Montoya war-drums sounding louder

 

Motor Sport/German Grand Prix: If perfect seasons have an internal rhythm all their own - an ebb and flow that culminates in a closing crescendo - then this year's Formula One tour is beginning to find its groove.  Justin Hynes reports from Hockenheim

Yesterday at the German Grand Prix, Juan Pablo Montoya was its drum major, rolling serenely to a crushing victory at the German Grand Prix that lifts the Colombian to second in the title race, just six points adrift of championship leader Michael Schumacher. And with just four races to go.

And as the season enters its final quarter, the sound of Williams's and Montoya's war drums are getting more and more insistent. After Schumacher had sounded a strident series of notes with a run of three victories at Imola, Barcelona and Austria's A1 Ring, it seemed Ferrari's early season lament would be rapidly replaced with the victory march the German has played for the past three seasons. But then came Montoya's counter-melody, beginning with his first win in 25 races in Monaco, and since grown louder and louder, while Schumacher's losing streak has now extended to four races.

Montoya now has the best car on the grid, the best tyres, and perhaps the best chance of overhauling Schumacher to claim his first championship.

Just four races remain, apart from Hungary up next: Monza, power-hungry, it's long straights and hard-breaking chicanes ideally suited to Montoya's bruising Williams, to his hard-working Michelins. The track where the Colombian scored his first Formula One win.

Indianapolis, a Mickey-Mouse infield bookended by the start and end of Formula One's longest straight, where again Williams's power will be crucial.

Even in the infield, the now dominant Michelins should prosper.

And Suzuka. the last real racers' circuit, a supremely technical track, but with glorious corners such as Spoon and the daunting 130R where Montoya's talent should flourish. Last year he was fourth, the year before second. This year he could win it all.

But first he must negotiate Hungary. Narrow, technical, hot and dusty. No room to overtake. A circuit where qualifying is everything. But the one-shot grid shoot-out has been the Colombian's Achilles heel this season.

Hockenheim, this weekend, was his first pole of the season. Hungary, then, could dictate whether this season roars to the fairy tale of a final race title decider, or leave us flat.

"Four races to go, anything can happen," he said yesterday after powering to a one-minute winning margin over nearest rival David Coulthard. "You just gotta keep scoring points. You gotta be there at the end.

"Look at Michael. He's so lucky, always second, even from nowhere. But today his luck ran out. That was good for me."

Montoya's supremely performing Williams was never going to be denied victory, but while the Colombian was a minute up on all opposition, Michael Schumacher had clawed his way into the next best position. After a first corner smash at the start saw the exit of Ralf Schumacher, who qualified second, Rubens Barrichello, third, and the championship's then second-placed driver Kimi Raikkonen, who started fifth, the champion was able to translate a disappointing sixth on the grid to a first-lap fourth and the chance to press the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli.

Hampered, and not for the first time this season, by under-performing Bridgestone tyres, Schumacher's move took time to build. He used his first pit stop to move ahead of Alonso and then set about chasing down Trulli.

Eighteen laps from home he muscled past Trulli into the hairpin despite being pushed out to the run-off area by the Italian.

And in that move, to claim second, Schumacher encountered the bad luck that sets the title race up for a grandstand finish.

And it was simple. A puncture caused by debris on the run-off area. He limped to the pit on lap 63 as Coulthard, the Renaults and twin Toyotas of Olivier Panis and Cristiano Da Matta swept by. An eight-point, title-sustaining second translated into two points.

"At least I'm still leading," Schumacher said afterwards. "Williams are now our main rival. Four races to go, it's going to be very close. I'm looking forward to the fight."

But while the power base has shifted in Montoya's favour, the Williams wave will also carry Montoya's team mate, Ralf Schumacher, with it. The younger Schumacher is nine points behind Montoya and with no team orders at Williams and with two victories under his belt, he is unlikely to defer to the Colombian. The rivalry could prove costly.

But it will have to wait until Monza, in six weeks' time for, after yesterday's race, Ralf was adjudged by the race stewards to have caused the opening lap accident that removed himself, Barrichello and Raikkonen. At the Hungaroring he will be docked 10 places on the starting grid, in all likelihood out of range of Montoya and the battle for honours.

Williams have, however, given the FIA notice that they intend to appeal the penalty.

Jordan, meanwhile, continue to suffer, the team's off-track exploits providing greater entertainment than the shambolic displays on circuit. Yesterday, Ralph Firman crashed out at the start.

Giancarlo Fisichella, hampered by a catalogue of problems toiled his way through 65 laps at the back of the field in the vain hope that calamities ahead would let him stumble into the points. It didn't happen and he eventually retired two laps from home.