In their second season as team managers, Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart have to face unexpected difficulties, even though no one has yet taken to the track for the first race of the year: the AP01 and SF02 have not passed the crash tests. Participation in the opening weekend in Australia may be in doubt, but FIA President Max Mosley is relieving the two former World Champions of any worries:
"There's no problem. Even without passing that test they will be able to race with the agreement of the other teams".
These tests will be passed, however, at the last minute, especially in the case of Prost, which at the Cranfield University laboratory in England passes the side impact test the day before leaving for Australia. A small sigh of relief for the French team manager, for whom, however, a very difficult weekend is looming, since for the moment the Peugeot-powered car of Olivier Panis and Jarno Trulli has quite a few problems.
Following a slight alarm in the very first test session, things have turned out for the best at Ferrari, which approaches the race in Australia with a veiled optimism, especially if you listen to the words of President Luca di Montezemolo, who spoke at the Geneva Motor Show during the presentation of the Ferrari 456M:
"In 1997 we lost the title with twenty-one laps to go, and now we're aiming to do better, and that means winning. I'm superstitious, so I'm not too keen on the fact that the English bookmakers have Schumacher as the favourite, but if I think back to the fact that two, three, four years ago nobody was betting on us... The season will be beautiful and difficult, we face it with confidence and serenity. The team is well prepared, we have solved the F300's teething troubles and even though you can never predict reliability at this level, we have done a good job. But we mustn't get excited if the results of the first race are better than expected, just as we mustn't get depressed if they are lower. We have a good development programme ahead of us for this F300 and I have never given as much as I have this year to the requests of the Sporting Management. Now I expect an important feedback".
Montezemolo also said a few words about the new regulations, which at the moment have a few too many flaws:
"Regulations, tyres, the help of electronics. I hope that the FIA will clarify things. And I say this without polemics, to avoid that we end up like last year in the middle of the season with different interpretations that distort the championship".
Before closing Montezemolo reserves yet another blow to Jacques Villeneuve:
"He was twice lucky last year: because he was driving a Williams and because he had the accident with Schumacher. If there hadn't been a collision, he would never have won the title".
Speaking of the F300's first difficult outings, Ross Brawn explains why he decided to stay in Italy, working between Mugello and Fiorano, all winter:
"At the time, it was perhaps thought that there might be a lot of problems, of various kinds, and so it would have been better not to stray too far from Maranello to be able to deal with them as a matter of urgency. In truth, everything went quite smoothly and we were able to work continuously, covering the necessary kilometres and perhaps even more than planned. We weren't worried about the problems in the first few weeks, because they were almost normal for a completely new car. And then we immediately understood which road we had to take to remedy them. The '97 car had some basic defects. Step by step, we managed to improve it, but it was always a race against time. We were making changes without being able to test them thoroughly. So many times we were forced to go back. This year we started quite well, even if there were some initial problems. Once we found the right solutions, we were able to move forward in testing, covering the necessary kilometres. We still have a lot of things in the drawer, I think the real development will start from the third test, that is after the Argentine GP. But we're also ready for the first race in Australia. Our technicians were forced to work on the new technical regulations which have somewhat revolutionised what had been done until now. We didn't target one area in particular but tried to conceive of the car as a whole, starting with the new 047 engine we are using this year. The biggest change from last year is the front suspension, which has a third shock absorber. We can choose to use different systems as needed to optimise the mechanical behaviour of the front end, which in 1997 was the drivers' cross, with understeer and oversteer alternating. If I were to say I like the exterior, I'd be lying. It's a bit too hunched over, but we couldn't do otherwise with the impositions also due to the new crash tests. The car is all-new, including the longitudinal gearbox: we used to have a transverse gearbox. Our drivers have given us the first indications, and they seem satisfied. But it's clear that the first person to look forward to the Melbourne race is me. I think we will be competitive, but the curiosity will only be satisfied by the track".
Finally, Ferrari's technical director, like its president, is convinced that he can fight for the top positions as early as Australia:
"This year more than ever, with the new regulations, the next few days will be the days of truth. For us as for everyone. Without a doubt Ferrari arrives with a clear conscience, knowing that it has done everything possible to present the car at its best, taking care of every little detail. We know our best and it gives us confidence, but we'll find out what the others do from Friday. Certain times obtained in winter testing are not always matched in racing, so I don't consider the lack of direct comparisons with the competition a handicap for Ferrari. We'll make the comparisons here and they will be real. We'll see. I'm convinced that our car can do its job and fight at the top, both in qualifying and in the race".
Michael Schumacher, who is more eager than ever to put the troubled end of the 1997 season behind him, certainly wants to get off on the right foot in his pursuit of his third World Title, which would put an end to Ferrari's long abstinence since 1979, when Jody Scheckter became champion. Anyway, the controversy that characterised the conclusion of the previous championship is still a recurring theme. When journalists ask the German if he has put the accident that cost him his exclusion from the Drivers' championship behind him, he replies:
"I haven't forgotten it, but I'm not worried about it. I have not forgotten it, but I am not worried about it. I have learnt a lesson from that bad episode and it is useful because it helps me to build experience. If I were to find myself in a similar situation, that experience would certainly help me to behave differently. On April 28th, in Rome, I will give the first of my road safety lectures and a few days later I will give another one in Germany. But that was not a punishment. They asked me a favour and I gladly accepted".
Then, talking about his relationship with Jacques Villeneuve, the Ferrari driver admits:
"My character is like that, I try to get along with everyone, the last thing I want is to have problems with anyone. Fighting is not in my nature. At least as long as it's possible, as long as it's necessary. With Villeneuve we met briefly twice. I can't say that we are friends and maybe we won't become friends. I like beating my rivals in a race, but then I would love to have a beer with them and have a chat".
As for the new F300, his rivals, and the introduction of grooved tyres, he admits:
"I have a car that is clearly better than last year's, I have driven it for thousands of kilometres, I have got to know it, I know how it reacts and I feel I can get results. It's going to be a very important year for Ferrari. Having lost the championship by so little and not having the best car, the objective this year is clearly to win the World Championship. On paper McLaren is the car to beat, because it has tyres that everyone says are better, and today it's easier to go fast with the tyres than with the engine and aerodynamics combined. But I don't have any hard data to say, it's just a feeling. We'll see if it's right or wrong on Sunday".
A prediction ahead of Melbourne?
"The only thing I know is that we have all worked well. There's a lot of pressure around us, you only have to look at the newspapers to realise that, but I don't live by giving weight to these things, I live based on the sensations that come from inside me, not on the stimuli that come from outside. I feel that we have worked well, I feel that we have a good car, I feel that the results can come, but I'm not a fortune teller".
Alongside Schumacher will be faithful squire Eddie Irvine, whose contribution in the past championship was crucial in races such as Suzuka, but of lesser value in other outings during which his contribution was often lacking. The Northern Irish driver is called upon to prove his consistency, especially in the Constructors' Championship, where the German champion's contribution alone is certainly not enough.
Schumacher, however, is certainly not the only candidate intent on snatching the crown from Jacques Villeneuve: there is Frentzen, who, after a final season as the Canadian's rear-guard, is now starting again on an equal footing, without team orders, able to exploit his chances at best; there's Benetton-Playlife (a curious idea to rename the Renault engines mounted by Mecachrome with the name of a fashion company based in Treviso, but owned by the team), which is undergoing a major internal revolution after the departure of Briatore and of the two drivers Jean Alesi, who went to Sauber, and Gerhard Berger, who retired.
Giancarlo Fisichella surprised everyone with the Jordan and aims to grow even more now that he has a car supplied by a team that has won the World Championship twice. But watch out also for his partner Alex Wurz, because the Austrian, in his three appearances in 1997, when he replaced the injured Berger, stood up to the expert Alesi and even managed to get a podium at Silverstone. And finally, there is McLaren-Mercedes, whose speed in testing was directly proportional to the controversy it stirred up.
Led by Ferrari, the other teams are asking for clarification regarding the third pedal fitted to the Anglo-German team's car, which, according to the men from Maranello, conceals functions that go well beyond the spirit of the regulations. Four accusations have been made: the possibility of braking only the rear wheels in fact has the function of anti-skidding, which is forbidden if it is electrically controlled; such a sophisticated braking distribution system comes close to the limit of the servobrake, which was banned back in 1994; the braking action on a single wheel produces a steering effect, and the regulations prohibit four-wheel steering; this possibility would represent a dangerous element in the event of a malfunction.
The team manager of the team under indictment, Ron Dennis, is not intimidated, and does not accept the accusations:
"The regulations are clear. Everything on our MP4/13 has been submitted to the FIA and approved. There is nothing to clarify".
He is echoed, categorically, by Max Mosley:
"In Formula 1 there are intelligent people who live day and night studying how to read the rules extensively. And the better you are, the more you succeed. That's why the clarifications are needed, case by case. There is no way out, unfortunately".
A device that could give the Woking team an important technical advantage, especially in the first few races of the season. And who knows whether Hakkinen and Coulthard will be able to get involved in what everyone is predicting will be the duel that will continue this year: Michael Schumacher versus Jacques Villeneuve. The German for revenge, the Canadian to confirm that he is not inferior to his rival.
On the eve of free practice for the Australian Grand Prix, the two of them were asked the same questions. First of all, tyres, as the competition between Goodyear and Bridgestone promises to be much tighter than last season, given that the Japanese company has agreed with top teams such as McLaren and Benetton, who at the end of the tests opted to change supplier:
"At first our tyres were inferior to Bridgestone. Then Goodyear woke up and the gap was almost closed. From Brazil we will have even better tyres. But I don't know, in today's comparison, who will be better. For sure, with rain tyres, Goodyear did an exceptional job".
Villeneuve is also optimistic about Goodyear:
"I think that if it will be very hot, Goodyear will have an easy task, as it happened a year ago with the slicks. So I hope that the asphalt temperature will rise to 40 degrees".
Then we move on to the new cars, and how the drivers have to adapt their driving style. Schumacher states:
"The grooved tyres, the different configuration of the cars, the reduced brakes will condition the driving style. I adapted quickly to the new situation. At the end of the day, the best will be the usual ones".
The Canadian goes into a little more detail:
"Entering corners becomes very delicate, because when braking you put less rubber on the ground and the grip, when you set the trajectory, is less than when there were slicks. I foresee a lot of going off the track, because you don't feel the sense of the limit. The tyres also affect the work of the suspension, so you don't have to search for the best setting".
Inevitably, there is also talk of McLaren, of which Schumacher gives his opinion:
"Judging by the times set in Barcelona, McLaren seems to have the best technical package at the moment. So it looks like the favourite for the race. However, after the Australian Grand Prix, we will also be there".
Villeneuve declares instead:
"McLaren ended last season in progression and even in the winter it kept going. Its lap times say it should be going strong. But I want to see it in the race".
Jarno Trulli returns to Formula 1, aboard the Peugeot-powered Prost, although his championship debut will be marked by three days locked in his room, as:
"After dinner, I started to feel sick: I spent three days in crisis, never been like this".
Certainly not a happy start for the Italian driver, especially because the new car was completed late:
"In the last tests at Magny-Cours we solved many problems, but I did a lot fewer kilometres than Panis. I'm sorry, I needed it. Only a week before we left we had two cars to test both. And not even the same ones".
Also Arrows, like Prost, was late in bringing its cars to the debut, as John Barnard went against the tide once again, designing the A19, which had short and wide side pontoons, with large openings for airflows. Unlike what he had been able to do at Ferrari, the designer also dedicated himself to the study of the engine, carried out by the English team itself, with the collaboration of specialist Brian Hart and other technicians taken from various manufacturers, including Cosworth. The V10 was conceived as Barnard wished, thanks to an engine development budget of around thirty-five million dollars:
"When you make a car, you have to think 360 degrees, about everything. So I decided that I would also give directions for the engine. For the rest, I relied on some trusted collaborators. In this job you have to know how to delegate responsibility, otherwise you get lost along the way. Our team is not yet at its best. We have a good driver in Pedro Diniz and a Salo who is promising. I believe that within six months we will be able to do well. I'm a little bit sorry for the tyres, we brought Bridgestone to Formula 1 and we took care of the development of the Japanese tyres, now the focus is on McLaren and Benetton. But we'll try to make ourselves heard, with results".
It is precisely the new tyres that have been the focus of attention for weeks now: according to rumours, the manufacturers have found a way to get around the lack of tyre thickness, so that the tyre can wear out quickly, ensuring that the entire surface is supported on the asphalt; this would be possible because there is no specific rule that could penalise a competitor who reaches the finish line without a minimum level of tread thickness. In this regard, FIA President Max Mosley is trying to dispel doubts by stating:
"The manufacturers (Goodyear and Bridgestone) have assured us that there will be no slick effect. When the tread depth is reduced by wear, the performance will drop. So we haven't planned any tread thickness measurements at the end of the race. And there will be no disqualification if someone comes to the finish line with slick tyres. But, of course, if we should find clearly irregular situations, we will take action from the next race, with precise measurements and regulated maximum consumption".
In Australia, this is not the FIA's only concern. In fact, it seems that tobacco sponsorships and advertisements may soon disappear from the Formula One circus from 2002, if it is proven, as the British government claims, that they induce people to start smoking. In this regard, Mosley states:
"We don't know that to be the case: if it is proved, we will be the first to ban it. The proposed European Directive agreed in Luxembourg gives us the flexibility and time to act accordingly. The FIA will study the evidence provided by governments and is discussing the issue with the World Health Organisation. The FIA could then introduce a total ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship when the current pact expires in 2002. The ban would apply to all Grands Prix, including those outside the European Union".
In the meantime, for the third year running, the Save Albert Park Committee, linked to the Greens in Australia, has been protesting against the Grand Prix, which will be held on Sunday in the city's large park. About thirty people gathered outside the pits and managed to enter the garage area in groups of five. Then two women handcuffed themselves to the railing that marks the pit lane in front of the Ferrari and Williams pits, but the police intervened and escorted them out of the reserved area.
The Save Albert Park Committee combines the ecological protest against motorsport and the cutting down of several thousand trees with that of the inhabitants of the area, who complain that they cannot use the partially closed park for three and a half months of the year: two for the assembly and one for the removal of the entire racetrack citadel, as well as for the lack of compensation for the damage that some homes would have suffered during the work of levelling the ground for the construction of the facility.
In 1996, the demonstrators protested peacefully. The previous year, a few days before the Grand Prix, a corrosive liquid was spread on the asphalt in some parts of the track. Friday morning finally arrived in Australia, and after a lot of talk and predictions we went out on the track to draw the first conclusions. Or almost. The first practice session is conditioned by downpours of rain and strong winds, which alternate continuously with flashes of sunshine. Schumacher is the one who finds the track in the best conditions when he comes out of the pits to set time. This is demonstrated by his best time, six tenths faster than that recorded by Hakkinen, second, who precedes Jacques Villeneuve in his red and white Williams-Mecachrome.
The German Ferrari driver, however, dropped back to fourth place on the second day of free practice, the one on Saturday that preceded qualifying, while Eddie Irvine only set the seventeenth time. Not much data to go by, but enough to understand that as in 1997, on the Albert Park street circuit Williams, Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton are the favourites to monopolise the first positions, with the difference that this time it is not Williams who has the fastest car by far. Michael Schumacher, at the end of practice, declares:
"The F300 is going well and I like that. I still don't have a precise idea of the real value of the rivals, but I remain optimistic".
Hakkinen instead warns his opponent, admitting:
"Schumacher surprised me, he went really strong, but maybe we still have some tricks to discover".
At the same time, at the end of free practice, Jean Todt tries to keep calm around the Cavallino's garage, given that during the weekend several drive units have been replaced on Eddie Irvine's car:
"Reliability we have not yet achieved completely. And with that, we also need to improve performance. We don't know what the others have done, so it's still too early to declare victory. We still have to decide which tyres to use for the race, there are plenty of doubts. I'm not betting anything, let's wait".
Then, talking about the alleged irregularity of the Mp4/13, the French manager adds to the dose, declaring:
"Our opinion is the same as that of almost all the other teams, but it does not agree with that of the FIA, which considers the installation to be outlawed. It is not true that there is nothing more to be clarified on the matter. It has already happened with the electronic accelerator, which is also used as an anti-skid device. Last year, at Magny-Cours, McLaren was informed about the legality of the system for which it had asked for an opinion. Today, however, and although the regulations have not changed, that system is banned. The FIA's new yes to McLaren will not prevent us from making further requests for clarification, if we find new elements in the folds of the regulations that support our thesis".
The French manager does not name names, but if one team is already known, according to some rumours, the other car to have installed the device of discord would be Williams, which by the way, together with Prost, is the only team not to have joined Ferrari's protests.
"There are four teams that have, or are in the process of completing, a system of this type, and here, at least two, have used it. We've noticed the rear wheels locking up equivocally depending on the corners, as needed to go faster. In our opinion, those brakes don't meet the technical standards in force this year. The regulations are clear: the main brake master cylinder must act on all the wheels. I'm not saying they're irregular. All I'm saying is that Ferrari and other teams want to know from the federation whether that braking system does comply with the regulations. That's all I'm saying, you can't remain in uncertainty just as the championship begins. Because if those brakes are up to standard, well, we'll be fitting them. But the problem is that we can't wait months for an answer, and if we don't get an answer quickly, it could happen that after the Grand Prix someone makes an official protest, a complaint".
So there is a complaint, the journalists exclaim to the Ferrari team principal:
"No, it is a letter with requests for clarification to the Federation. They have to tell us if certain systems are allowed. In our opinion they should be banned because they are contrary to the spirit of the regulations and even dangerous in some respects. But at the moment there has been no answer, and we don't even know how or when there will be one. If they tell us that everything is fine, we have to watch".
The response from McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, was not long in coming and he even threatened legal action:
"The braking control system is legal because we have submitted it to the FIA both as a design and as a prototype. So, I don't rule out taking them to court. I don't understand all this fuss they're making about the brakes. This is a project that started a few months ago and we presented it to the federation with all the technical explanations. The federation studied the dossier and said yes, we could implement our project. And we did it with a great deal of effort and considerable resources. And now we are using it because it has been verified here. In addition, four stables have a similar system. Similar but not identical because our braking control system is ingenious, simple and cheap. A team that sent one of its engineers, the head of aerodynamics, to spy on us in Barcelona is raising such a fuss. Nothing can really be surprising in Formula 1 anymore if these things are done by a team that never follows any rules of behaviour. And at this point I don't rule out taking legal action".
Jean Todt, who in the meantime has also heard from Ron Dennis, decided to respond to the accusations by declaring:
"Look where the preaching comes from. Do they dare to talk about gentleman agreement, about fair play? Are they surprised that there are spies around? But if everyone does it, even here outside our pits people are spying on us for others".
It's hard to blame the French manager, think some insiders, but the move to send Wilhelm Toet, head of Maranello's new wind tunnel, to Barcelona may not have been the right one. Such a tense atmosphere did not prevent Ron Dennis from celebrating, at the end of the qualifying session, a front row gained entirely by his two drivers; an event that had not occurred since 1991. Mika Hakkinen set the best time of the day in 1'30"010 and got the better of his teammate by just 43 thousandths.
Then an abyss of seven tenths to find Michael Schumacher, who together with Villeneuve completes a second row that promises to be very hot in view of the race. Excellent performance for Johnny Herbert at the wheel of the Sauber-Petronas, who was able to beat the other Willams driven by Frentzen by a few thousandths and get the fifth position. Fisichella, seventh, started ahead of Eddie Irvine, one second slower than his team leader; the two Jordans driven by Ralf Schumacher and Damon Hill completed the top ten. The new regulations had been launched first of all to reduce the speed of the cars by two or three seconds, but if we make some comparisons with the 1997 qualifying times on the same circuit, data emerge that are not exactly comforting.
Hakkinen was only seven tenths slower than Villeneuve's best time the year before, and the Finn beat his own time by a good two seconds; the same was true of Coulthard, who was one second and four tenths faster than himself. Schumacher improved by seven tenths, while the only ones to have regressed were the two Williams drivers, as Villeneuve was one second and six tenths slower than the pole obtained the year before, while Frentzen worsened by two tenths. There were two main checks to be made on these cars: a speed reduction (which there seems not to have been), and greater ease in overtaking; but for this we must wait for the race. As well as celebrating a fantastic pole, Hakkinen also gave Bridgestone its first pole start since the Japanese company began supplying tyres to Formula 1 teams last season.
"I hope Coulthard and Schumacher don't bother me too much in the race. Anyway, I'm confident, because this McLaren is really strong. Now we have to see how the Bridgestones will react in the heat over the distance".
Michael Schumacher, for his part, does not want to have any illusions, aware that giving battle to the McLarens will be almost impossible:
"I hope to finish second or third. Then we will be stronger in the other races because Ferrari is preparing innovations on the F300. But as for the tyres, it will still take time to close the gap with the Bridgestones".
Although not as dominant as before, the reigning champion's Williams-Mecachrome can't be excluded from the fight. Despite problems with his car that forced him to run with a forklift, he was able to place himself on the second row. The next day, it was finally time for the first race of the new season. On the starting grid, Hakkinen's Mp4-13 was covered as best as possible by tarpaulins and mechanics, who surrounded the car - which had been dismantled shortly before the start to make some adjustments - to prevent cameras or prying eyes from catching secret details of this new, exceptional car.
Not even the time to start the race that Arrows seemed to live a sad deja-vu: if last year Damon Hill didn't even manage to complete the reconnaissance lap, now Pedro Diniz couldn't even line up on the grid, because after running a few laps to check that everything was in order, at the first bend the rear axle of Arrows started emitting fire and flames. The Brazilian parked at the side of the track and hurriedly returned to the pits to get into the forklift truck; at least, in comparison with Hill in 1997, he managed to take part in the race starting from the pit-lane.
At 2 p.m. the traffic lights go out. Hakkinen has no problem in containing Coulthard, who has to think about defending himself from an aggressive Michael Schumacher, who tries to overtake the Scot on the outside at turn 2. Coulthard, however, resisted, and the Ferrari driver lined up followed by Villeneuve, Fisichella and Herbert. We are still in the course of the first lap when at turn 6 Jan Magnussen rams Ralf Schumacher in an attempt to get on the inside. The two drivers ended up in the gravel, and the contact also involved the unlucky Toranosuke Takagi, at his debut on the Tyrrell.
Hakkinen and Coulthard immediately started to run away, with Schumacher who, even if with difficulty, tried not to lose contact completely. On the fifth lap, however, coming out of the last bend, an engine failure put an end to the hopes of the fans of the Red team and of Schumacher himself. The German had to park his F300 on the grass, right on the main straight, and threw the steering wheel away in frustration before getting out of the cockpit, but he had the clarity to put it back together again before pulling away. A few laps later and the race had already lost the only driver who could potentially trouble Hakkinen and Coulthard.
Villeneuve was not even close to the times of the McLarens, so much so that after five laps he was already sixteen seconds down; furthermore, behind him Fisichella and Herbert were persistently tailing him. The Roman driver was one of the first ones to find out that, even if the track layout didn't help, even with these new cars overtaking seemed a utopia. Fisichella was often seen, at one point he tried a timid attack in turn 2 after a small mistake by Villeneuve, but he didn't take off deep enough to close the gap.
According to rumours filtering out of the Benetton box, with the soft Bridgestone tyres that the Benetton driver is using, he could go even two seconds faster. Villeneuve is in obvious crisis, or rather, the Williams are, since Frentzen is also acting as a stopper to a large group of six drivers, led by Eddie Irvine.
Thirteen laps had passed and Hakkinen had a forty-second lead over Villeneuve; on lap 20 the gap was one minute. Young Esteban Tuero's debut at the wheel of the Minardi was a bit troubled: the Argentinean was first penalised for a jump start, and then he had to serve a second drive-through for exceeding the speed limit in the pits. A disaster.
In this phase of the race, the first pit stops began to take place for the drivers who had opted for a two-stop strategy, including Giancarlo Fisichella, who let Jacques Villeneuve breathe, but not for too long because Herbert immediately approached the Canadian driver's Williams. Fisichella returned to the track momentarily ninth, and at the exit of the pit lane he noticed that behind him there was the McLaren of Coulthard, ready to lap him after only twenty-two laps. Then also the two Woking cars make their respective pit stops, without any hitch.
On lap 28 it was Herbert's turn to pit, imitated the next lap by Villeneuve, who despite losing some time in restarting after an 8.9-second pit-stop, kept his position on the Sauber driver, but not on Fisichella, who was ahead of him. The reigning champion is still on one stop, unlike the Roman who will have to stop again.
While only Frentzen and Irvine were missing from the roll call of those who had to stop, the two McLarens had to juggle with many lapping, not without some headache, as in the case of Hakkinen, who lost his usual composure making eloquent gestures of disappointment to Alex Wurz, too slow in stepping aside. Third and fourth respectively up to that point, Frentzen and Irvine went to the pits together on lap 33. For the German, the pit stop went off without a hitch, unlike Irvine, who left the pit lane after fifteen seconds.
The native of Moenchengladbach even manages to keep the third position; Irvine instead has to follow Giancarlo Fisichella in fifth position. Only sixth Villeneuve, struggling with brake problems and an unfortunate choice of tyres, as for now the hard Goodyears did not guarantee a good performance. Moreover, as it emerged in the following days, also Williams used a third pedal very similar for its characteristics to the one designed by McLaren, but on Frentzen's car and not on the reigning champion's one.
Considering the overall situation, it seems clear that the one-stop strategy is also the most profitable. Whether it's two, three or four stops makes no difference to the McLarens, who are racing on their own. On the 36th passage on the finishing line, there was a twist: in advance of what was expected, Hakkinen's McLaren entered the pit lane, but to everyone's surprise, the mechanics were not there waiting for him, that's the reason why the Finn went straight ahead and returned to the track. A misunderstanding over the radio with the pit wall: this is what allowed David Coulthard to find himself with the race lead in his hands to the disadvantage of a frustrated Mika Hakkinen.
In the meantime, the Scotsman lapped Frentzen and Fisichella, who were fighting for third place, and it was precisely this situation that Giancarlo cleverly took advantage of, surprising the German of the Williams at the Clark bend, and temporarily taking the third position. Hakkinen was furious, he was pushing like an obsessive to reduce the gap of eight seconds that separated him from Coulthard; on lap 40 he made his second stop, but in his haste to restart he released the clutch when the undercarriage that lifted the rear of the car had not yet been pulled out; thus the Finn lost further time before returning to the track.
Coulthard, who easily maintained the first position, and Fisichella, who gave back the third place to Frentzen, also stopped. The Italian then had to retire due to the sudden failure of his rear wing. At ten laps from the end, among accidents and various technical problems, only nine cars remained in the race: the two McLarens, which were leading the race, Frentzen and Irvine, who now were running in pairs to fight for the third place, Villeneuve, Herbert, Wurz, Hill and Panis.
Hakkinen has not yet given up the idea of winning this race, he continues to lower his lap times, constantly reducing the gap to Coulthard, who loses a lot of time in getting rid of Villeneuve's double, who is rather reluctant to step aside, especially not to give Johnny Herbert, who is following him closely, any chance of overtaking. Coulthard and Hakkinen are separated by two seconds, when from the pits they ask Mika to lift his foot to let the brakes cool down, but he doesn't seem to hear it.
Two laps from the end, on the main straight, what you don't expect happens: Coulthard lifts his foot and lets himself be overtaken by Hakkinen, who regains the leadership of the Australian Grand Prix after a probable team order, a bit like what happened in Jerez de la Frontera a few months earlier, when before overtaking Villeneuve he passed Coulthard thanks to an order given by the team. Hakkinen thus wins his second race in a row, which is also the second victory of his career. Coulthard completes the one-two, and Bridgestone celebrates its first Formula 1 success.
Frentzen completes the podium, able to resist Irvine's attacks; Villeneuve and Herbert complete the points zone. In the parc fermé, Hakkinen, still in his cockpit, is immediately reached by Coulthard, who shakes his hand and then says something to him; then Mika gets out of the car, doesn't even hesitate to exult, moves away and gives his team-mate a friendly pat on the back. On the podium, however, the Finn cannot resist and bursts into tears of joy. In the usual post-race press conference, the winner is the first to speak:
"No, it didn't quite go according to plan, but nevertheless we are where we wanted to be. During the race there was a bit of confusion that led to an additional pit stop, due to a misunderstanding over the radio that cost me the lead. I want to thank David, he has been a gentleman; today we did an excellent teamwork, and I don't say this just because I won, but because we have a deep friendship and professional bond, David and I, and what he did today is something unique. Looking back, I don't remember many drivers doing things like that, so I want to thank him again. There was confusion; we didn't understand each other over the radio. It's even hard for me to explain how I felt when I arrived at the stand and saw no one ready for the tyre change and refuelling. At that moment my whole world fell apart".
Responding to the controversy surrounding the accusations that he had won again following a change of positions, the Finnish driver replied:
"If people don't know the situation of a Grand Prix from start to finish they can't understand. I don't accept to talk about a given victory. I'll have a party, because right now we are the strongest, in every sector: car, engine, tyres, team. Why is McLaren so much faster? We have the right men, the right package, the right sponsors. We work well in all areas, and these are the results. Then let's not forget that there are either excellent drivers like me and David driving this car".
Jokes the Finn, who then goes on to focus on the races ahead:
"The clash between us will always be at its best. Looking at the course of the race and taking into account the results of the winter tests, I think that also in Brazil there will be a new challenge between us for the lead. It will be a more difficult challenge, not only because of the characteristics of the track. And not just because David will be looking for success, as he should. In Sao Paulo I expect a decisive response from Ferrari and Williams. Without forgetting Goodyear, which could also grow".
Then it's the turn of the runner-up, David Coulthard:
"For me the situation was very clear. After Jerez, we had spoken to each other and agreed. Whoever of us is ahead at the first corner, under normal conditions, is respected and protected by his teammate. At the start I tried to overtake Mika, but he went faster. Then he stayed in the lead and would have stayed there without the pit problem. The team didn't order me to slow down. It was my decision, I thought it was the right thing to do. Who is outside cannot know what happens inside a race. They can't know if I have engine problems, brake problems or some other trouble. Today there were a lot of risks regarding reliability, especially with the brakes, and it would have been risky to battle for the whole race".
When mention was made of the difficulty in making some lapping passes, including that of Jacques Villeneuve, Frentzen immediately intervened, saying:
"After the warm-up I had told Jacques that the McLarens would have lapped us. He told me...No way, impossible. He probably didn't want to believe it".
McLaren team manager Ron Dennis also commented on the change between his two drivers in the final stages of the race:
"We had to set rules rather than give orders, because at that moment we had no certainty about our technical potential. That's how it will be in Brazil: whoever is first at the first corner will have the right to win without the other bothering him. From the third race onwards, they will be free to battle".
Dennis is enjoying the moment, hoping that this internal rivalry can develop in the style of Prost-Lauda in 1984, a no-holds-barred battle, but fought in absolute harmony between the two drivers and without a word out of place, rather than reliving the hell, albeit victorious, of the two years with Prost himself and Ayrton Senna. At Ferrari, despite Schumacher's retirement due to an engine failure, the fifth in total if you consider the four units changed on Irvine's car over the weekend, there seems to be no concern:
"I had the spare car, which went well, as on my race car there had been engine problems since Friday and we changed four of them. After the start I could have overtaken Frentzen and he would not have caught me if I hadn't been forced to brake to avoid a collision in the chicane with the German and Fisichella. Unfortunately with the new cars overtaking is even more difficult. Now we'll make a few changes to the F300 and you'll see that we'll make up for it in no time".
Says Eddie Irvine at the end of the race. And Ross Brawn doesn't seem too worried either:
"We know what to do, McLaren is not far away. The difference between us and them is about half a second. But the F300 has no weaknesses. At the moment we don't have the McLaren system because we were working on other things. But soon we will have it. Unfortunately there was Schumacher's engine problem, almost immediately, and that disappointed us. Irvine, however, drove very well, in his race we saw encouraging signs, we will be able to improve the car as soon as Goodyear also find better solutions for the tyres. We will be competitive within a few races. In my estimation we are half a second behind McLaren, we have to find it between engine, chassis, tyres and aerodynamics. But it's a bridgeable difference. There is no weakness in the car. To understand where you are you have to see where the rivals are. McLaren is very strong and has set a level to be reached. I would have preferred Ferrari to be the point of reference: unfortunately, this is not the case and so we will have to work hard to close the gap".
Visibly disappointed Michael Schumacher, who without the engine explosion could easily have been on the third step of the podium:
"As soon as I set foot on the ground I was very disappointed. To be honest, I expected everything but the engine to break down. After thousands of kilometres I just didn't expect it. Honestly, there is nothing to be happy about. Suddenly I realised that the temperature was rising a lot and shortly after there was a noise, I realised and stopped off the track. I don't know what could have happened, we'll have to see, but I could hazard a guess: the circuit is in a park, there are a lot of trees, it's the end of summer and maybe some leaves have clogged the radiator".
Hypothesis dispelled by Jean Todt:
"It wasn't a leaf unfortunately. We have to dismantle the engine and analyse the problem in depth. We realised immediately after the start, through telemetry, that the temperatures were too high. Probably waiting a bit too long on the grid before the start didn't do the engine any good. In any case, we're not too worried about this problem, which we don't think is structural".
The French manager goes on to talk about Williams, which he no longer believes to be able to compete with the Maranello cars and McLaren's performance:
"The Williams are no longer our reference point and our main competitor. But you have to be careful: Williams has always had a great ability to react. We were impressed by McLaren's victory. The gap is big, there's nothing to say. They worked harder than us. Schumacher might have been able to close the gap, also because we had planned only one refuelling stop for him and this would have given him an advantage since the others made two and even three. But Schumacher wasn't in the race and so it's pointless to speculate".
This Ferrari is a good car, with great potential, and with the improvements we have planned I'm not pessimistic, we can make up for it because the next circuits have different characteristics. Finally, on the use of the third pedal, the French manager reiterates:
"McLaren's brakes are legal, the FIA has confirmed it and all that's left is for us to build them too, it will take some time but we are already working on it. However, those brakes don't make a difference, it's not them that make you win or lose. I think we can take stock at Imola. For now we will test on Wednesday at Monza with Badoer and the old car, and on Thursday with Irvine. Then from the 16th to the 21st at Mugello for tyre tests".
In the meantime, the day after the race, Mika Hakkinen gives an interesting interview to the journalists in which he defends the work of McLaren and talks about his experience as a driver, starting from the memory of the terrible accident that involved him in Australia, in 1995:
"I was lucky: two serious accidents made me stronger psychologically. It was terrible. In those moments, fractions of a second, the only thing you can do is jump on the brakes and wait to see where and how you are going to crash. But I know that this job involves risks; in every season, for some of us, such situations can come. After being in hospital for a long time in Australia, after hitting my head and having an operation, I wondered if I would still be as competitive as before: I didn't think I could even have serious health problems. Everyone was asking me if I would still be able to go fast. In these cases, even if you don't have them, you get doubts in your mind. It worked out well for me: after that bad period I seem to be stronger psychologically, to be able to cope better with the negative events. We have an incredibly fast and reliable car. David and I have worked hard to take an active part in its conception and construction, and our advice has been listened to by the technicians. Everything, down to the last bolt of the McLaren MP4/13, has been evaluated in great detail. The car is very good and the team is extraordinarily strong. That means I can aim for the world championship. Yes, I think so now. My goal is no longer to win a race, but the title".
Davide Scotto di Vetta