James Lawton: Montoya and Williams find formula for an epic revival

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Sometimes it is necessary to say a kind word on behalf of Formula One. Sometimes the monster growls fabulously. So it was on the streets of Monte Carlo on Sunday. Forty-eight hours on, it is still hard to overstate the brilliance of the 61st Monaco Grand Prix.

It is quite fashionable to put down the sport for various reasons, though chiefly recently because one man - and we all know who - was again streaking into the far distance,

This is, of course, the logic of mediocrity, which recently inspired the Augusta National Golf Club to change its superb course because Tiger Woods played it so sublimely, and moved the editor of a popular newspaper to tell a national radio audience that the youth of Britain were more ready to identify with somebody like Ian Wright, the notoriously undisciplined Arsenal footballer, than the youthful, impeccably behaved giant of golf.

Recently Formula One changed some of its qualifying regulations in an attempt to make Michael Schumacher's life a little more challenging. But its celebration of the great star has never been less than intense, a fact which also contributed to the impact of his unexpected defeat on Sunday. In fact, it was more than the defeat of a great driver and the most powerful team in the history of motor racing. It was a charge of new life.

In saying this, there is perhaps a need to admit a certain prejudice. It is one long held and is overwhelmingly in favour of Sir Frank Williams. He has long embodied the toughest, most enduring competitive values in our sporting life, and when he stopped the apparently irresistible surge of Schumacher and Ferrari, as he had almost coyly hinted he just might, it was of him you thought most immediately when his driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, reached out from his cockpit to punch the scented air.

Williams is no angel, of course. Ruthless to a fine degree, he lives to compete, and, as he proved at the weekend, he is never more dangerous than when his back is against the wall. Before the race he said: "In Monaco we could find something that the other teams are not aware of."

What the Williams team found - and it was a gift which superbly reanimated the Formula One season - was the will and the nerve to take on Ferrari and stop them at the pass which the winding, supremely tight street track so clearly represented. It was perhaps not a great race, because you cannot really have great races at Monte Carlo. But what you can have is superb application and nerveless control, and it was this element in Montoya's triumph that brought the sense of greatness, and the enduring appeal of a sport which so recently believed it had to change its rules or possibly die.

If overtaking is virtually impossible on this track, except in the charge from the grid where Montoya struck his first telling blow of the day, white-knuckled concentration is not. Kimi Raikkonen, who maintained his championship lead over Schumacher with second place, explained that when he lodged himself half a second behind Montoya over the last 10 laps, he was looking not for some breathtaking manoeuvre but a moment of mental breakdown by the Colombian. As it turned out, he might have as profitably planned to beat the bank up at the casino on the hill.

As the gaudy show moves on to Montreal, where conditions should better suit Schumacher, who went to Monte Carlo with three straight wins, there must be a sense of competitive resurrection in the changed qualifying regulations. Williams was at pains to say that his opposition to the changes centred not on the thrust of them, but the arbitrary way they were imposed and the possible risk to safety in the locking up of the cars after the final, one-shot qualifying drive on Saturday.

Indeed, even before Montoya's coup, Williams was saying that his fears had proved unfounded and the moves had made for "more interesting" racing. Last Sunday, as the engines roared into life on the starting grid, they had also brought an almost exquisite level of intrigue. Most of it centred on Ferrari's fuel strategy, which most experts believed had exchanged the chance of pole position for a heavy load which would enable Schumacher to shape the race relentlessly.

It never really threatened to develop that way, and the chief benefit is the re-emergence of Montoya, who after a superb breakthrough at Monza two years ago managed to contribute significantly to the squandering of no fewer than seven pole positions. A year ago he was locked into rueful philosophising on the racing life, saying in his robust English: "This is my life and I can only change what is in my power. You know if you are a torero and you get a shit bull you can be the hero of all heroes but you are still going to look an absolute..."

He used a rough word indeed, and added: "Shit bulls, shit cars, they can be the same thing, but the good part is that you don't just have to turn the wheel. You just don't have to take what is given you. You can have a real part in improving the team."

This is one of the more compelling aspects of a sport which really isn't a sport but more an impassioned, mechanised version of chess. When the big moves come, the effect can be crushing.

If you doubted that you only had to looked at Schumacher's face when the drama was over. His relentless ambition has come to define modern Formula One, and Williams conceded that before the race. He went further in fact. He said that the German had now announced himself as the greatest race driver of them all. When you feed that into the current might of Ferrari, you have a measure of the ground won back by Williams and Montoya.

Formula One may often be the brattish son of the worst aspects of the market economy, but sometimes it proves itself so much more than that. It reaches out for sublime determination and nerve, and every so often it finds it. This occurred in Monte Carlo. It was more than a reprieve. It was a thundering self-justification.

The way Montoya held his line in those final laps, the way he eschewed the possibility of a mistake, recalled some of the great days on the track. It reminded you a little of Ayrton Senna looking askance at Alain Prost and Damon Hill when they complained about car problems, and the driving rain after he had swept to an unforgettable victory in a European Grand Prix at Donington Park. There was a hint of Schumacher at his most imperious, so perfectly grooved, so much the master of his environment.

A year ago Montoya asserted that, despite missed opportunities, he felt he had achieved one major objective. He had worked his way into the consciousness of Schumacher. He had done it at the Brazilian Grand Prix when he went wheel-for-wheel with the champion's Ferrari down the long straight at São Paulo before taking him on the sharp, downhill left-hander. Some said that you could hear, above the sound of the engines, all of Formula One's intake of breath. Said Montoya: "I think I have got under Schumacher's skin. I hope I have because that is my job. It is not just Schumacher, but the need to be first. If you don't have that, you shouldn't be doing this."

It was just another reason for the Colombian-British celebration. To all outward appearances, Montoya had done more than get under Schumacher's skin. For a little while he had divorced it from any significant sign of life. This was more than a twist in Formula One's noisy plot. It was an epic convulsion.