Closing the Gap?
Formula One champ Michael Schumacher sizes up his biggest
threat next season
Last week in Indianapolis, Michael Schumacher was asked which
teams he feared heading into next year's Formula One season.
Questions about 2002 were only logical because Schumacher had
rendered further discussion of the current season moot on Aug.
19, when he won the Grand Prix of Hungary and clinched his fourth
world driving title. His victory two weeks later at Belgium was
the 52nd of Schumacher's F/1 career, breaking the mark he had
shared with Alain Prost. On Sunday he nearly extended that record
at the United States Grand Prix at Indy, but he finished second
to two-time F/1 champ Mika Hakkinen.
After Schumacher's initial response--"Fear is obviously the wrong
word," he said--he turned his attention to teams that might have a
shot at challenging Ferrari's hegemony. The first one he named
was not McLaren, for whom Hakkinen won the world title in 1998
and '99. (Hakkinen, who turned 33 last Friday, is taking next
year off to spend time with his infant son.) Rather, the first
rival to pop into the 32-year-old Schumacher's head was the
resurgent Williams team, which has struggled mightily since 1997,
when it won its ninth Constructors' Championship.
With experienced technical minds and a pair of talented young
drivers--F/1 rookie Juan Montoya and Schumacher's 26-year-old
brother, Ralf--Williams is enjoying a renaissance. Ralf Schumacher
ended a 3 1/2-year winless drought at San Marino on April 15, and
since then he has added two victories. While Ralf has been the
more consistent of the Williams drivers, Montoya poses a greater
threat to the champ next year. Team boss Frank Williams was so
eager to lure Montoya, who had been a test driver for him in
1997, back to England from the U.S. that he let go of Jenson
Button, a popular 21-year-old Briton. Technical glitches have
prevented Montoya from completing 11 of the 16 events this
season, but he has a first, two seconds and a fourth in the five
races he has finished. "The overwhelming sentiment on the team is
one of deep anxiety," says Williams, "anxiety that we won't keep
A cheeky 26-year-old from Bogota, Montoya claimed the CART
championship in 1999, as a rookie, and won the Indy 500 the
following year before making the jump to F/1. He had a great
chance for another victory at the Brickyard on Sunday. In a move
that left his front tires smoking, he blazed past Michael
Schumacher on the inside of Turn 1 for the lead on the 34th of 73
laps. Montoya called it "good fun." Alas, hydraulic problems
forced him off the track five laps later.
Schumacher described the race as a pretty ho-hum affair--except
for Montoya's pass. "I still don't know where he came from,"
Schumacher said. At least he knows whom to look out for next
NASCAR's New Tracks
Too Much Cookie-Cutting?
Having reached the big time only recently, NASCAR has had the
benefit of learning from the mistakes of the more venerable major
sports. Yet it looks to be in danger of committing the same error
baseball and football did in the early 1970s: building a series
of facilities that are largely indistinguishable from one
The Protection One 400, won by Jeff Gordon on Sunday, was run on
the new Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, a 1.5-mile oval that
bears a remarkable resemblance to the Chicagoland Speedway, a
1.5-mile oval that hosted its first race in July. In fact, of the
six tracks added to the circuit since 1997, five fit the same
1.5-mile mold, and the sixth, California Speedway in Fontana, is
an oval that's merely a half-mile longer.
Granted, there are differences in the surfaces of the tracks and
in their banking, and the layouts generally offer safe if not
always thrilling racing. The cookie-cutter strategy is being
advanced by International Speedway Corporation, which built the
tracks in Chicago and Kansas City and is run by NASCAR's ruling
family, the Frances. "From competition, seating and logistics
standpoints, it seems the 1.5-mile ovals make the most sense,"
says NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter.
That's a shame because the most memorable races invariably take
place at short tracks like the quaint Bristol, where drivers
safely bang away at one another, and at superspeedways, which
allow cars to fly at full throttle. "There's nothing wrong with
mile-and-a-half tracks," says Winston Cup veteran Jeremy
Mayfield. "We don't need to run 38 races on them, though."
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES Schumacher, who was second at Indy, has an eye out for his brother's team.