Starting from the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix, traction control, which is a system that prevents wheelspin at the start, the electronic differential, or the automatic gearbox, are not prohibited anymore. A new era begins for Formula 1. It gives the green light to the electronics. Hopefully, this could consequentially end the suspicions, by ending the viciousness between the teams and the reciprocal accuses of using banned aid, which are impossible to be discovered by the FIA controls. An important change which, according to the strongest teams, will not change the standings. It will facilitate the work of the drivers and will probably narrow the gap between the best and the good drivers. The driver who will be ahead, will push like crazy (given the means and the more permitted development, in terms of electronics, by the FIA). The ones who are behind will still have to trudge. Jean Todt, Ferrari responsible, think so:
"I do think that it will not change much with the new electronics".
Schumacher can also guarantee it:
"It will not change anything: the teams’ standings will not change and the best team will keep their advantage. I am in favour of this liberalization as it will be possible to go even more faster and to drive even closer to the limits".
Barrichello also affirms this:
"It will remain a three-way fight between McLaren, Williams and us".
The other tops teams also agree to this. For a while, McLaren has been preparing for a revolution, at the point that a B-spec car should be presented at Barcelona. This would suggest a significant step forward but the Silver Arrows are already the protagonists of this season. Ron Dennis affirms:
"There will be always little room for the others. Ferrari and Williams are the ones who could fight us".
Perhaps the winners of the San Marino Grand Prix have something to fear: Frank Williams, who waited more than three years to enjoy winning again, and Berger, BMW responsible who, at the end of the Imola race, was crying tears of joy. Even for them, the new electronics will not change anything. Anyway, after the San Marino Grand Prix, the team are starting to immediately prepare for the new rules. Ferrari even puts on the track three cars from Tuesday 17th April to Friday 20th April 2001, first at Fiorano and then at Mugello. Two cars are used for the development of the electronic systems.
The third one is to understand what broke down during the Imola race. On the 17th April 2001, Luca Badoer makes 40 laps with Sunday’s car specifications but the Ferrari, at Fiorano, does not have any problems. The deflation of Schumacher’s left front tire was not due to a structural issue, rather from a defect on the front suspensions which produced a delamination on the interior part of the rim which then caused the air dispersal. In the following days, Michael Schumacher is driving at Mugello, by registering very fast lap times. The same goes for Mika Hakkinen at Silverstone. Looking back at the defeat at Imola, the German driver says this:
"Calm down, Ferrari is not in crisis. The team is just not unbeatable but we are working towards it".
Jean Alesi, Formula 1 veteran driving for Prost, is one of the drivers who is against the liberalization of the electronic systems. He clearly states in no uncertain terms:
"It is so much easier, from the start to the car control. I preferred the cars of the past, which were lions to dominate. The computer will remedy every single mistake. No more violence will be done to one's own spirit of self-preservation to ensure that we go to the limit".
The French driver raced on Formula 1’s past cars. The clutch was a pedal and not a button. It left the drivers with bruised and sore right hand from the effort of continuously change the gearbox shift. It is still run today, at the wheel of a single-seater which is the triumph of electronics. For Alesi, 36 years old with 188 Grand Prix starts, there is no comparison between the old and the new cars. It was better before. In 1989, for example, when he started his adventure in Formula 1, the semi-automatic gearbox seemed only a bizarre discovery from John Barnard and not a solution which, within a couple of years, would have revolutionised Formula 1.
"At the time, the cars were a sort of undrivable missiles, let’s says almost lions to tame. The important thing, back then, was to get the engine and the tires and up to temperature and to push on the accelerator to do the best lap time possible. You needed to put your heart into it and to have the driving sensibility to keep those cars on track. It was so easy to make mistakes, especially in the wet or slippery asphalts like the Monte Carlo one. Furthermore, with the manual gearbox, you would drive with one hand, especially on those street circuits, because you would spend a lot of time changing the gears. Choosing the right gear ratio was important and it was only up to the driver to do this".
Things that do not happen anymore. According to Jean, from the Spanish Grand Prix, it will be even worse:
"Firstly, the drivers will not control the reactions of the car anymore, but the exact opposite. The tires will feel the grip of the track and will be given the right power, through the inputs given by the electronic control units. So, if, absurdly, a driver was to press down hard on the accelerator pedal when tackling a slow corner, they would no longer spin. The traction control would adjust the speed to come out of it unscathed".
It will not be the only thing to undermine a driver’s ability:
"With the introduction of the automatic gearbox, you do not have to worry about selecting the right gear. You select first gear and simply press on the accelerator, then the electronic control unit will recognize the right engine speed to then switch to the following gear. Also, you need to program your computer with the desired gearbox ratios, based on the track characteristics and that is it: the computer will select the right gear at the right time".
Even at the start, no more mistakes will be seen, as happened for example to Coulthard at the San Marino Grand Prix, where the Scotsman thwarted pole position, and ultimately ruined his change for victory, by letting the tire slide:
"You only need to press on the accelerator and the engine will go under the right regime on its own and, one meter after the start, will be all automatized".
The Grand Prix veteran’s conclusion is quite bitter:
"It will be like a videogame and not a sport anymore. It will be like playing on the PlayStation console. The role of the driver will be completely nullified and there will no need to face a gamble or danger. Why was Mansell nominated “Il Leone”? It was because of the way in which he violently tamed the cars".
The only position thing is that, according to Jean, the gap between the top teams and the midfield/bottoms teams will not increase. In fact, it could soften a little:
"Ferrari provides six engines, Honda four and then there are Mercedes, BMW e Renault. They have the right people and the right technical/financial means to development these new electronics which several teams will also benefit from it. Sauber and us, for example, will have the same product as Schumacher and Barrichello. Thus, there will not be a further widening of the range of performances between the best teams and the others".
Eddie Irvine has the same opinion:
"I have a clear opinion on this subject. For me, what is taking place could resemble a liberalization of the sport doping. I think we end up taking a lot away from the driver’s skills in a context where the car is already a predominant factor over the human aspect".
What kind of advantage would those electronics aids provide to the driving itself? Marc Gené, who is Williams tester driver, who knows every single details of those systems, will explain them:
"Firstly, it should be clear that there will be no benefits in terms of car performances. Traction control does not mean bringing more power to the wheels and be thus faster. It is for tire sliding".
Also, according to the Spanish drivers, the electronics will not bring anything new to the delicate braking phase:
"This is the moment where a driver can gain or lose precious lap time. It will stay like it was before because the electronically controlled braking is still forbidden. The driver will still need to dose his force on the braking pedal".
Jarno Trulli is convinced that there will be no revolutions in terms of performances. Therefore, he has decided to give up a valuable slice of the electronic aids:
"I will probably not use the automatic starting system".
The new rules obviously bear the name of the teams’ technicians. Mike Gascoyne, Benetton technical director, declares:
"The electronics are integral part of the automobile modern world. Our series cars are equipped with it as standard. Thus, I sustain that the liberalization in Formula 1 is the right thing: we cannot stop the cars’ evolution. Furthermore, we have some doubts regarding the legality of certain solutions adopted by some teams, who seemed to have come up with something similar to traction control".
According to Patrick Head, Williams technical director, the situation that will arise is the least of concerns:
"On the short-term, the FIA decision was inevitable given the impossibility to adequately control the electronics of each team. In the long run, it will be necessary to find mechanisms and criteria in order to let the controls become effective. I do not believe that it will level the teams. Do not forget that Ayrton Senna won races and championship during the active suspensions free electronics era and nobody doubted that he was the best driver at the time".
Paolo Martinelli, responsible of the Ferrari engine section, thinks that:
"The new regulations will not change the playing field. From our side, we opposed of depriving to the driver the opportunity to excel in driving. We also fought for clear and defined rules. For this reason, we pushed to define, together with the other teams, a precise regulation of the electronics which is limited only to the engine and gearbox where it is needed".
Between the constructors, Flavio Briatore also agrees with the legalization:
"We should all be equal now. Those who did not have anything like that until now will certainly benefit, perhaps only a few. We, for example, were among the latter. I still think that it will not change much, the pecking order will remain the same. It is the right decision, so at least many disputes will be eliminated".
Giancarlo Minardi, general director of European Minardi, also agrees:
"What does it change? We will also use the electronic aids at acceptable costs, while before we were the only ones to not have them. At least now everything that was kept in the dark will finally come to light. It is clear that the strong and big teams, who already have an advantage, will always have the best materials. The smallest and weakest team will need to do the best with the worst ones. Thus, there will always be the horse and the donkey; or at least non-racing horses".
Jo Ramirez, McLaren sportive director, who has been in motorsport for more than 30 years, is not happy at all:
"What is going to happen is very sad for Formula 1. This sport is the peak of motorsport and must be the showcase for the best drivers. I am convinced that the men, in the end, should be the one to control the car and not vice versa. It is a shame that it is not possible to find some ways to control the legality of the electronic systems".
Before leaving for Spain, Ferrari makes a quick test with Luca Badoer on the third car, which will be available for the weekend: it is the F2001 which Schumacher will use in the race. It is the traditional programme, without any starting simulation or tire change. Badoer completes 8 laps, the best in 1'01"693.
In the days leading up to the Spanish Grand Prix, Formula 1 is shaken by the tragic death of one of the most beloved drivers in the recent past: Michele Alboreto. The 25th of April 2001, the ex-Ferrari driver passed away in a Dresda hospital. He was hospitalized after a terrible accident at the Lausitzring circuit. He was doing some tests at the wheel of an Audi R8, an American-Le Mans series car which was running for Le Mans. His conditions appeared very serious from the beginning. The doctors could not do anything to save his life.
It was supposed to be a testing session like the others. At 17:30, Michele Alboreto was testing the Audi R8, in preparation for the 24 hours of Le Mans, at the Lausitzring circuit, a couple of kilometres from Dresda. He was driving like usual, with the same speed, security and passion. Then something went wrong. All of a sudden, the car started to go crazy and Michele lost control of it, as Audi explained in a press release:
"Alboreto was on a straight section of the Lausitzring circuit when, for as yet unknown reasons, the vehicle went off track and rolled".
Thus, it was not a mistake and not a risky maneuver from Alboreto. It was the car, which suddenly at some point without any warning. It is not yet unclear what was the piece that costed Michele’s life. Head of Audi Sport Wolfgang Ulrich, in a press release, spoke about the incident as an incomprehensible tragedy, by adding:
"We will do everything in our power to find the reason for this incident. Right now, our thought and prayers are with Michele’s wife Nadia, his two daughters and his whole family".
He was born on the 23rd December 1956. Alboreto made his debut in Formula 1 in 1981, at the San Marino Grand Prix, at the wheel of the Tyrrell-Ford. With the English team, he won two races in the United States, which had brought him to international prominence. Enzo Ferrari has immediately set eyes on him, a guy who had huge potential to become a world championship, and wanted to bring him to Maranello. Those were the years when the Italian drivers were forbidden to drive a Ferrari. His arrival brought a fresh breath of enthusiasm.
His best season with Ferrari was in 1985, when he was the vice world champion. At the end of the season, he was in fact beaten by Alain Prost. After his stint with Ferrari, Alboreto also raced with Tyrrell, Lola, Footwork and Minardi, without any major results. In Formula 1, he raced 194 Grand Prix, obtaining five wins, two pole position, nine 2nd places and nine 3rd places.
After Formula 1, Michele had never completely left the world of motorsport. In 1997, in fact, he had emerged from the inevitable, slow and unrelenting oblivion that surrounds the ex-Formula 1 drivers, by resoundingly winning an historic and important race such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He will be remembered for the way he was and the way he dealt with others who knew him. It must be said that there are also solid sporting reasons that will contribute to his good character.
We cannot forget the beautiful television reports in which he was giving advices on safe driving, the car maintenance, how to tackle a corner and the danger of speed driving. He was talking about those topics in a clear and serene voice which always infused trust. Even his radiophonic comments about Formula 1 were always precise. At the time, it was rare to see a Formula 1 race but watching them on television, you noticed things that no one noticed. When his daughter Alice was born, he was asked why he choose that name. He clearly answered:
"Hope that at least, she can live in wonderland".
Michele was an amazing character. At 45, his racing passing was still intact, which was a hallmark ever since he was a child and working as mechanic. He was prudent and asked the others to be cautious as well. He also passed away like many others in the cars’ history. One day, he confessed that, after retiring from motorsport, he would have wanted to write a book. Not one which narrates a usual collection of personal memories but something which would have helped the motorsport fans to understand what is behind a race.
"How a driver lives the races before, during and after".
Sensations and emotions that never make it onto in the newspapers or in television, caught up as we are in the immediacy that tries to cool everything down. Unfortunately, he will never write it. His passing was immediately commented with commotion from Maranello. Montezemolo expresses his sadness:
"Alboreto played an important part as a driver in the history of Ferrari. He was an intelligent and paid a great deal of attention to the technical problems involved in the development of the car. His death has been a hard blow to take and has filled me with great sadness. Michele continued to race, driven by an irrepressible passion, proving that in our sport, which is totally involving, risk is always around the corner".
Michele Alboreto’s only cousin, Marisa, releases a public release to ANSA:
"You cannot imagine what we are going through as a family. We are really distraught. We are all confused, to try to understand. I am here to be close to the family, to the kids. We found this evening what happened, I do not know if one of us will go to Germany to fetch him or whether we have to wait him here... Amid this great pain we are trying to sort things out".
The Formula 1 world, in shock, recalls the exemplary figure of Alboreto, Alain Prost, Michele’s greatest rival in 1985, has just arrived to the Montmelò circuit and do not have to beg him to talk about a friendly driver as well as a rival:
"I adored him. It touches me personally because my story with Michele goes back a long way. I first competed with him in Formula 3 and then had a really good battle with when I won my first world title in 1985. A true gentleman, a fair driver like no other. With his death goes a part of my career and of my life as a driver. There is a certain uneasiness because I cannot explain the incident. It is difficult to judge things from a distance. The incident appears to be very strange: in a long straight, where you arrive at 300 km/h and all of a sudden, the car launches into the air and rolls over various times. Similar incidents happen due to either a suspension failure, a wing failure or tire failure... The investigations will have to establish that".
Two investigations are opened to investigate the cause of the accident. One from EKRA, on behalf of the public prosecutor's office of Cottbus, in Saxony. The other from Audi, the manufacturer of the car which Alboreto was testing. By order of the judiciary, an autopsy was performed but it will take some time to know the results. It is already known that Alboreto was going to Germany. Before doing so, he confided to some of his friends that he had some scheduled aerodynamic tests. The sudden failure of the rear wing, as happened in 1986 on Elio De Angelis’ car, could explain the scary launch of the car which then summersaulted over the guard-rail, without touching it, and then landed inverted. The photos of the remains of the car (which was seized by the German judiciary) are horrible: the roll bar and the head protection, for the driver, are missing; a wheel is completely delaminated while the other seems to be intact. Alboreto, who expressed the desire to retire from racing at the end of the season, would have given the place to Dindo Capello. The latter would have concluded the testing but Michele asked to continue driving for a couple more laps in order to have a perfect car for Le Mans.
The Italian driver was driving along the main straight, when the car went off track and hit a barrier on the rights and summersaulted over it, after a launch of 100 meters. The two investigations will demonstrate that Alboreto lost his life due to the crash. A sharp object went into the left rear tire. There was a gradual loss of pressure into the tire which then caused the puncture. Audi will then declare to the investigators that the prototype - which was destroyed in the impact - had already completed thousands of tests on numerous circuits, in preparation for the 2001 season, without any problem.
The investigators will suppose that neither the driver, nor the circuit, are responsible for the incident. The Lausitzring manager, Hans-Jorg Fischer, communicates that the stationed ambulances, at the track, arrived on the scene of the incident after just two minutes. A helicopter arrived three minutes later. Meanwhile, the doctors declared that they could not do anything to save Alboreto.
His body was repatriated in Italy. The funerals will be on the 28th April 2001 at Basiglio, at the presence of his wife Nadia Astorri, his two daughter and at least 1500 people, including several ex drivers and famous people, who are outside the motorsport world, like Adriano Galliani and Mike Bongiorno. The body will then be cremated in the Milanese crematorium within the Lambrate cemetery for at the behest of his wife and the ashes will be privately conserved. Sister Laura was the one to give the news of Michele’s incident to his brother Ermanno Alboreto. Michael Schumacher is still in shock:
"I was shocked when I heard the news. I will bring this shock with me even during the race. At this moment all my thoughts go out to Michele’s wife and daughters".
There is also a simple but very human remembrance of a guy who, during the stint with Ferrari, has a very close relationship with Alboreto. It is the remembrance of Luigi Montanini, the famous paddock chef who at the time, worked for Ferrari:
"He was a simple guy. He remained like this even in the moments where success tends to change people. One memory stands out. In the evening, when everyone would run towards the city centers and the great hotels, Michele remained on track, dines with the mechanics and then played Scopa. It is difficult to find a driver like him nowadays".
In a mourning atmosphere, Formula 1 arrives in Spain for the fifth round of the 2001 championship. All eyes are on Ferrari after losing, in the previous two races, most of the advantage that was accumulated in the first two outings. Schumacher sustains:
"I think that the power relations did not change. The F2001 is a really good car and I am hopeful of the results that we achieved in the electronic department".
As Todt declared himself hopeful, we can expect a Grand Prix with a Ferrari on the attack in a circuit which stresses the chassis, the aerodynamics and the tires. Logic dictates that Ferrari and McLaren are the favourites. Hakkinen, who has been winning for three years at Montmelò with Coulthard always second, confirms this with a peremptory sentence:
"I want to start my championship charge here".
About time, after picking only 4 point in the last four races against the 26 of his team mate. On the other hand, Williams- BMW has lots of doubts over the application of the new rules. Both Ralf Schumacher and Montoya are careful, even if Michelin did most of its testing on this circuit. The Spanish race means another thing as well: the start of the drivers’ market. And so, it is worth reporting the first rumours which are circulating in the paddock.
Ferrari has seemingly asked about Jenson Button’s contractual situation to his manager. Ferrari has also started negotiations with other drivers as well. The first one being Alonso, with a negotiation that started in the last couple of months and then interrupted by Briatore. The second team being Pantano (it seems that he spoke to Todt at Maranello). The others are Heidfield and Raikkonen. From this, you can deduce that Ferrari is at the window, attending to decide on a renewal contract for Barrichello but also thinking of an unspecified tomorrow when Schumacher may no longer be there.
As for Button, his contract with Benetton runs until the end of the 2002 season. Frank Williams will then decide whether to renew him or to let him go. At the same time, Peter Sauber says that he will never let go of his two precious drivers, despite the fact that Ferrari could play the card of the engine supply. In the paddock chatter, a very popular rumor is coming out which was also popular last year. Hakkinen’s retirement at the end of the year and the automatic arrival of Jacques Villeneuve in McLaren. It could happen regardless, in a McLaren which cannot forever continue with the same drivers. Halfway through the season at Barcelona, the first drivers’ moves are becoming real. Pedro De la Rosa will drive alongside Irvine at Jaguar while Luciano Burti will take Gastòn Mazzacane’s place at Prost, alongside Alesi.
Friday 27th April 2001. David Coulthard is the fastest driver in Friday’s two free practice sessions. He stops the clock at 1'20"107. Michael Schumacher, his championship rival (both tied at 26 in the driver’s standings) is instead much slower. The Germans needs to be content with the 5th fastest time: 1'20"880, which was done in the final phase of FP2. There is still some fine-tuning to be done at Ferrari. Michael continues to be optimistic:
"It was good, we mainly looked at the tires and the electronics. It was a type which we already did for quite some time on this track. I think that we are one of the teams who is ahead in that sense. I am hopeful for this race".
Ferrari is behind at the moment. A surprising Eddie Irvine, for Jaguar (1'20"561), Rubens Barrichello (1'20"823) and Oliver Panis, driving for Jordan-Honda (1'20"826) are ahead of Schumacher. Further behind is the Hakkinen’s McLaren. The Finn is struggling a lot so far. Four minutes to the end, the car ends up spinning without any major damages. Hakkinen is able to get back on track but then has to slowly come back to the pits, having done a 1'20"894. Friday’s free practice session are over and now it is time to ask: how did it go? The first driver to answer this question is Barrichello:
"Not bad for being the first day. I run a lot of laps. I would have done even better, had I not stayed in the garage for a long time for a necessary control on the front and rear axles. It went well. The times are also very good and it is thanks to the tires but also in part due to the electronic systems".
An automatic car in other words: how does the Brazilian driver feel about the electronic systems?
"It is not fully automatic car at all. Let’s say things as they are. If you want to drive it fully automatic, you can do it. If you do not, then you unplug this system and then you drive it yourself, in the sense that you use the gearbox as you always have, i.e. up or downshifting as you wish. It does not have to be fully automatic. You still need to drive the car. I do not agree at all with Lauda, who says that even the monkeys could drive a Formula 1 car with these electronic systems".
Is it easier or more difficult?
"Like the other times. There are more things to do. We, as drivers, have lots more to do but it was not the first day that I tested those electronics. We tried those systems for a long time and learned lots. It comes automatically to do or not do those things; we are here for it. We still have to work a lot, for two reasons. The one being that this system needs to be adapted according to every track and its conditions. The second is we need to improve those systems. The electronic engineers are standing still when I come back to the pits. Today, for example, every time I came back, I would ask them for something. They would start messing around with the computers to end up giving me a better performance. It is a very vast and open department and it will take some time to discover its potential".
Did you never struggle with it?
"No, but I have to say one thing. Today I did 60% of my laps with the manual systems and the rest with the automatic one. This is because the track conditions changed a lot between the morning and through the course of the afternoon. When this happened, I had to stop for quite some time in the garage to fine-tune the car set-up".
The Ferrari steering wheel is already quite a complex system, full of switches and buttons: is it more complicated now?
"Not at all: we tried to simplify it. The buttons are the same but can do several functions according to how you push them. Thus, there is more work to be done to be even more precise. Forget about monkeys".
Despite all this, you did not do a great lap during the two free-practice sessions:
"It is true. There is no need to do very fast laps on Friday. I tried several things and that was my Friday. Let’s see after qualifying where we are but it is not too bad. Throughout the whole circuit, I noticed that the car behaved well, even better than before. Thus, those new things are working".
How are the starts with the electronic systems?
"They should be easier. Let’s see on Sunday. So far, we only tried them at Fiorano and they went very well, but the race is another thing. The electronic does not feel emotions but we do. It would only take one small mistake to have a bad start. However, it is a system that can be improved upon. We will see in a couple of races how things stand".
Introducing the theme of the monkey, as mentioned by Barrichello, was Niki Lauda who provocatively said:
"With those electronics systems, even a monkey can drive onto the starting grid".
An answer was promptly given to him by Michael Schumacher, with a smile on his face, by saying:
"The monkeys cannot do what we do. Let me explain: the electronic cannot do the driving by itself, we have to give the input and the monkey cannot be able to maybe do that".
Then Michael continues his analysis:
"We have tried it throughout the two practice sessions. We gathered lots of data on this track. Winter testing is one thing, the free practice sessions are another. For example, as we went along the day, it was getting warmer and we did less running. I maybe should have tried to set a better lap but it does not worry me too much. The aim is to test everything under race conditions and I must say that things have worked well. The set-up might need some tweaks but it was predictable. The important thing is that the base software is good, now we need to adapt a few things for this type of track. The tire issue is much more delicate: we need to fully understand it, in order to avoid making the Imola mistakes. It is going well so far. I think that, on Saturday, there will at least one Ferrari on the front row. I am prepared to bet on pole".
Even Cesare Fiorio, ex- Ferrari technical director and television commentator, proposes his point of view regarding the electronic argument:
"It is silly to think that, with the electronic systems, all drivers will become good. With the computer, you can raise the performance limit of the car, but we have to see if the driver is able to raise his own personal driving limit. So, more or less, everything remains as before. Look at the standings: nothing changed. Drivers who are, today, in unusual positions, will be resized on Saturday. On free practice, some run with high fuel while other with far less".
Therefore, the electronics should be evaluated on Sunday during the race in order to see whether something changes. Meanwhile someone is already given it up. Villeneuve, for example, forget the automatic system before the start of the race. Montoya appears worried and declares:
"Many things have to be taken for. It is difficult to focus on driving".
Meanwhile Irvine seems joyful about it:
"I am lazy and I should be happy for those innovations. I should probably stay in my Miami villa and to get the money out of my helmet images. I have nothing more to do in the car but it is probably the death of Formula 1".
Saturday, for the 36th time in his career, Michael Schumacher will start ahead of everyone. The German driver takes pole position by dominating the entire qualifying session. Only in the end, he risks being caught by Hakkinen. The latter stops the clock by doing a lap which is only 85 thousand slower than the time set by the Ferrari driver at the start of the session. David Coulthard, Schumacher’s main rival for the championship, is excluded from the front row. His McLaren stop the clock at 1'18"635, four tenths slower than poleman. The Scotsman is ahead of the other Ferrari driver, Barrichello. Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli are on the third row. The most disappointing performances came from the Williams. The two driver struggles through the entirety of qualifying due to tire issues and the electronics. Ralf Schumacher is able to take 5th place while Juan Pablo Montoya’s performance is very bad. He will start on the sixth row with the 12th fastest time.
"We were not in crisis as someone thought. After Imola, the press criticized us and this is the result. We will come back to the top as we always do".
Schumacher is exhilarated for the fourth pole position, out of five, of the season. Meanwhile, the others are struggling with the electronics. Hakkinen disconnects traction control on the last attempt to grab 2nd place. Coulthard admits to not understand all those options on the steering wheel. Barrichello is struggling to find the right set-up. Montoya is nowhere. Williams is thinking of eliminating any electronic aid after breaking seven engines in only two weeks. Everything seems to suffer with those electronics in some ways. What about Schumacher?
"Everything is working for me and I will not give up those aids. We intensely prepared them and had no problems. Evidently, we were the best in optimizing those new updates. It is true that you cannot extract the maximum from those from the first race already. Our electronic system is very reliable until now. I like this revolution; you can prepare and fine-tune the car much more easily".
Are not worried about the start? In the morning, 14 cars, during the two free-practice sessions, stalled and stopped on track whilst trying the new system. Many do not trust those electronic systems and will do everything manually:
"There will be some nasty surprises for those who did not prepare well. I hope that it does not happen to us. So far, we did not have any inconveniences. If you do a fantastic manual start you can be faster but it happens once a while. The electronic one is much more constant. Do not think that it is easier though. There is one fundamental discriminant that remains: the driver’s reaction time".
What is it like to once again have Hakkinen so close to you?
"It does not surprise and it pleases me that he regained his speed. He won three times on this circuit and was always very fast. This time though, we are fast as well. It was surprising to see that he closed the gap, on his last attempt, from four tenths to 85 thousand only. It was an impressive and sudden improvement but this is Hakkinen".
Your brother Ralf does not scare you:
"True, but for only one reason: the Bridgestone are much better than the Michelin, at Barcelona. The tires are almost everything".
Umberto Agnelli is also watching Schumacher’s performance.
"He brought luck. I am happy that he is with us, it means that he believes in our project. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and Hope that he brings us luck tomorrow as well".
Agnelli showed up at Barcelona since he is particularly attracted by the free electronics and comments, like thus, Saturday’s qualifying session:
"Schumacher gifted us a good afternoon even if I honestly enjoy football more. It is normal that he is on pole position, let’s hope that he can win tomorrow. We want to dedicate it to Alboreto and his family. I am curious about the new electronic systems, they talked to me about a new chapter in F1. I arrived here with great interest but I was left disappointed. It does not seem to have brought about any revolutions".
La Ferrari is still ahead though. As a Tifoso, you should be happy:
"We have great strength, la Ferrari is a very close-knight group, this is the ideal team to win".
Those electronics, whom everyone wanted, eliminated the suspects but increased the unknowns. Hakkinen’s move was significant:
"I was not satisfied of the traction control system. Thus, I unplugged everything and did that time manually".
He then gives Todt a nice dig:
"They accused us to have it, when it was illegal. I then unplugged it in order to lap much faster. What kind of trick is it, if it damages us?"
The question mark is mainly on the start. Some teams - Prost and Sauber - did not even install the automatic system. Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, driving the two FW23, prefer to do the starts manually, without the starting aid and the traction control, which are useful in the corners. Ferrari and McLaren fully uses the electronic systems.
Sunday 29th April 2001. The Spanish Grand Prix has not yet started and we see that the first victim of the launch control is David Coulthard. He stalls on the grid while the others start the formation lap. The technicians, with their laptops, have little time to sort out the software malfunction. Under the watchful eye of Ron Dennis, the Scots gets a second chance as the issue is resolved. Under the regulations, he will have to start from last position.
At light out, both Schumacher and Hakkinen have a great getaway from the first row. Rubens Barrichello lets himself down again with another difficult start. Ralf blasts past and Trull is hurrying the Brazilian. It seems like the Williams and the Jordan have overtaken the Ferrari but it is not yet over. Barrichello does not let them get away with it. Breaking for turn 1, the Brazilian brakes much later than the two and reclaims 3rd place. Meanwhile Frentzen was the one who caused the yellow flags at the start. Frentzen’s launch control probably did not function or was not plugged in properly. He is luckily avoided by everyone and avoids a dangerous incident. Montoya, from 12th position, has an awesome start and is already in 6th place. Meanwhile, at the back of the grid, a hasty Coulthard gained several places but is forced to come back to the pits for repairs. His front wing is broken after a contact with Bernoldi’s Arrows. A 15.4 seconds pit stop, due to the change of the front wing, leaves the McLaren driver to start a comeback drive from plum last.
On lap 5, Frentzen’s race is over. Being able to start the race, he is then involved in an incident with Pedro de La Rosa, on his first race with the Jaguar. The two come together at turn 10. Frentzen was down the inside to overtake the Spaniard but run wide which caused the collision. They are now into the gravel and into retirement. The race order, at the present moment, is: Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen, Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Trulli and Montoya. The gaps make it immediately clear how the race might unfold. There is a second gap between the race leader and Hakkinen while the others are further behind. There is no question on who will fight for the win: Ferrari and McLaren, or rather, Schumacher and Hakkinen. They are on another planet compared to the others. By the end of lap 8, it seems like the current world champion has got the race under control.
Coming up to one third of the race and there is very little track action. Montoya is right behind Trulli’s gearbox and is trying to pressure the Italian into a mistake. However, as the laps tick by, the Williams-BMW driver is not being able to try any overtake manoeuvre on the Jordan driver. Montoya is definitely being held up. Ralf Schumacher, from 4th place, has beached the car. On the replay, it is seen that a locked rear brake caused the German to spin out of the race. Both Trulli and Montoya gain a place.
Into the pits come Trulli and Montoya, at the end of lap 21, for the first pitstop. With a brilliant stop, the Colombian gets ahead of Trulli. The Williams mechanics did a much better job than the Jordan team. On lap 23, Michael Schumacher makes the first stop of two scheduled stops. It lasts for 8.7 seconds. Hakkinen, at the end of lap 27, is in the pits to try an over-cut on Schumacher. It did not work due to a 11.3 stop and the impressive lap times that Schumacher did after taking on a brand-new set of boots. The Ferrari driver retakes the leadership. At the end of the first round of pit stops, Jacques Villeneuve is the one who gained the most places, as he is now running in 5th. On the other hand, Trulli was the one who lost out the most and is now in 6th.
The race continues to be quite static. Schumacher continues to lead, with a 4-second lead over Hakkinen. Then Barrichello is 3rd, followed by Montoya, Villeneuve and Trulli. The second round of pit stops change the course of this race. At the end of lap 42, Schumacher pits for his crucial second and final stop second time while Hakkinen powers down the start/finish straight to assume the lead. This time the McLaren extends the first stint by seven laps. All eyes are on him to fully maximize his second overcut attempt. Those laps are crucial if he wants to have any hope of winning this race.
Meanwhile Barrichello is slowing down massively. The team thought that it was a puncture but then realized that his car has a broken rear suspension. The Brazilian is thus forced to retire. Soon after, Eddie Irvine is the latest to retire after an engine failure and he is still stuck at zero points in the standings. Montoya now runs in 3rd and with a change of getting his first podium in F1. Whilst this is going on, we look back at Hakkinen. At the end of lap 49, he pits for the final time. With some blinding pace and a great in-lap, he takes the lead at the expense of Schumacher.
In the fight for victory, after being overtaken in the pits, it would be fair to expect an attempt by Schumacher to gain the lost ground and then put pressure on Hakkinen. Instead, the Ferrari driver loses ground to the leader with each passing lap. The gap will increase until it reaches 40 seconds. It seems like Schumacher has some kind of problem, maybe an indication of bad vibrations on his set of tires. The aim is to manage this valuable 2nd place, which would still propel him back to the lead of the championship on his own. Coulthard, after un-lapping himself from Schumacher, starts the chase to Heidfield for 6th. In a couple of laps, he is able to pass the Ferrari-powered Sauber and is now into the points.
It is the last lap, four km until the chequered flag, Hakkinen is slowing down massively. Montoya un-laps himself from the leader as do the other drivers. What is happening to Hakkinen’s McLaren? The slowdown is clear, but is the advantage over Schumacher enough for him to win? The answer is no. It seems that he has a faulty clutch. White smoke is starting to pour from the rear of the McLaren. Hakkinen is trying to desperately continue, but the smoke continues to pour down, which means that the faulty clutch has led to a spectacular engine failure. Mika has now pulled off the track at turn 8. It is a cruel twist of event but this is motorsport. Michael Schumacher takes the lead and he is waving to the crowd with a couple of corners left to go. Chequered flag! Michael Schumacher wins the Spanish Grand Prix, ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve.
For the Colombian, these are the first points of the season and the first-ever podium in F1. It is a truly deserved result for him after the bad luck in the first rounds of the championship. Important day also for Jacques Villeneuve, who gifts BAR the first podium of its history. Trulli, Coulthard and Heidfield complete the points-scoring positions. During the honorary lap, Coulthard gives a lift to his stranded teammate Hakkinen to arrive to the pits.
On Parc Ferme, Schumacher quietly cheers for this victory. He knows fully well that Hakkinen fully deserved it. Unsurprisingly, the two meet and exchange friendly words before hugging each other. Mika seems to philosophically take defeat, even if it means that his situation in the championship is almost compromised. Schumacher leads with 36 points, Coulthard follows closely at 28, Hakkinen is stuck at 4.
It is a massive shame for a race lost in the last meters. He was already tasting the winning champagne, with a 40-seconds advantage over Schumacher:
"It is not possible. My car was working like clockwork. The strategy was perfect, the car was very gas but it suddenly shut down. It is absurd, it was an already won race. I am really disappointed. I am lost, as if I was hit by a camion. My morale is at rock bottom. I am sorry for the team. They worked really hard through the weekend and gave me a fantastic car. They were already exiting from the garage, ready to go to the pit-wall and celebrate. This is not misfortune. It is something greater".
Ron Dennis, who is also disappointed, comments:
"If you have been in this sport for a while, you cannot say that you won until the race is over".
Faced with such a huge hoax, even Norbert Haug is struggling to keep instincts in check:
"What did I think when I saw Mika stop? One word which starts with per s and finishes with e (Scheisse, Shit in English)".
Vulgar, but how can you criticize McLaren? What a drama, especially if you look at Hakkinen, someone who is always trying to hide his emotions. He is not crying, unlike Monza in 1999:
"At the time, I was fighting for the world championship. We are now only the start of the season. It is not over yet; I cannot think about giving up".
His face is pale and it would take nothing to trigger the commotion. The whole F1 circus gives him the stage, in front of the McLaren garage. His wife Erya hugs him tight for a couple of seconds. Around them, there is silence. Then the drivers, mechanics, VIPs and intruders starts a spontaneous applause: at this point, Hakkinen’s eyes start to tear up. He is honest until the end and admits:
"I noticed that, a couple of laps until the end, the temperatures skyrocketed and I understood that there was a clutch issue. It was not working very well. I asked the pit wall on the radio to see whether there was something wrong. They responded: we see nothing on the telemetry, you can continue. Yet something was not right. With one and a half lap to go, all lights started to switch on. Did I pray? No, I cursed. In those last corners, I understand everything. I was pushing like crazy but the car gave up on me. I thought that the win was in my pocket and this is hard to swallow. The most atrocious aspect of this is that you do not even have the time to think, to reflect and to re-organize your thoughts. We must react immediately in order to forget about this. Ultimately, quite a few bad things happened to me lately. Why is destiny so hard on me?"
Coulthard did not have an easy race either. Stalling in the grid during the formation lap, he finished in 5th place after a difficult comeback through the field. A couple of hours after the race, Dennis talks about software issues. However, he said this beforehand:
"An electronic issue? I do not think so. I think that David has a brain issue".
The Scotsman retorts:
"He is the one who has it".
McLaren is disappointed. On the other hand, Schumacher is sort of embarrassed. He won after managing 2nd place throughout the latter stages of the race. The Ferrari driver comments the victory:
"I do not feel like a winner right now. I overtook a retired car. I am shocked for what happened to Hakkinen. He did not deserve it. He was the fastest man in the most important stages of the race, he had made good use of my problems with the third set of tyres. He should have won; I am so sorry. He had a very difficult start to the season and now this. These were ten very important points, which mean a lot for the world championship. I do not like winning like this but this is how it goes sometimes. What an atrocious ending. Luck is a spinning wheel. Today it was his turn: it happened to me other times. I remember fully well what happened in 1993 at Monte Carlo: I was dominating the race and would have comfortably won. I then had to retire".
This time, however, his ending seemed really painful. Why did you lose so much time to Hakkinen?
"We had dangerous and huge vibrations on the rear tires and had to visibly slow down. Usually, with the new tires, you gain three or four seconds. Instead I was losing more than one second per lap. It was strange and absurd. At that point, we realized there was nothing we could do to fix those vibrations. From the pits, they told to slow down even more as there was to risk. We had enough of a gap over Montoya and needed to bring the car home in order to gain six points. I admit: I was afraid that, at one point, the tire would have suddenly exploded".
To add to this, there was Barrichello’s retirements due to a suspension issue. Ferrari does not seem to have a good reliability:
"There is no reason to be worried. Until the second stop, I was ahead of Hakkinen by four seconds. Everything worked beautifully, starting from the electronics. Everything was under control; therefore, we will need to analyse and solve one problem".
McLaren is once again very close:
"They were the only ones, together with us, who made good use of the free electronics. The advantage that we have over the others has further increased. We, without those vibrations, would have been ahead".
How does it feel to be back in the fight with Hakkinen?
"It does not surprise me at all. Mika did not come back, he never left. I had a close fight with him like old times and it was a tight race. The details make the difference".
This time, it seems like McLaren’s strategy was the best one:
"You cannot say that. He jumped me in the pits because I already changed tires and I was also in a bit of traffic. I then had to slow down a lot in the last phase of the race due to the vibrations. I would not have looked for alibis: he deserved the win. I had to console him afterward. I know how it feels. It must have been a very tough moment to go through. That is why I did not feel comfortable standing on the top step of the podium".
The win still remains:
"And I also know who to dedicate it to: everyone knows that Montezemolo’s wife just had a daughter. The president asked for a gift, hope he likes it. This win is for Guia. I hope to meet her as soon as possible".
What about Alboreto?
"He was our friend. I knew him fully well, not only on track, but also privately. My thoughts go to his family, his wife and children".
What did you tell Hakkinen during that hug?
"I simply told him sorry. He did such an amazing race, without any mistakes. He had put together all he needed to win and I took it away ".
Like anticipated, Juan Pablo Montoya is celebrating with Schumacher on the podium. Despite a complicated race week-end, with a Williams not at the same level as the previous rounds, Montoya can surprisingly celebrate his first podium in Formula 1. The Colombian promises:
"It is my first podium in Formula 1 and will not be the last. We were not competitive as in other circuits. Our weekend was very tiring. We are behind in the electronics and have a lot to work to do. I used the automatic system at the start but not the traction control. We need to catch up and then we will again fight with McLaren and Ferrari".
It is a similar story for Jacques Villeneuve, who was standing on the podium after 42 races. His last podium was back in August 1998, at Budapest. Above all, this is BAR’s first podium in Formula 1:
"It is too early to talk about a renaissance. the car is still not very fast. This podium lifted a big burden off our shoulders. I am especially happy for the guys. They have been working hard for more than two years. This 3rd place is a nice gift. It was a difficult and stressful period. We had huge issues in the first year. It seems like things were getting better in the second year, but we still did not collect nothing ".
Finally, the turning point is on the day when the electronic becomes free:
"Hakkinen stopped a few corners from the finish. This means that the electronics alone are not enough. Without determination, you will not go anywhere".
The funny thing is that you did not notice the Finn retiring:
"I thought that I finished 4th. Then my engineer told me about Hakkinen and that I finished in 3rd".
Trulli’s results is very good but he is not happy about it:
"I am angry with the team. They made me target Montoya and did the race on him, who was much quicker. We completely forgot about Villeneuve. The result is that the podium was stolen from us".
The day after the race, at Maranello, Michael's conspicuous slowdown, during the third stint, was the main talking point. It was a problem with did not cause the DNF, like it was the case for Hakkinen. Michael can consider himself lucky. Jean Todt gets angry when he reads the newspapers:
"When he wins, you journalists write that he is lucky. When he loses, you never write about his bad luck. This is racing".
Sunday evening, Schumacher’s rear tires are also loaded in Ferrari’s flight to Bologna. They are the ones which had that massive vibration which caused the German to slow down massively. Thus, on Monday morning, the two-wheel autopsy begins at Maranello. The real problem was soon discovered. The tires were not flat; there were no problems with the hubs; the rim was not bent Something very strange happened, which happened other time but not in the past. In other words, the rims were also spinning on the wheels as well, instead of staying well hooked to it.
There are visible traces on the interior part of the rim. In this crazy friction, even the balance leads have been lost. Which could mainly explain the strong vibration which Schumacher experiences. The causes could be many. Perhaps the grease used to make the tire fit properly on the rim, maybe the Perhaps the haste with which these wheels were mounted. Another cause could also involve the new electronics. The enormous traction experienced by the rear wheels is kept under control electronically, but it may be that the tires paid the price for it by sliding on the rim.
his is a new problem that the Maranello technicians and mechanics will need to resolve. At the end, the causes for Barrichello’s retirement need to be discovered. The suspension did not broke. A spring that holds the suspension failed which then lowered the rear axle and raised the front one, which caused to car to lose any sense of control. Issues on which Ferrari need to focus on in the last couple of weeks, in order to be ready at Austria, at the Zeltweg circuit, sixth round of the 2001 world championship, without worrying too much about reliability. The championship leadership, which is consolidated, is not at all secured. David Coulthard is only 8 points behind Schumacher.
Davide Scotto di Vetta