After the winter break, on December 23rd, 1997, the new Ferrari F300 is seen on the Fiorano track, making its debut with Michael Schumacher: the German driver runs two laps before returning to the pits. Next, it's Nicola Larini who works with the car without the classic red paint. The Italian driver covered about 200 km in Modena, but he ran on smooth tyres, and not on the grooved ones planned for the new season. This test was the prelude to the official presentation, which took place on January 7th, 1998 in Maranello.
In a setting worthy of a film, amidst bombastic music and psychedelic lights, the mega-tent set up for the new Ferrari suddenly opens, while Schumacher and Irvine raise the yellow tarpaulin that wraps the long-awaited car, and in the open background, the silhouette of the new futuristic wind tunnel designed by Renzo Piano appears. 1998 was a year characterised by important changes to the technical regulations, but this did not prevent the men from Maranello from being the first team to remove the veil from the new single-seater.
The intense work for the men directed by Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Paolo Martinelli, produced a car that was narrower at the rear with a lowered centre of gravity, with reduced radiating masses, and consequently also the sides were lower than the F310B, and a rear wing anchoring system with lower profiles fixed to the deformable structure behind the gearbox. These are the many new features, designed above all to improve top speeds without damaging cornering grip, as technical director Ross Brawn points out:
"In testing, the F300 will be tailor-made for Schumacher: between now and the Australian Grand Prix, many things will change on this car, depending on the tests we go through. Schumacher, as usual, will be of help to us, because we want the car to satisfy his every wish. We still have to discover the grooved tyres, see what the limits of the F300 are, its weaknesses and strengths. I hope the reliability is the same as last year. We've never had any doubts about the tyres: it's right to continue with Goodyear, because I believe in them a lot, and I wouldn't have liked a change".
Jean Todt, leaving behind the tears shed at Jerez at the end of the '97 season, reiterates the season's objectives:
"We aim to do better than '97, to win. We've brought everything back here to Maranello and now we can't hide anymore. We have the best driver, Schumacher, an Irvine from whom we expect to do even better than last year, sponsors who allow us to have excellent budgets. The car was created following the FIA regulations, which we fully approve of, as they go in the direction of safety. A theme that has always seen us in the front line".
As in the previous year, Ferrari fans are following the presentation via the internet: in fact, two million contacts are counted to follow the historic event.
In front of the press, the Ferrari President, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, defends Michael Schumacher, brutally accused by the media in the weeks following the last Grand Prix of the 1997 season, and sketches out his idea of the championship that is about to begin:
"And while we are waiting for this great victory, let everyone be serene, even those who on the microphone or in the press have posed as moralists. I shun moralism and demagogy. Be calm. It will be a tough championship because the regulations have changed, there will be surprises in the interpretation of these regulations, there is the unknown of the tyres, it will no longer be just a Ferrari-Williams clash as other teams are knocking at the door. It's going to be tough, but we're going to win because we have to win".
In his first interview of the season, Michael Schumacher talked about how he spent his holidays, strictly with his family:
"Never had such long holidays, I had the opportunity to finally be together with my wife and daughter. I spent my time playing with Gina Maria, who has learned to walk. It's nice to see her grow up. I really felt the need for a period of relaxation. It will help me a lot in the new season".
He then talks about the new season:
"We have everything we need to win. The team has been rebuilt step by step. The car was conceived and built all here, in Italy, and the team is now working in the same direction. What I can assure you is that the objective is clear in front of us and I believe we can achieve it".
An additional motivation, as the journalists reminded the German, is that this year marks the centenary of Enzo Ferrari's birth:
"You Italians are good at always finding an anniversary. Last year it was the 50th anniversary of the factory, this year it's the 100th anniversary of its founder. But winning the world championship on such an occasion would indeed make it even more special. This year there will be a lot of new things that worry me. In all probability, we will have problems to solve in the first tests. But there are almost three months to go, I think we will be able to do it. In '97 we won five races and we were close to the world championship. I don't see why we shouldn't do better in the next championship".
On January 9th, 1998, two days after the presentation, Schumacher runs thirty-two laps at the Fiorano circuit:
"After thirty-two laps I can give a more reliable judgement. The car has a good insertion, an excellent grip, it passes well on the kerbs, there is already a good feeling. The new F300 is very underweight. It's important this year to be able to change the weight distribution if necessary. We will have to work closely with Goodyear and during the season we may have to change the weight distribution; being underweight is therefore a more important requirement than in the past".
The car is going well, but Schumacher is foregoing the Spanish Jerez test scheduled for the following week, so he will stay to work on the Fiorano track.
"The car is new, and we can't risk breakages so far from home. We have to check everything, because we know nothing about the reliability of this car".
Admits Jean Todt. At Jerez, however, Eddie Irvine will go with the F310B fitted with the new treaded tyres.
However, on January 12th, 1998, at the Fiorano circuit, Schumacher only runs twenty-one laps due to the high humidity, conditions that will also slow him down for the second consecutive day of testing. The German manages to complete one lap at midday and another twelve in the afternoon, before leaving the car to the mechanics to carry out checks, especially around the longitudinal gearbox. Rain and cold didn't stop Ferrari and Schumacher the next day: Michael ran on rain tyres for three hours, while in Jerez Irvine tested the tyres on the F310B, completing seventy-five laps.
"After all, the car isn't going badly: on its first lap on the track it came close to the Fiorano record, so it means it has great potential".
Says Jean Todt, who instead expresses his concern about Benetton's choice, presented on 15th January 1998 in London, to use Bridgestone tyres:
"First they tried the new Goodyear tyres, and then they pass to the competition with all the information: it's something I don't like at all".
A few days later, on January 19th, 1998, in London, in front of the famous Canadian acrobatic company Cirque du Soleil, the new Jordan 198 is presented, to be driven by the 1996 World Champion Damon Hill and the young Ralf Schumacher. Ralf declares bluntly.
"My goal? The same as my brother's".
The next day, Prost-Peugeot presented the AP01 in Barcelona. The French car is put at the disposal of French driver Olivier Panis and Italian Jarno Trulli.
On January 22nd, 1998, at Jerez, on its first day of testing on the Spanish circuit, the new Ferrari F300 completes just eight laps before stopping due to an oil leak. Michael Schumacher starts the morning session with short outings of one or two laps, before returning to the pits to carry out the necessary checks. In the afternoon, however, the car stops due to a hydraulic gearbox failure.
In the meantime, with the old F310B, Eddie Irvine continued to carry out an intense programme of work with grooved tyres, and also the new World Champion Jacques Villeneuve ran with the 1997 Williams adapted to the new regulations, with shortened suspensions and a car narrower by twenty centimetres; suspensions that, together with the new transversal gearbox, were mounted on the new single-seater.
The Williams test session was characterised by an off-track, caused by the fact that the wheels closest to the car touched a part of the bodywork, causing a puncture of the left rear tyre. Ferrari's tests with the F300 continued over the next few days, but the team was forced to stop again due to excess heat developing in the rear suspension area. The anomaly is due to the new regulations, which impose exhausts that cannot protrude from the rear profile of the car. During testing, a mechanic put his hand on the rear suspension and almost got burnt: when he checked, it turned out that the whole rear end was hot.
"We took everything apart and found that there were no cracks, but the concern remained: why is it so hot? To find out where the heat was coming from, we started covering some parts with heat-sensitive paint: a green piece, an orange piece, a red piece. Each colour had a certain temperature resistance. When the red also changed colour, we realised that the temperatures were over 400 degrees at that point. It was only after several attempts that we discovered where all the heat was coming from: from the exhaust pipe, which was sending a very hot jet over the horizontal bar of the rear suspension. That was only the cause and not the effect, because the exhaust pipe coming from the engine is made of inconel, a half-millimetre alloy of steel and nickel, but the last part, the end part where the gas comes out, is made of Kevlar. So we coated it with insulation and then covered it with an inconel sheet, but the result wasn't much different. Now we have to redo those pipes, point them in another direction and make sure that the hot jet doesn't damage vital parts of the engine and the car. To do that you also have to change the rear chutes of the chassis, which is why we preferred to return to Maranello".
In the meantime, from Germany, the news tell about new remarks by Jacques Villeneuve, concerning his rival Schumacher:
"In moments of stress, Schumacher stops thinking and can only react. In this way he shows his true personality".
Villeneuve told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
"I'm not interested in getting to know Schumacher better: he lives his life, and I'm not interested in what he does".
Finally, the Canadian points out that after the Jerez accident his German opponent's popularity among Formula 1 drivers has declined sharply. A few days later, on 28 January 1998, Williams presented its new car at Silverstone. What surprises the press and the fans, more than the car itself, is the new colouring, now red and white and no longer blue and white, due to sponsor issues. A choice that creates some problems for Sir. Frank, since the Australian Anti-Tobacco League asks the government to exclude Williams from the first Grand Prix of the new season to be held in Melbourne, because of the new livery that features a kangaroo next to the Winfield brand, thus promoting a smoke brand with Australian images
On January 30th, 1998, the Ferrari team moved to Madonna di Campiglio for the usual winter holidays, and from here Michael Schumacher spoke about the start of the season:
"I'm experiencing a frustrating wait because, at the end of the day, I've done very few kilometres with the new Ferrari so far. Of course, we had completed this car quite early, so I was expecting some difficulties, but not everything is predictable".
The German driver sits in the Campiglio sunshine, goes skiing on Monte Spinale, and enjoys the snow in a sunny landscape. But he's nervous, itching to know more about the F300 and, above all, to drive it more, given that the Williams has already done 15,000 kilometres:
"I know, and I've done a lot less than that. But that's of relative importance. What counts is knowing how you work and who you work with. With a new car and engine, it was logical to expect some difficulties. For example, the gearbox. There is a problem with the electronic software that controls it, but we are solving it. These things don't worry me, but the tyres are an unknown factor. Of course, experience is always useful, the more kilometres you do, the better. But the problem here is not so much knowing how the new grooved tyres behave now, the problem is knowing how they will work in the Grand Prix. The new tyres and narrower tracks were supposed to slow the cars down for safety reasons, but from what I've seen I can say that on the straights we go as fast as before, but less so in the corners. Overall, I don't think we'll be much slower, maybe at the start of the season, but not afterwards. But there's another problem: you have to brake earlier to get into the corners, five or ten metres earlier than last year. For the start of the championship it will be worse because the compounds will still change depending on the circuits, the asphalt, the temperatures, and for several Grands Prix it will be a big unknown. I hope that our supplier will do his best to improve the product because the competition is strong and fearsome. With two tyre manufacturers we will have to see who is ahead. Until last year the tyres were always the same, they changed little. Now we no longer have any points of reference and I fear the competition. Williams will always be a competitive car, but it's not scary. I fear McLaren. It has a great engine and a great designer, the one who made Williams great. It has different tyres and two motivated drivers".
Finally, there is still talk of Schumacher being ready to move to Mercedes, but the German champion denies these claims, stating:
"It's been seven years since I started talking about it. The newspapers have their interest in writing these things. I can say that I have a contract with Ferrari and I want to respect it. I feel at ease with Ferrari, with the people at Ferrari, and I would never change because I know that this is not the case elsewhere. But a driver must also look at performance and if one day I am not able to win I could look elsewhere. It's natural, it's not a betrayal. The media are always interested in blowing things up and causing controversy. I'm just stating the facts: if last year we lost the title by a hair's breadth, this year we have to do better. Then the newspapers can say what they want, I hardly read them anymore".
Even Jean Todt, who arrived by helicopter at Madonna di Campiglio, admits that things are not going as hoped with the new F300:
"We have to try to win, for the simple reason that we have to try to do better than 1997. That's all. I have no difficulty in saying that there are a lot of problems, we could come up with a hundred. At Fiorano after the presentation they weren't alarming, they became so at Jerez. But we've already changed the exhausts and in the next few days at Mugello things should be better".
But the problems don't stop at just the exhausts, as it turns out that in the gearbox, the change from one gear to the next takes three thousandths of a second, whereas the software calls for five:
"We've redone all the electronic mapping and now the gearbox should work fine".
Then there's the issue of the new 047 engine:
"The base version for the race was due to arrive in January, but we haven't had much racing and it's been delayed. At Mugello we also plan to simulate a Grand Prix. In the meantime, we are going ahead with the electronic simulation on the bench".
However, another simulation is underway at Ferrari's industrial department, where the chassis has been mounted on an electronic road simulator that reproduces all the difficulties of the suspension and shock absorbers circuits. Then there's the now familiar issue of tyres:
"I was in contact with Bridgestone, but then we decided to stay with Goodyear. After all, we've been customers for twenty-five years. There is, however, a mystery to be solved: it seems, in fact, that after a few laps the Bridgestones lose their grooves, turning into smooth tyres like those of the previous year, and therefore much faster: 'The federation has not yet clarified how the checks on the tyres are to be carried out, and this is likely to create a lot of confusion".
At the end of January, Michael Schumacher starts testing at Mugello and is pleased to see that the F300 now grinds out kilometres without anything breaking. The tests are mainly aimed at experimenting with the new exhaust pipes and checking all the temperatures at the rear. This is a complex task because it involves installing 107 sensors for temperature, pressure, levels and oscillations. However, the results are comforting. The new exhaust, protected in carbon and slightly lengthened, no longer spits flames at metal parts, and temperatures remain within normal limits. Another important check and control job is carried out on the gearbox, which is completely disassembled during the night, without however finding any breaks or imperfections. The new electronic mapping is clearly working.
The Ferrari F300 continues to walk, but the helicopter walks a lot too. In these first days of testing, on the Mugello circuit, it turns out that Ferrari finally has one: an all-white Agusta 109, which instead of landing on the special apron, descends right in front of the pit lane, to continuously deliver new components for testing.
This is also necessary because on February 2nd, 1998, Ferrari's mechanics notice a crack in an unspecified area near the gearbox or near the suspension. Schumacher talks about the facts:
"A new problem, but nothing alarming. If I'm honest, I was expecting a lot more. We are working mainly on mechanical checks to consolidate reliability, which is important. Then we'll think about performance. But I can say one thing: this time last year we were worse off. That's why I'm satisfied. But the engine is good, I didn't expect that considering it's all-new".
The fuel consumption and draught test also go well, perhaps the 047 engine consumes a little more than the old 046/2, but it is also more powerful and so everything is in order. In the meantime, in Barcelona, Jacques Villeneuve completes seventy-one laps without any problem with the new Williams, while Schumacher, at Mugello, completes only forty-two. Three days later, on February 5th, 1998, the new McLaren Mercedes is presented at Woking, a very compact car with aerodynamic solutions that seem to follow a different path from that of other teams.
Two profiles on the nose and very original side deflectors are some of the solutions of the new designer Adrian Newey, coming from Williams. Ron Dennis says:
"We couldn't do any more, let's hope the results on track are what we expect. It cost us 12,000 hours of wind tunnel time".
The team aims to get back to winning ways after some difficult years, as team principal Ron Dennis said in a press conference:
"I know that everyone expects us to win the world championship, but we want to keep our feet on the ground because it won't be easy. But I don't know what more we could have done to make the best of everything. We finish among the last with the car, but I'm proud to say that the MP4/13 managed to pass the crash-test imposed by the FIA on the first attempt. We have Coulthard and Hakkinen who are two young guys with the experience to aim high and stay there. We have a Mercedes that has done great things, and Bridgestone tyres with which we have already covered eight thousand kilometres. Everything is there, only the title is missing, but from the first race we will be looking for it".
The new McLaren, however, arouses some discontent in the environment. The reduced dimensions in height of the chassis in the upper part are not liked, above all because in order not to run into irregularity they have applied two small vertical fins on the sides of the cockpit, the same ones that Williams experimented two years before and that were the cause of many protests by McLaren itself, together with Ferrari and Benetton. A solution which, although less conspicuous, makes it possible to reduce the section of the chassis and create a cockpit area that is decidedly lower than that of the other cars.
In addition, the new Mp4/13 also has an innovative braking system, thanks to a small third pedal on the car which allows the drivers to slow down in corners and then exit more quickly, a device that aims to circumvent the elimination of electronic brake controls imposed by the FIA. Williams technical director Patrick Head thunders on:
"We will probably end up in Melbourne with some cars that will not be fully compliant, either because they will not have passed all the different crash tests or because the new restrictions will be interpreted too freely. They will likely be allowed to race with the commitment that they will be up to scratch in subsequent races. But that would be a mistake because they would be running with an irregular advantage".
Meanwhile at Mugello, with sunshine and a dry track, Schumacher and Irvine conducted intense test sessions. The German drove sixty-nine laps, equal to 360 kilometres on 1998 model dry tyres on the F300, which had covered a total of 2,400 kilometres, while Irvine drove one hundred and thirty-one laps, testing the tyres on the 1997 car. Less than a month before the start of the season a final test session was held in Barcelona, in which McLaren, Prost, Stewart, Jordan, Minardi, Tyrrell and Arrows took part.
The two teams involved in the exciting fight for the 1997 World Championship preferred to work away from prying eyes, so Williams stayed at the French track of Le Castellet, while Ferrari opted for Fiorano, where on 14 February 1998 Michael Schumacher completed seventy laps on the F300. Giancarlo Fisichella, after a remarkable season at the wheel of the Jordan, is ready for the quality leap with Benetton, and judging by the way he expresses himself in front of the journalists, he wants to aim at the victory immediately:
"Get ready for a breathtaking start to the world championship, because at least in the first three Grands Prix we will have some surprise results, due to the change of regulations and the advent of grooved tyres. I would not be so optimistic, even if it is clear that the single-seaters fitted with Bridgestone tyres will win more than one race. As far as I'm concerned, I hope to win my first world title. We'll see about the title".
From 20th to 22nd February, the two Ferrari drivers conduct further tests at the Mugello circuit, and with the thirty-one laps completed by Schumacher at Fiorano, on 24 February, the Maranello team concludes the tests in preparation for the Formula 1 World Championship which starts on 8 March in Melbourne, Australia. In total, the F300 has clocked up just over seven thousand kilometres since December:
"I'm satisfied, and I hope to come back from Melbourne with a trophy, maybe the biggest one. The McLaren with the Bridgestones is scary. It was already strong last year, then it has a new designer like Newey and a fast driver like Hakkinen".
However, the German does not agree with Jean Todt, who still points to Williams as the car to beat:
"Usually the strongest team is the champion and therefore Williams, but there is no doubt that McLaren poses a very serious threat. As far as the current competitiveness of the two makes of the tyres is concerned, in the first tests at Jerez it was seen that Bridgestone have greater consistency; then later on there was a significant recovery by Goodyear".
The expectations are very high, given that in addition to Ferrari and Williams, who a few months earlier were playing for the World Championship right to the end, McLaren, the fastest car in the winter tests, is also expected to make a comeback in style.
Even if it is still Schumacher and Villeneuve who warm the hearts and the fans:
"Schumacher is not the best driver. I can beat him. I have no difficulty in saying that I see myself as the favourite for this title. Anyway, I don't care about Michael: he lives in his world, I live in mine".
Says the Canadian driver, who has been haranguing the Ferrari driver for months without receiving any answers from him. Surprisingly, on 3 March 1998, a few days before the start of the new World Championship, Schumacher and Villeneuve met in a hotel in Sydney and had a coffee together, apparently to make peace. But the truce is only apparent, as the Canadian driver makes it known that:
"We didn't talk about the accident. The main rival for the world championship will be my teammate Heinz Harald Frentzen".
In the meantime, the teams finally travel to Melbourne. Formula 1 is back.
Davide Scotto di Vetta