The hero one week, the villain the next. Welcome to the high-speed world of Formula One. In Malaysia most – apart from the race stewards – judged Michael Schumacher to have been the miscreant in a first-corner collision with Juan Pablo Montoya.
In Brazil last weekend, most judged that it was Montoya's fault that he took his front wing off on the rear wheel of Schumacher's car as once again they disputed the same piece of road on the opening lap.
"Juan Pablo drove well and I thought I could outbrake him for the first corner," Schumacher said. "But he left his braking really late so I prepared to do it at the second. He left me enough space and I got by. I don't know what happened at turn four. I went for the inside line to leave him the outside..." Montoya took a diametrically different view.
"I'm really disappointed. After the start I made a mistake in the first corner, therefore Michael could get in front of me. Afterwards I tried to overtake him again, but he cut across and ripped off my front wing..." The Colombian finished fifth, but left the track in high dudgeon. This time it seemed that even team members believed that he allowed himself to get flustered after beating Schumacher off the line, only to surrender first place to him when the German squeezed inside him at the second corner.
Montoya came into F1 last season, highly rated after two seasons of stunning performances in the American ChampCar series. And in this race a year ago he laid down a dramatic marker by overtaking Schumacher going into the tight first corner and leading comfortably until he was taken out of the race by a backmarker. Later he forced Schumacher into an elementary mistake in the Austrian GP as they fought for supremacy.
Both times it was Montoya who maintained the psychological advantage, refusing to get agitated and letting Schumacher figure out a way of dealing with a rival with the speed and aggression to race him wheel-to-wheel.
Montoya made a lot of mistakes last year – notably in Monaco and Montreal – but made amends in the second half and comfortably out-scored his team-mate, Ralf Schumacher. However, two avoidable shunts in two races now place a question mark over his calmness under pressure. Had he given Schumacher a tad more room in Malaysia they might not have tangled (even though it's fairer to say that they definitely would not have had Schumacher lifted off for a moment). But the television evidence of Montoya's downfall in Brazil was in Schumacher's favour, even though the world champion was not 100 per cent blameless.
None of this, however, is bad for F1. On the contrary, a good old-fashioned grudge match usually works wonders for a sport's popularity. The battles between Jim Clark and Graham Hill or Jackie Stewart enlivened the Sixties, just like the friendly rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda a decade later. Likewise the battle between Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen for supremacy in the late Nineties. But give a rivalry the bitter edge that Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet had in 1981, that Piquet had with team-mate Nigel Mansell five years later, or that Alain Prost would have with Ayrton Senna, and the degree of competition is escalated immeasurably.
Deadly rivals slug it out has always had a better headline ring to it than two mates vie for victory. It may be premature to suggest that Schumacher and Montoya have reached the mutual antipathy stage just on the basis of a couple of brushes (particularly since Schumacher came off best on both occasions), but you can bet they won't be going to the ballgame together for a few months.
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