Has Michael Schumacher, indeed captured his historic sixth World Championship with a 70th victory?

Is there anything left for this [super] man to attack other than the one-armed bandits in Las Vegas where he won “experience” at the slot machines before arriving at Indianapolis to do his bit of gamesmanship gambling?

It sure looked that way on Sunday, but there’s a caveat, as on-circuit and pit violations colored the fourth running of the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The FIA’s calling of penalties is starting to resemble the National Hockey League’s.

Now, I don’t want to say he was robbed, but after looking at the incident between Juan Pablo Montoya and second Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello several times, after listening to the latter’s explanation just after he got out of his stricken Ferrari, well, there’s something wrong here.

Later in the afternoon, after he’d had a chance to look at video, Barrichello ran the company line and said Montoya moved on him. Earlier, he’d said he had a gearbox problem, which most likely (and this is only my theory), caused him to bog down in the second turn of the 13-corner, 2.605-mile track on the third round of this 73-lap contest.

Timing of Montoya’s resulting drive-through penalty pretty much settled the score for this year and left Colombian fans a lot more somber than they’d been since arriving in Indianapolis on Wednesday and Thursday. (And partying every night to the delight of bar/restaurant owners.)

When I arrived at the famed Brickyard circuit at 7AM Saturday morning for qualifying day, there was a sea of Colombian flags flying and draped in the bleachers across from BMW Williams’ pit road garage. It was a magnificent sight, even for the most jaded of journalists. With the number of fans in the stands, was there anyone left in Bogota or Cartagena?

Michael Schumacher has become the guy everyone loves to hate. This isn’t the first time a dominant driver has been berated for his success. Back in the day, there were people who begrudged Ayrton Senna his great talent and ability to vanquish drivers who got in his way (like Alain Prost, for example). Doesn’t anyone love a great winner, I wonder?

Senna had moments of punting off competitors, just as Schumacher has done in the past to gain the ultimate reward of a title. Was Senna ever really punished? No, but Schumacher has been and at one point was placed on probation for his actions, which is just like the boys of NASCAR. Has Bernie Ecclestone been keeping track of their fines and probations and using that template?

Now, here I am joining a bunch of others waiting for Schumacher to fail so that I can find another driver to first help promote to the top and then despise once he’s arrived and stayed there.

Schumacher has been good for the sport in part because he’s brought in more German fans and attention, together with fueling much of the eastern European bloc’s passion for motorsports. And he’s shown a particular joy in his victories and a certain graciousness (for the most part) in defeat.

It’s easy to see why Colombian&#151South American&#151fans love Juan Pablo Montoya. He’s young, personable, handsome and has learned how to play the PR game. He has great hands in the car (ask anyone who ever watched JPM in CART) and he’s driving for one of the top teams in the sport. It’s widely rumored this will be Montoya’s last season with Williams; he could go to McLaren as early as next year.

Kimi Raikkonen, too, has a great future ahead of him. He’ll be with McLaren for a long time, as owner Ron Dennis is hesitant to release great talent and understands he must pay to keep outstanding drivers in the fold. Kimi, young and daring doesn’t have much personal presence, but the Iceman is learning.

I just don’t see anyone else on the horizon to challenge Schumacher and stop him from winning seven, eight or even nine World Championships before he’s had enough. While Sir Jackie Stewart would advise Schumacher to quit while he’s ahead of the game&#151as the Scot did 30 years ago&#151Schumacher has every right and reason to keep going and to keep winning. That, and he’s got a contract through the 2006 season.

Schumie’s talents are great and his sympatico with Scuderia Ferrari is remarkable. If the old man were still alive, I’m sure he’d approve. Should Michael want to keep driving and vying for titles over the next few years, it’s up to the balance of the field to stop him from doing so.

At this point in time, I don’t think anyone can.

&#151Anne Proffit