When egos crash: Inter-team rivalry to provide gripping Formula One sideshow

Ferrari famously stick to team orders, but elsewhere drivers refuse to take a back seat. David Tremayne reports
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On the surface, boxing and motor racing do not have a lot in common. But the latter is also a mano a mano sport where you go one on one - but with your team-mate.

On the surface, boxing and motor racing do not have a lot in common. But the latter is also a mano a mano sport where you go one on one - but with your team-mate.

While this might not involve physical attack - though in the United States one year, the veteran sportscar racer George Follmer did go looking for his British team-mate Jackie Oliver wielding a mace - there have been plenty of occasions when temperaments have boiled over where two strong egos have been paired together.

In Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher has a compliant partner who works for the good of the Ferrari team, but elsewhere, thankfully, 2005 holds the promise of some explosive inter-team battles. The most likely to involve fireworks is at McLaren- Mercedes, where Juan Pablo Montoya joins Kimi Raikkonen. The Colombian made a big impression when he joined Williams-BMW in 2001, pushing past Schumacher in Brazil and heading for victory until a tangle with the back-marker Jos Verstappen. But since then the former CART champion has often been more Audley Harrison than Muhammad Ali. Relations with Williams strained to breaking point, and he departed for McLaren with a final "up yours" victory in his pocket and the nickname "Burger King" ringing in his ears on account of his apparent dislike of training.

Now Montoya weighs in six kilos lighter, is delighting McLaren with his speed and technical feedback, and is ready at last to deliver. At the same time, Raikkonen has fallen from grace with some well-documented moments of inebriated self-exposure which proved a huge embarrassment to the team as they were courting new sponsor, Johnnie Walker.

The Finn is known as "The Iceman" because of his clever method of coping with the publicity side of his job largely by muttering monosyllabically; people tend to stop pestering you after a while. Pairing him with Montoya, a voluble character who usually lets you know exactly what he is thinking, is a combination of fire and ice. Yesterday, Montoya demonstrated his fiery side, saying of Williams: "I don't know what they wanted. I was winning races, driving the wheels off the car. [Frank] Williams complained that I was overweight and unfit - he just whinged about it."

At Renault they have two surgically precise drivers in Fernando Alonso and the returning Giancarlo Fisichella, who will challenge one another with great finesse. The Spaniard was the sensation of 2003, only his second season of Formula One, and is the youngest-ever grand prix winner. Fisichella is the veteran who remains unaccountably underrated.

After starting his career with Minardi (as Alonso would) in 1996 and then starring for Jordan before joining Renault, he sank as low as Jordan in 2002. Drivers do not normally come back from that sort of knock-out, but a year with Sauber in 2004 enabled Fisichella to remind people of his sheer class. How he and Alonso cope with one another is going to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the season, given that their characters appear to be so similar.

The other great contest is at Williams-BMW. Desperate to forget the draining acrimony of the four-year pairing of Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, they now have the popular Mr Clean Mark Webber and the introverted Nick Heidfeld. The Australian Webber is a brilliant team player and motivator who gives his best at all times and has done everything but prove his ultimate speed. Heidfeld shuffles along like a reluctant kid on his way to school, but is a tough little racer who has grabbed this final chance with both hands, having also sunk as low as Jordan. Raikkonen was his nemesis at Sauber in 2001. Even though Heidfeld, in his sophomore year, had a better season than the rookie Raikkonen, McLaren ignored its long-standing young driver deal with him and plumped instead for the Finn.

If you believe paddock gossip, Heidfeld only got the nod over the Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia because of BMW; Frank Williams and Patrick Head say it was his experience and technical knowledge. Be that as it may, word during the final tests was that Webber had let his chin drop because of the poor performance of the new car, and that Heidfeld has already crept into his head.

Time will be the true judge. Just be thankful that McLaren, Renault and Williams do not share Ferrari's obsession with team orders.

* Ferrari are refusing to back down in a row with Minardi over allowing the team to use last year's cars in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday. Minardi say they have not been able to afford to comply with new rules aimed at slowing cars down. They can race if all the other teams approve, and only Ferrari have refused their consent.


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