3rd April 2001. The Brazilian Grand Prix won by David Coulthard. Two days later, Luca Badoer inaugurates the new Fiorano track, which had some recent modifications, at the wheel of a F1-2000 modified at the rear. This one features the well-known chimneys above the sidepods. The Treviso driver works on the electronics by realizing 81 laps of which 18 on the short layout. Worth mentioning 11 practise starts as well.
Further up North in a winter climate with rigid temperatures and intermittent rain, McLaren, Jordan and BAR start a test session at Silverstone. Wurz, with the hybrid MP4/15, works on the electronics and then makes his debut on the 2001 car. Zonta (engine failure) and Lemarie prepare the cars for Trulli and Villeneuve respectively (BAR has a fourth chassis). Williams, instead, tests at Magny-Cours together with Sauber and Prost. In the days leading up to the Republic San Marino Grand Prix, there is the threat of the European constructors to abandon Formula 1. They do not accept Bernie Ecclestone’s sale of the society which manages the F1 championship to Leo Kirch, television tycoon. This could lead to the foundation of an alternative society, by the above manufacturers, which would organize another world championship.
The protest arose when a week prior, em. Tv, Thomas Haffa’ society, burdened with a debt of a billion of euros, had given up 25% of Slec, the holding company which detains the Formula 1 television rights, to the Kirch al group for approximately 1.3 billion of Deutsche Marks. With this operation, the German company Kirch-em. Tv gets to control 75% of the society by the end of March after a funding guaranteed by the German boss. He exercised the buying option of the another 25% of the Formula 1 holding. The other 25% remained to Bernie Ecclestone, for which the FIA has recently renewed the rights.
The car manufacturers do not agree with it. As announced a month ago, they prepare a counter-move. They argue that they would have not accepted that the Formula 1 organization and promotion should be directly or indirectly controlled/exploited by a single television society. According to them, the fundamental principle of the world free-to-air transmission of the races would be breached. Thus, the threat is given substance:
"It was unanimously decided to create, in the best interest of our sport, a new society with the aim of creating a new championship, reserved to the single-seaters, as soon as possible".
Affirms Paolo Cantarella, Acea’s president, the association of the European car manufacturers. No small threat considering that, among the European constructors, there is the elite of the world championship manufacturers, starting from Ferrari. In additional to the Maranello team, there is also Daimler Chrysler whose engines equip McLaren, BMW, Renault as well as Ford. For the moment, while talking about open doors to the constructors, the German group does not seem to be intimidated by Acea’s threat. In fact, the group's spokesman recalls the obligations of the cars’ manufacturers and specifically declares:
"The contracts of the cars’ manufacturers, for their participation, run until 2007".
Subsequently, as published by Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Kirch group says that they are willing to sell 25% of the cars’ manufacturers. The offer comes from president Dietern Hahn, with a letter addressed to Cantarella. As well as a 1/3 of their property, the Germans offers to the constructors a sort of veto right on decisions concerning the free-to-air transmission of the races. What in fact scares the big manufacturers, engaged in the racing world, is that Kirch could sell in the future the television rights exclusively to the pay-tv. The same spokesman denies the rumours of this project:
"There is no plan to transfer the races to pay-per-view televisions".
For his part, Bernie Ecclestone comments the entire story like this:
"The constructors are worried about what will happen to Formula 1 when I will no longer be here and have decided to consider a way to manage the championship on their own".
"I have ensured that my worldwide coverage policy, from live transmissions and over the air on televisions, will remain the same, as well as that of running races on the countries of the involved manufacturers, teams and sponsors. For my point of view, this is the precondition to manage Formula 1 for the next five years".
During an interview with Financial Times, Bernie attacks the teams:
"It took me 30 years to build Formula 1 as it is today. Six months might be enough to destroy it. The truth is that the constructors had the opportunity to enter, through Em. Tv, before Kirch entered the scene. It was a good proposal which they did not accept".
The English manager is convinced that a rival championship could be negative for everyone:
"Formula 1 is a stable and solid affair which is enormously covered by newspapers and televisions".
This is the reason why the sponsors and TV broadcaster will lose interest if the sport is split. Even the FIA president Max Mosley, hopes that an agreement will be found in the end:
"Let’s hope that we can arrive at a compromise and at a fragmentation of Formula 1. In the end we must note that the constructors are united and own teams and drivers. Therefore, they have more cards to play than Kirch".
Let’s go back to sportive matters. Starting from the 5th of April 2001, Michael Schumacher goes to Fiorano to run beside Badoer. The German, in search of redemption after the difficult race at San Paolo, aims to regain the lost competitiveness. It was, in fact, the centre argument of the Ferrari summit meeting held immediately after the Brazilian Grand Prix, where it is emphasized the official version of a wrong set-up in Michael’s car.
The previous day was an intense testing session for Badoer. The test driver continued the set-up work and the development of electronic equipment which will come into vigour at the Spanish Grand Prix scheduled for the 29th April 2001. Badoer stopped the clock at 1'00"259, an important time after doing 69 laps and 19 start simulations. The other teams are also following their work programs between Silverstone, Magny-Cours and Jerez. During a break, Jos Verstappen apologizes to Juan Pablo Montoya for hitting him in Brazil:
"The incident was involuntary and this is demonstrated by the fact that I let the Williams by to lap me".
Ralf Schumacher retains that the FIA should punish drivers who are repeated offenders in racing incidents, like Rubens Barrichello, with a four-race ban:
"Such a measure is fine. A fine, like in the case of Rubens, does not make any difference. The team would pay it and the driver would not have to worry about it".
Michael Schumacher’s tests does not exactly start as hoped. At 6 p.m., at the entrance of the bridge, which could be defined as the high section of the track, the F2001 bangs violently against the protection barriers. On impact, the car loses the right rear wheel and the suspension. Luckily no damage to the driver. Possible causes of the accident include a gust of wind which may have hit the rear of the Ferrari. In the morning before the incident, Schumacher talked about Formula 1, Ferrari, Brazil and Imola, starting from the widespread unease among the constructors:
"I did not elaborate the topic of Cantarella’s declarations. The double Formula 1 championships seem far away from me. Anyway, I think that I will be already retired in 2006-2008. Still, it is true that Formula 1 is a right for everyone in television. It should be free-to-air".
Next topic: what happened in Brazil?
"My race can be interpreted in two ways. With pessimism for the missed victory, with optimism for the 2nd place which enables us to arrive at Imola in the lead of the championship. There was no specific and easy to identify failure. We have to understand it, in order to prevent this from happening also at Imola. I have always said that we would not win forever. Today, the Williams team is a third reality. Positive if it takes points away from McLaren, negative if it takes from us. Therefore, we need to keep our heads down and never give up".
Where does the danger comes from now: Coulthard or Montoya?
"We know Coulthard, we are used to his performances but the danger is Hakkinen. Montoya is a young rookie who will be able to make a name for himself. It seems premature to talk about him as a new champion. An overtake is not enough. Ralf was eight tenths faster than him... There were other overtakes that made people cry out for a miracle: Fisichella, Trulli, Button. None of them have become a World Champion".
The next day, on the 6th April 2001, Schumacher completes 104 laps and three start simulations, working hard especially on the tires and the aerodynamics. Badoer then goes on track at the wheel of the F1-2000, to continue the development programme of the new electronic solutions. The German’s best time is a 59"071. At the end of the day, Badoer completes 15 laps with the car used, until that moment, by Schumacher, marking a 1'00"203. Badoer as well makes 10 start simulations. The test finishes on the 7th April 2001. Schumacher, after another 27 laps, assures of how things went. At Imola, Ferrari will be more competitive.
As mentioned by Schumacher, McLaren and Williams-BMW will need to be defeated. The team based in Grove, despite impressing the paddock for the performance in quali and race, only managed to put together two points in the first three races of this season, thanks to Ralf Schumacher’s 5th place in Malaysia. In the previous rounds, the two FW23 did not see the chequered flag. In Australia, the German was involved in the dramatic incident with Villeneuve, while Juan Pablo Montoya retired for an engine failure. At Sepang, the Colombian driver was betrayed by the slippery asphalt. At Interlagos, the two drivers were respectively hit by Rubens Barrichello and Jos Verstappen. The BMW competition director and ex Formula 1 driver, Gerhard Berger, continues to say that Williams-BMW will only win in 2002 but what can we expected at Imola from Schumacher and Montoya?
"There are two ways to win: thanks to our performance or because the others retire. In the second scenario, we can win especially if something happens to the Ferraris or the McLarens. However, I have to emphasize that in order to be a true force in Formula 1, we need to wait until the 2002 season. Imola? We want to be close again to Ferrari and McLaren: then we will see".
What is missing at the moment?
"The leap of a team occurs when each individual employee is convinced that he or she has joined a winning team. Then an unstoppable synergy is created in order to generate extra performances. Williams is coming back and it shows but so do we".
Berger goes into details:
"The engine is there, we have similar performances to that of Ferrari, which is the best. The car is mechanically fine, in terms of gearbox and suspensions. In terms of aerodynamics, Ferrari is still at the top because it can create more downforce. With the new regulations, you use maximum downforce on 70% percent of the circuits. The more you have, the more advantage you have".
La Ferrari has in fact amazed everyone with the grip shown in the Malaysia wet circuit. The Maranello mechanics are evidently very good in creating a traction control system which is within the limits of the regulations:
"It is a pity for Formula 1 and Ferrari that the electronic regulations change after just four races. It does not make any sense that the FIA accepts the liberalization of the traction control. In any case, they should have liberalize the regulations from the start, not during the season. Ferrari did a great job during the winter. Though in the end, there are so many grey and shaded areas about the fact that everyone says that traction control cannot be ascertained. It seems like Ferrari’s performances are a result of the traction control rather than of the car itself".
Let’s about the topic of drivers. Ralf Schumacher:
"He is so close to Michael’s performances. I think that, with the same car, Michael will have to pull out his soul to stay of his brother. Ralf does not miss anything to be as fast as Michael".
Are the two brothers so different to each other?
"Michael is very concentrated to the family and the races. Ralf enjoys life’s pleasures more and addresses with happiness. He has other interests as well as Formula 1".
What about Montoya, Interlagos’ moral winner:
"He has an amazing car control. An exceptional talent but needs to understand that everything cannot be done with talent only. He needs to use an analytic method to develop the car from Friday to Sunday and, at the same time, to put his qualities into use at the right moment. Today, beyond the extraordinary performance in Brazil, he is still fighting in the midfield. However, he is only on his fourth race in Formula 1. If he is focused on the job ahead, he will become one of the greats".
At the moment, who is the best driver?
"Michael Schumacher at the moment".
"Very fast, a fantastic driver who is at Schumacher’s level on his best moments of grace but is less consistent. Michael is always there: in the dry, in the wet, even when the car is not at its best".
What do you think about the controversy started by Barrichello after Malesia, when Schumacher overtook him in a difficult situation?
"Rubens has not yet understood that it is Michael who tells him what to do, not vice versa. Still I like Barrichello. It would be better if he did not hit Ralf at Interlagos but it is a very fast driver".
There is a big rivalry between BMW and Mercedes in Germany:
"There are substantial differences. BMW chose to make the engine in Germany with their engineers, with the support of the mechanics who work in the production series. There is synergy for a lot of things, starting from the research centre, electronics, etc. Mercedes instead creates the engine in England, relying on experts such as Mario Illien, who has a society. A different approach".
Now it is time for Imola. What is your best memory?
"Being alive after the scary incident in 1989. My Ferrari slid outside Tamburello and catch fire. I remember everything. When I was 20 cm from the impact I said: well, it is over, goodbye to everyone and thank you. Then I found myself alive. it was a miracle made by the marshals and the fire department guys".
What changed in you, after that scare?
"I did not risk with the same easiness as before. Since that moment I always gambled drive. An overtake with the tires in the grass? I did it at Hockenheim, it worked and tried again. Every time I dared more. Then, at Imola, I became aware that I could have also died and I did not I didn't push my luck that much".
What is your best race at Imola?
"The 1990 one, won by Patrese. I was leading until just before the end of the race with McLaren. I broke a valve, goodbye success but I raced very well. I stepped many time on the podium. The track was beautiful as well as Imola’s girls".
Imola is dedicated to Enzo and Dino Ferrari.
"I know. In fact, in my first years at Ferrari there were two races that were worth an entire championship for whom worked at Maranello: Imola and Monza, even if our car was not competitive. when we arrived on one of those track the engine transformed itself and was faster. I still do not know how to explain it".
Michael Schumacher already won three times at Imola. On the 1st of May 1994, at the wheel of the della Benetton, in the tragic day of Ayrton Senna’s passing and in 1999/2000 as a Ferrari driver. A third consecutive victory would put him in first place in the standings of most wins in F1. At the moment, he divides first place with Senna and Alain Prost. At Imola, 200.000 spectators will suffer for Ferrari. You cannot pretend that it is just another race. Michael knows it and that his main priority to win it does not allow for digressions:
"It is easy to get used to winning. Now I hope to take my third consecutive win at Imola and to gain precious points for the standings".
Michael’s thoughts are also for the rivals:
"Coulthard stood three times out of three on the podium. The six-point advantage over him are not much, given that 14 races still remain. Then I will also need to get used to often fight with my little brother Ralf, who seem to be quite competitive. The Williams-BMW chassis-engine-tire package is valid. I think that we are going to see very interesting races in this season".
In addition, the Schumacher targeted fuel will go on sale within a few days and it seems that there are already a number of bookings at Shell’s petrol stations. For the first time, a Formula 1 fuel will go on sale. In previous years, especially during the turbo engine period, the Formula 1 fuel was literally flying off the shelves. On the circuits, the teams, at the end of each grand prix left the leftover fuel because it could no longer be transported. Thus, during the course of the evening, there was an assault on the kegs: with a tube, by sucking with the mouth, they were filling up tanks of fuels for the production cars. Yet, it was a period where the only fuel could guarantee a difference in the form of several horsepower. In the new millennium, the race fuels are basically comparable to the commercial ones. However, the one used by Ferrari, as well as having many additives which the normal commercial fuels do not have, have an octane rating of 99 as opposed to 95 for the ones normally on the market. A Ferrari technician explains:
"We did lengthy tests on the production series cars at Fiorano. We found that this fuel is also good for normal engines, in the sense that it contributes to avoid and eliminate incrustations. Thus, Shell has decided to put it on the market".
Arriving at Imola, in the minutes leading up to the FIA press conference, Schumacher and Coulthard met in the paddock. The encounter arose from some published statements in some German newspapers, in which Coulthard attacked Schumacher, by defining him as an unfair driver who drives by his own rules. During the press conference, Schumacher clarifies:
"David and I cleared the air after what had appeared in the German newspapers in recent days. He apologized of speaking to the press firstly rather to me directly. Everyone has the right to have their own opinions. He is free to criticize the FIA if necessary. I think his complaints to me were in relation to the FIA’s judgement in occasion of our previous fights, as it happened last year at Magny-Cours. I can say that the past will not influence in any way our relationship. There is no big friendship between us, but there is no hatred either. I have the same relationship with him as I have with other Formula 1 drivers".
Michael even denies the existence of internal conflicts at Ferrari after the Brazilian Grand Prix:
"The car is certainly not very competitive, but it does mean that there was a quarrel between the team. I was the responsible of the set-up choice and that is it. Not everyone has to say what I must or must not do in order to develop the car. My engineers and I work tirelessly throughout the entire week-end but it was not enough to win in Brazil. We simply got the set-up wrong".
Friday 13th April 2001. The two Ferrari take 1st and 2nd at the end of the two free practice sessions. In FP1, the fastest man is Barrichello. The latter wants to redeem himself and make up for the mistake at Interlagos. In FP2, Schumacher sets the fastest time, just ahead of Barrichello. Ralf Schumacher, at the wheel of the Williams, and Hakkinen with the McLaren, are respectively 7 tenths and 1.2 seconds behind the two Ferraris. Coulthard is far behind, only 11th fastest with the other Silver Arrow, distant two seconds behind the leader. The latter was also held back by an engine shut-off at the exit of Acque Minerali.
Juan Pablo Montoya cannot run in FP2 due to an issue in the BMW engine. In FP1 though, the latter set a time which was good enough for 17th place. Regarding the Italian driver, Jarno Trulli places the Jordan in 9th place, with a gap of 1"827. Giancarlo Fisichella, driving the Benetton, is only 15th fastest, 3"226 behind the scarlet Ferrari. The two Ferraris are running very fast in front of an enthusiastic crowd, but Schumacher and Barrichello’ lap times (1'25"096) (1'25"372) have huge margins of improvement, given that they are still behind Hakkinen 2000’s pole time (1'24"714), and even behind Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 record of 1'23"303. If the F2001 look super-fast, it also appears that the two McLaren are far too slow. In fact, they seem to have some issues, yet nobody with the Woking ream is accepting the crisis term. However, Coulthard talks about the disappointing free practice sessions:
"Here, especially in the corner, you need to have a good feeling with the car and I do not have it at all. In fact, I went off track two times. We are behind Ferrari at this stage and if at Imola, you start 4th or 5th, the race is already over. You cannot overtake. If you are in the lead, then you will most likely run away with it".
Hakkinen is also downbeat:
"I need a good result. In order to believe in it, you need to be one with the car and I do not have that feeling. All is not lost, but we need to start winning. It will be very difficult to take pole here".
From the Williams garage, Ralf Schumacher is aiming for pole position and, who know, maybe the win as well:
"It is thanks to the BMW engine. Nobody expected it to be this powerful after just one year. It usually takes between 4 or 5 practice seasons but we immediately nailed it. I can snatch pole from Michael".
He meanwhile asks the team to be cautious. Three racing collisions are too much: hence the playful inscription, Keep your distance, which is in the rear wing of both cars. The slogan also covers all the English trucks. The idea came from a mechanic and it was immediately sponsored by the drivers and technicians.
Ralf, who is thinking big, cannot take it anymore:
"At the start of season, we had a dream: to be in the fight between Ferrari and McLaren. One aim was already achieved: to be faster than the McLarens. if luck can assist us, we can be able to beat them in the race. Ferrari however is still ahead, but not by much. Do not be fooled by the lead of tenths of a second that Michael has today over me. At Imola, the Italian Tifosi are euphorically pushing Ferrari for the win. My brother has maybe helped this enthusiasm".
Ralf is learning his brother’s art in underhanded jibes, when saying that Ferrari will have less fuel at the start of the race. And if so, he is ready to attack Michael at the start of the race:
"I want to win. In order to achieve this goal, I need to overtake my brother. True, it was easy to arrive in Formula 1 with this surname, but I cannot show my gratitude to him on track. In Brazil, I was 10 km/h faster than him, unfortunately Barrichello took me out of the race. Here it will be difficult but we can still give Ferrari a fight. As long as it does not rain".
There are also other necessities:
"Improve the set-up and the aerodynamics of the car. The car is too nervous and too difficult to drive. Unfortunately, we cannot increase the load at the rear, since we are already at the maximum".
Saturday 14th April 2001. The pole position of the San Marino Grand Prix, which seemed to be Schumacher's prerogative, is instead taken by Coulthard. The latter is ahead of his teammate Hakkinen. McLaren monopolizes the front row. Contrary to the pessimism expressed a couple of hours prior, Coulthard laps in 1'23"054, two tenths faster than Hakkinen and three tenths faster than Ralf Schumacher, 3rd fastest. Michael Schumacher is only 4th, over half a second slower than the pole sitter. Barrichello is 6th, even beaten by an excellent Jarno Trulli.
It looked like an absolute dominance from the Maranello team, in the dry and in the wet, until 12 minutes before the end of the qualifying session. It soon changed after a wrong choice of tires, going for the hard compound tires, and Schumacher’s decisive mistake at Tamburello. The first 15 minutes of qualifying are about pre-tactics. The chronometer is registering nothing interesting. Frentzen, Hakkinen, Barrichello and then Coulthard are on track and they take into turns to lead the timing sheets. Schumacher is in the pits, whilst looking at the sky. It is cold, it is been a long time since Imola was remembered in jackets and heavy shoes. The temperature varies between 10 and 11° degrees, which is almost a record. The clouds are getting bigger and much darker but it is not yet raining.
The first flying lap is from Hakkinen and is the first one to set pole position: 1'24"222, which is faster than Schumacher’s time in free-practice. It is, at the moment, the fastest time out of the drivers who went early on track. Down at McLaren, everyone is smiling but it last only for a moment. Here come Schumacher, who transform their smile into a disappointment sigh. Michael first laps in 1'23''749 and then in 1'23''674, within a whisker of Villeneuve’s record. A clear and strong message to his rivals and almost a knockout blow. The central half of the quali session is for the others to try improving Michael’s lap time or least change the classification behind him. The first one to deserve a round of applause is Montoya, who after a disappointing day and a half, wants to retake the Brazilian spotlight. He runs without any mistakes and crosses the finish line with the 3rd best time. This is only a short-lived joy for him: in fact, he would finish the session in 7th.
Rubens Barrichello is also able to forget Interlagos’ heartbreak. After a few initial breakthrough moments, he navigates behind the top positions. This is before he made a last gasp lap time in the end. A clean lap is worth 3rd place. 15 minutes until the end of the session. Schumacher lines up Coulthard (at 0.381), his brother Ralf, Hakkinen, Montoya and Trulli. It seems like a banal, jolt-free ending. 12 minutes at the end, here comes the twist. Mika Hakkinen is fastest in the first, second and third sector. He finishes in 1'23''381, which means provisional pole position.
At McLaren, they found again the smile. Meanwhile down at Ferrari, faces are pulled which is a rare sight. This is an important week-end for them. Yet it is only the start of many things to come. In the last few minutes, more actions occur. Trulli is able to find the right lines during his flying lap and takes 3rd spot momentarily. Schumacher is excluded from the best times. The German is not one to give up and puts himself at least in front of Trulli’s Jordan. As the time ticks down, there is another surprise. Ralf, with a good lap time, takes out his big brother out of the top 3. When Michael tries to recover, he locks the front tires at Tamburello and his lap is ruined. Whilst this is going on, Coulthard strikes the winning blow and takes pole. The Ferrari fans are crying whilst others enjoyed the continuous unforeseen events.
The mistake at Tamburello and the choice of the Bridgestone hard compound tires compromised Ferrari’s quali. Easter Eve becomes one of Maranello’s saddest moments in recent times (it is the first time, since Belgium 2000, that the two scarlet cars are not able to start from the front row). It is a depressive moment, with the chilly fans who have to fold Ferrari’s red flags.
"The flags will be waved tomorrow".
Swear Schumacher, who is not one to give up. Michael’s certainty lies all in the chose tires:
"It is better to start on the second row with the right tires, rather than being in pole with the wrong ones".
Press officer Claudio Berro and Jean Todt add to it:
"We adopted a conservative strategy, let us hope that it will be the right one tomorrow".
Handfuls of optimism and smiles to disguise the bitterness, but it all serves to banish a failure spectrum. Regarding the hard tires, the driver adds:
"I am convinced that they will give us an edge tomorrow. We exited the pits early in order to be not surprised by the rain. When I went for the fastest lap, I immediately found it. The situation then got worse. The others improved whilst I made a mistake in the decisive moment. Here is the explanation of the classification but we are still the ones to beat".
Seeing Schumacher more determined than ever helps Ferrari’s chances for a win:
"My brother Ralf and I are the favourites for the race win".
The McLaren suddenly came back to contend for pole here at Imola:
"I was a bit surprised, quali went really well. One thing is to be fast over one lap, another is to be fast in the race".
This gives him Another confidence booster. When asked about the quali session, the German admits in the end:
"Angry? Of course, I am not happy. Obviously, I excepted for a different day and I am now really disappointed but it is not the first time that it happens. I am sorry for our fans, but we promise that we will fight back".
Barrichello attributes his less-than-brilliant performance to traffic. The Brazilian, in fact, found himself in the middle of a 250 km/h fight between Frentzen and Marques. The duo meanwhile was exchanging gestures:
"They were discussing in the middle of the track, not caring of who was behind. In that case, I was the one behind Frentzen and Marques. I am not too angry about the fact that they ruined an important lap for me, but of the danger that I was in".
The Brazilian, six minutes until the end, was 11th but managed to climb up to a provisional 3rd place. Then the Ferrari driver had to abort the next 2 attempts and had to settle for 6th place.
"I found too much traffic. The car is good and the situation is much different than in Brazil. We, me especially, were unlucky. I am sorry to the fans who were hoping for a Ferrari front-row lockout but they know that it is a wide-open race. The tire factor will make this race unpredictable. I hope our choice is the right one. The start is crucial because it is difficult to overtake. What is the tactic? Go fast and not crash".
The two Schumacher brothers found themselves on the same starting row in Brazil. Unlike Interlagos though, when they monopolized the front row, they now must be content with the second one. It is a close fight, which is starting to be dangerous especially considering the exuberant Ralf, who is becoming more and more swaggering. This is at the point where, in the paddock, there are rumours of a heated squabble between him and Michael in the morning. The reason behind it was Ralf’s declarations to the media, on Friday, regarding raised suspicions over Ferrari's low fuel load in free practice. Michael was not having it. In fact, the previous day, the Ferrari driver rebuked his brother. A family discussion, which ended later in the morning, which emphasizes how the rivalry between the two has reached a peak level. Michael though does not do anything to soothe it:
"Ralf is the most dangerous rival for the race win, not McLaren. He can also do a one pit-stop strategy and this pisses me off".
Those are observations which are also confirmed by Ralf Schumacher:
"We can only pray that it does not rain. We are not competitive in the wet. If it stays like this, we can win. The dream is to beat the McLarens. If only I could overtake my brother as well…".
He did in qualifying and this is the third time that he manages to do in his career. Ralf promised a battle and kept his word:
"I thought that my exploit meant pole. Instead the two McLarens ruined everything. Still, it is better to be 3rd rather than 2nd. I start on the clean side of the track. With the inside line going into turn 1, I might surprise everyone, who knows. Also, Barrichello is behind and will not cause me any problem. This is good news".
Poleman Coulthard is on a roll. This is the first pole position since Hockenheim, on the 30th July 2000. David is both happy and surprised:
"I ruined Ferrari’s party. I am sorry for the Italian fans but I would like to do it in the race as well. McLaren who wins in Ferrari’s territory, what a nice snub. On Friday we were in crisis with an unbalanced car and also damaged the chassis by going onto the grass. During the night, my mechanics had to work on the car. I did not think that I would be the fastest in quali. It is a miracle".
A real surprising renaissance. On Friday, there were funeral vibes within the McLaren garage. Coulthard and Hakkinen were demoralized and resigned by Ferrari’s overwhelming power, thinking of having no change to come back into the championship frame. On Saturday morning, it was the same story. The Scotsman admits:
"I did not like the way the car handled; I could keep it on the road. It was unstable and difficult to drive, a disaster".
Then came the McLaren front row lockout with him and Hakkinen. A dominance which was not seen in a while, specifically on the 16th July of the previous year in Austria. An exploit that raises hopes for the world title. McLaren does not change his philosophy. Coulthard is only six points behind Schumacher. Hakkinen is further down in the championship, with only one point. Any team would not have doubts on which driver to favour, but not Ron Dennis’ team:
"We never make any choice at the beginning of the season. The important aspect is to win the race and not which of the two drivers wins it. Our hierarchies are very clear. In every Grand Prix, our n.1 driver is the one who leads or is ahead going into turn 1. Without any team orders".
Let’s see who is ahead at the first corner, hoping that the Schumacher brothers do not get in the way. Coulthard never had any illusions of preferential treatment:
"I started better the season but I always thought that Mika would react. And here he is, ready to fight. He always gets off to a great start and my job is to have a better start than him".
Hakkinen seems to be revitalized by Erja’s presence, his wife, at the McLaren garage:
"She brings me luck. It may be a coincidence but, all of a sudden, we come back to be as fast as last year. Compared to Melbourne, our performances increased by 25%. This front row is a masterpiece. It is not luck, it is the result of the great work done by the team, which knew how to completely change the car. It was not a bluff. I was really worried on Friday, not now. I am now very optimistic. This is a track where you cannot overtake. If we start ahead, the two Ferraris will not catch us".
It seems strange, given the Finn’s many successes but Mika never won in Italy. This is the 18th attempt between Imola and Monza:
"I do not want to live it like an obsession but achieving a success here will be decisive. It can start my season and the chase to Schumacher. I always said that nothing was lost, that the world championship is still long and that there was time to catch up. I already have a 25-point gap over Michael. If I do not start to close the gap, then it will be really difficult to catch up".
There is, however, one discriminating factor that involves the tires. The McLaren chose the softs. Ferrari chose the hard compound tires instead. They might need to do a two-stop race whilst Schumacher a one-stop. A question mark that does not disturb the two McLarens. Coulthard, regarding this, is very explicit:
"I prefer to start in front. The strategies are often decisive but when you are in the lead, you think better".
In 1998 the Scotsman at Imola took pole position and the win on Sunday, stepping on the higher step of the podium:
"I do not think it was an accident. Here at Imola, pole equals half of the battle. I hope history repeats itself".
The revelation of the day is without doubt Jarno Trulli, who interpreted the intense qualifying session with patience and willpower:
"I waited until I caught of a glimpse of a change for the fastest lap. At the start, I was struggling a bit but the track situation was also not the best for me. Then I knew that it was time to push and managed to take 3rd place. It was an exciting end and not just for me. The car was competitive both in the dry and in the wet. The most difficult part was to manage the tires but I did it. I did a lap of mine and was exceptional. I risked a lot but it was the only possible choice. The team and I got it right. I gave everything that I could. The car and I pushed 100%. Maybe I should congratulate myself. Even the strategy was good: I waited until the end of quali to do my lap. Now I would just have to keep my place in the grid. The pit stops will be fundamental because it is difficult to overtake here. I am surprised that Ferrari was so far behind. I would rather prefer to start with the soft tires on the front row rather than the hard from the second one. Montoya? You journalists are quick to create phenomenon...In Brazil, he did very good things and should have won. However today I was the fastest out of the two: it can happen...".
Giancarlo Fisichella is depressed, finishing the qualifying session in 19th place:
"It was bad, really bad. We are not in the conditions to be competitive. The car generates little power and we cannot work the tires, we have very low grip".
At Interlagos, starting from 18th, you managed to finish 6th:
"Yes, but it is difficult, we cannot make miracles all the time. We can hope for a good result tomorrow there are bad weather conditions".
Benetton is on its last year in Formula 1. The handover to Renault is very painful at this stage of testing the engine, which is projected for the future and not very much into the present:
"The mechanics more or less warned us that we would have had some problems but not like this. It will be like this for a few more races at least. It is not an easy situation. Frankly, I am disheartened".
Sunday 15th April 2001. The sun is shining at Imola. The stands are packed as the fans are ready to support Ferrari and the two drivers, Schumacher and Barrichello, who are called to a fight between McLaren and Williams. At lights out, Coulthard bogged out at the start unlike Ralf Schumacher. He has the momentum and the best line to take the lead within a couple of meters. Hakkinen has also a sluggish getaway and is overtaken by the Williams but also by Trulli’s Jordan. Can Ralf stay ahead and give Williams their first win in 4 years? Rubens Barrichello also had a shocking start. By the end of the first lap, he drops to 8th. The order is: Ralf Schumacher, followed by Coulthard, Trulli, Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher and Montoya.
The race leader has an extraordinary race pace and Coulthard does not have any answer to it. It does not take long to realize that it is not Michael Schumacher’s day. A home victory seems improbable. By the end of the third lap, the Ferrari driver goes off track at the exit of Variante Bassa, due to a gear shifting glitch. Montoya, Panis and Barrichello profit from it, relegating Michael to 8th position. The first retirement of the race is Fernando Alonso. During the 5th lap, he loses control of his Minardi and crashes against the barriers. A bit later, on lap 6, Jos Verstappen is forced to retire for an exhaust issue. While this is going on, Michael Schumacher overtakes Panis for 7th at Rivazza and catches up to the back of his teammate for 6th. In the meantime, Ralf Schumacher, up front, is continuing to push on the accelerator and is setting the timing sheets alight with a series of blistering fast laps, around a low 1’26.
On lap 17, it is Kimi Raikkonen’s turn to retire after hitting the wall due to a mechanical failure. After 19 laps, Jenson Button, at the tail-end of the field, is the first driver to make a stop. The topping up fuel procedure has not been fully completed and the British driver is forced to stop on the next lap. Trulli, running is 3rd, truly in the hunt for some championship points, makes the initial stop. It is an afternoon to forget for Michael. Halfway through lap 23, the world champion is driving slowly along the track. There is no need for detailed discussions at what is going wrong with the Ferrari. the world champion is presumed to have a left front tire puncture and has to slowly finish the lap, to then reach the pits for an unscheduled 13 second stop. His race is truly compromised.
Any hope of salvaging some points has gone down the sink. Unsurprisingly, during the course of the 24th lap, Michael brings the car to the garage and retire out of the race. Ross Brawn is the one to ask him to stop for security reason: the rim, which is connected to the brakes, is damaged and the car is not 100% secure and reliable anymore. It is too risky to continue. For the current world championship, this is the first retirement of the year.
On lap 27, Ralf Schumacher does a 1'25"524 lap time, which is also the new track record. On lap 28, Mazzacane retires due to engine issues. Halfway through the race, Montoya, from 4th position, is coming in to the pit for a pit-stop. It lasts 9.5 seconds. Then it is Coulthard’s turn to do a first pit-stop, which lasts 8.6 seconds. Thanks to a large margin over his rivals, he is able to retain 2nd position after exiting the pit lane. Behind the McLaren, Montoya is hassling Trulli. Tamburello is not a place to overtake but the Colombian muscles his way through Trulli with a great pass for 6th. The pit stop series continues. Next up are race leader Ralf Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, from 1st and 4th position respectively.
They were nice, clean stops. Ralf hangs on to the lead whilst Hakkinen, after the stop, will fight with Trulli and Barrichello for 3rd. In the meantime, due to engine related failures, Mazzacane (Prost) and Jacques Villeneuve (BAR)’s races are over. The Canadian, after four races is still stuck at zero points and must postpone the chance to score the first points of the season. With this chaos happening on lap 33, Barrichello decides to delay the only pitstop by three laps, a choice that pays off on lap 36. The only Ferrari left in this race retains 3rd place, ahead of Hakkinen. The track action has died down at this stage, apart from Irvine’s and Fisichella’s retirement due to engine failures. Ralf Schumacher and Coulthard are divided by 10 seconds. It seems improbable that the McLaren driver could challenge the leader. The second round of pit stops does not bring any major changes, if not for Juan Pablo Montoya. On lap 47, he is the witness of a disastrous pit stop to say the least.
Everything that can go wrong, goes wrong: from brakes overheating, when refuelling due to a problematic nozzle, to the engine shutting down. The poor Colombian drivers goes back on track after over a minute. Trulli takes advantage of it and gains 5th place. Montoya then, on lap 48, tours into the Williams garage to retire due to consequent clutch problems. Marquez is the latest one to retire on lap 52, due to an engine failure.
Ralf is going to make his parents happy with an historic win after completing 62 laps in total domination style. Ralf Schumacher can now celebrate his first career victory at 25 years old, allowing William to come back to the top. This success had been missing since the distant Luxemburg 1997 Grand Prix, with Jacques Villeneuve. This is also the first victory for Michelin after 17 years, as well as BMW. The last win for the German manufacturer dates back to 1986 with Gerhard Berger, in Mexico. Coulthard and Barrichello complete the podium, followed by Hakkinen and the two Jordans of Trulli and Frentzen.
At Parc Ferme, Michael Schumacher is the first one to congratulate Ralf for this victory. Michael and Coulthard are now level on points at 26. Rubens Barrichello is 3rd with 14 points. With this win, the Williams driver rises to 4th place in the driver’s championship with 12 points. In the constructors’ championship, Ferrari limits the damage thanks to Rubens’ podium and are now at 40 points, 10 more than McLaren. Shy Ralf is struggling to release his joy and hides his emotions. He observes the others celebrating him, jumping on him, congratulating him. He seems to think that they are crazy because, after all, he has only won one race, the first of many to come according to his dreams. At Imola they soak him for hours in champagne. in Austria, when he arrives by plane with his girlfriend Cora, they carry him by weight to a disco. At Anif, a small country near Salzburg. It is time to party. Michael is not there. Instead presides Niki Lauda. And Ralf, with a usual phase which seem to say...what have I done? His happiness is all in short sentences:
"What did Michael say to me at the end of the race? About time. Frank Williams and Patrick Head’s compliments? They are used to win; the congratulations were not wasted".
It is instead curious what Barrichello whispered to Ralf’s ear on the podium:
"It was nice. He told: do you see that, when I hit you, you woke up? And then Coulthard: so many pats on the back, it seemed like the winner him instead. A fair rival, he demonstrated it at the start by leaving me room and allowing me to pass".
Ralf is impermeable, even regarding future objectives:
"I waited this moment for five years, always working hard. Fighting now for the title? Let us first think about winning some race and to improve the aerodynamics of the car. We still have a major shortcoming with the tires: we are competitive in the wet because we never run on those conditions".
There is still some room left for emotions:
"I have to say one thing: I did not win; I dominated the race from start to finish and that makes me feel a bit big. Who know how my parents will react to it: it is not just Michael anymore".
Listening to what people in the paddock say, credit for victory goes mainly to Michelin: Ferrari had Bridgestone tires and choose the hardest compound out of the two provided by the Japanese manufacturer. Strange choice, which lead to Barrichello 3rd and Schumacher retired. McLaren choose instead, from Bridgestone as well, the softest tires. Result: Coulthard 2nd and Hakkinen in 4th, behind Barrichello. Williams, with the Michelin, won. What is so new and strange about it? Firstly, with Michelin’s return in Formula 1, the competition between different tire suppliers is back. Beforehand, with only one supplier, one could sleep quite soundly. Competition is always good. In fact, Michelin invented something new as the compound, the structure and tire carcass are different to Bridgestone. Just to mention one: if Ralf Schumacher had a puncture, like it was the case with Michael, he would have come back to the pits with a completely deflated tire. Yet the tires made the car quick.
The French supplier has some credit to the victory, but to take them away from young Ralf would be certainly unfair, on the day that could represent for him an entrance among the greats of this season. It is no coincidence that, as Ferrari’s Schumacher was forced to wave the white flag, McLaren found Ralf’s Williams clocking their patch to the highest step of the podium. Immediately after the finish, the Woking team’ managers and drivers lavish compliments to cousin BMW. Haug sustains:
"I truly give my congratulation to them. Williams and Michelin together are demonstrated to have the best package. The BMW rivalry will be good for German motor racing. They do not be believe to be in contention for the title? I do not think so. You always say that when you start being competitive. You start to not show your cards and ambitions as much as possible. However, this race, and I say this without any polemics, has proved wrong those who, after Malaysia, predicted a Ferrari monologue. It will a very tight 3-way fight for the title. We took six important points with Coulthard, who is now on top of the championship lead together with Michael. We also demonstrated to have a more robust than last year, given that David stepped on the podium in all of the races".
A 2nd place does not, of course, satisfy the Anglo-German giant, given that the two Silver monopolized the front row which was thwarted at the start. Coulthard admits:
"Unfortunately, the tire skid too much at the start which allow Ralf to pass. I also think that Mika had some issues as well (McLaren modified the clutch function after Mika’s problem in Brazil)".
David did never give the impression to replicate to the German’s race pace:
"From how fast he was going, I thought he was making four-five pitstops. Then after 20 laps, I realized: does he want to make only one stop?"
What were the causes for McLaren being so slow in the race? For Coulthard, there were two:
"I was never able to push because I had an inadequate car balance, the worst one through the first races of the season. Even the tires did not give me a consistent performance. We were not able to find to right compromise to exploit the tires at their best".
Bridgestone, at least in the dry, is now inferior to Michelin, according to what everyone is saying. To what Coulthard said about their difficulties in the race, Hakkinen also adds a front wing imbalance, due to a touch with Trulli in the first phases of the race:
"The situation in the championship is similar to the one I had a year ago, which makes me a little more optimistic".
What about Ron Dennis? The fact that he was beaten by his fried Williams does not placate the bitterness:
"You see, I am a bad loser and I am not ashamed to admit it. To get them from Frank does not change things much".
Still in the lead of the championship, although level-on-points with Coulthard, Michael Schumacher does not hide his joy for his brother’ success and tells about his race:
"I am very happy for him. Other times, I had come close to achieving the feat, now it was big. We are the first brothers to win together in Formula 1 and we achieve this result: mom and dad would be proud of us".
Someone points out to him that he should be say for Ferrari’s result, but he retorts:
"I already won many races; you cannot always finish in 1st place. This time it was Ralf’s turn to win and I am happy for him. The season is still very long and very open".
Michael talks like an older brother but does forget that Ralf is also his rival:
"What the debrief ended and I exited from our motorhome, I said to others in the team that now our problem will be my brother".
The joke, to which not everyone laughed at, is needed to not let the disappointment show Schumacher knows that the road for the championship become even more complicated, and Williams’ return to competitiveness plays a decisive role in Ferrari’s future headaches.
"I should congratulate our rivals. BMW made an incredible progress and now they are in the championship fight. Our car is still very competitive. The issue is that the other have recovered much quicker than expected".
After congratulating Ralf and the Williams team, Michael closes the post-race interview with a little bit of self-criticism when talking about his disastrous race:
"First of all, the choice of the hard compound tires. Let's get this straight: we all agreed with the choice but we thought that it could have gone better. It did not work in quali but it is my fault. I would have started higher without that mistake. Starting behind was our second issue. Look at Barrichello: he finished the race in 3rd when he started behind me so that means that that choice was not so bad. Nothing went quite right in my race. I started terribly, then the gearbox had a glitch issue and finally, I had the right front tire drop. By analysing the tire, we saw that it was not punctured. We lost tire pressure due to the rim. Stopping to change tires was useless. The rim was compromised which affected the brakes. It was too dangerous to continue like that. I consulted with Ross Brown on the radio and told me: let’s retire, otherwise you would take too many risks".
Talking about the one-stop strategy which he could have done, he says:
"We had an elastic strategy. We could do one thing or the other according to the evolution of the race. The temperature should have been less warm than it was. In short, a set of things, it went all wrong".
Alerting an alarmistic atmosphere throughout the team, Jean Todt gets straight to the point in his meeting with the journalists:
"Two weeks ago, you said that we were running away with the championship and now you say that we are in crisis. Come on, do not exaggerate. We were not running away with it back then, like it was unfortunately demonstrated. We are not in a crisis now and we hope to demonstrate it".
Todt, as well as Ross Brawn and the mechanics, know that something is now working like it should, in a car that had hinted that it could handle the championship easily but not dominating it. For this reason, the debriefing at Maranello is very serious, as confirmed by the French manager:
"We need to fully analyse why Schumacher’s car did not work well. It would be a mistake to consider it as a single episode linked to Imola and the encountered events. There must be something that did not work properly. At the moment, we do not know what could be the issue and to see what is behind it. We are absolutely not happy Schumacher’s car behaviour in the last two races. We should verify and thoroughly analyse all the parameters to find the solutions. It is impossible to say it now: we will only know it in the next few days".
His words find immediate confirmations in Ross Brawn’s words:
"It is essential to study all the data collected during the weekend to find the truth. In which areas? We do not know we have to find it in order to improve the car ahead of the next races. Michael’s car did not have a perfect behaviour; also, Barrichello’s one was not running fast despite finishing a brilliant race on the podium. I took the decision to stop Schumacher. At the moment, we thought about a simple puncture but then saw that the problem was even more serious since it affected the braking system as well. I communicated to him via radio to stop and retire".
Talking about decisions, Jean Todt can only agree that the hard tire choice did not bring the attended results:
"They offered us various options in race strategies but we could not implement them. Still, the tire choice was made together, as always, with the driver. Without doubt, Imola gave us a bitter taste. We should have fought for the victory and instead, we practically did not even run for it".
At least, there is some consolations for Barrichello’s podium:
"Rubens hit a brilliant 3rd place and we still are in the lead of both championships. At this point, it is clear that it will be a fight between three teams and two tire suppliers. Williams-BMW was going fast from the first race. Without doubt, Michelin did a great job with them. I am also convinced that Bridgestone will continue to work well as well. We also have a contract until the end of the year".
Maranello’s press officer, Claudio Berro, also confirms that Schumacher’s tire issue was due to suspension wear and tear, which damaged the rim, which in turn provoked the loss of air pressure:
"It is fundamental for us to discover the causes of Michael’s retirement. We will analyse the issues in the next few days. The rim broke after impacting with the suspension but we immediately though about changing the tire, thinking of a simple puncture. Then, when Schumacher exited the pits, we realized that there was another anomality and thus called him to the garage to retire the car. It was too dangerous to continue in those conditions; the car did not guarantee the right reliability".
About Ferrari’s atmosphere in the garage, Berro tries to balance the general bitterness:
"Barrichello’s 3rd place is satisfying for the constructors’ championship, Michael’s retirement is penalizing for the drivers’ one".
Now Ferrari can only archive the Imola weekend and concentrate to the Fiorano and Mugello test. The team will do some tests before the Spanish Grand Prix. The work is now double: understand what went wrong and to again try the electronic updates which will be introduced at Catalunya.
Davide Scotto di Vetta