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Mark Bechtel
October 08, 2001
Closing the Gap? Formula One champ Michael Schumacher sizes up his biggest threat next season
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October 08, 2001

Motor Sports

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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�-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 it going."

A cheeky 26-year-old from Bogot�, 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 year.

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 another.

The Protection One 400, won by Jeff Gordon on Sunday, was run on the new Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, a 15-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.

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