War of words splits Williams

Formula One: Montoya takes pole as rift with his team management adds to speculation about Colombian's future
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Back in the Seventies, the Australian driver Tim Schenken became so exasperated with his team's owner, John Surtees, that as he passed the pits during a race he hurled the gear-lever knob, which had come unscrewed on his Surtees car, in the general direction of the former champion as he stood on the pit wall.

In these days of radio communication a driver has an even more immediate means of communicating his feelings to his team. It's one of the reasons why the relationship between BMW-Williams and Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya is as glacial as Arctic tundra, even though he will start the German Grand Prix from pole position, ahead of team-mate Ralf Schumacher.

When the latter was brought in a lap early for his second pit-stop in the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours last month, and was thus able to stay ahead of the charging Montoya and win, the Colombian allegedly told the team from the cockpit: "You are all a bunch of *****, every one of you." To which chief operations engineer Sam Michael, a no-nonsense Australian who has already publicly criticised his driver's technical input this season, reportedly replied: "No, Juan, you're the ****."

"In any pressure situation such as you find in Formula One you will always get spats like that when the chips are down, it's part of the game," a team insider said soothingly, but Montoya's underlying dissatisfaction is one reason why he and his management are keen to move to McLaren- Mercedes, to race alongside Kimi Raikkonen.

The paddock this weekend has been full of speculation about Montoya's future. It doesn't help, either, that while Schumacher Jnr struck when the driver market was good and is earning $15 million this season, with a contracted hike to $18m in 2004, Montoya is earning less than half that.

A switch to McLaren for Montoya in 2004, a year before his Williams contract officially runs out, is now unlikely. Sources say that it was blocked by BMW. That has enabled the troubled David Coulthard to breathe easily again, amid rumours that McLaren's chief, Ron Dennis has finally taken up another year's option on the Scot's contract.

That in turn may be further bad news for Eddie Jordan. As part of a deal whereby the Dubliner's beleaguered team would use Mercedes engines in Jordan-built versions of this year's McLaren MP4/17D, Coulthard might have been switched to join his outfit to boost their sponsorship potential. Jordan might also have provided a home for Sauber Petronas driver Nick Heidfeld, who is expected to be on the market as his seat is taken for 2004 by either Rubens Barrichello, Giancarlo Fisichella or Felipe Massa.

This has not been a good weekend for Jordan. A Mercedes engine-supply deal appears to be fading, and on Friday Eddie Jordan announced he has withdrawn his legal action against Vodafone, in which he had alleged that the phone company reneged on an agreement for sponsorship. "Regretfully, it is clear that we are not going to win," Jordan said, "and it is my decision to withdraw. We'll take the judges' ruling on the chin and then put this behind us." The judgment, due tomorrow, is expected to crucify Jordan personally.

The silly season traditionally kicks off around this time of year, but thankfully has been balanced by events on the track. Michael Schumacher in particular, though he described his own performance as "not my best-ever qualifying run," salvaged his lap in the final sector to grab sixth place in the face of strong opposition from Williams, McLaren, Renault and Toyota.

While it appears the champion was outdone by team-mate Rubens Barrichello, third overall, the German was running harder-compound Bridgestone tyres which could prove ideal in the very high temperatures expected for the race. "I still feel we are in a strong position. Our tyres seem to be consistent, which means we face the race with confidence," Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, said.

Even Ralf Schumacher, who narrowly lost out this time to Montoya in the fight for pole, seemed more concerned about the red menace than the understeer that stymied his lap with three corners to go. "Ferrari have been very consistent, so we cannot underestimate them for the race," he said.

One man seeking redemption this afternoon is Justin Wilson, whose arrival at Jaguar has been a bitter-sweet experience thus far. On Friday the Briton, who celebrated his 25th birthday the previous day, rose brilliantly to the occasion, qualifying seventh fastest, ahead of the Ferraris and within three-tenths of a second of his swift team-mate Mark Webber. But yesterday was less satisfactory, and he will start only 16th, just ahead of fellow countrymen Jenson Button and Ralph Firman.

"I just pushed way too hard towards the end of the lap and lost a fair bit of time," he admitted. He paid a price for lack of experience with both the car and its Michelin tyres.

"While I'm not making any excuses," he added, "the fact is that I have never driven the car in anger until this weekend." Jaguar have told Wilson that he should treat this race and the next, in Hungary, as test sessions, but like any genuine racer, the greatest pressure is the pressure he is generating himself.