Ferrari makes the most of the days that follow the victorious Australian trip. The Maranello team carries out a testing session at Fiorano, from Tuesday 6th to Friday 9th March 2001, before the second round of the 2001 world championship at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia. Badoer spends the first two track days in further developing the electronic system. In the following days, it is Rubens Barrichello’s turn to carry out the same programme as well as doing numerous start simulations. The two Ferrari drivers are working hard on track. In the meantime, there is also someone who is making headlines for another kind of activity. We are talking about Eddie Irvine. The Jaguar driver is discovered having sex with a top model in an airplane. The German tabloids gather up the statements of Alan Nee, who is the pilot of the 35-year-old Northern Irishman’s personal jet.
"We were at an altitude of 10000m when all of all of sudden I heard noises, squeaks and jolts coming from the cabin. I thought to myself: we are in the middle of a turbulence, it would better to go to the cabin and calm Eddie down. I inserted automatic pilot and went to the cabin. I Immediately realized that it was not a turbulence".
Let’s go back to purely sporting matters. The mood is pretty bad at McLaren after the first race of the season. Mika Hakkinen aims to shake up the standings:
"I am sure that we will do well in Sepang. Ferrari is not uncatchable".
Ron Dennis probably has bad memories of Malaysia. The English team has only collected bitterness in the last two editions. In 1999, the defeat was double. Firstly, the Silver Arrows were beaten on track by the Ferraris of Irvine and Schumacher. The two scarlet cars were subsequently disqualified from the race. The Woking team then received a snub from the Paris sentence, in which the FIA court appeal re-admitted the two Ferrari cars in the race classification. The flow deflectors were mistakenly found irregular. It was a shock that did not prevent Hakkinen from gaining the world title at Suzuka. The outcome was not very different in 2000. The Woking team arrived in Malaysia in a demobilization atmosphere after losing the drivers’ championship to Schumacher at Suzuka. The constructors’ championship was still within reach, even if it quickly became clear that there was no contest. Schumacher won the race, followed by Coulthard and Barrichello. Hakkinen was not on podium. This result sealed Ferrari’s triumphant season. Therefore, looking at the tradition, the McLaren team principal has nothing to be happy about. In Australia, the new Ferrari was quick in all three days. Schumacher then dominated the race. Despite that, there is cautious optimism at McLaren. The reasons are multiple. For example, there were strong doubts regarding the MP4/16’s engine and gearbox sealing before Melbourne. Instead, everything went smooth from that point of view. Coulthard was able to push until the end and finished one second behind Michael. From a reliability point of view, McLaren is undoubtedly better placed than the two previous seasons. Hakkinen’s terrifying crash was caused by a right front suspension failure. Such failure is considered an isolated case but the Woking team took immediate action to reinforce the suspensions. After the race, David Coulthard explicitly asked the team to do the Magny-Cours test in order to improve the overall balance of the car. He tested the MP4-16 together with Wurz and Paffett. Despite the retirement, Hakkinen enthusiastically expresses his opinion regarding the performance of the MP4/16:
"Before the incident, I was able to follow Schumacher without too many problems. I knew that I had more fuel on board then him, thus I tried to maintain the gap unaltered. My plan was to go on the attack after his pitstop. Winning would have been a concrete possibility".
After the race, he stayed in Europe for a couple of days in order to be near his wife Erja and son Hugo. Before departing to South-East Asia, he says:
"I am sure that I will score my first World Championship points in Malaysia. I will probably leave Sepang with a result to remember on Sunday. I like this track; it is a good mix of corners and straights. My only true handicap is the humidity and drinking enough as to not have problems".
Coulthard chose to stay in Australia in order to get around the heat problem. He went to hot and humid areas in order to acclimatize his body to the Malaysian heat. The Scottish driver predicts:
"I am convinced that we will be able to do better than in Australia".
Ron Dennis is also optimistic:
"Coulthard showed the potential of our new car in Australia. The whole team is striving to express it to the fullest. We tested the car in Magny-Cours in the previous days and I think that we will be in good form".
The eve of the Malaysian Grand Prix is slightly enlivened by some accusatory statements from Heinz-Harald Frentzen against Ferrari:
"Ferrari and his satellite teams have a traction control system".
Jarno Trulli was the first driver to have suspicions during the Motor Show event last December. The driver from Abruzzo claimed:
"We looked at the replays of the Hockenheim race. In the wet, exciting from a chicane, the Ferrari drifted but the tyres did not continue to slide as if there was a system which blocked the skidding...".
His teammate Frentzen states on his own Internet website that the Ferrari car and the Ferrari-powered cars behave strangely on track:
"In the past 18 races, I had plenty of opportunities to trail behind the Ferraris or cars that are powered by Ferrari engines. One thing was particularly remarkable: out of the tight corners, these cars have quite a pretty stunning acceleration, combined with misfired engine. For me, it is beyond doubt that somehow Ferrari managed to develop an engine software which reduces by a certain margin to the extent that the wheels do not slide".
The German driver is not done yet:
"It cannot be ignored that something like that exists, there is simply no space for a discussion about that. On the other hand, however, you can discuss if the device is legal or illegal. I believe that Formula 1, thanks to its brilliant engineers, progressed into an area which is hard to defined by the FIA. This is exactly why the Federation opted for the right consequence to change the rules in order to legalize traction control in the future".
Frentzen denies that he wanted to directly attack Heidfield. He explains that the Bild Zeitung newspaper, which reported his outburst, ignored what he said in his original comment:
"In the laps when I was following Nick, he drove without any errors. This was a performance that deserved to be awarded by his first ever Formula 1 points. On the other hand, I have to admit it would have been nice if the “internal Monchengladbach championship” ended in a slightly different way".
The attention is concentrated on the security factor at Sepang, after the dramatic events of the Melbourne race. A marshal tragically lost his life after a collision between Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. The organizers of the Grand Prix approve a plan to fine-tune the protections and the nets. The protections are already excellent in terms of the security. Both the nets and protections avert the danger of car fragments ending up in the middle of the crowd. 10 days after the incident, Jacques Villeneuve’s memory of that Australian incident is still alive:
"I want to talk with Ralf. Those episodes should be clarified between us. Ralf had problems with his front tyres and he was extremely, extremely slow and he was braking earlier than everybody else on the race track. If that happens, and you know that is what's happening, then do not stay in the middle of the race track. You stay on the left or the right and give room for someone else to react, because if you are going to brake 30 metres earlier than everybody else because you have problems, there is no way anyone else can react. The telemetries? You can get whatever you want there, everyone will find their own share of reasoning. Yet this is not how it should be done. We are Formula 1 drivers, we are adults".
The days after the incident were not easy for Jacques. He does not want to talk about it. He did not immediately leave Australia. He underwent medical examinations and physiotherapy to eliminate the severe pain caused by the inflammations of the back muscles. The BAR responsible Craig Pollock claims that he has never seen his driver so dejected as he was after the incident in Melbourne:
"In general, after big impacts like the one at Spa, Jacques was the first one to play down the situation by saying: I had not yet managed to be hit so well. Last time no, he was gloomy and did not want to talk. He remained silent and on the side-lines. Then, for the first time, without being solicitated by anyone, he talked about the tragic incident which cost the life of his father, Gilles. He described them as very similar crashes".
However, the ex-World Champion reiterates:
"Yes, but now the cars are much safer than before".
Jacques never talks about fear when reconstructing those dramatic moments, after re-watching them on television:
"Normally when you crash you are spinning and you know where you are going to hit so you can prepare yourself. But once I was in the air I could not see where I was going to hit and how I was going to hit and whether I was going to be upside down with the tyres".
Jacques does not accept any type of accusation:
"Maybe the drivers are becoming slightly more aggressive now and maybe that is a good thing because that is part of racing. I repeat: do not stay in the middle of the race track. I made an effort to be neutral in my comments to make sure I did not put the blame on anybody. I intend to clarify the matter, once and for all, with Ralf. In Australia he threw unmotivated accusations at me".
Villeneuve does not have any doubts regarding his physical form:
"Everything is fine, no problem. I will be able to compete at the highest level. I did all the necessary checks with positive results".
Nevertheless, Jacques admits that the Melbourne incident will leave a mark:
"There is no doubt that this will be the case, although there is no reason why it should affect my work in the future. This incident marked me. Usually, when I overcame a similar event, I immediately feel well. In this case no, that was not the case".
Meanwhile, the BAR mechanics are forced to do a race against the clock in order to prepare the T-car, since the damaged main one is still seized in Australia. That type of incident will probably not occur at the Malaysian circuit due to the marked improvement of the kerbs. The kerbs were heavily criticized by the drivers in 2000. The discussions between the team leaders particularly address the possible additional remedies that the FIA could introduce for security reasons. This was the case in 1994, after the tragic death of Senna and Ratzenberger in Imola and the Wendlinger incident at Monte-Carlo. The competitive atmosphere created between Bridgestone and Michelin exasperated the tyre performances at Melbourne. The FIA launched seemingly important aerodynamic restrictions this season. They however turned out to be insufficient, since there is a speed increase in the corners that is generated by the major grip of the tyres. In this sense, the tyre dealers immediately say no to the Federation’s proposal to add another scaling to the tyres. According to the Michelin and Bridgestone’s technical directors, Pierre Dupasquier and Hiroshi Yasukawa, this could lead to further confusion. Both express their own preference in regards to the current rules, in particular Yasukawa. Dupasquier is more open to a dialogue:
"It is definitely the FIA's responsibility to try to slow down the cars through the tyres. If they ask, we would like to have a more technical device than just one more groove which will make the tyre perform even more sluggishly than it does now. There are other ways to do it and we've made suggestions already. There are ways to reduce the rubber on the ground with a more positive and driveable tyre".
The second race of the year is expected with interest. It could give important answers to the work done by the teams during the winter break and more concrete answers compared to the first impressions in Melbourne. Most teams raced the Australian Grand Prix with less than an optimal level of preparation. Confirmations or reversals are awaited. The Sepang circuit is a medium-high downforce track. The teams aim to further improve the technical solutions that were seen in Australia. Ferrari tried at Fiorano a new front wing with a significantly different shape. There is the impression that this solution could be surprisingly used on Friday afternoon or even on Saturday. Even McLaren secretly tried new aerodynamic solutions with regard to the front wing. In fact, both teams noted a lack of aerodynamic load at Melbourne. At the Sepang circuit, it is even more important to have a car which gives good ground support. This is the reason why the mechanics are taking action. All teams have solutions in order to try improve the evacuation of hot air and optimize the cooling of the engines. The most popular are the cooling chimneys, introduced by McLaren-Mercedes in 2000 and already used by Ferrari and Williams in this sort of circuits. Talking about Williams, there is an interesting solution in the FW23 car. Combined to the traditional chimney, there are some small wings which should guarantee a major aerodynamic load on the car. Michael Schumacher arrives in Malesia as the current World Champion and winner of the first race of the year. There are rumours that he might want to buy a resounding 63% of the Sauber team, which is the shareholding that is currently held by Red Bull. The latter has long announced his disengagement from the Swiss team, since Peter Sauber preferred Kimi Raikkonen to Bernoldi. The cost of the operation should be around 100.000.000.000 lire, which is less than what the German driver perceives per year. Asked about this news, Peter Sauber says that Schumacher would be welcomed. He then adds that there are no negotiations at the moment:
"I would like to work again with Schumacher in the future. As a driver, I cannot afford him. As a stakeholder, who knows".
Peter would be happy to have Michael as a stakeholder. The Ferrari driver makes it clear that he only wants to drive at the moment.
"Buying a team is not something I think about now".
Willi Weber, Michael’s manager, is asked to talk about the rumours. He has a completely different opinion in regards to this topic:
"I, for the future, see myself as a team owner. I had the chance with Minardi but did not accept. Other solutions could also be practical. Schumacher, when he will stop racing, can become a technical advisor. A team owner not so much".
Schumacher agrees with his colleagues, who state that the Malaysian Grand Prix race will the toughest and the most gruelling race in the entire calendar. The hotness and the humidity are exhausting. Michael still manages to express his confidence of having a good result when he is either in the Ferrari motorhome or in hotel lounges. The fact that both scarlet cars were able to finish the Melbourne race two weeks ago is comforting to him. The Maranello did not have any reliability issue, unlike the others:
"For the first time since joining Ferrari, we have dominated the entire weekend in Melbourne. During the winter at Maranello we have worked like crazy and the results show that. This a true race car, feels like being in a go-Kart. Instead, it is a Formula 1 car".
The German then talks about how he spent the last couple of days:
"I rested and had fun with Corinna while undergoing a hard-physical training. The race here is going to be quite exhausting. No recklessness, hang-gliding or rock-climbing this time. I only did some walking, some running, lots of cycling. I also played some football matches with the island guys and other tourists".
Schumacher reiterates that he likes this track very much. He practically won two times, considering that he clearly let Irvine by at the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix. This is because the Irishman was in contention for the championship. Schumacher restarted his racing career during that occasion, after the serious incident in Silverstone four months prior.
"Even for that reason, I am an authentic fan of this circuit. It is a track where it is easy to overtake. There, the driving itself is not as easy as it seems and this is something that stimulates me particularly. Needless to say, with temperatures like this, reliability will be important. I know that the competition does not sleep, they certainly must have worked hard in past week to improve. We, of course, worked as well at Maranello. We don’t know whether we will still have the same advantage to McLaren as in Melbourne. We hope so since in Australia the advantage was quite good. I think that we should have some more here. Thus, we have good reasons to be hopeful".
Schumacher then replies to Frentzen, who stated that Ferrari uses a sort of traction control system:
"Heinz-Harald should really rethink what he is saying. I think he puts F1 into quite a lot of dispute. He makes the FIA a joke honestly when he makes these kinds of statements. There is no such thing as having suspicions on Sauber’s work and ours. They are very committed. He should concentrate on his own car and look to his own performance and not say the others are doing something wrong. Our car is always being controlled. If it is legal, it is legal. This is a fact - then we have done a better job than the rest. I do not think that the capacities of the technical delegates are inferior to Frentzen’s".
The FIA president, Max Mosley, talks about this subject from London:
"We disagree with the allegations and we are better placed than Heinz-Harald Frentzen to know what the various teams are doing".
Schumacher is then asked to give his opinion on the incident between his brother Ralf and Jacques Villeneuve at Melbourne. The German asserts:
"I saw on TV two different replays of that incident. I cannot express on it. I did not manage to get a good look at the overtaking approach. I talked with Ralf. He said that he had braked quite late. It is difficult to say how Villeneuve’s mental approach to the race will be like when he goes back on track. He often criticized me in the past but I will take the opportunity to not replicate. The accident would have undoubtedly talked less if that tragic accident did not happen. We, the drivers and the FIA, are accurately analysing the situation of the circuits. Then we will act; I do not think that the solution to this problem will be to only heighten the protection nets, we will see if we can find more".
Jean Alesi is the driver with the most experience on track. He relies on shock therapy to deal with the impact of the torrid Malaysia. The French driver decided to go to Tokyo after the Australian race. Tokyo has extremely low temperatures, going from zero to six degrees. On Tuesday and Wednesday, at 11:30, the temperature is high in Sepang. Alesi thus puts his gym shoes and does a run of the track, in order to acclimatize himself with Sepang’s sun:
"At Melbourne, I did a couple of laps of the track and did some training. One was enough here. No performance, only the battle with the sun in order to get used to it".
Talking about the track and its security, the Prost driver says:
"This is a fairly safe track. It is large and with big escape roads. The only unsafe part is the first breaking point at the end of the start/finish straight. There, the wall beyond the sand is a bit too close. Furthermore, at the exit, before the start, it could create confusion, with possible incidents. For the rest, the only problem could come from snakes or lynxes, as the one which, two years ago, crossed the track and caused a red flag during free-practice".
Apart from the animals, the judgement of the track is positive:
"It is important to have a good rhythm. It is not like Monte Carlo, with constant breaking and acceleration. There are a lot of corners and you have to fit them all in. The most critical points are the Esse that follows and above all, the fast left-right corner which comes after. You do it in fifth gear and you suddenly change direction. This is why you need to have a perfect aerodynamic balance otherwise the car will tend to stray from the ideal line".
It is a large track, with so many different lines to take. Is overtaking on sight? Not really:
"From this point of view, it is not a favourable track. The speed is fairly constant and it is difficult to overtake, but there is a trick. The characteristics of the race, both in terms of track design and weather conditions, are challenging. So, if you have a rival in your sights and you put pressure on him, he is going to make a mistake sooner or later. The trajectories are very rubbered up but, for the width of the asphalt, it is very easy to stay out of the ideal racing line. At that point, you can make the overtake. The best point is at the end of the start/finish straight: if you are fast coming out of the last corner, which is done in third gear, you are then able to use the slipstream and pass at the end of the breaking point".
It is a fast track. However, you need a very competitive engine:
"We do have it. But above all, progression is important. Under breaking, the aerodynamic load must not shift from the front to the rear. You need flexibility and we are in a good position".
Frentzen said that the Ferrari engine has flexibility, which rhythms with traction control. Jean is not having none of it:
"He should have not made those statements; he was not right to speak ill of someone who has worked properly. Probably he, backed by Honda, thought he could do better and was disappointed to see what we can do".
On Friday 16th March 2001, Rubens Barrichello beats everyone at the end of the first practice session. In FP2, Trulli sets the quickest time with a 1'38"846. The Honda-Jordan driver beats the unsustainable hotness as well as the Ferraris and the McLarens. The two Ferraris are 2nd and 3rd respectively. David Coulthard is only 4th fastest, with a 1'39"300. Eddie Irvine’s Jaguar is 5th ahead of David’s teammate Hakkinen and Frentzen’s Honda. These are fast times. Nonetheless, they are nowhere near the 1'37"397 pole time set by Schumacher in 2000. At the same time, though, they are closer to the lap times that were set last year. Taking into account the conditions under the drivers are forced to run, it is almost a miracle. Some teams suffer technical issues. Irvine’s Jaguar is forced to stop during the first free practice session. Both Arrows have inconveniences with the gearbox after 5 laps. Giancarlo Fisichella’s Benetton goes off track without any major consequences. The Italian finishes the session in 13th position. The heat is extraordinary. The asphalt is 46° degrees while the air temperature is around 35°. The humidity is around 50%. Most of the drivers use different devices to protect themselves from the heat. They use special self-cooling bodices that take and held fresh air. The McLaren drivers use helmets that are adapted for the occasion. These devices are able to isolate the driver from the external temperature as much as possible. The McLaren mechanics put a hydraulic cooling system inside the car in order to fight the Malaysian mugginess. It is a mechanism which enables to lower the cockpit temperature. It also brings fresh air to the helmet with the aid of tubes. This update was tried on some cyclists in the laboratory. It improved their performances. Hakkinen states:
"It is different in the car. It can help me but not the McLaren. It is not working. It is not only about reliability but speed as well, since the car is not fast. I am pessimistic".
Coulthard is also pessimistic:
"We are not fast enough. Why? Ask this question to the engineers".
There is an air of crisis inside the McLaren box. It is a discouragement that is equal to Jarno Trulli’s euphoria. He knows that it may be a useless performance. However, finishing the free practice sessions ahead of Ferrari and McLaren is something that he will remember:
"I had a good day. I am confident that every time I step into the car I can push to 100 percent. It makes me realize that I finally have a great car that is reactive and capable to adapt to every single circuit. I now need the bad luck to leave me. During the Melbourne race, I broke a coil. From the start, I was running on nine cylinders. The Honda engineers said: it happens one time in a thousand. Naturally, it happened to me".
The damn reliability does not torment Barrichello:
"I am like a child who goes to school, bonds with the teachers and with friends. They are happy with me; I am happy with them. They understand my worth, there will not be any difficulties".
Williams is hopeful as well. Ralf Schumacher’s collision with Villeneuve at Melbourne is a thing of the past. Technical director Patrick Head reveals:
"Ralf was going slow because he had problems with understeer".
Michael Schumacher arrives with a conspicuous surprise. His t-shirt is drenched in sweat. He never sweats, he is always dry. He is muscular like a model and smiles with an unpunished face. What is going on? We have never seen you in these conditions:
"I am sweating which is unusual for me. Have you seen how hot it is? Last year it was less hot, probably ten degrees less. How many are today? 38 °C? So, say the instruments. The asphalt is over 50 °C. When you are in the car, it seems like an inferno".
What do you do in such cases?
"I come directly from the box where I control all the data regarding the engine, oil and cooling temperatures: everything is perfect. We have had a very good day, but we must wait and see what the others can do tomorrow. Everything seems fine for now. The technicians are really good".
How do the drivers cope with the heat?
"This is not an easy problem to solve. In fact, I do not see how it can be resolved. Two years ago, right here in Malaysia, Eddie Irvine used some special clothes, which are used to protect against the heat. The first approach was positive. In practice it did not make any difference if you would wear it or not".
Barrichello says that he is struggling with the warm air that he is breathing:
"The problem is not the same for everyone. He has that, I do not. For me, the real problem is my body. Something should be invented to keep the body cool but I do not know what can be done".
The McLaren driver have special caps. Do you know something about it?
"No, you can see that they are hot in the head. I do not, thus I do not have this problem. My helmet is fine like this".
Will the Malaysian Grand Prix be a physical race?
"Oh yeah, I think so, with this heat. We expected this because we are completely in a different season to the one that we run last year in October. For this reason, I decided to stay here after the Australian round, to slowly acclimatize myself to this heat, sweating, resistance and drinking more adequately. I should not be here, in this air conditioning room, because it is not good for me".
Are there other risks for this race? Is it still the engine?
"No, I would say no. You see, this engine debuted in Melbourne. It was right to have some fears. Here we are at the second round and we feel more relaxed thanks to the work done at Maranello".
What about the tyres?
"The tyres will always be a problem. Somewhat because, with two tire suppliers, you never know what upgrades they might bring in the races. The tyres that we have here, for example, are different from the Australian ones. The issue is to understand which ones to choose. I think that we will not know the tyre situation until the fourth or fifth race".
Does McLaren worry you?
"Of course. Let's not delude ourselves that it will be like Melbourne. They work hard. Here, they will be very close to us. Perhaps their discomfort was more psychological than technical. I have to say that they are not used to be like this at the start of the season. They know how to react and know how to handle these situations".
What is magical about this Ferrari?
"The base of this car is good. It is a neutral car, without oversteer and understeer. Where you send it, it goes. Every time that we tried to change something, the car reacts. It makes you realize that the thing may not work. When you go back to the previous solution, it goes the same way as before. The car redoes the same lap times. It is like the car is talking to you. I immediately noticed it from the first time that I raced with it".
On Saturday 17th March 2001, the qualifying session features a spectacular battle between the Schumacher brothers. In the end, Michael has the upper hand and takes the 34th career pole position, with a 1'35"220 lap time. Barrichello is 2nd, only a tenth behind his teammate. Ralf Schumacher was on provisional pole position for most of the session. The younger Schumacher has to settle for 3rd, 3 tenths behind his brother. Ralf was really quick at the start of the session. He could have taken pole position for Williams, a team that has been in the shadows for a couple of years. He sets one of those good times that is hard to beat. Michael then storms out of the pits and takes away pole from his little brother. Ralf is not discouraged and snatches pole from Michael. In the end, the latter sets the definitive pole position. Barrichello then sets the 2nd quickest time. Ferrari locks out the front row for the second consecutive time. Both McLaren drivers are in clear trouble. Hakkinen is only 4th fastest, 8 tenths behind than Michael Schumacher. Coulthard is only able to set the 8th fastest time, over a second slower than the pole sitter. It is his worst qualifying session since the 1998 Australian Grand Prix. Trulli is an excellent 5th, confirming Friday’s good performance. Giancarlo Fisichella is so far behind the polesitter after the qualifying session. He will start 16th at the end of a disastrous day for the Benetton-Renault team. Enrique Bernoldi is having an even worst day. The Brazilian Arrows driver is relegated to the last row of the grid by the stewards, due to a technical irregularity. His car had an irregular front wing during qualifying. It is been a long time since we saw an entertaining and hard-fought qualifying session. Michael is on pole position for the sixth consecutive time. This time out, though, he suffered quite a lot. He made a mistake during what seemed to be his best attempt. The German had lost seven tenths in one sector alone. Anyhow, he was able to keep his teammate Barrichello and his brother Ralf behind. Hakkinen and Coulthard were not able to trouble the two Ferraris on the front row. Ron Dennis is aware that McLaren would have had some difficulties going into the race:
"On this track, we saw that our performance, during the free practice sessions, was not encouraging. This is the reason why we mainly concentrated on the car preparation for the race".
"We are not dead, we will react. We had the best car for three years. This one will also become competitive because we have realized how much trouble we are in".
However, Hakkinen is merciless:
"The car goes everywhere in the corners. I have never felt so uncomfortable. And this is not only because of the heat. On Friday, there was no grip at the front, on Sunday at the rear. You cannot keep a racing line".
There is a very different atmosphere inside the Ferrari garage. Schumacher surprisingly changed strategy in this qualifying session. He grabbed pole position with a couple of minutes to go, instead of doing the last attempt towards the end of the session. He then watched the other drivers in front of the screens. The German even rejoiced when Barrichello knocked his brother Ralf from the front row:
"Many people still had the opportunity to do their final qualifying attempts. I preferred to go earlier in order to not hit traffic. The car went well and proved not to suffer too much from the heat. I enjoyed battling with my brother Ralf. Better to have him, who I know very well, behind me than someone else".
Furthermore, Schumacher denies the rumour of a possible purchase of Sauber with a laugh:
"I am Peter’s friend and I have often congratulated him on his work, having regard to the means at his disposal. It is not my intention to do such thing".
Barrichello is also satisfied after testing the long-awaited front wing in the morning. He tested it for a couple of minutes during the final free practice session. He did not use it during qualifying. A new test will be done during the warm-up session:
"I am happy. The car is fine. I am much closer to Michael compared to last year. In the first two attempts, I did not have a perfect set-up. When it was fixed to my liking, everything fell into place".
Villeneuve is once again in the eye of the storm, after being involved in the collision with Ralf Schumacher at Melbourne. Eddie Irvine vents his anger towards Jacques:
"I was right behind him coming into the final corner. I thought Jacques was on a flying lap but he held me up and then dived into the pits. A man of his experience should know better".
Villeneuve apologizes, saying that he did not notice the Northern Irish driver. Irvine is not having any of it:
"Apparently he came down to see me and apologize but what's the point in talking about it? The only thing that works in a case like this is revenge".
On Sunday 18th March 2001, the weather forecast indicates a high probability of rain during the race. When the lights are about to go out, the sky is grey but the track is bone dry. Michael Schumacher needs to start with the spare car, due to an oil leak in the main Ferrari one. Everything seems to be ready but the start is immediately aborted. Fisichella, in his Benetton, mistakes his grid position. The Italian switches off the engine whilst trying to reposition the car. The procedure is suspended and delayed by 10 minutes. During the second formation lap, Frentzen and Juan Pablo Montoya have car issues. The Colombian is forced to use the spare car and will start from the pit lane. The race finally begins. Michael Schumacher has a beautiful start whilst Barrichello does not have a good getaway. The Brazilian is in fact already defending against Ralf Schumacher and Trulli. In the first corner, the Brazilian nerfs Ralf’s Williams out the way. The German is inevitably spun around and is now in the middle of the race track. Luckily, nobody hits his car. He spins the car around and re-joins in last position. At the end of the first lap, the two Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello are line astern in the lead, followed by Trulli, Coulthard, Frentzen and Jos Verstappen. Thanks to the chaos at turn 1, the Dutch driver manages to climb up from 18th to 6th position. Hakkinen is only 8th, stuck behind Villeneuve. Kimi Raikkonen’s race is short-lived. The Finn stops the Sauber car after a few hundred meters. The retirement is caused by a transmission failure. Olivier Panis is out of the race during the 2nd lap. His BAR is on the gravel trap after a Honda engine failure. At turn 6, there is some oil on track. It proves almost fatal when the two leaders arrive. Both Schumacher and Barrichello are off track, losing control of their cars after going over the patch of oil from Panis’ blown-up BAR Honda. Rubens manages to limit the damage from the excursion and returns on track ahead of his teammate.
Jarno Trulli becomes the new race leader. In the meantime, rain is starting to fall relentlessly on track. A veritable downpour breaks out over Sepang. The Jordan driver spins out in the last corner. Shortly afterwards, Coulthard makes the same mistake. The Scotsman's McLaren becomes a pirouette. The victims caused by the wet asphalt are many. Among them, there are Mazzacane, Heidfield, Alonso and Montoya. Therefore, the race director is forced to bring the Safety Car out on track, waiting for the rain intensity to diminish and for the track to be suitable again. The great crowding in the pits is inevitable. There are also the two Ferraris among the many cars in the pit lane. The team is executing a double pit stop with both drivers, who are coming to the pits at the same time. At this point, the mechanics are confused. Barrichello’s stop turns into a disaster. It lasts a minute and a half. Schumacher, who is stacked up behind the Brazilian, is giving away signs of impatience. In the haste and confusion, different types of tyres have been mixed up. Furthermore, the mechanics cannot find Barrichello's right front tyre. After two infinite stops, the duo can finally get on with their race. Barrichello is now 10th whilst Schumacher is 11th. What a disaster. This is not a cause of despair though. Rubens and Michael have chosen the intermediates. The other cars are on the extreme wet tyres, except for Verstappen. The Safety car period lasts for 6 laps. Meanwhile, the rain is decreasing and the track has sensibly improved. Ferrari’s choice proves successful. Coulthard leads at the restart, despite the fact that he almost retired with the previous spin. Verstappen is 2nd, ahead of Frentzen, Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher and Trulli. Ross Brawn communicates to his two drivers to be careful. Schumacher has different intentions though. The current world champion starts the recovery drive by overtaking Barrichello. He then dispatches of almost all the other drivers within a couple of laps. He is now up to 2nd position. The rain has stopped. The track is drying quickly and Schumacher takes great advantage of the intermediates to overtake Coulthard on lap 16. The German is once again the race leader.
On lap 18, Hakkinen and Ralf Schumacher pit for the dry tyres. A while later, it is Barrichello’s turn to stop. The Brazilian was 3rd up until that moment, behind Coulthard. The latter makes the pit stop only on lap 25. The two Ferraris are once again leading the race, despite the excursions, the arrival of the rain and the disastrous pit-stops. They are running comfortably towards a 1-2 finish. Schumacher is constantly gaining ground on his rivals. He can afford to delay the pit stop until lap 30. By this point, he has an almost 50-second advantage over Coulthard. The stop lasts 12 seconds, since the mechanics need to clean the sidepods and radiators of the F2001. Behind the top 3, Ralf Schumacher and Frentzen become protagonists of a great battle, for what is initially 6th position. The Williams driver then gets rid of Hakkinen and Verstappen. The battle between the McLaren and the Arrows fires up. The Dutch driver overtakes the Finn at the last corner. However, he brakes too late and goes wide, bringing Hakkinen with him. Frentzen takes advantage of the battle to overtake both. Michael Schumacher only needs to manage his car until the 55th and last lap of the race. In the end, the German can celebrate his second win of the season. Barrichello completes a Ferrari 1-2. This the 50th 1-2 finish in the history of the Maranello team. Coulthard limits the damages for McLaren by finishing 3rd. Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher (Michelin’s best runner) and Hakkinen complete the top 6. Jos Verstappen is not included in it. He was running 3rd for most of the race and was hoping to score his first points of the season. Hakkinen then took advantage of Arrow’s pit-stop in the latter stages of the race to snatch one single point. It was a particularly difficult race for the Finn. The race was undisputedly dominated by Ferrari. The only controversy was Schumacher’s overtake on Barrichello. The latter did not appreciate this move at all. In his own word, the indications from the pit wall were to not fight each other. The team tries to throw water on the fire by saying that there a miscommunication. Ross Brawn claims:
"It was actually Rubens who told us that the track was slippery and that it was better to be careful. From our answers, he must have realized that there were some particular obligations for him. In reality, there were not".
The two drivers do not look at each other in the face after the race. They are not shaking hands and do not indulge in the usually wild podium celebrations. Barrichello gloomy listens to the German/Italian anthems. The thought of being overtaken by Schumacher is fixed in his head. The Brazilian explains to the journalists:
"That's something that was a bit sad, to be honest with you. I told Ross Brawn on the radio that I would take very much care because there were still some bits on the track that were really, really wet. In that moment, the car was undrivable. I felt it was right that both Michael and I should not take any risk and hold our positions. We agreed on it. I came too close to the car in front, a Jordan, and I lost momentum and Schumacher took his chance".
The German retorts:
"It is irrelevant that I knew the dialogue between him and Brawn. I had a good exit out of turn 8, got more speed into Turn 9 and I thought there was no reason not to go for it. I could not lose time; I did not know what tyres Coulthard had. I was behind and had to recover as many places as possible".
Barrichello is not okay with this. His words are sharp:
"I understand that it is difficult to live with the best, but there was the order to not overtake and Michael did not respect it. At the end of the day, I would have had to stop once more anyway so I don't think I would have won the race. I had some damage on the car. At that time, I would say a team mate would just stay composed and would wait for some chances in front".
Jean Todt, who is the director of the Gestione Sportiva, ironically says:
"It rained a lot here; I did not see any shadows".
He then specifies:
"In the heat of the moment, a driver can have a moment of emotion. I can understand Barrichello: he did not expect that Schumacher would pass him like this, it is hard to accept. But if we declare that our drivers start on the same level, it means that team orders do not exist. And we can expect Michael doing an overtaking attempt. The only recommendation is to be cautious. Rubens was disappointed, but he knew that he should have pitted again. Schumacher had more chances than him".
No one can console the Brazilian driver. All that remains for him is to think about the third round of the championship at the Interlagos circuit, in Brazil:
"This is my best moment of my life. I can fight for the victory, or at least for the podium, in my home Grand Prix. I do not want to put pressure on myself but I cannot wait to race at San Paolo".
It is too early to say it since there are 15 races left. But, from what we have seen on the first two races, who are Ferrari’s rivals? Are there any rivals for Ferrari? Schumacher continues to say that it will be McLaren. The Woking team was ultimately defeated in Sepang. The McLaren car is wrong and so are the strategies. Furthermore, the drivers seem unmotivated and perhaps a little nervous. A Finnish journalist says laconically:
"I would not be surprised to see Hakkinen being overtaken by Fernando Alonso".
Alonso is the youngest rookie of this championship. McLaren is having a horrendous start of the season. There are already talks that McLaren is building a new car for the remainder of this world championship. The B-spec car will be presented on Sunday 29th April 2001 at Barcelona. Let’s not forget that the traction control system will become legal. The idea is to build a different car in order to set aside the current one. This McLaren car was born badly and is incapable to withstand Ferrari’s power. The Woking team is even behind the BMW-powered Williams team in the constructors’ standings. As Hakkinen says, this cannot go on like this:
"This car does not have any grip; it does not hold the line in the corner. It is so slow coming out of the corners and even loses straight-line speed".
In short, everything has to be redone. There is a very good cue coming. In Spain, the traction control system will arrive. The drivers have to activate it. This will allow McLaren to camouflage the revolution a little. However, the catastrophe is there for all to see. Coulthard uncorks the champagne bottles for a 3rd place finish. He is page to the two triumphant Ferrari drivers whilst Hakkinen scores a miserable point. As if that was not enough, McLaren receives a dangerous call from Stoccarda. It is the place where Mercedes is based. The German engine manufacturer does not like being humiliated by Ferrari. In addition, they are also being beaten by rival competitor BMW on Saturday and sometimes during the race. The Germans are not used to such defeats. Even Hakkinen is not used to it. He had been told that his new-born son would have slowed him down. The car did it for him instead. His outburst is disarming:
"I could have done more. We had a dry set-up. The car was terrible under water, undrivable. Sure, there was some bad luck involved as well, but there was something wrong in my McLaren. In the end, on drying track, I was the fastest. However, it was too late, I could not overtake anyone. How do I feel? I race to win or at least try to score some points. One is not enough for me".
Ron Dennis tries to justify the choice of the wet tyres instead of the intermediates:
"You couldn't possibly change to intermediate tyres with that amount of water. You can't put a driver's life at risk".
Coulthard emphasizes the same point:
"The track was flooded; wet tyres were needed. In hindsight we should've known that the Safety Car wouldn't let us restart with that amount of water on the track, so intermediates would have been better".
There is a pleasant enthusiastic atmosphere inside the Ferrari camp, despite Barrichello’s discontent. Schumacher does not have the courage to publicly confirm a phrase that he said to Ross Brawn a couple of laps before the end of the race on the radio. There are those who vouch to have heard this:
"Ross, it was a boring race, you could have taken a coffee".
Never exaggerate in pride. At the end of the day, what would be the harm in saying something like that, given the sidereal gaps that Schumacher inflicted on everyone. The Ferrari driver seems increasingly invincible. The German prefers to keep calm, even if he has obtained his sixth consecutive win. He does not fail a beat since Sunday 10th September 2000. He is only three wins away from Ascari’s incredible record of nine consecutive victories.
"I won with merit by dominating the race. There were some particular track conditions. McLaren will react, we cannot make the mistake of feeling powerful, woe betide to relax, to sleep, to cast off. The key was the tire choice and I decided it. Putting on the inters was courageous but it was the winning strategy. The margin between those compounds and the wet tyres was big. In fact, the only overtake in which I struggled was the one on Verstappen. He had the intermediates like me and was running quick on track. It was hard to overtake him. With him out of the way, there was no competition".
It was raining heavily, why did you avoid the rain tyres?
"I am not crazy. At certain points, the track was dry and the rain tyres were degrading so much faster. With the interns, I struggled for a couple of laps but then everything went smoothly".
What about that off-track moment at the beginning?
"I was afraid. I thought to myself: it’s over. I saw myself against the barriers, they were very close. It worked out well for me, I managed to bring the car back on track without damages. It was starting to rain. I tried to be careful, but there was some oil at turn 6 and I slipped away".
Then there was the pitstop, where you remained stationary for more than a minute behind Barrichello. You were flailing:
"I thought his engine died, so I invited the mechanics to take him forward. If mine had died as well, I would not have had the space to restart. I did not know he was having tyre problems. I did not realize that he was missing the front right wheel. It was a big mess, but it was nobody's fault. There was lots of confusion in the pits. Everyone was coming back in. The guys were waiting for me but did not realize that it was Barrichello".
In the meantime, the Safety car was out on track:
"Another stroke of luck. We lost so much time on the pits; it would have been very difficult to recover. The Safety car helped us get back to within ten seconds from Coulthard. I was 11th, it was not easy to get back on top but we had to try".
It was a feat that was completed in a few laps, with a series of impressive overtakes. You are breaking records. How does it feel to be so close to Ascari?
"The record means nothing to me really. It is not a matter of how many races and championships you win, it is how you win. It is how you have done it and that you have worked hard that counts for me. We went from possibly scoring no points to a 1-2 finish. I need to win in order to reward my job and my team’s hard work".
In the end, were you bored?
"It is never possible, when you are pushing to the limit. For me, this was an exciting race, full of surprises. Starting with the race start, when I had to take the spare car. There was an oil leak near the gearbox. It could have been an inanity or something serious, but there was no time to check it and we could not take certain risks. It was better to jump on the spare car".
Coulthard claims that the Safety car remained on track for too long:
"I actually thought the Safety Car was coming in a couple of laps early. But one thing is what you see from the car, another is what the marshals see. It is not easy to judge about others’ security. Also, we were all lined up. Two laps more or less do not mean anything".
Ferrari knows that the F2001 is superior to the other cars. They can therefore approach the Brazilian Grand Prix with certain enthusiasm. There will be no lack of motivation from the Maranello team and his rivals. Schumacher aims to equal Ascari’s record. In addition, the German will attempt to break clear in the drivers’ standings. Barrichello wants to redeem himself. What better place to do it other than in front of his home crowd. McLaren is already at a crossroad point. Another resounding defeat would jeopardize Hakkinen and Coulthard’s title hopes already. Watch out for Williams-BMW, who is on strong form with Ralf Schumacher and Juan-Pablo Montoya.