With the Hungarian GP we were down to the much-heralded last four races of the season, with the top drivers just points apart. Whilst the Ferraris are seeming to be sliding down a slippery slope the Williams and Renault teams have joined the two McLarens as permanent threats for victory.
The paddock was buzzing with pre-race happenings. Ralf Schumacher had successfully appealed against his Hockenheim penalty, which would originally have seen him drop ten places down the Hungarian grid. In the event he came to regret not having accepted the original penalty...... Coulthard seemed mightily relieved to have extended his McLaren contract for 2004 but will undoubtedly then be shown the door in favour of newer talent. We can only take so much of him telling Autosport magazine "This will be my year".
Ralph Firman was lucky to escape serious injury when his Jordan rear wing failed, not the first time that a mechanical failure has occurred on a Jordan this year. A Hungarian driver called Zsolt Baumgartner, an unheard of F3000 driver and occasional Jordan tester, was nominated to take Firman's place in the race.
Tobacco wrangling was also much to the fore, with Spa apparently back on the Grand Prix calendar but now it was Canada's turn to be dropped. It's amazing, isn't it, that no tobacco sponsor has yet insisted that its drivers should puff away at a tab during a Grand Prix weekend?
Qualifying was, unusually, exciting, possibly because of the variable track conditions with all the dust blowing across it. Fisichella first led the time sheets but then Wilson's Jaguar appeared at the top. Subsequently both Raikkonen and Pablo Montoya went quicker but it was a fabulous lap from Fernando Alonso which ultimately secured the pole. The Renault looked great and Alonso's work rate was breathtaking. Ralf Schumacher joined him on the front row but both Ferraris were well down. Barrichello would start from the third row as he again qualified ahead of Michael Schumacher, who was way down in eighth. The cars simply did not look grippy enough and there was much haste afterwards to reassure everyone that the Bridgestone tyres were not at fault.
The single track nature of this circuit was never more evident than at the start, when the left-hand side of the grid, the clean side of the track, moved smartly ahead of the rest, with Alonso disappearing into the distance. The two Williams got edged on to the dusty side of the first corner and Ralf spun down to last place. Within ten laps Alonso had an 18 second lead, although with a pit stop on the 13th lap out of 70 it indicated a fairly light fuel load. Rubens had moved into third place but got mugged by Raikkonen and Trulli and dropped down to fifth. Michael was down in seventh.
It was all looking fairly depressing for Ferrari, with Michael's championship rivals, Raikkonen and Montoya, ahead of him and Ralf rapidly catching up from his first lap spin. On lap 20 Barrichello suffered a massive car failure as his entire left rear suspension and driveshaft parted company with the car at the end of the main straight. Like Firman he was lucky to get away with it. A major car failure is what drivers fear most.
Ferrari stated afterwards that the probable cause of the failure was that Rubens "twice hit the kerbs at an unusual angle of impact".
Thereafter things changed little. Alonso took a dominant win, even lapping Schuey, with Raikkonen and Montoya adding to their points tally by finishing second and third. Michael let his brother Ralf through at the half way stage in the hope that he might catch and pass Montoya in order to take some points off him but in the event Ralf finished in an excellent fourth place.
With this result Michael leads the World Championship by just one point over Montoya, with Raikkonen a further single point behind. The Manufacturers' lead, however, has passed to Williams as a result of their solid third and fourth place finishes.
Monza next. Will Ferrari be able to save the season?
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