Ahead of the opening Gran Prix of the new Formula 1 season, McLaren is the first one to arrive in Melbourne, in Australia, on March 3rd, 2000. David Coulthard jokes, saying that it is a sign of destiny, while his teammate Mika Hakkinen is still absent, since he prefers to extend his last days of vacation, enjoying the sun of New Zealand with his wife Erja. After a season ended as a winner, but full of highs and lows, mixed with a very strong psychological stress that wasted him, the two times world champion doesn’t try to hide the need of a long vacation before the start of the season:
“I really needed it, during the last two seasons I exceeded with stress, arriving in October, at the Japanese gran prix, completely done. I felt like a candle that can be extinguished at the slightest breath of wind. But I did not give up, I did not give up. I mustered my strength and triumphed again".
So much that his winter tests began only at the end of January, with the old Mclaren, and then continued with the new Mp4/15, a car that immediately enchanted him:
"It’s more reliable, you drive better. In the tests we never looked for the sensation time, but we worked on many details that will be decisive. On the other hand, for the McLaren speed is not a problem. We were always the best, just that it was the same".
The motivation to continue winning is not lacking:
"This year will be less difficult than last season. In this sport the most complicated thing is to repeat yourself. In '98 I had crowned the dream of becoming champion, in '99, at least at the beginning, I felt exhausted. What I was fighting for, I was wondering, I have already won. But now it’s different: winning three times is really a challenge, I can enter history. And I don’t want to miss the opportunity. I learned a lot from my mistakes, last year I made many, I threw away races as in Monza or Imola, I will not repeat such naivety".
The Finnish term sisu, or force of will, has now become his mantra, which will accompany him even at the beginning of the season. Mika’s trust also stems from the fact that the team seems to want to point, once and for all, on him as the undisputed first driver. This can be seen from the fact that the car was designed following his precise instructions, and from the appointment of Olivier Panis as a test driver, a driver who in addition to being his friend, also has his own manager, former World Champion Keke Rosberg:
"Panis is fast, now he knows the car, will allow us to breathe, will prevent me and Coulthard to take on all those tests".
With a few days' delay compared to the designated rivals, Ferrari also landed in Australia, with twenty-five tons of various material and sixty men. Obviously, there is also Michael Schumacher, who, like Hakkinen, takes advantage of the last days before the start of the championship to enjoy a few relaxing days with his wife Corinna, in Sydney. Now, however, it’s time to focus on her second marriage, the one with the Ferrari:
"The marriage with Ferrari is always exciting, especially now that it seems to be realized what we both want, me and the team. When I was younger, I needed to change girls and fall in love again to maintain my motivation. Then I met Corinna, who became my wife, and I became stable. With the Ferrari it’s the same thing. I wanted to be part of this team, and we’re always so happy to be together. I want to give the number 1 to Ferrari in this new F1-2000, and I want us to keep it together for a while. I would like the personal title and the team title, the result of our basic work. I still wish we could stabilize the situation, yes, start the Ferrari era. Even in the last two years, before the start of the championship we were more or less among the favourites. Especially in 1999, then there was the bad accident of Silverstone. I tell you the truth, the media does not have a real impact on our performance pace, but I prefer to be favoured: it means that you do not doubt us, and this strengthens our confidence. Now, however, it is necessary that the car follows us, that it is not too slow, as the previous ones have been. But what I’ve heard so far at the wheel of our F1-2000 I really like. It was born to go fast".
Rivals have not changed:
"The fight will be between Ferrari and McLaren or McLaren and Ferrari, as you prefer. Behind, a little behind, should be the Jordan, then the Jaguar".
The German also focuses on his relationship with Jean Todt:
"I could say that he has become a friend, but this word in such a story is meaningless. He is more. At Silverstone, when I was taken to the circuit medical centre, Jean was there, of course. I thought he was going to be on the track for the second start of the race, but instead he dropped everything and got on the helicopter that was taking me to Northampton hospital. He helped me a lot: they gave me several painkillers, and I didn’t have the clarity to talk to the surgeons who were starting to operate".
There are those, like Clay Regazzoni, who advise him to retire in case of yet another failure, but at the same time a large part of public opinion sees him as the absolute favorite for the victory of the title. For Schumacher, a victory in a red jumpsuit would, he said, be like a Walt Disney story. In the paddock, in fact, opinions are varied. Alain Prost is among those who believe in a favourite Ferrari:
"Ferrari has everything to succeed, and has Schumacher who in the economy of a race is the best. I think Michael would have won the '99 title without the accident. The things I read in the papers make me think that the Ferrari is even better than the one a year ago. But beware: the McLaren will not be watching".
The same speech made by Cesare Fiorio, former Ferrari now at Minardi, who had the opportunity to observe F1-2000 at Mugello:
"I’m honest: I saw an exceptionally fast Ferrari during a Grand Prix simulation. I didn’t believe my eyes. If it will be just as good from the first races of this world championship, it will be difficult for everyone to resist it. McLaren? I followed her to Barcelona: very reliable, but she showed no speed tip. Never".
Jean Alesi, who presented himself at the starting line of this season as the most experienced and senior driver on the grid, supports Ferrari’s candidacy as a team to beat:
"I think it’s time for Ferrari to bring home the fruits of a job that starts from a distance. And I’m referring to the stability of the tech team. Then, there’s a powerful engine that never breaks. After all, the times of Mugello, rather indicative track, say how competitive the F1-2000 is. Schumacher even called me a few weeks ago, telling me that he could hardly believe that the new Ferrari was so fast".
Eddie Irvine himself, who has just left the province of Modena, sees in F1-2000 an extremely fast car, potentially devastating if there is a driver like Schumacher. There is some conflicting opinion, such as that of Gerhard Berger, who ironically declares:
"Strange that Ferrari has to win the World Championship of the current year. Usually, it always wins the one of the following years. No, forgive me the wickedness. I also believe that Schumacher has great chances, but I know too well the McLaren to give up since the beginning of the season".
Jordan’s new pilot Jarno Trulli is also cautious:
"It seems that the Ferrari is going really strong, but seventeen races to face are many. I read that all the newspapers give the favourite Scuderia, but Schumacher and Barrichello have never confronted each other on the various tracks. I have, instead, seen the McLaren and I’m sure it will still be very strong".
But at the German weekly Die Zeit, Michael Schumacher explains the greatest dream:
"I wish I was invisible. The life I make is that of a man under constant observation, I lost much of my freedom, everyone thinks they have a right to me".
Including the Dutch impersonator Saasen, who in the suits of the double advertises supermarkets and cashes a lot of money:
"I would like to live in a house on a rock overlooking the sea with an elevator that leads down to the bedroom: large windows overlooking the seabed and a large door that allows access to the sea, where I could swim, swim".
In addition, it turns out that after the Silverstone incident the German thought about retiring. In addition to the two teams nominated to play the two titles up for grabs, in Melbourne the eyes are on the Arrows-Supertec, which after a promising winter makes it official to have reached the agreement for the sponsorship of the British telephone network Orange, that will increase the team’s coffers, which aims to reach the top five positions in the constructors' championship. There is also waiting for the three rookies that the grid includes among the twenty-two drivers of this season: Nick Heidfeld at the wheel of Prost, Gastòn Mazzacane for Minardi, and especially Jenson Button on Williams.
The 20-year-old Briton, from Formula Ford, has raised many doubts as to whether his inexperience may be a problem for him and others. Jackie Stewart stresses how important it is for a driver to train well in the minor formulas before being able to make the big jump in the car category, which he said Button did not; thesis also supported by Jean Alesi, who, from the height of his hundred and sixty-seven Grand Prix, says:
"How do you explain that Formula 1, or the highest expression of racing, allows to run to boys unprepared? I’m not criticizing Jenson; I’m saying experience will hurt us. On the other hand, I wonder if one stands still with the car broken down and finds which taxi drivers Schumacher, Villeneuve and Button, by whom would he be taken?"
But there are others who take the side of the young Jenson, including Alain Prost, who stresses:
"I don’t think it will be a danger to his opponents, certainly it will not be easy for him to debut on an unknown track, but as I noticed in Barcelona it has an incredible ease to memorize the tracks".
Ironic, but not too ironic, Cesare Fiorio:
"The real danger is that it risks making someone else stop driving. Formula 1 must begin to believe in those young people who are talented. I, for example, pushed a lot for Minardi to give a chance to Fernardo Alonso, but there are other young people who deserve as Luciano Burti (Jaguar test driver) and Gianmaria Bruni (European Formula Renault champion). If you’re talented, no problem".
Benetton’s technical director, Pat Symonds, uses some examples:
"I think there is a lot of jealousy towards him: so far, his performance has been satisfactory and, on the other hand, there are other drivers who have passed directly from Formula 3 in Formula 1 as Prost, Senna and Brundle. Schumacher himself had raced with the Prototypes which was a different category".
After hearing the criticisms, the interested party replies as follows:
"The criticism leaves me indifferent: everyone will have made a first race. Now is the right time for me and I feel ready, although I would have preferred to do more miles during the winter".
As usual, before taking to the track for free practice, Thursday, March 9 takes place the press conference organized by the Federation, which is attended by Schumacher, Irvine and Hakkinen, with in Finnish guilty of a small but harmless delay.
However, Mika appears more relaxed than usual, and the first question immediately tries to dampen the great enthusiasm created around F1-2000:
"They can’t possibly be faster than two seconds. There’s got to be something going on. At most, working like crazy, you can file half a second, not more. If you build a car that can improve so much, in race it lasts fifteen laps. There can be no reliability. However, I can only guarantee on our progress. And there are many, you will see. You won’t break up again in the first race, like you did last year. Australia was a disaster, but we arrived here without ever having simulated a Grand Prix. Now we have thousands of miles behind us. Same power and greater reliability".
Nevertheless, the Mp4/15 did not surprise with its speed:
"The reason is simple: I have never stepped on my foot to the bottom. We had other objectives: the machine is well balanced, lighter. You drive better, it will be easier not to make mistakes".
Hakkinen also responded to Schumacher’s attacks through German newspapers. The driver of Ferrari, in fact, had defined him as weak, as demonstrated by the tears of Monza, also claiming that the World Cup won were favoured by his misfortunes. Mika replies with the same poison:
"I read the newspapers a little, let alone those of your country. If you say these things, you see that you need to load. I don’t go around saying that this new car is the best one I’ve ever driven. It’s meaningless talk, even before the first race was held. I had two fantastic McLaren and I won two titles. This looks good, but the trail will judge you. He needs autogenous training; I rely on real data: the ones my stable provides me".
There is talk of his retirement at the end of the season, he denies at least partially:
"I don’t think about it right now. November might be different. If I found out I didn’t win and I no longer had the right motivation, I might realize I’ve come to the end of the line. But it is premature: now I prefer to focus on a great dream, that of triumphing for the third time in a row. It’s not a hassle, it’s a huge stimulus. Something like that gets you into history".
Deprived of his personal press officer Heiner Buchinger, not liked by Ferrari for some of his previous statements, and replaced by the Berlin journalist Sabine Kehm, Schumacher reiterates that the season will once again see a tight head between Ferrari and McLaren. Kerpen’s driver also talks about his fitness, a subject of constant discussion since his injury at Silverstone:
"I have never been as well physically as I am now, thanks also to the particular type of training done with my new trainer. I feel truly regenerated, now I am a memory of the tribulations of last season. Ready to win? At Ferrari there are 500 people who have worked hard to win, so it is clear that we are here to win, this is a competition".
In Melbourne, however, the Ferrari driver never managed to impose himself:
"It would be great to win right now here, but the real dream would be to be first at the end of the year".
A dream that risks becoming a nightmare, in case of another defeat:
"Well, let’s say it would be a bad thing, but if everyone will give the best of themselves you could not talk about nightmare; if anything, it would be a big trouble if this did not happen because of mistakes, that would be very annoying. I have the contract with Ferrari until 2002 and we would eventually continue to pursue the goal; but it is not really the case to look so far ahead at this time, we think of the present that is already so challenging in itself. This year I have a Ferrari much improved compared to the past, a car that has everything to be competitive from the first races".
In an interview of the past few days, talking about the risk in Formula 1, he would say not to be afraid of death:
"I didn’t say that, I have that fear, like everyone else, also due to the fact that I’m a racing driver. I said that risks must always be calculated, always; that there must be limits in every situation, and that when I run, I never have the feeling of going beyond the limits. I feel much safer than those who go by car or scooter on the streets, because I know what the limits are and I always move within these limits".
After four undisputed number one seasons on the team, with the sole exception of the season finale of '99 where for obvious reasons he put himself at the service of the team leaving the victory to Irvine in Malaysia, the arrival of Rubens Barrichello is an extra incentive to ensure that these hierarchies do not undergo changes:
"I don’t think I need stimulation or motivation, Rubens is a good driver and I think I can have a good relationship with him, as I had with Irvine. Then it is not the contracts that determine the rankings within a team, but the times and results; the fastest is the number one".
Barrichello, in fact, after an intense winter, during which he milled kilometers between Mugello and Fiorano, is excited on the eve of his first weekend as a Ferrari driver:
"At last, the world struggle can be about me too. Driving a Ferrari is a dream come true, it is the possibility that I asked God. I know what I’m worth and I’ve never had a car like this. Emotion? I can’t hide that I had some at the beginning, but I tried to dominate it quickly because when one is excited then ends up losing concentration. I prefer not to make predictions; I’ll try to do my best and then we’ll see what comes up. This F1-2000 is particularly fast, so anything is possible for me and for Michael. The fight with the McLaren will begin immediately, and right from qualifying we will have the first answers".
Meanwhile, the technical commissioners of the Australian Grand Prix judge regular the small drifts on the sides of the cockpit of Ferrari and Jordan, definitively closing a small case raised the month before in front of the Federation. Therefore, all cars comply with safety regulations.
Friday, March 10, the first two practice sessions of the season are staged. For Ferrari, after promising test sessions, this is not the start you were hoping for. While leading the time standings, Michael Schumacher goes beyond the limit on Turn 14: F1-2000 goes straight, the German gives a brake shot, the speed goes down but the car goes inexorably against the barriers. Schumacher steers just enough to avoid a frontal impact, thus hitting with the left side at a speed of 80 km/h. The Ferrari driver admits his error, excluding any technical faults on the car that instead present themselves on another occasion.
In the morning, in fact, on the Albert Park circuit it is Hakkinen to score the best performance, followed by Schumacher, whose Ferrari two minutes from the end breaks the engine. In the afternoon, Michael takes the first position before the spectacular accident from which he leaves fortunately unharmed. With a time of 1'32"120, the German lowered the time set by his rival in the morning session by six tenths.
In the total count of the times, Coulthard is second at fourteen thousandths, while Rubens Barrichello is third at three tenths, with Hakkinen only fourth away half a second, and protagonist of a spin in the final. Heavy detachments paid by the rest of the group, captained by Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR-Honda, one second and three tenths away from Schumacher’s time. After the accident, Schumacher admits that he was afraid:
"I reviewed the Silverstone images. That’s normal, because the incident was similar in some ways. Do you think that this bad memory can affect my future? You will see it tomorrow".
With a slogan pronounced in Italian, Michael makes well understand what is the mood with which he approaches this weekend:
"I want to fight like a lion".
For a precise objective, the conquest of the world title:
"More than ever possible, because the car is fine, it’s what I expected. I wasn’t surprised to beat McLaren in free practice. As I was not surprised by their times, very close to ours. Everything is in line with my predictions. It will be a very hard-fought race. The accident was my mistake. I was going fast, too. I lost control of the car. A naivety".
He’s happy when he can say that:
"The car is much better than last year. Now we don’t have to recover a second at McLaren, because we’re ahead. We managed to improve the car enormously. And we will do it even before the race. I am very confident".
Luckily for him, as Ferrari’s chief mechanic, Nigel Stepney, knows, the body does not suffer irreparable damage and, curiously, during the night it is repaired thanks to a hair dryer so impeccably that Schumacher continues to use this body, Number 200, rather than 198, never damaged.
On Saturday, March 11, however, the enormous potential supported by Schumacher is not exploited properly: despite two engines changed in the morning, McLaren puts the shot with Mika Hakkinen, who conquers the twenty-second pole position of his career by turning in 1'30"556. Coulthard completes the front row of the entire McLaren, despite an incident in the final of the session that caused the interruption with the red flag.
This damages Michael Schumacher, who has to abort his last attempt, having to settle for the third place. Qualifying complicated for the German, never able to complete a clean lap, slowed down in his best attempts by a yellow flag, then by the red one caused by Coulthard, without forgetting a couple of excursions on the grass. Fourth place went to Rubens Barrichello, who spun his tail while scoring record partials. A cold shower for the Maranello team, firmly at the top of the ranking also in the third session of free practice with Schumacher, but mocked at the crucial moment.
The third row is occupied by the Jordans of Frentzen and Trulli, as in the '99 the first pursuers of Ferrari and McLaren. Eddie Irvine, seventh at the helm of the new Jaguar, also smiles ahead of an equally satisfied Jacques Villeneuve. It shows the great progress compared to the previous season the Arrows, then a constant of the last two rows, and now in twelfth and thirteenth position with his two bishops, Pedro de la Rosa and Jos Verstappen.
"We all expect great things from Schumacher, and I’m sure we will".
Jean Todt says at the end of the day, arguing that the Silverstone accident will not be a psychological brake for the German champion:
"I have known him well for a long time, and I feel like saying no. Here there are drivers who have had accidents and that’s not why they go easy. Hakkinen had a terrible accident in Australia, he was in a coma, his career seemed over. Now he looks like he’s scared?"
The qualification did not go as planned, but:
"We are sure of another thing, that we can beat ourselves well with our opponents. As for winning, who knows? Of the car we are happy for two reasons: we started from the one that at the end of '99 was very strong, and in every sector, we managed to make remarkable progress: chassis, aerodynamics, weights".
The only thing that worries the sports director of Ferrari is the new engine, whose reliability is not taken for granted. As for the opponents, Todt reiterates:
"I only see one, the McLaren. It will be a fight between us and that’s it. Behind it there will be a Jordan, who has many reliability problems. It’s gonna be hard for everyone else".
What improvements does Ferrari need?
"As usual we don’t stand still, and this time we start from a higher step. For example, we won’t practice before the Brazilian Grand Prix. We will do them later, and we have new plans for Brazil and Imola. Already now in qualifying we are able to get the best time. We could have done pole".
Finally, a comment on Rubens Barrichello:
"What I have already seen in these months: grit, decision, will of results. He settled immediately, he is good with us, and we with him. I can assure you that Barrichello could have done better than Hakkinen".
Sunday, March 12, 2000 the long wait comes to an end: the new season officially begins. Everything is ready the third consecutive act of the challenge between McLaren and Ferrari, without leaving out other topics anything but trivial as the first of the Jaguar, with Irvine returning to the track where he won his first race in his career a year earlier, or the young Jenson Button, that will start from the last row with his Williams BMW, but decided to be noticed right away in his new adventure as a Formula 1 driver. On the grid, under a scorching sun that accompanies the drivers throughout the weekend, Jean Alesi is missing, forced to start from the pit-lane due to problems on his Prost. All drivers opt for soft tires, however the strategy to a stop is the preferred one.
At the start the two McLaren start well, unlike the two Ferraris that have to defend against Frentzen and Trulli at the first corner. Schumacher managed to keep the third position; Barrichello instead was overtaken by Frentzen. No accident characterizes the first start of the year, during which stands Jenson Button, who in half a lap gains six positions and is already fifteenth.
Johnny Herbert’s race ends immediately, in a weekend for him to forget, having already had to deal with two broken Ford engine on his Jaguar. After a few hundred meters, it’s the clutch that drives him out of the race. After a few laps Hakkinen, Coulthard and Schumacher make up the compact headband enclosed in just two seconds, and they run with an unsustainable pace for Frentzen, who has already lost contact and slows down Barrichello visibly: in six laps the gap is already thirteen seconds.
Starting from the pit lane and in the midst of an attempt to recover, Jean Alesi tries an overtaking manoeuvre against Pedro Diniz, but exaggerates and ends up in a spin. Jaguar’s first Formula 1 race ended in just over a quarter of an hour, due to Irvine’s retirement following Herbert’s. Northern Ireland ends up turning in an attempt to avoid Pedro de La Rosa, also the author of a spin. For the Arrows Spaniard the cause is due to a failure of the suspension, which reappears soon after on the other car of Jos Verstappen.
With a wheel from de la Rosa’s Arrows remaining in the trajectory and the two crashed cars to be removed, the direction opted for the entry of the Safety Car. At the tenth lap on the finish line, when the Safety Car returns to the pits, the points area is occupied in order by Hakkinen, Coulthard, Schumacher, Frentzen, Barrichello and Trulli.
Once free to push, Schumacher approaches Coulthard, who seems to have lost speed. And in fact, the Scotsman returns to the pits to make what turns out to be a very long stop, of 43.9 seconds. Back on the track, Coulthard walked a few hundred meters before a large white smoke emerged from the rear of McLaren, officially decreeing the withdrawal. Coulthard parks in a safe zone, preventing a new entrance to the Safety Car.
Climbed into second place, Michael Schumacher plays the charge and scores the fast lap in 1'32"964, reducing the gap from Hakkinen who continues to do the gait. Barrichello, meanwhile, remains stuck behind Frentzen without ever being able to worry him, while thanks to the retirement of Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve enters the points area.
In the eighteenth lap, seven after the retirement of the first McLaren, the same identical problem that caused the Scottish driver to leave the scene also recurs on the other Mp4/15 of Hakkinen, which turns slowly along the track before parking at the exit side of turn 12.
As happened also in 1999, the two McLaren are unable to reach the finish line for reasons of reliability, and exactly as in the past season, they lose the opportunity to win a potential double with which to inaugurate the season. At the press conference on Thursday, Hakkinen said he was sure that the team had gone beyond the reliability problems, stating that the disaster of the '99 would not be repeated. Well, while he looks painfully at the other cars from the edge of the track, he unfortunately has to change his mind.
With the departure of the two McLaren Mercedes, Michael Schumacher finds himself the solitary leader of the Australian Grand Prix, with a faster race pace of one second per lap compared to his direct pursuers, Frentzen and Barrichello. Just reached the pits, Hakkinen commented on the retreat, taking it with philosophy:
"I’m rather disappointed, but luckily there are still sixteen races at the end of the season, so I still have plenty of chances to score points. I think we are fast, the car is there, too bad for this failure".
Afterwards, his words will be much more bitter. On lap 29, the Ferrari mechanics welcome Schumacher for his only pit stop, completed in peace within 12.2 seconds. The German returns just ahead of Jarno Trulli, so as to avoid slowdowns. Frentzen momentarily becomes the race leader, still ahead for a handful of tenths Rubens Barrichello, who goes crazy behind the Jordan driver.
Rubens attempts an undercut on Frentzen, returning before him and, above all, embarking less fuel on board. His stop, in fact, lasts just nine seconds, three less than that made by Schumacher. It goes from one to two stops, a change of strategy wanted by Ross Brawn to try to earn the second position. Barrichello, however, returns to the track behind Button’s Williams, and then from the slowdown of Frentzen passes to that of the young Briton.
Whether the new strategy had worked or not is not known, because in a few rounds the dream race of Jordan turns into a nightmare.
After twenty-five laps a problem with the exhaust drive Jarno Trulli out of the race, who parks the car in the gravel, in turn 3, and in the same lap Frentzen returns to the pits for parking, but for problems with the vent the procedure of refuelling and changing tires lasts even 23.4 seconds. A disaster that delivers to Barrichello the second position. Frentzen returns to the track sixth, but virtually third, waiting for Villeneuve and the Williams BMW cars of Ralf Schumacher and Button to go to the pits. When this happens, however, the race of Frentzen also ends, stopped by a failure of the hydraulic system.
After forty laps, four of the six cars that made up the points area at the beginning of the race withdrew due to technical problems, facilitating and not a little the task of the two Ferraris, easily in the lead to make the pace. Thanks to the above-mentioned retirements and also to the delayed pit-stop, Ralf Schumacher, started from the eleventh place, got into third position, ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button, who in turn started in the back row.
About to make the second pit-stop, Rubens Barrichello pushes on the accelerator going to pick up Michael Schumacher, who even steps aside to not slow down his teammate, aware that in a short time he will again in his hands the head of the race. Promptly Barrichello completes a stop of 7.9 seconds, and returns to the track second, away from his teammate and the drivers who chase him.
The sensational double finish in points of Williams is dematerialized inexorably for the retirement of Button, which at only twelve laps from the end is betrayed by the Bmw engine, leaving the BAR of Ricardo Zonta the sixth position. A double point finish, at this point, seems feasible just for the team of Craig Pollock, the same one that in 1999 barely reached the finish line. In the final, the race is animated by the group of drivers led by Jacques Villeneuve, up to Alex Wurz, eighth.
The most competitive is Mika Salo, who with his Sauber skids from sixth place Ricardo Zonta thanks to a brave manoeuvre in turn 7. The Finn does not seem to want to be satisfied with the sixth position, so much so that he began pressing Giancarlo Fisichella with insistence. The fight, however, does not light up, and everyone arrives at the finish line in single file, forty-four seconds after Michael Schumacher crosses the checkered flag of the winner of the Australian Grand Prix.
"Come on, little girl, go on, hold on, we’ve done it, let’s go through with it".
These are the words Michael Schumacher addressed to his Ferrari in the last laps of the Australian Grand Prix. The German driver is so tense for the idea of not getting to the finish line that he starts talking to his Ferrari, because:
"At the end I felt little vibrations, probably due to the tires. I was so worried about not making it, I started cuddling the car. You can’t imagine what it’s like to bring a car like this, it’s amazing fun".
At the finish line, the German is eleven seconds ahead of Barrichello, who completes a double Ferrari that did not occur at the first Grand Prix of the season since 1953. Ralf Schumacher completes the podium, Jacques Villeneuve returns to points after a long wait thanks to an excellent fourth place, obtained ahead of Fisichella’s Benetton and Mika Salo’s Sauber, which however is disqualified in the after-race for a technical irregularity of the front wing, too close to the wheels. The sixth place, therefore, is occupied by the BAR of Ricardo Zonta.
Ferrari starts the season with sixteen points, made even sweeter by the double retirement of McLaren. In the closed park then, there are certainly reasons to celebrate. Schumacher dispenses hugs for everyone, starting with Barrichello and his brother Ralf, after which he does the same with Todt and his mechanics. On the podium, both he and Barrichello pretend to be conductors while Mameli’s hymn is played. The press conference is another way to express the great satisfaction that reigns supreme in the Maranello team. Michael breaks the taboo tied to Melbourne after five years, and is no longer in the skin for such a competitive car:
"Happy? Overcrowded, I don’t think so. But do you realize? We’ve been coming here for five years, but we’ve only now managed to win. I felt it and I also told you: as soon as I sat in that car, I realized that we were very competitive, that we could win".
Victory came despite a slow start:
"I didn’t start badly, on the contrary. Let’s say: McLaren started better than us. But this is our old problem, we’ve been working on it for a long time and we’ll have to work on it again. It’s our weak point, but we made good progress because I started much better than in many other Grands Prix".
A problem, that of departures, not new to Ferrari:
"It is not a question of changing one piece or another: it is the whole system that is very complex and difficult to set up. In part we succeeded, the rest will come working".
Coulthard’s retirement, and then Hakkinen’s, facilitated his task:
"I had in mind to be close to him and I succeeded easily, without overdoing. Indeed, I never drove with such ease, I enjoyed myself. I stood by him and waited for a break from them or the first pit stop. The first is a coincidence, the second is a scheduled event and my plan was to wait for the best time to overcome them at the pits. I tried to consume less tires and less petrol to be able to choose the most suitable time to stop".
"In the case of Coulthard I asked myself: do you have a problem or have they called him back to the pits? Then I learned that he had engine problems, the rest had been seen in the previous days. I stayed to watch, was still very much missing at the first pit-stop. And then Hakkinen also retired. A little 'sorry: I wanted to fight with them, press them, put them in trouble, I did not expect them to retire so soon, leaving me alone. I’m sorry because I was sure I could win; I still had a potential to exploit that you can’t even imagine. I would have preferred an overwhelming test of strength, to show how competitive we are this year. With reliability you can never rest, but from all the tests I knew we were in good shape. And then I always drove very carefully, very calmly, without overdoing it. Mine was a waiting race, very calm both before and after the withdrawal of my opponents".
Barrichello’s overtaking was logically planned:
"I was told on the radio that Rubens had to overtake my brother Ralf to get back to second place, and that he was pushing for another pit stop. At that moment I was walking, he was fighting and so I passed him quickly. Rubens had a great race".
In the end, all we had to do was manage:
"There was no need to run anymore, a little because I had begun to feel some vibration. I don’t know, maybe the tires were getting worn, maybe something on the car. I mean, it was useless to risk".
Hakkinen had compared the McLaren to Black Magic, the unbeatable New Zealand boat that defended the America’s Cup; for Schumacher, instead:
"It seems to me that Ferrari is Red Magic, but it’s better to keep our feet on the ground. We also have to carry on a big development work. What’s great is that we start with a car that’s already going so fast, you can’t even imagine. And we have some great ideas on how to make it better again. It’s not so much victory that makes me happy, but how we got there. Having a car like this is the biggest motivation for a driver, and I’ll never be able to say thank you to everyone at Ferrari who worked on it. After all we can’t say that we dominated the McLaren because they retired early, but even with the McLaren in the race I know that we could win. This is the enormous result of our work".
Rubens Barrichello had teary eyes on the podium, stressed but no doubt happy for his debut at the wheel of the Ferrari, crowned by a second place. A beginning hard to forget:
"In three days, I made only two mistakes, the spin during qualifying and the start not exciting in the race. I had so much pressure on me, but it never bothered me, it didn’t affect me. The second place satisfied me, I missed the start, I got overtaken by Frentzen, I risked not to finish in the first three. But in Brazil I want to win. The same podium, but with inverted positions between me and Schumacher. Hit the first success, right in my Interlagos, would be great. I’m in a fabulous team, the car is perfect, in the race did not give me any problem. There is power in the engine, I can choose the right set-up, the balance is exceptional, why shouldn’t I aim to beat Schumacher? Eventually the team told me to slow down, it was right. We were in the first two places, I could never get over Michael, even if he had a vibration problem, taking risks would be useless. I took orders, I shared them. Maybe they would have asked me anyway, even if I had been closer to Michael, but it’s normal, the terms are clear. The fight is at the first corner. If I find myself in the head, I have no obligation. Unfortunately, here I played the race in the start: the goal was another, start strong, but Frentzen cheated me. I have to thank Ross Brawn, who confirmed to be a master in strategies. He had courage, changing tactics during the race. He figured I’d never make it past Jordan, so he decided to let me go from one to two pit stops. The move came to nothing, because Frentzen got out of the way by himself, with a long pit stop, but the stroke of genius remains. This is a very well-organized team; I have never spoken so much on the radio during a race. I drive a special car, and I’m convinced it will soon make me a special driver".
Rubens doesn’t just want to be number two:
"Schumacher is the strongest in the world, but with me he will have a hard life. I have a lot of grit, and I want to carve out an important space. I am convinced that soon I will win my first race and I will be able to fight for the world title".
The Brazilian is not ashamed to express his emotions:
"On the podium I was excited, I always will be. I felt like crying, because I thought of all the sacrifices I made to get to this point. I’ve been fighting in the rear for years, with slow or otherwise uncompetitive machines. I never gave up, and this is the right reward for my efforts".
This Ferrari is thrilled:
"It has exceptional reliability, and in terms of performance we are on par with McLaren".
Two weeks off and then you will go to Sao Paulo, his home track:
"That circuit is very similar to Mugello, we’ll be very good there too. I know I represent my people; I want people to share my joy on the day I finally win a race. Doing it in Brazil would be ideal. We are already all there, I run home, can you imagine what a mess? It would be a memorable party".
We are also satisfied with the BMW-Williams combination, with the German manufacturer immediately on the podium twelve years after his last presence in Formula 1. Podium achieved thanks to the solid performance of Ralf Schumacher, who states:
"An exciting result, which surprises us, because we didn’t think we had such a reliable engine".
Gerhard Berger, former Ferrari driver now in charge of BMW engines, is happy:
"I did not expect the podium, it gives us great confidence. We want to become competitive as soon as possible".
The fourth place of Jacques Villeneuve not only allows the BAR to celebrate the first points in Formula 1, but also brings the same Canadian to points after a year and three months from the last time, the 1st November 1998 in Suzuka, when he was still driving for Williams:
"Now we start to think, finally the machine is reliable and competitive. These three points are very important".
Giancarlo Fisichella remained attached to him for much of the race, without ever attempting an overtaking manoeuvre. For the Roman, the fifth place is more than enough:
"I could have attacked Villeneuve, but I preferred to settle, because at the beginning of the race I broke something in the back of the car, which still reacts well and is reliable. With the new aerodynamics we will annoy everyone".
To celebrate their triumphant debut, Ferrari mechanics toast in a famous Melbourne nightclub, but they do not do it together with the two drivers who wrote the brace, but with an old acquaintance of theirs: Eddie Irvine, the former driver of Maranello, always in the mood to party, He joins those who until a few months earlier were his men, proving that the divorce with Ferrari has not affected the relationship with the boys of Maranello.
Otherwise, the big loser this weekend has already taken the plane to take him home. Mika Hakkinen has lived a weekend that is too similar to the many he has already spent during his career. That is, pole position on Saturday, and retirement on Sunday due to force majeure, such as the poor reliability of the car. Before leaving Australia, the Finnish guy shoots:
"We’re stupid, you can’t give a gift like that to Ferrari, they’re at our level now and we can’t afford it. Without reliability you do not go anywhere, in these conditions it is impossible to defend the world. It’s been since I won the '99 title at Suzuka that I’ve been saying how important it is to have a solid car that doesn’t break, that comes to the bottom. Pole positions are important, but they don’t bring points. Being fast is not enough, you need a perfect car. I was convinced I could keep Schumacher behind; I had the race in hand. But then the smoke arrived: the engine lost power and it’s over. The script has changed and we need to stick it in our heads. Last year in Australia I had broken the gearbox, I had retired, but I laughed, because I knew I had a second advantage over the Ferraris. Now that second is gone, we are very close and reliability becomes decisive. Our engine started spinning in December, it’s got thousands of miles on its back, it should be indestructible, and instead we come here and we break. It’s just a catastrophe".
The McLaren found in the Safety Car the reason for the technical problems accused by the Mp4/15, because according to Ron Dennis, traveling at low speed can increase the pressure loss of the valves. Hakkinen doesn’t seem to agree, and in fact he points out:
"But on Saturday the Safety Car wasn’t there, and Coulthard and I stayed on foot anyway".
There is also concern about the face of David Coulthard, who talks about serious problems to solve, even more so if the Ferrari is so fast. But compared to his teammate is more optimistic:
"We still have the advantage over performance. Sixteen points to zero are a nasty slap, but in the lap of a Grand Prix everything can be tied again".
Ron Dennis himself, even if defeated, does not intend to get depressed after a crooked race, and repeats for the rhymes to the bravado of Schumacher:
"Does he say they are stronger? Stories. We were on pole, we started in the lead. He can only thank our retreats. Moreover, I find no meaning in Barrichello’s strategy. They sacrificed him to win Schumacher".
The races to be played are still many, but the balance in the standings is already heavy, especially in a type of championship in which the teams fighting for the title are only two. But woe to surrender:
"Does Ferrari rejoice? Go ahead. In Brazil it will be up to us".
But first of all, however, you have to get to the finish line.
Davide Scotto di Vetta