Schumacher's homecoming a happy one; others not
If it's true that there's no place like home, as Michael Schumacher showed Sunday at the European Grand Prix, it's also possible that home is, like, nowhere, as some Formula 1 teams and drivers competing near their bases found out to their considerable chagrin this weekend.
Schumacher, born and raised in Kerpen, Germany, about two hours' drive from the Nurburgring, won for the sixth time in his career at that track and his record 86th victory reduced his arrears in the drivers' championship standings to 13 points to leader Fernando Alonso of Renault.
"It's a very nice feeling winning my home grand prix," Schumacher said afterward. "Unfortunately though, we have only made up two points on Fernando, but every point counts. Now I am looking forward to another good fight in Barcelona."
The Circuit de Catalunya hosts the sixth round of the championships on May 14.
Still, Schumacher's success didn't spread across the board for those racing near "home," itself a fluid term in a sport where it's not unusual for personnel to go weeks at a time without seeing it.
In fact, some race participants may wish they hadn't seen it at all. From Toyota's latest futile on-track forays to Nick Heidfeld's most recent pointless weekend, the best thing about being in familiar surroundings might have been waving them goodbye.
Let's start with Toyota, headquartered in Cologne, Germany, about 200 miles from the Nurburgring as the crow flies.
The team that calls this its home race is reportedly spending an annual $500 million -- that's right, folks, half-a-billion dollars -- on its F1 program and has just seven points to show for its effort this year. That works out to about $14 million a point each on a prorated 2006 basis. The high-spending outfit is currently the lowest ranked factory-owned team in the constructors championship.
That sad state of affairs didn't improve in front of a legion of Toyota workers and suppliers as smoke and engine parts flew from Ralf Schumacher's car on the 53rd of 60 laps, costing him a points-paying finish after running as high as fourth. The younger Schumacher sibling had company in his misery after teammate Jarno Trulli posted another in a succession of mid-pack finishes, coming home one lap down and just outside the points in ninth. He has yet to score in 2006 and is now zero for his last 10 races points-wise.
"There was no immediate warning of Ralf's engine failure," said Toyota engine director Luca Marmorini. "Ralf had not detected any performance drop in the engine and it was a pity that it happened just seven laps before the end because he was running really strongly. Jarno, meanwhile, struggled to maintain his early pace and we will have to have a proper look at the data to understand fully the reasons."
All that disappointment comes after Toyota showed its first real promise in 2005, placing fourth in the constructor standings and garnering five podium finishes. The world's largest automaker must be wondering where all the magic went.
Perhaps some of it left with technical director Mike Gascoyne, who departed the team recently in a messy squabble over its current direction. Perhaps some exited with chief designer Gustav Brunner, stolen at great cost from the former Minardi team when Toyota was setting up shop. The company must be hoping its nascent NASCAR program fares better in its formative stages than its struggling F1 outfit has.
Rival teams with regional ties fared somewhat better than Toyota, but not as well as they might have hoped. McLaren is partially owned by DaimlerChrysler AG, based less than 100 miles from Nurnburg in Stuttgart, and has the Mercedes brand on its engines. It can take some solace from a fourth-place finish by Kimi Raikkonen, who's in third place in the driving standings. However, Juan Pablo Montoya exited with engine failure, a result that helped drop his team to third behind Renault and Ferrari in the constructors' chase.
It's been top eight or bust for Montoya so far in 2006 as he's either finished in the points or hasn't finished. He's sixth in the driving table. Raikkonen, who must be secretly relieved to see the other McLaren fail to finish occasionally rather than his own, remained third in the title chase but lost ground to those ahead.
BMW, headquartered just down the road in Munich, also fared reasonably well as Jacques Villeneuve filled the last points-paying position by finishing eighth.
It was the third scoring drive of the year by the former world champion, welcome consistency for a manufacturer still finding its feet as a team owner. Perhaps predictably, however, lead seat Nick Heidfeld, who grew up about 230 miles from the Nurburgring in Munchengladbach, Germany, endured another miserable weekend after qualifying 13th and advancing only three positions during the event.
A brilliant second-place finish in last year's race must seem very far away for a driver who's scored just twice in his last 12 starts and whose appointment as number one driver at BMW caused a few raised eyebrows after being significantly outperformed by Mark Webber at Williams in 2005.
BMW technical director Mario Thiessen has admitted the team was behind the curve in developing its V-8 engine program after F1 switched from the previously mandated V-10 for this season. The manufacturer is in its first year as a full-fledged team owner after supplying Williams with power plants from 2000 through 2005 and is adjusting passably well to its new duties to date, lying fifth in the constructors' standings.
Home-track responsibility now shifts to Fernando Alonso -- who grew up in Oviedo, Spain, about 400 miles from the Circuit de Catalunya -- who will be cheered on by what has become a rabid F1 following in his homeland. He'll doubtless be hoping for a more Schumacher-like end to his visit than a Toyota-like result.
Michael Kelley is a contributor to Formula One coverage for ESPN.com
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