OCTOBER 15, 2001
Is Montoya the man to put the zest back into F1?
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER's domination of the 2001 world championship may be unreservedly admired by Ferrari devotees and students of motor racing history, but Sunday's Japanese grand prix finally rang down the curtain on a season all too often punctuated by dreary processions rather than compelling on-track battles.
While its is obviously unrealistic to expect every season to culminate in a nail-biting championship cliffhanger at the final race, this year has delivered an urgent need for some consistent opposition to the Schumacher steamroller.
The failure of the McLaren-Mercedes team to fulfil its traditional role as Ferrari's most formidable opponent has only in part been mitigated by the emergence of the Williams-BMW team as a front line force. Put simply, one is bound to wonder what everyone else has been doing allowing Schumacher to waltz away to his fourth title largely unchallenged.
An interesting index of the generally underwhelming performances delivered by most of the teams can be gauged from the fact that the Sauber-Petronas squad finished fourth in the constructors' championship behind Ferrari, McLaren and Williams.
Sauber, a staid and normally somewhat average mid-ranking team, have benefited from a decent chassis and two motivated young drivers in Kimi Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld. But their apparent upsurge in performance is more due to the generally lamentable form of Jordan, British American Racing, Benetton and Jaguar, all teams which in the normal course of events one would have expected to be ahead of their Swiss rivals.
However, all is by no means doom and gloom for the future. David Coulthard is steeling himself for another assault on the world championship next season in what promises to be a much improved McLaren MP4/17 powered by a brand new 90-degree Mercedes V10 engine.
Both Jaguar and Benetton have what they believe will be much improved cars in the development pipeline to boost the expectations of Eddie Irvine and Jenson Button respectively, while the young Japanese driver Takuma Sato is set to stir things up at Jordan.
Yet it is the dynamic Juan Pablo Montoya on whom most hopes of a formula one renaissance are being pinned. The Colombian was described by one observer at the weekend being a blend of Ayrton Senna's genius at the wheel and 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg's cocky insouciance out of the cockpit.
"I think the guy is outstanding," said Gerhard Berger, BMW's competitions director. "When Michael (Schumacher) was standing up there on the rostrum thinking 'oh, it's him again' he must have been anticipating a lot of trouble from Juan next season.
"I've always been convinced of his talent, but the way in which he has learned the business of setting up an F1 car this season has been terrific."
Other issues which are concerning the formula one business at the present time include the effects of the economic recession on the sport's future development. While Toyota, the world's third largest car company, is poised to enter formula one next season, at the other end of the scale the struggling Prost outfit is facing the prospect of closing its doors within weeks unless new investment can be attracted.
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