A Bomb Waiting To Explode

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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Before they ever met, Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya started sniping at each other via the media.

Then, throughout the winter of testing for the 2001 Formula One season, they seemed to have a cordial but definitely distant relationship. Now, with the new season about to kick off with the Australian Grand Prix on March 4, one of the stories that everybody will be watching is the simmering relationship between Williams BMW teammates Montoya and Schumacher.

Is this a feud waiting to explode? Or will these two extremely headstrong drivers manage to get along. The team's senior officials don't really care-all they want is for both drivers to charge hard and not knock each other off the track.

And what do the drivers think?

"To be honest with you," Montoya said, "he (Ralf) is doing his job and I am doing my job, and we don't really talk to each other. But I don't have a problem with him. He's a good guy. He is quite a fast driver. It's going to be quite good because we can push each other quite a lot. Outside the track, he's focusing on his job and I'm focusing on mine. That is as far as it goes."

Last year Schumacher lobbied to have the team retain Jenson Button rather than farming the British driver off to Benetton for two years and replacing him with Montoya. Button and Schumacher got along quite well. So does Schumacher care how he gets on with Montoya?

"Well, to a point I would care if I wouldn't get on with him," Schumacher said. "But that is not the case because we get along relatively well. It was the same with Jenson. To a certain point you should always have a relatively good relationship between the teammates because there is an information flow, which is important for the whole team. That's why I would care."

So far so good. But so far the two drivers have only been testing and not really going head to head. When one starts to consistently beat the other, then the problems may well start. And if they do start feuding, the Williams team hierarchy isn't going to coddle them.

Team founders Frank Williams and Patrick Head have always liked tough, gritty no-nonsense drivers. It all goes back to Alan Jones who drove for the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s and won the World Championship in 1980.

When David Coulthard drove for Williams in 1995, Head once told him he "should be more like Alan." Coulthard thought Head was talking about four-time World Champ Alain Prost (another former Williams driver) and only later realized that Head was referring to Alan Jones.

Jones was a tough driver indeed, and Williams and Head adored him. Jones didn't need molly coddling. He also became embroiled in the team's first feud between teammates when Carlos Reutemann ignored team orders and won the Brazilian Grand Prix ahead of Jones. A furious Jones barely spoke to Reutemann for the rest of the season, and when Reutemann said at the end of the year that they should bury the hatchet, Jones's reply was unprintable.

Another feud erupted in 1985 and 1986 between teammates Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. There's not enough room to go into the background of it all, but suffice to say that they despised each other... and still do.

I asked Frank Williams if he had learned anything from dealing with Piquet and Mansell that could help him keep the peace between his current drivers.

"Nigel and Nelson did not get on and we had a few difficult moments in debriefs," Williams admitted. "We will wait and see but I am not too worried. There will be minor but not important friction. Just competitiveness between them."

Head, who has been known to loudly scold his drivers if they don't do things the Williams way, also predicts a relatively smooth relationship with the occasional blow up.

"If there is any problem," he said, "it will be entertaining for the press. I don't think that they are going to end up going off on holiday together or anything, but they are experienced and mature enough to know that small time sniping at each other is not going to achieve too much. They are different characters at different stages of their F1 careers. And I think Ralf is fully aware that Juan Pablo is going to be one of his serious competitors."

"I hope that they develop a mature relationship out of the car," Head added, "but on the track the main thing we can hope for is that they don't have impacts together. I'm sure that there will be the odd volatile moment, but we've had that before and managed to handle it."

Montoya and Schumacher both agree that the key is to work together. But that is as far as it goes. On track, they will be competitors, and away from the track... well, they don't really want to see each other.

"I don't think you need to have a relationship like I have with my girlfriend," Montoya said. "We are racing in the same team. The aim is that he needs to work as a team player to give the best information and get the best data with the engineers to make the car faster. And I have to do the same. On the track he is another person you are racing against."

"I have had four teammates before," Schumacher said, "and I have never had a teammate where we'd go on holidays with. Maybe on a race weekend you'd meet for dinner, but not privately."

BMW's motorsport director and former F1 driver Gerhard Berger was the only teammate that ever really got along with Ayrton Senna. Asked how he accessed the Montoya/Schumacher situation, Berger said that your teammate is your biggest competition.

"They are both personalities and both competitive," Berger. "Each one should have the potential to win races. Of course, if your competitor in the same team is able to win races, you watch them all day long to find each weak point to compete against him and to beat him. This situation is always uncomfortable and gives a little bit of friction. But on the other side it raises the level of performance between the two drivers and that is exactly what we are looking for. I can't wait!"

Frank Williams sums it up best: "Ralf is certainly head strong. Juan Pablo hasn't raced for us yet, but as Gerhard said, these are two tough people. But, what the hell, we want winners!"

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