Weber and Webber
MARCH 7, 2003
A week or so ago Willi Weber, Ralf Schumacher's manager, told German press men that Ralf would probably have a chat with Toyota in August to see if there was any potential for a deal in the future. The Mole thought it a strange thing to do, particularly in light of the fact that Ralf has a contract with BMW Williams for 2004. In Formula 1, however, a contract is not really worth the paper it is written on because unless both signatories to a contract really want to work together there is little point in the relationship.
There are some racing drivers who inspire loyalty and passion in members of the team around them. There are others who do not. Ralf has been at Williams since the start of 1999 and in that time he has never seemed to be really comfortable in the team. He was fortunate in his first season because there was almost no pressure from his team mate Alex Zanardi. At the end of the year Zanardi's deal was negotiated away and the team hired Jenson Button. He was a more difficult challenge for Schumacher Jr. and by the end of the year was regularly matching Ralf's performances and sometimes beating them. Williams, however, had to let Button go because of a long-term commitment to Juan Pablo Montoya. In 2001 Ralf and Juan Pablo seemed to be fairly well-matched. Ralf got the breaks and went away with three wins to Montoya's one. They finished fourth and sixth in the Drivers' World Championship. In 2002, despite Ralf's victory in Malaysia being the team's only win, Montoya began to get the upper hand. He finished third in the World Championship. Ralf was fourth. Their relationship was at best abrasive. On a couple of occasions Ralf caused the team to be rather upset both on the track and, The Mole heard, because of his sometimes unconventional approach to the necessary sponsor work. At the end of the year the team was rumoured to have sent him a letter suggesting that he sharpen up his act.
Ralf is not by nature a gregarious driver like Montoya. Monty is at ease with everyone and happy to wander around the factory chatting with anyone and seeing what they are doing. Ralf is not. Ralf is shy and that often manifests itself in what appears to be a coldness to those around him. In his early F1 career he had some brattish tendencies. When he visits Williams he arrives by helicopter, goes straight to Frank Williams's office, has a meeting and then marches back to the helipad with his accolytes in tow and disappears off in a whirl of rotor blade. The Mole hears that down on the shop floor this does not inspire much motivation. But Williams is a team which will forgive almost anything if a driver delivers the goods. If he does not then the team quickly loses interest and begins looking around for The Next Best Thing.
Frank and Patrick do not believe in nurturing and protecting drivers as McLaren's Ron Dennis will do. They believe that a good driver will look after himself. Their idea of the perfect racing driver is feisty Alan Jones, the team's first World Champion. Jonesy was by nature tough. Mental strength, particularly in adversity, is judged by Williams to be a virtue as important as pure speed and driving ability. A driver who cannot cope with the kind of pressure that the team exerts does not last long.
Failure to deliver is the ultimate crime. Traditionally Williams does not pay as much as the other top teams and so when they do shell out large sums they expect spectacular results, even if the cars are not perfect. At the moment Ralf is in Year Two of a three-year contract which paid $12m in the first year, $15m this year and $18m next year. That is a lot of money and The Mole feels that there is a feeling down at Williams that at the moment they are not getting their money's worth. Ralf messed up in almost all of the qualifying sessions in the first two races. In Brazil he did rather better but in the race messed up by spinning back to 11th place. He drove back up to ninth place although he argued that if the race had gone to its full distance he would have been on the podium. This is arguable but does not take into account the fact that Ralf was extremely lucky not to have blown all hope of a decent finish by overtaking Jos Verstappen's Minardi at the first restart by passing the Dutchman before the cars crossed the start-finish line.
The Mole's team spotted this immediately and, according to the FIA documents there is no dispute. The race restarted at the start of lap 23. On lap 21, as the cars toured around behind the Safety Car, Ralf was in 12th place. On lap 22 he was 11th, crossing the line two-tenths of a second ahead of Verstappen. In other words he should have been given a drive-through penalty. If one applies a penalty to the positions in the laps that followed Ralf would have dropped six places to the back of the field. And he would not have been able to make up any positions until after the next Safety Car withdrew on lap 30. Without a penalty he was in third place, if he had had one, he would have been in 13th.
It was fortunate for him that the incident was missed by the FIA observers (a rare thing indeed). But you can be sure that the Williams team did not miss it.
It was another screw-up.
The Mole was not at all surprised to hear from his (rather soggy) operatives at Interlagos that the word in the F1 paddock is that Ralf's future with the team may not last as long as his contract does. It is not clear why Willi Weber suddenly started talking about Toyota but The Mole's men asked Toyota what they thought of the idea and were told that there is no interest at all in hiring Ralf for 2004. It is a similar story at McLaren. Williams is therefore in the driving seat in the relationship and unless things start to happen soon, there is a danger that attitudes will harden and there will be talk of terminating Ralf's contract and picking up a new (cheaper) driver.
The speculation in the paddock suggests that the team will certainly look at Giancarlo Fisichella. But in his career there have often been signs of weakness. He is also rather expensive and Williams has often in the past opted for promoting a test driver (Marc Gene has been going very well in recent months) or picking up a promising youngster. The feeling in Sao Paulo was that Frank and Patrick may look seriously at Mark Webber.
The Mole thinks that they may see similarities between Webber and their old favourite Jonesy.
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