Spanish Grand Prix: McLaren triumph amid F1's failure

Spanish Grand Prix: Familiar podium follows tedious procession as drivers blame regulations for killing competition
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IN PURELY technical and strategic terms it was a near immaculate demonstration by McLaren-Mercedes, Mika Hakkinen reviving his world championship campaign with victory and David Coulthard resisting a characteristic charge from Michael Schumacher to take second place in the Spanish Grand Prix yesterday.

However, as a sporting spectacle it was abject, and perhaps now the authorities will listen to the drivers and the many seasoned observers who maintain that Formula One has never been more tedious.

Racing is, frankly, a misnomer. What we have is an engineering exercise and a test of drivers' fitness and concentration. What we do not have is the cut and thrust, the suspense and emotion out there in the arena, which separates sport from science.

The artificial opportunities created by pit stops can no longer compensate for the procession on the circuit. The drivers have insisted all along that grooved tyres were not the route to take and now the governing body, the FIA, must take heed.

Jacques Villeneuve's rocket start, propelling him from sixth place on the grid to third, that surge by Schumacher in the middle sector, and Damon Hill's manoeuvre to pass Rubens Barrichello on the outside represented the day's highlights.

McLaren's struggle for reliability explains the more acceptable fare of earlier races. Here they ran virtually trouble-free and Hakkinen was in charge of proceedings once he had made a clean start from pole position and negotiated the first corner ahead of the rest.

Stirring though Villeneuve's start was, it served perversely to stifle the potency of Schumacher's Ferrari and, consequently, the contest. The German was relegated to fourth and soon realised he was powerless to overtake the Canadians' BAR.

Hakkinen consolidated his lead, Coulthard held a comfortable second and a frustrated Schumacher had to wait until the first round of pit stops to get in front of Villeneuve. If Schumacher could not pass Villeneuve on the road, he would have had scant prospect of taking Coulthard. So it was that after hacking away at the Scotsman's advantage, he was depending on his second stop to make further positional progress. This time he was held up by a back marker entering the pit lane, Coulthard retained the lead after his second stop and the placings were decided.

Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari,was fourth, Ralf Schumacher was fifth for Williams and Jarno Trulli claimed the final point for Prost-Peugeot.

Coulthard was relieved to have six points after overshooting and losing time at his first pit stop, then, in the closing stages, coming up behind a lower order fight between Hill and Barrichello. Hill eventually responded to Coulthard's admonishing wave and moved over. So, too, did Barrichello and the danger passed.

It was far from the massacre Ferrari feared and, given a better start, Schumacher might have made a race, even a spectacle, of it. McLaren were just content to take what they had.

Hakkinen, who now trails Schumacher by six points at the top of the championship, said: "It is never as easy as it looks. You need enormous concentration. When you have a big lead, you need double the concentration."

Coulthard admitted he would have resigned himself to third place had he not returned to the circuit ahead of Schumacher following his second pit stop.

"It would have been very difficult for me to pass Michael," he said. "Look what happened when Villeneuve got ahead of him. Michael couldn't get by and the speed differential between their cars is greater than that between mine and Michael's.

"This is the problem we have in Formula One now. We need to go back to wider cars instead of these little narrow ones."

The problem of overtaking back markers is compounded by the turbulence they trail and the lack of grip encountered by the approaching car. To be held up by Hill further exasperated Coulthard. "It was very frustrating because Damon has campaigned for back markers to be more disciplined," Coulthard said. "I appreciate he had his own battle and I saw his pass on Barrichello. He needed that."

Coulthard needed this result to kick-start his season. "I'm not better placed in the championship because I've had three non-finishes," he said.

Schumacher, winner of the two previous races, was philosophical about this reverse. He was encouraged that little had separated McLaren and Ferrari in qualifying and that he had registered the fastest lap of this grand prix.

He said: "It obviously did not help me to go behind Villeneuve at the start. I could have tried to pass him but didn't want to take the risk and decided to wait.

"I was hoping to be ahead of David after my second stop, but as I went into the pits there was an Arrows in front of me going in like it was his coffee break.

"I think we can be satisfied with the overall situation and fairly confident for the rest of the season."

Hakkinen countered: "I know we have not yet reached our potential. We have a lot to come yet this season."

Hill's bold move gave him seventh place in the Jordan-Mugen-Honda, but Johnny Herbert is still awaiting his first finish in the Stewart-Ford. This time a transmission problem halted him. Formula One's problems are even more chronic. Oh for the drama of the Nou Camp - or even a Second Division play-off final.


SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona): Race distance: 65 laps (307.196kms): 1M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1 hr 34 mins 13.665sec (average speed 121.5mph/195.608 kph); 2. D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +6.238sec; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +10.845sec; 4 Eddie Irvine (GB) Ferrari 30.182sec; 5 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:27.208; 6 J Trulli (It) Prost- Peugeot 1 lap; 7 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1 lap; 8 M Salo (Fin) BAR-Supertec 1 lap; 9 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1 lap; 10 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife 1 lap; 11 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 2 laps; 12 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 3 laps. Did not finish: L Badoer (It) Minardi- Ford 50 laps completed; J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 40; P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 40; J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 40; H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 35; J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 27; A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec 24; O Panis (Fr) Prost 24. Did not start: (failed to complete 1 lap) 22 M Gene (Sp) Minardi Disqualified: R Barichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford: technical infringement.

Fastest lap: Michael Schumacher 1:24.982 (124.45mph/200.287 kph)

Constructors standings: 1 Ferrari, 51 points; 2 McLaren-Mercedes, 36; 3 Jordan-Mugen-Honda, 16; 4 Williams, 9; 5 Benetton-Playlife, 8; 6 Stewart- Ford, 6; 7 Prost-Peugeot, 2; 8 (tie) Arrows, 1; Sauber-Petronas, 1.