In Monte Carlo, in 1996 he took pole and triggered some controversy because he had inadvertently slowed down Gerhard Berger who was still in the middle of his fast lap. The next day on a wet track, he started badly and in the heat of keeping close to his rival Hill. He crashed and was forced to retire.
A year later, with two second places to his credit and the role of anti-Villeneuve, Schumacher only needed his first seasonal success to throw himself headlong into the search for the lost title for Maranello. If the previous season brings back bad memories, for Schumacher the Monegasque track also holds good moments, such as the successes obtained at the wheel of the Benetton in 1994 and 1995, the years of his two world titles.
"It's a track that, with all its inherent faults, I like. Driving counts a lot, more than usual. And it should adapt well to the characteristics of the car, although everything still has to be confirmed. It will be a good battle, starting from qualifying, because everyone knows that starting up front means having at least a good placing within reach. I am optimistic because we have made progress even without having used the planned changes to the car yet. We can compete on equal terms with Williams, but they are still the favourites".
But, before the next Monaco Grand Prix, Schumacher and Ferrari returned to Maranello to work on the development of the F310B. On April 28th, 1997, the Fiorano track is wet but Ferrari is already at work. During the seventy-eight laps Schumacher stops the clock at 59''545, setting the track record. The activity starts already in the morning, with a German television interviewing Schumacher, while the day proceeds on various fronts, including the meeting with the president Montezemolo, who congratulates the team:
"Finally we are a team but you have to be aware that we are still behind Williams. We need patience, the road is still long but we will reap the benefits of our work. On Sunday I hoped for the victory, maybe between stops and lapping we could have done something more".
Another meeting takes place in the workshop to prepare the twenty-day programme that begins on April 29th in the nearby wind tunnel.
"The minimum objective is to win at least four races, but I am also waiting to see the first of these victories. Now we have no more excuses to lose. Maybe we expected more from this car, but we are doing well. We are the only ones keeping up with the Williams".
Says Jean Todt, who then goes on to talk about the F310B's problems and development programmes:
"Aerodynamic efficiency, which we have worked on and continue to work on, is the biggest problem. The most delicate part is the front of the car, but these three weeks of work in the wind tunnel will help us to improve. Compared to the first race in Australia we've already made progress and you can see it in the performance. Now we need to take that extra step to get ahead of the Williams. I'm not saying we need to redo the nose of the car again, that would be impossible. It all starts at the front and that's where we need to work. Wings, ailerons, deflectors, you have to make the whole car work well and in all the conditions you encounter in the championship. It sounds simple but it's not. That's why we lock ourselves in the tunnel. It's now that Ferrari is all working in Maranello. It's now that the team is completed in all the boxes. It's now that we start. Do you remember how long ago I said that everything had to be done here? A year ago that black series of failures started and then a lot of things happened. But we've already recovered, otherwise we wouldn't be doing so well behind Williams. We still have to recover. With aerodynamics but also with better mechanical efficiency. These are all things that happen slowly, they have already happened in recent months. The engine, I mean version one, is doing very well and is very reliable. But there are other things. In the next few days we will try the active differential again. We already have it and it works well, but before we use it in the championship we want to be sure all the way through. There isn't a single component that can gain half a second or a second. You have to improve in many things and then when you add it all up, the advantage comes out. We'll see a Ferrari to win at the end of June, in other words for the French Grand Prix, where we'll have all the innovations ready and usable. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Ferrari will be a winner from that day on".
In the meantime, on May 6th, 1997, John Barnard's engagement was made official and he officially became the new technical director of Arrows starting from Montecarlo, replacing Frankie Dernie, the man who had led the design of the car driven by Damon Hill and Pedro Diniz, and that hadn't been very successful up to now, being still stopped in the classification with zero points.
At Williams, Frentzen's first victory in his career at the same time as Villeneuve's retirement did not seem to help the morale of the whole team. First of all the Canadian, undisputed number one in the team's hierarchy, but who sees his certainties crumbling after the victory of the ex-Sauber and the declarations of the team's top management, which clarify their intention not to create favouritism in the internal struggle between drivers.
With the success at Imola, Frentzen was no longer a factor to be ignored by Villeneuve, who, following his second retirement of the season, evidently annoyed also deserted a press conference organised by a Williams sponsor, which he did not appreciate. Besides having to reckon with a potential new rival, Jacques had also to solve his thorny contractual question: the agreement that bound him to Williams was expiring, even if there was an option for the 1998 season; Villeneuve, however, asked for a substantial increase of his salary, and in the background there was the strong courting by Alain Prost, who wanted to bring the champion of Formula Indy to his side. When asked who he thinks are the favourites for the Monaco Grand Prix, Villeneuve replied:
"It won't just be him - Schumacher - on the track. Last year Panis won, also watch out for both Jordans. And then there is us, who have a great car".
Then he jokes about the difference that everyone says Schumacher can make despite not having the best performing car:
"I would like to see him in a Lola".
Talking instead about the street circuit, Jacques speaks of its charm, confessing to the press:
"Some corners are blind, beautiful, you have to trust the marshals because if you think there might be an obstacle, that's the end".
Starting from this edition, the Piscine curve has been changed. Until the year before the drivers had difficulty seeing the trajectory, and threw themselves almost blindly hoping to come out without damaging the car. Jacques, not exactly happy with this choice, exclaimed ironically:
"Too bad, now the visibility is full".
Ferrari may not yet be the fastest car on the circuits, but it is certainly the most organised since in Monaco the team presents itself with four motorhomes, four trucks, old and new engines, four racing cars, a helicopter and even rubber dinghies to get from the hotel to the pits across the harbour.
"We have everything to win".
Says Jean Todt on the eve of the Grand Prix.
"Schumacher is very motivated this year and the car is going well".
Then, talking about the engines, of which step 2 has not yet been deliberated for use in the race, Todt admonishes the press by stating:
"On this circuit the engine is not important, the whole thing counts and now we have a team where everyone is rowing together".
On Thursday the first free practice sessions are held and Villeneuve has to temporarily update his prediction of potential competitors to the victory. In first place now there is Johnny Herbert, in great shape on board of his Ferrari-powered Sauber. Ferrari, the one in the whole and not only in the engine, is immediately behind with Schumacher, who shows himself doubtful, however, because of some problems in the set-up of a car that tends to slide too much. The lap times suggest a very tight qualifying, as there are twelve drivers within just eight tenths of a second of each other.
Everyone in the paddock can't explain how the Ferrari-engined Sauber with Osamu Goto, sent to Switzerland, could have set a better time than the Maranello team. But Schumacher glosses over it, saying:
"I've always told you that engines are not a problem for us. The problem is finding the balance of the car. We haven't managed that yet, but Saturday will be something else. After all, even last year we did badly on Thursday and then on Saturday I took pole position. And Sunday? Well, let's forget about it. The first victory could also come here. The conditions were there last year and they're there now and it shouldn't be too difficult for me to do better than a year ago, what do you think? I knew that at Ferrari it would take time to be a winner, maybe I'm a bit late with the schedule, but now the season feels ripe. I don't feel frustrated at all. Maybe if I'd won a world championship and found myself like Hill, I might feel frustrated. I don't mean to offend, but it's certainly not a happy situation. For me it's different, I feel that the fruit is ripening".
In Monte Carlo there is also the Lawyer Agnelli who, as well as attending the most fashionable event of the season, has also come to meet Ferrari's new technical director, Ross Brawn. And as usual, Schumacher, Irvine, Todt and the new technical director Ross Brawn is picked up by a motor launch sent into the harbour, just below the pits, and then taken aboard the lawyer's yacht.
After this visit, Jean Todt, once analysed the general picture, decides for a sudden change of programme: the new Step 2 engines, initially left aside for this weekend, are mounted on the two cars of Schumacher and Irvine, who in the meantime, on the day off on Friday is sent by helicopter to Fiorano just to test a fourth car, chassis n. 174, which is then sent to Monte Carlo, where it will serve as a reserve car. The Northern Irishman runs just seven laps for a total of twenty-one kilometres to make sure everything is working.
"In qualifying we will use the Step 2 engine, then we will see. What the riders are asking for Sunday's race is more driveability. They don't need more horsepower. The Step 2 engine, on the other hand, offers something that can be very useful in practice, which will be intense and very hard. As we saw on Thursday in the free practice session, albeit in different conditions that can't be reproduced on Saturday, there are a lot of cars with very close times and so you have to use everything you can and hope to find a free lap, a good lap".
Drawn-out free practice sessions or not, considering the four poles out of four obtained so far, the undisputed favourite on Saturday is logically Villeneuve, with Schumacher considered as the only serious antagonist. Schumacher actually managed to keep the lead for almost the whole duration of the qualifying, but then, like a lightning bolt, Heinz-Harald Frentzen showed all his love for city tracks, recording a great lap, in 1'18"216, just nineteen thousandths faster than the one recorded by Schumacher.
The Ferrari driver could not retort, but the mistake made by the world leader Villeneuve, who crashed while he was setting record times and potentially a pole position, allowed him at least to hold on to the first row, which for the first time in the history of Formula One was composed entirely by two Germans.
"I lost a little bit at Casino and Mirabeau corners, I didn't have good grip on the tyres anymore".
Declares Schumacher, who then adds:
"Frentzen was very good, and I'm fine with that. Now I just have to think about finishing the race because if I do I'm sure I'll get on the podium and score some useful points. I knew it would end like this. I knew because I know that Frentzen is good and as soon as they told me he was going to switch to Williams, I immediately thought that I was going to end up with two tough guys. Traditionally, Williams drivers always need some time to get used to the car, but now that time has passed and Frentzen is there too. Of course, it's one thing to take on one opponent at a time and another thing to take on both at the same time".
And when asked which engine would be used for the race, Schumacher concluded by saying:
"We decide tonight which engine to use".
But in reality Ferrari had already decided at the end of qualifying. They will race with the step 1 engine because the step 2 has problems with the exhaust manifolds, which on more than one occasion have been found with small cracks or fissures. After his first career victory at Imola, Frentzen maintained the same trend as the weekend in San Marino and also celebrated his first career pole. His box mate, despite a mistake on his good lap, is third.
Giancarlo Fisichella also continued to impress, overshadowing the other young up-and-comer of the season in his car, Ralf Schumacher; the Roman was fourth and is dreaming of his first podium on the streets of the Principality, after having just missed it at Imola:
"It's already exceptional to be together with the best, getting on the podium would be a further satisfaction. It is not impossible, of course I will have to fight with all my strengths, try to maintain concentration and not let myself be tempted by the desire to overdo".
McLaren also appeared in the top positions in the qualifying session, with great difficulty in finding a lap time on Saturday in the last races; Coulthard was fifth, Hakkinen eighth. Better to draw a veil over Eddie Irvine's performance, even fifteenth, who had one of those days when he doesn't know where to put his head:
"I had too much understeer and the car was unrideable. I hope I can climb back up and score some points for the team".
Montezemolo, asked to give his impression of his second driver's day, was laconic:
"I was hoping to see him further up the field".
Afterwards, some comments on Fisichella and the competitiveness of the F310B:
"[Giancarlo] is a very serious and fast guy. If he continues like this, he will be among the best drivers in Formula 1. I am very happy to have seen Ferrari in the lead for the first time in practice from the very first day, and in pole position until two minutes from the end: only a year ago it would have been impossible to think that. I wasn't surprised that Frentzen snatched pole position from Schumacher, because the Williams cars have been the ones to beat so far, and even Villeneuve, without the mistake at the end, would have set a great time".
In any case, for Eddie, there is a very interesting precedent that can hearten and motivate him ahead of the race. A precedent that dates back to the previous season, when Olivier Panis started from fourteenth position and went on to win sensationally a race that saw only three drivers make it to the finish line. Between the two races there is a significant factor that unites them, namely the strong risk of rain, which in '96 fell on Monaco a few minutes before the start of hostilities.
In this case, on Sunday May 11, 1997, the warm-up took place in dry conditions and was monopolised by the two Williams, but about thirty minutes before the lights went out the rain began to fall with insistence on the track, unleashing an inevitable chaos in the pits, on the grid and in the minds of strategists, engineers, drivers and meteorologists. One wrong decision can lead to the total jeopardy of one's race, a risky but right choice could lead to the exact opposite. The key choices are set-up and tyre choices. Interviewed on the grid, Damon Hill represents all the indecision of the moment:
"The track is slippery for now, but not enough to mount full-wet tyres. We'll see".
In the meantime, under the watchful eye of Schumacher, the Ferrari is completely stripped bare with the mechanics working frantically to make certain changes, hoping that in the heat nothing is left to chance. Five minutes before the start, the German driver is already inside the car, ready for the start, but he gets up and runs to another Ferrari parked nearby. He consults Todt and then gets behind the wheel of the reserve car. It will be the winning choice.
At the moment of taking off the tyre covers, the choices of the various teams are revealed: almost all of them go on intermediate or extreme wet tyres, except for three drivers, who attempt a gamble that would normally have been more appropriate for low-ranking teams attempting the coup de grâce of the day. Villeneuve, Frentzen and Hakkinen mounted slick tyres, hoping that the rain would stop and the track would dry out. Already from the reconnaissance lap, however, the choice of the latter seems a real madness, since starting from the Casino the track is completely wet.
At the start, of course, the three drivers who had chosen dry tyres were struggling to keep their cars on track, with the guardrails looking closer than they already were. As a result, Frentzen and Villeneuve were easily overtaken by Schumacher and Fisichella, who took first and second place. Frentzen tried in some way to defend himself from the attacks of those who were following him from behind, but the few overtaking points helped him only up to a certain point.
Barrichello's Stewart, who started tenth and was already fifth at the end of the first lap, was able to exploit the chaos caused by the drivers with dry tyres and Bridgestone tyres, which worked better than Goodyear in wet conditions. The most striking thing, however, is the gap between Schumacher and Fisichella after just one lap on a track that, just for the record, is little more than three kilometres long. The Jordan was 6.6 seconds faster than the Schumacher and Fisichella, eleven seconds faster on the second lap and sixteen seconds faster on the third lap. While the others skidded all over the place and avoided the barriers by a few centimetres, Schumacher drove as if he were on dry ground, exploiting the intermediate tyres on his Ferrari in a masterly way, with a set-up adapted to the wet track, but above all, his sensitivity to driving on such an insidious track. This is the team radio between Schumacher and Todt:
Schumacher: "How are they doing at the back?"
Todt: "You're doing well, Michael, you're doing well, but now you manage".
Schumacher: "I don't understand if the car is going well or not. At the station turn I was almost stopped... and also before the tunnel".
Todt: "Michael... the last lap you were six seconds faster than the one behind you. Manage, don't push. At this rate, we'll lap them in ten laps".
Schumacher: "If I don't push, I don't concentrate. And if I don't concentrate, I risk making a mistake".
Just three laps in and the German has already given everyone a driving lesson; a lesson that will continue for all the remaining laps. In the meantime, the Williams were gradually being pulled out of the group, so it was the other Jordan driven by Ralf Schumacher to take the provisional third place, ahead of Barrichello, Herbert and Panis.
During the first lap, at the Nouvelle Chicane coming out of the tunnel, the disaster for McLaren took place: Coulthard spun on entering the bend, the others slowed down to carefully avoid the Scotsman's McLaren, but Hakkinen, who with slick tyres had less grip, couldn't brake his race enough and hit Alesi's Benetton, destroying the nose and the front right suspension of his car. With even Coulthard unable to restart, in a matter of seconds the McLaren takes note of having to already dismantle the pit equipment to return home. Coming out of the Nouvelle Chicane, at the same time, Hill hit the rear of Irvine's Ferrari and he too damaged the right suspension irreparably; for the Briton there were five retirements in five races.
After three laps of agony, Williams calls Villeneuve back to the pits to mount intermediate tyres, and immediately afterwards it is Frentzen's turn. The Canadian found himself seventeenth, he recorded an illusory fast lap beaten on the following passage by Schumacher, but in any case his race could be considered compromised.
Barrichello continued to climb in the classification, skilful in taking advantage of Ralf Schumacher's slight spin without consequences at Loews to take the third position, then he successfully attacked Fisichella. The Roman driver didn't seem very at ease in the wet, as his teammate Ralf also overtook him with a great manoeuvre at Louis Chiron. After seven laps, the Brazilian's Stewart pays twenty-seven seconds from the undisputed outrider.
Making mistakes in the rain is already quite common, but if you drive in Monte Carlo the chances of making a mistake are doubled. Jarno Trulli knew something about it, who crashed at Mirabeau, Herbert, who did the same at Sainte Dévote, Ralf Schumacher, who had to leave his Jordan unattended in the escape way at Piscine, and Gerhard Berger, who escaped retirement but lost his front wing and had to go back to pits to mount another one.
Same thing for the favourite to win the title, Jacques Villeneuve: dispersed in the back rows and without feeling with a car set for a dry track, after twelve rounds he found Schumacher behind him, ready to double him. Slower by three to four seconds per lap than the German, the Williams driver hesitated to step aside, forced an attentive Schumacher to spend two laps behind him, and at the end he decided to lift his foot at Massenet, a not exactly ideal point considering the conditions, but in any case it didn't help to upset the Ferrari driver.
A few laps passed and the race also came to a premature end for him, following a collision with the barriers that proved fatal. Five races run, two successes, but already three retirements; for Villeneuve a weekend that had to be of redemption turns into another nightmare. All this while he has to observe from the pits the rival that sacrifices himself towards success, and that will take away the first place in the ranking.
After 25 laps of the 78 foreseen laps (that will be impossible to complete all of them because with a wet track they will inevitably exceed the limit of two hours) the situation is the following: Schumacher leader undisturbed in total solitude, as well as Barrichello, who runs without anybody near him but always on the alert, praying that his Stewart doesn't break this time too; then Fisichella, Panis, Irvine and Mika Salo with Tyrrell to close the points zone. Among the many mistakes and retirements (only thirteen drivers remained in the race up to this point), the historic English team, far from being one of the '70s, dreamed of a feat, just like the newborn Stewart of Barrichello.
On lap 32, Schumacher goes to the pits for his only pit stop, where he is fitted with extreme wet tyres instead of the intermediate ones used up to that moment, a sign that the rain is not stopping, on the contrary, it is intensifying. Meantime Olivier Panis showed off all his skills and his love for rain, he reached Fisichella and after a few laps of study he broke his hesitations and just after the Piscine he made a great overtaking on the Roman driver, who was in clear crisis with his tyres, given that not even one lap later Irvine passed him coming out of the tunnel. The stop for him was obligatory, but at the pits they made a mistake and put back on intermediate tyres instead of the more appropriate full-wets considering the amount of water on the track.
Frentzen, Saturday's pole man, also drowns in the rain, like Villeneuve, first lapped and then hit the wall at the Nouvelle Chicane, after jumping on the kerb and breaking his suspension. Needless to say, the Moenchengladbach native had imagined this day quite differently. While Schumacher continued to lap two seconds faster than everyone else, Irvine delayed his stop behind to try and snatch third place from Panis. The aggressive strategy succeeded and at the exit of the pitlane Eddie could manage a considerable advantage of ten seconds over the Frenchman of Prost.
The rest of the race went on waiting for the two hours to elapse and with all the drivers scattered among them, careful not to fall into fatal mistakes; the only emotions were offered by Schumacher, who frightened all the Ferrari drivers by going down at the first bend but coming back to the track without any damage:
"I had a lot of problems, every time I braked it was difficult to hold the car. When, towards the end, I was coming into Sainte Devote, I felt the skid and tried to limit the damage".
The German driver said at the end of the race. Mika Salo arrived at the chequered flag without a pit stop and with a slightly damaged wing, finishing fifth ahead of Fisichella. In the final corners Schumacher, from his huge lead, almost stopped to allow the few seconds needed to reach the two-hour mark and avoid another tricky lap.
Michael arrived under the chequered flag, which sanctioned his triumph under the deluge of Montecarlo and he could finally celebrate his first seasonal success, also breaking what had become a real taboo for Ferrari. The Red car hadn't won on the Monegasque roads since 1981 with Gilles Villeneuve at the wheel of the 126 CK, without forgetting that the last success in order of time was eight months earlier at the Italian Grand Prix, again with Schumacher.
Almost a minute later Rubens Barrichello arrived on the finishing line, who at the first race completed for the young Stewart could even afford to celebrate an unhoped-for podium, together with the two Ferrari drivers, as Irvine kept the third step of the podium ahead of Panis. Immediately after the end of the race, journalist James Allen approached the Stewart pit wall to get a few words out of Sir. Jackie, who although trying, bursts into tears of joy and walks away. Only a few minutes later he pulls himself together and declares:
"I have never been happier in my life, neither with my victories nor with my World Cups. I'm happy for everyone, everyone who contributed to the car, the mechanics, Ford, Bridgestone, and everyone who supported us. It should have taken years to get results like this, but after the fifth race, we are second. I, in my whole career, have never been second in Monaco! Rubens did an extraordinary job, he drove like a god".
That's actually true, Sir. Jackie has never been second in Monaco, but in the euphoria of the moment he must have forgotten that in his exceptional career as a driver he has been on the podium three times as a winner. Rubens Barrichello couldn't contain his excitement either:
"It's fantastic, I'm proud of myself and the team. I am happy to be part of this family. It wasn't so long ago that I turned on the television and watched Ayrton win here, to be able to ride it myself is worth a lot to me. It's like a victory".
In the parc fermé, Jean Todt rushed to embrace both his drivers, authors in their own way of two performances to remember.
"It's a dream that we will live for at least twenty-four hours before diving back into solving the problems for the next race".
The Ferrari team manager recounts:
"A first and a third place we had never done and I'm happy because in Monte Carlo we didn't repeat the experience of other times, when we went well until Friday and less well when we had to get serious. Here we have always been protagonists. Four years ago Ferrari's road was uphill: from the zero of those days we have passed to the reality of today. But we mustn't get carried away by euphoria: the car is competitive and it will only remain so if we continue to improve it".
Then, talking about the choice of tyres and the set-up of the car that made the victory in Monte Carlo possible, Jean Todt admits that:
"Schumacher decided both the set-up and the tyres. And he did the same for Irvine, whose comeback from fifteenth place was exciting: well done to them both. Our goal? When I presented the season at Maranello I said that we were aiming to win four Grands Prix, one more than last year, while success in the World Championship was planned for the following year. I haven't changed my mind".
In turn, Schumacher and Irvine celebrated the French manager by lifting him and blowing him up.
"It's one of the most beautiful victories of my career".
Michael declares during the interview round.
"It was wonderful and also fun for us. We had prepared two solutions, but when choosing we didn't know if our intuition would be right. It was decided at the last moment and it worked out very well for us. At the first corner there were a lot of fans with Ferrari flags, so I thought I should do something for them. The only worry could have been the lapping in the water with very little visibility".
On the small mistake he made in the closing stages, he jokes:
"I was afraid the engine would die because there was no other risk as the advantage over Barrichello was pretty big. I kept the revs up, the car moved, I turned it around and drove away. I wasn't tired. This is a track that engages your concentration but doesn't fatigue you if you get ahead. Excluding the mistake at Sainte Dévote I had everything under control at all times. Without the rain, I think I would have had a good battle with Frentzen. In '96 I had the disadvantage of starting from the wettest part of the track, but in this case I was on the dry side. I had intermediate rain tyres, which are softer, and little fuel in the tank, everything was perfect. On the last lap I looked at the stopwatch so that I would cross the line after the two hours needed to finish the race. I had no desire to take another walk around the circuit. I am proud to have brought Ferrari back to victory at Monte Carlo after so many years. I dedicate this success to the fiftieth anniversary of the team. So far a lot of things have turned out well and we have also been lucky because Williams has had a lot of problems: today, for example, he got the tyres wrong, I was told, and I don't know why that happened. But the race for the title is still long and there will be more ungrateful circuits than this one: in Barcelona I don't think the Ferraris will be able to do well because the characteristics are not what suits our car. And Canada doesn't favour us either. We'll have to work hard to be competitive at the end of June, after the Montreal race".
The great joy for the victory obtained does not make Luca di Montezemolo lose lucidity, who remains firmly with his feet on the ground:
"We have to be very satisfied with the beautiful result, but let's be clear, we only did our duty. We have to keep our feet on the ground, but I am well aware that all the sporting management staff are the first to be aware that there is still a lot of work to be done. Ferrari is a team that can still make mistakes, but today it is the best organisation on and off the track. I am very confident, but I don't forget a lot of work and I thank all those who have waited for us, our shareholders and above all our fans. On Saturday I left the circuit confident because, finally, we could say: this time we are going to win. The team did not make any mistakes, making and getting right all the difficult choices with incredible calm".
Irvine also celebrated his unexpected third place despite starting fifteenth, and during the race his car had suffered quite a few bumps:
"I'm going to do everything I can to stay on top and show that I don't deserve such criticism. I am very happy. After Saturday's fifteenth place I didn't get demoralised, but it seemed difficult to make up so many positions on a track like this: I did it. My car was set up for the dry but on the starting grid I increased the aerodynamic load and it became drivable even in the rain. I got a good start, but the first six laps were unbelievable: I was sandwiched between all those cars, touching each other from all sides. My Ferrari proved to be strong and effective enough to withstand that. Now, with these results, I'm starting to feel like a different person, so let's hope it continues like this".
The mood is logically the opposite at Williams, who have been aware since the start of the season that they have the strongest car, but have so far been unable to exploit it properly; a total of seven retirements in five races is a figure that must sound the alarm for Frank Williams and his team. The scapegoat of the day is the weatherman: the British team has relied on a private English weather service that, minute by minute, broadcasts the forecast.
"The data in our possession told us that it should not have rained for half an hour - said a disappointed Villeneuve - so we opted for dry tyres and set-up. At that point, even with intermediates, the car was unrideable".
The English team manager made the same point:
"The weather information announced a clearing just after the start and the team decided to fit dry tyres to take advantage of it. It did clear up, but it was around seven o'clock in the evening when the grandstands were already being cleared. My drivers are not to blame and cannot be criticised for the result".
Rubens Barrichello is beaming, who with his second place brings Stewart GP on the podium for the first time:
"It seems like yesterday that I was watching Senna on TV winning in Monte Carlo. For me being on the podium is like a victory. It was a very hard battle, but also a beautiful one, the best result of my career. And also the first great result for Stewart, who was born from five races".
Giancarlo Fisichella, on the other hand, was pleased with the point gained but sorry for a podium finish that was within reach and lost through no fault of his own. It was the tyres that betrayed him, at least partially. The Italian driver had started with a wet compound, but an intermediate type, too little grip. So the Jordan driver asked loudly, via radio to his pits, to prepare him a set of real rain tyres. But when he returned to the track after the pit stop he found that they had fitted him with the same tyres:
"It was a very tough race. In the beginning, I thought that it would not rain much and that the asphalt would dry out. But no, the water came down harder and harder. The car was difficult to drive and I could never push on the accelerator. I had to use a third of the engine power to avoid going straight ahead everywhere. It was a miracle that I finished the race. I will make up for it soon, I promise".
With the ten points Schumacher gained, he now has 24, which also means he is leading the drivers' championship, a pleasant feeling that Ferrari has not had since 1990 when Alain Prost overtook Senna after the British Grand Prix. There were also smiles in the constructors' standings, where the Red car, thanks also to Eddie Irvine's excellent results, took the lead with 38 points, with Williams at 30 points.
After such a high-level performance, the top of the classifications conquered, and a stunned opponent, the fundamental question for the continuation of the season is one: will Ferrari be able to remain constant in the results and in the level of competitiveness in the two-way battle with Williams?
Davide Scotto di Vetta