Michael Schumacher’s Australian win, during the first race of the 2000 championship, for sure did not take his sleep, but indeed, the day after the triumph of Melbourne, Michael confirms that he had sweet dreams and feels great since:
"The car is competitive; it doesn’t have problems. For the first time we are not forced to chase. We are already strong at the beginning of the season. The right basis to aim for the title".
This means that they are optimistic even for Brazil:
"Of course. Our goal is to win the title, we have the means to do it. We’ll always be very close to McLaren. On the same level or maybe even stronger".
After the retirement due to a mechanical failure, Mika Hakkinen seemed shocked:
"I wish. I hope he was, but I don’t think ‘shock’ is the right word. The important thing is that he understands that he can’t be relaxed, that he has a strong opponent in front of him, that he will never breathe. Here in Melbourne, he realised that Ferrari is not joking. Now he is behind, in all senses. And psychologically it is not easy".
Someone would say this excitement after only one victory is too much:
"I rely on a fact: Ferrari has always been very good at development during the year. We have clear ideas, we already know where to intervene to further grow, to improve the engine, aerodynamics, and the whole package. On this skill we have always built our season. And now we start from a higher base".
Schumacher also explains why he chose to use the n 200 chassis, the one he damaged during free practice 1, instead of the new one, the n 198:
"The chassis n 200 is my racing shell. I wasn’t that happy during qualifications with the chassis n 198, so I decided to take the risk. Cars are like shoes: they are amazing when they are perfect. Or like women: a lot of them are beautiful, but only with one you have that particular feeling".
Even in Australia, when the lights went out, you struggled:
"It’s our flaw, maybe the last one we have. It’s hard to say why we can’t improve. McLaren has found a way to optimise the start, we haven’t. It will be a long problem, to be solved calmly. Our system has something wrong, a set of electronics and mechanics. We have to work on it".
On the podium alongside him and Barrichello, there was also his brother Ralf, who made an excellent performance, that surprised the Ferrari driver:
"The championship will be a battle made of two, us and McLaren. But Williams, with the BMW engine, can take big steps forward. About Ralf, right after the race he was very emotional. He couldn’t talk, he seemed sad. Then I told him: hey kid, you got the unexpected podium, be happy for it. Ralf is strong, his car is promising".
In his opinion, you cannot say the same thing about Villeneuve’s BAR-Honda:
"I’m not worried about them. They are still new to this world, and growing fast is very complicated".
McLaren, taking the defeat badly, did not miss its accusations. In particular, Dennis did not like the entry of the Safety Car, according to him being the cause of the problems to the pneumatic valves of their engines:
"For us the Safety Car has not been a problem, our engine handles every temperature well. About the decision of its entry, I think it was the right one. Irvine and De La Rosa had a crash, there was a safety problem".
Right now, can Ferrari consider themselves ahead of McLaren?
"They always recover very well. This is not about their crisis, it’s about our growth. That has been very big. I don’t think we can always win, but if you are leading the championship, you can manage the situation better. And even second place sometimes is ok".
The second round is in Brazil, at Interlagos, are you worried about something?
"Track conditions. In the past years it has never been smooth; the car, both in free practice and during the race, was jumping. Ecclestone assured me that he would ensure that this inconvenience would not occur again, that work has already been carried out. I hope so. Better to go and check in person".
Engineer Pino D'Agostino, fifty-two years old from Taranto, who is in charge of supervising the engines of Ferrari, also speaks about the situation of Ferrari, and much more. Like all technicians, he does not like triumphalism and prefers concreteness, not surprisingly he begins by saying:
"McLaren is still very strong, better not to be deluded. I don’t get excited about the trouble McLaren had on its engines, because they’ve already solved them. They already knew that there was a risk of breaking everything. We noticed it from the Ferrari box when we heard Hakkinen passing by: suddenly the car had started to rattle, a word that we use when we hear a different noise. And according to the type of noise you can understand what trouble it is. Hakkinen had pneumatic valves that were no longer working and in fact shortly a piston broke, and we saw it immediately from that wire of blue smoke that came out of the engine. But at McLaren they had already noticed because on telemetry they read that the air consumption of that plant had suddenly risen. They already know how to fix it, and it’s pure illusion to think they’ll keep breaking the valves. These things happen, probably a bad batch with the wrong tolerances, a bad hold".
It seems strange that an engine who has been tried long since December breaks the valves today, but not according to D'Agostino:
"It’s not strange, because their December engine is already the grandfather of the current one. Let me give you another example: do you know the difference between the Ferrari engine of the 1999 Australian Grand Prix and that of the Japanese Grand Prix, the last race of the year? Only the outer casing was the same, inside it everything had changed. There are never two engines equal. The McLarens are very strong. They have an incredible pure speed when everything goes well and nothing breaks. Just look at the qualifying on Saturday: they had stood still, they had broken their engines, they went to the track and they immediately made the first row and pole. But they no longer have that advantage they had before, and then they will suffer. Do you see that gentleman eating at that table? That’s Norbert Haug, Chief Mercedes in McLaren. A few years ago, when I was in Alfa, we fought in Dtm, the German Touring Car Championship: we had five pole positions and nine wins. Now I want to beat him in Formula 1".
There is a nasty rumour going around the paddock which says that the new Ferrari engine was taken out of the factory:
"Let’s not be silly. The design can’t be done off because to design an engine you need an archive full of data, experiences, history. We have it, and only starting from the last engine can we realise a new one. The construction, however, is another thing. Let us take an example, that of pistons. We have them built in Germany because they require such complex processing, machinery and investment that it would be crazy to put all this stuff together to make five or a thousand pistons a year. It’s better to have them built by those who are specialised in this, but we say how we want the pistons, they just built them for us".
After the Australian trip, the world of Formula 1 is shaken by news that has been in the air for about a year: through the acquisition of a part of Benetton’s shareholding, Renault makes its return to the circus. On March 16, 2000, sitting next to his son Rocco, Luciano Benetton candidly admits that he can no longer do it:
"We are here to say that our path in Formula 1 is over. You could not continue against budgets that are two, three times higher than ours. Ours is a medium-small budget, insufficient for a world where competitors engage much more: a group like ours would not have had a chance to win. It will therefore be Renault, from now on, to make up for this handicap. Today we passed the baton".
For one hundred and twenty million dollars the team is sold to the French brand, which will officially make its return only in the 2002 season, and will have Flavio Briatore as its team manager; he is an old acquaintance of both Formula 1 and Benetton, having been one of the main protagonists of the winning biennium. Arrived in 1985, over time Briatore created an excellent technical staff - then passed in block at Ferrari - and especially hired a young Michael Schumacher, who, in 1994 and 1995 conquered two drivers' titles, accompanied by the constructors’ in the second triumph. Then, in conjunction with the farewell of the German, a slow descent towards the centre of the group, with sporadic important results. Briatore will direct the looms business in Enstone, where Benetton leaves a team with a modern wind tunnel and three hundred and fifteen men between technicians and staff. In addition, the Italian team manager will be at the head of the team starting from the Brazilian Grand Prix. Renault’s new president, Patrick Faure, explains:
"If we go back to Formula 1 it is not to limit ourselves to the role of extras or to be motorists, like Honda, Mercedes, Bmw. We already did it, and we won. Now we wanted our own team, our own stable, designing chassis and engine. And since Williams was not on sale, we turned to Benetton".
With a five-year contract, Briatore explains the reason for his return to Formula 1, after having left Benetton in 1997 and then devoted himself to the management of Supertec engines:
"I accepted because Renault is personally committed, and you can go back to the successes of the past. Here at Benetton the holidays are over. Now they’re all under scrutiny, starting with the drivers. Relaxing is forbidden, already from next year you have to scratch on the track, my role is to remotivate everyone, give discipline again. And in September there will be confirmation or rejection. I kicked out Piquet, Berger, and Alesi: do you think I have problems?"
And what about Schumacher?
"He remains the fastest of all. I laugh at my theses on the first and second Ferrari driving: with him there is none for anyone. Five years ago, he made a life choice: he wants to enter history by winning the World Championship with Ferrari. And he will succeed".
As soon as he arrives in Brazil, Briatore immediately passes the law, and gathering technicians and mechanics in the box, with closed shutters, he gives a brief speech in which he explains that he wants people always in tension, with the uniform in place and the beard made. The goal must be to reform a winning team. It starts with details such as the number of pit-stop drills performed on Thursday: the team used to train with about fifteen simulations, Briatore claims that these will be doubled and that on board the car there will be the drivers, Fisichella and Wurz. Before diving into the second Grand Prix of the season, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello play a training match with the Brazilian champion team, Corinthians. All while in Fiorano, on March 18, 2000, Luca Badoer performs the usual test of the three cars to be used at Interlagos. In his home country, Rubens Barrichello deals with a real Rubinho-mania. All fans are eagerly waiting for the Grand Prix that will see the return of a Brazilian driver in the upper steps of the standings, and that may even succeed as a winner of the race, becoming the first Brazilian to win his home Grand Prix after Ayrton Senna in 1993.
"The anxiety inside me is enormous".
Barrichello admits, who has to ensure that this feeling is transformed into positive energy, so as not to disappoint an entire nation that awaits him at the gate:
"I’m fast and I hope to do well, I hope to get the most out of it. The agreement is clear but it is obvious that if I have the chance to get on the top step of the podium I will, even if Michael remains Michael".
At Ferrari there is an atmosphere of great tranquillity, so much so that the disagreements and controversies of last season seem already a distant memory. Schumacher’s words are proof of this:
"We are quiet, the car is very good and we have worked again to perfect our performance. With Rubens, the relationship is amazing, he’s the best teammate I’ve ever had. I know that he is particularly keen to make a good impression in this Grand Prix, and I hope he will succeed, even if, of course, it would be ideal for me to repeat the exploit of Melbourne".
The enthusiasm of the fans involves Barrichello, while to surround Schumacher, more than the fans, are the paparazzi. Quiet in Rio with his wife Corinna, Schumacher thinks he is far from the world, when he finds himself in front of the entrance of his hotel an army of photographers who literally force him to flee in a taxi; the taxi driver, strange but true, does not recognize him and helps him to escape. Upon his arrival in São Paulo, on the evening of the same day, Michael tells about his little setback smiling. McLaren-Mercedes cannot contemplate other technical setbacks, which in Brazil is determined to respond to the double Ferrari podium obtained in Melbourne. The Anglo-German team pushes on the accelerator, so much so that a new engine specification, which was to be ready for Imola, is already taken in advance to São Paulo, after Olivier Panis has tested it for three days in a row at Silverstone, completing a thousand kilometres with satisfactory answers. In addition, on the Mp4/15 there will also be a new change. Substantial changes, after the discovery that the two breakdowns of the Australian race were caused by the entire engine, and not only by the hydraulic system. Mika Hakkinen looks with confidence to the weekend, but to leave no stone unturned he chooses to reside in the same hotel of last season, when he won the race fluently, despite a thrill in the first laps for a momentary problem highlighted on his McLaren. In order to avoid other technical problems, the reigning champion also uses superstition.
"I don’t have inferiority complexes, we’re just at the beginning of the season and it would be absurd to stress now. Australia did not leave me complexes, São Paulo is my favourite circuit, the news we have on the car make me very optimistic".
The Finn has just arrived in São Paulo. Meanwhile, the first real controversy erupts outside the tracks of this season, regarding the choice of the Federation to freeze electronics from the third round of the calendar, the San Marino Grand Prix. The controversy starts from a letter that all teams receive on March 21 from the FIA, in which there are precise limits to the electronic management of engines. The thrusters should have only one injection and ignition time control, based on engine revolutions and butterfly position. This is because, apparently, in a paragraph it is recognized that electronic strategies are too complicated and the FIA cannot control them to the fullest. Much more simply, the Federation cannot keep up with progress, and demands a return to the old. And that is not all: each engine will not be able to use more than three different software per season. Another limit not to complicate life. On Friday, March 24, 2000, the cars take to the track for the first two free practice sessions at the Interlagos circuit. The challenge between Schumacher and Hakkinen immediately begins. The chronometric feedback drops with each attempt: Schumacher goes three times below the pole time of the previous year, but Hakkinen does better, first by fifty thousandths and then by four tenths. The Ferrari driver would like to respond, but he cannot because the mechanics replace the front brakes and there is no more time to get on the track. It is only Friday, but the two opponents drive like it is already Saturday. Hakkinen is more than satisfied, and says he is happy with the improvements of his car and for the novelties brought. Schumacher, for his part, stresses that the gap between Ferrari and McLaren is minimal, and to believe in pole:
"We can be much faster, improving the suspension, working on the setup. The new asphalt made everyone faster: to take the first row we will have to go down below 1'15, two seconds less than last year. We thought that there were fewer jumps, we had prepared for a smoother track, and instead it is still a little wavy. We understood the lesson. We will improve".
On the McLaren side, Ron Dennis repeated Schumacher’s arrows, who had accused him of not knowing how to lose and of thinking less about Ferrari’s internal strategies and more about his team’s problems:
"Yes, it’s true, I’m a terrible loser. But if I say something there’s always a reason. They will never be able to convince me, those of Ferrari, on the second pit-stop of Barrichello in Melbourne".
For the home idol Rubens Barrichello, the day is characterised by an off-track at the first corner, caused by the breaking of the footrest platform that allows him to brake only with the right. Rubens assures that he can fight for the first row, at the expense of the fourth place obtained at seven thousandths by Coulthard:
"The setup was not ideal, I’m not too happy, but we still have important cards to play".
Thesis also supported by Jean Todt:
"We have not yet fully exploited our potential. Here we go like rocketships, I predict a pole in 1'14. From McLaren? Also from Ferrari".
David Coulthard appears to be in slightly more difficulty than his teammate, having also been slowed down by rear wing problems (whose support has been replaced) and a gear failure. The next day, Saturday, March 25, in a rather similar way to what happened in Melbourne qualifying, Ferrari does not take full advantage of the F1-2000 potential. A session in which everything happens, but which justifies up to a certain point the mistakes made, once again, by Schumacher, who climbs excessively on the kerbs and goes off track during his first attempt. The front wing and deflectors come out damaged, as well as the floor of the new body number 201. For the rest of the qualifying, therefore, the German is forced to drive with the forklift.
The practices are interrupted three times for the unexpected break of the billboards that suddenly fall in the middle of the track, on the main straight, effectively blocking both Schumacher and Barrichello in the middle of their fast laps. One of the billboards (curiously all three with Marlboro written on it, Ferrari’s main sponsor) ends up under the right front wheel of Jean Alesi’s Prost, avoiding the head by a hair. The Frenchman recounts the dynamic, but does not feel able to criticise the organisers:
"On the straight I understood that he was going to end up on me, but the accident was less spectacular than seen on television. But if he’d hit me, I don’t know what would have happened. This is an important Grand Prix for Formula 1: Brazil has always had great drivers, and several improvements have been made to the track. It would be stupid to say now: okay, we’re not coming back here".
As if these interruptions were not enough, at the end the rain comes and prevents the two Ferrari drivers from being able to attack the pole position. Both Schumacher and Barrichello enter the track with a wet trim, and an increased aerodynamic load. The two Ferrari drivers have to settle for the second row, just like in Australia, with Schumacher ahead of Barrichello, and behind the McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard. In the post-qualifying, Schumacher attacks:
"Things like this had never happened to me, a session that was completely unusual, even crazy. It rained a bit of everything on the track, until the rain put an end to all our possibilities. Of course, with the billboards no one did it on purpose, but it is not professional. It is strange that there were no signs. And other inconveniences, even on a renewed track, have created the protruding kerbs where I even damaged the body, having to resort to the forklift that was not really ideal".
There is however to record another off-track:
"My car suffered a bit of understeer. Evidently I turned right to the limit and, finishing on the kerb, I lost control. Even the jumps along the straight have not disappeared, the Ferrari is robust and it does not break, but it can happen to other cars. We have to talk about it to the committee-drivers and the FIA will have to take action".
In short, another Saturday quite crooked, in spite of the many proclamations made in the hours before, and that has been made difficult since morning when it was necessary to replace the engine:
"I felt that something was not working properly, and I preferred to turn it off and have it replaced. Anyway, I wouldn’t call it a bad day. I’m quite satisfied, as in Australia: my times in different sectors show that I could have been much closer to McLaren, if not even try for pole in the last attempt".
In the previous one, with very good interludes, Schumacher preferred to go back to the pits instead of completing the lap that seemed excellent. Why?
"Because on the basis of those excellent intermediate steps I thought I could shoot everything in the last exit, but unfortunately it started to rain. And then I didn’t have enough petrol to make even the third lap in that very good attempt. Too bad for not having been able to optimise the set-up of the car but I could still develop good ideas that I will need for the race. Anyway, even if I’m a bit disappointed I’m always very optimistic about the race, especially thinking that last year we had more than a second from McLaren and now not even half. I insist that, with these reduced scraps, pole would have been possible".
And for the race, he says:
"We saw in Australia that even starting from the third position I managed to win, so why couldn’t I do it here? On this track then it is far from impossible to overtake, especially if my Ferrari will be as fast and reliable as I hope".
Schumacher is framed while he spends a long time observing McLaren in the fleet:
"I couldn’t get a good look at it in Melbourne, but here I was able to do it very carefully. And I saw very interesting things in the rear...".
Of course, Jean Todt also talks about the particular conditions that have plagued the qualifying session:
"No doubt the rain did not help us. This is the second time in a row that we are not able to exploit our potential in qualifying. All right, without the rain, the others could have improved, but surely we would have too, and we don’t know what would have happened. Knowing the rain was in the air, maybe we could have done all the exits first. Saturday helps for Sunday but the truth comes out. Those posters? Just those of our sponsor? Well, you say that, but no doubt I thought...".
With folded hands and looking down, Rubens Barrichello chooses diplomacy when someone asks him for a comment on the billboards collapsed on the track three times during the session:
"A very bad thing".
The Brazilian, in an afternoon for him bittersweet, says:
"There was a lot of anticipation around me, and in front of so many people I wanted to set the best time, as I had tried to do in Australia. But, despite everything, I remain optimistic for the race: the track is beautiful, although in case of rain it can become really difficult, as it is very slippery. I’m disappointed with the red flags: I only did two quick laps; when I was doing another one, which in my opinion could have been worth a low 1'14", they called me back to the pits. And I’m still fourth. I think we’re very close to McLaren. With a bit of luck, we might even end up in front. We know that they are strong, we had already seen this in Melbourne. We’ll see what happens, but I’m sorry, I repeat, that the three stops during the session have damaged me so much. To the fans I feel like sending a message. The Ferraris start in the second row, but our value is not discussed. This is a track where you can overtake, and in the race I will do everything to go ahead".
Around him, people enthusiastically chant his name, and he smiles:
"Did you see? It’s a red Brazil. Now let’s look ahead: if the situation improves in the race, I would be fine with it".
With a time of 1'14"111, Mika Hakkinen celebrates his 23rd pole position in his career, with which he equals just the number of pole of his rival Schumacher. The Finn gives more than a tenth to his teammate, four tenths to Schumacher and half a second to Barrichello. To try to repair the disaster on the Australian soil, there is no better way to take pole position. A very complicated session for everyone, including him:
"Yes, this official practice session was difficult: either raindrops fell, or the billboards fell. That was quite a disaster, wasn’t it? And it could be even worse with those pieces of cardboard coming off, I’ve never seen anything like it before in my career. But I am convinced that the organisers will find a solution to the problem before the start of the race. I feel sorry for them, because they were not lucky despite making so many improvements".
In the cold, the McLaren driver may smile at the many inconveniences that have characterised this practice session, but to hear him tell them it seems a sort of ordeal:
"It was not nice to spend an hour and a half in such conditions. I could not even get out of the car to take a break because I had to be always on the alert, ready to get back on track as soon as possible to track the attacks of the opponents. And inside the car, meanwhile, I felt the heat growing, sweating as if I were riding on my bike at home. I lost a lot of fluids and I kept drinking, so at a certain point I also felt the need to pee. It was hard to keep concentration until the last moment".
In spite of everything, however, the Finn has never despaired to place himself once again in front of everyone:
"Even though David made my life hard, I always felt that I could hit the pole because everything was going in the right direction".
Already on Friday, Hakkinen realised that his MP4/15 was in great shape here and on Saturday he had confirmation:
"The car was perfect. I could have even turned faster, between turns six and seven I lost three-four tenths, but I did not want to take excessive risks in that area".
Usually cautious with the predictions for Sunday, to those who ask him if he is ready to hit the first success of the season, Hakkinen responds with an eloquent yes, explaining his optimism:
"In Australia, every time I was on track I felt a strange noise coming from the engine that put a bit of fear on me. Now I don’t feel it anymore and so, although I can’t be sure we won’t have any mechanical problems, I’m optimistic. But be careful, the race will still be very hard because with the wedges on this track will not reach the finish line more than seven-eight cars".
An optimism that fades only when he raises his eyes to the sky, watching those clouds that drop an annoying drizzle:
"At the end of the session, like everyone else, I wanted to test the conditions of the slimy asphalt and I had to change my mind about what I had said twenty-four hours before: the car did not behave as I expected. The adjustments do not satisfy me, and if we were to find a solution in case of rain we might even end up back".
Maybe he and Coulthard could work something out so they do not get in the way, at least in case of bad weather:
"I can’t ask David anything, it will be very important to pass the first corner in front".
The Scotsman, for his part, does not regret too much for the umpteenth opportunity wasted to place himself in front of his teammate:
"I was a bit sorry not to be able to do another lap in the dry, but I look at the race with optimism. Since I got on track, I’ve always had positive feelings".
Behind McLaren and Ferrari, in third row, there are Giancarlo Fisichella and Eddie Irvine, who defines himself enthusiastic for the performance of his Jaguar, a second and three tenths away from pole. Eddie smiles and says:
"The third row with the Jaguar is like the first with the Ferrari. The goal of our team is to stay behind McLaren and Ferrari, and in this circumstance we hit it. All the stops and the rain did not favour me: I had room for improvement and Fisichella’s Benetton was not too far away. The car was well balanced, on a track where it is not easy to put it back. And in the morning, while I was testing the qualifying set-up with fresh tyres, I found oil on the track and did not complete the test. You have to be satisfied, and I notice it in the faces of the men of the team. Many of us are fighting for the positions behind McLaren and Ferrari, and this time it was up to us and Benetton".
Motivated by the presence of the new team manager Flavio Briatore, Giancarlo Fisichella shows his great speed through an excellent performance, with a lap time three tenths faster than his teammate Wurz, thirteenth on the grid:
"Fifth place is great. If I can hold this position after the first corner, I can finish on the podium. Also because I’m not convinced of McLaren reliability. The trim is good, I was able to take advantage of the right time, but you can do even better. The arrival of Renault is a turning point. Now we can have fun".
Flavio Briatore is radiant:
"A great result, for us it’s like a pole, because Ferrari and McLaren are from another planet, and today we are the first of the others. Fisichella was very good, but even Wurz could have ranked better than the seventh row, if he had not been penalised by the red flags. But now trouble to relax, we have to get points".
In seventh position qualifies the Jordan of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in front of the BAR-Honda of Ricardo Zonta, another home driver besides Barrichello that a year earlier, on the same track, was the victim of a serious accident that forced him to remain stationary for more than two months. This result, which is also his best place in qualifying, is a sort of revenge:
"I’m happy: my goal was to enter the top ten and this desire was moving away because of the time lost in free practice, caused by a gearbox problem. Hitting a similar position in front of my people fills me with pride and now I really hope to repeat the race of Australia, where I caught my first points. It should be easier; I start well ahead but the main thing will be to solve the problems with the transmission. Otherwise, it will be hard to finish the race".
Immediately behind him there is another driver in the mood to surprise everyone, namely Jenson Button, a rookie in his second race in Formula 1 who has never raced on this track. The 20-year-old Briton also beats the most experienced and renowned teammate Ralf Schumacher, eleventh. The target, for both Williams BMWs, is the point zone. No goals to hit for Sauber, which decides incredibly not to let its drivers, Diniz and Salo, race due to the abnormal detachments of the wings. Peter Sauber admits with bitterness:
"We cannot determine the causes of this problem, and so we decided not to run for safety reasons: we feel sorry for the drivers, also because Diniz is from São Paulo, but there was nothing else to do".
Safety reasons and therefore, according to the head of the Swiss team, the only choice possible. For this reason, at the 2000 Brazilian Grand Prix only twenty cars take part. On March 26, the grandstands are packed, and the Brazilian torcida turns red to support the home idol Rubens Barrichello, who aims to climb at least on the podium to pay back the great support of fans. The obstacles that lead to this result, however, are far from easy to overcome. Above all Mika Hakkinen, winner of the last two editions of the Grand Prix. The race starts. Hakkinen is the author of an excellent shot, unlike Coulthard who is less reactive and is bypassed by Michael Schumacher at the first corner. The Ferrari driver does not waste time and tries to do the same with the Finn, who manages to defend himself without too many problems at Descida do Lago. Rubens Barrichello remains on the side-lines, in fourth position for the time being, followed by Irvine and Fisichella. At the end of the first lap the two Ferraris attack: at the first braking section Schumacher joins Hakkinen and passes him, at the same time Barrichello is already in front of Coulthard after having taken advantage of the whole McLaren-Mercedes trail on the long main straight. After the exchange of positions, the first four make a void on the rest of the group, in particular Michael Schumacher gains an average of one second per lap on Hakkinen. David Coulthard, after being overtaken, gradually loses contact with Barrichello. Starting from twelfth position, Jarno Trulli is already seventh after a few laps, and enters the points area thanks to the overtaking of Giancarlo Fisichella. The Jordan’s driver is now aiming to overtake Irvine’s Jaguar for fifth position, seconds away. The Northern Ireland driver feels the pressure as the gap narrows, as demonstrated by the numerous braking blocks of which he is the protagonist. Between the ninth and eleventh laps Prost’s race ends: Nick Heidfeld parks at the trackside due to the failure of the Peugeot engine; Jean Alesi, after having just passed Frentzen conquering the ninth place, must retire due to a failure of the electrical system. Having embarked less fuel and therefore having to make two stops, the two Ferraris continue to push. Michael Schumacher shows an exceptional race pace, to the point of recording the fastest lap for three consecutive passes, while Barrichello, after some laps of study, passes Hakkinen at the first corner, accompanied by the roar of the public celebrating the momentary Ferrari 1-2. Jarno Trulli, on the seventeenth lap, overtakes Irvine for the fifth position.
Ahead of the first pit-stop, Schumacher needs an advantage of about twenty-six seconds to stay ahead of Hakkinen, but a few laps from the pit stop, the gap is seventeen seconds. On lap 20, Schumacher is called for the first stop in the program. A pit-stop that arrives rather early, and considering the amount of petrol taken on board during a stop that lasted ten seconds, for Schumacher there is a very long second stint. The German returns third, behind Barrichello and Hakkinen. After a couple of laps, it is the turn of the Brazilian to make the pit-stop, and also in this case quite long, precisely 10.7 seconds. On the same lap, Eddie Irvine leaves the race, finishing against the barriers at turn 8. It is the 27th lap when Barrichello’s dreams of glory are shattered due to plumbing failure. An unexpected twist, especially considering the much-vaunted reliability of the components of the car of Maranello. A second Ferrari 1-2 is therefore excluded. Three laps later, another contender to the victory retires clamorously: on the main straight, Mika Hakkinen travels at low speed, and slowly takes the pit-lane and then re-enters directly into the box. For the two-time World Champion, it is the second retirement in two races. Once out of the car, the Finn greets the audience in the grandstands, after which he liquidates them all quickly and, together with his wife Erja, takes the first plane back home. Schumacher is again at the top of the race and without anyone able to worry him. Coulthard is second, but he is too far away to be a threat. After two unexpected off-tracks, and waiting for everyone to have made the stop, at the thirty-eighth of the seventy-one laps expected, behind Schumacher and Coulthard there are Fisichella, Frentzen, Trulli and Ralf Schumacher. The German of Jordan makes his first and only stop at the end of the forty-second lap, imitated later by Coulthard, who after changing tyres and having refuelled the car retains the second position. The race is rather static, Schumacher continues to travel on an unsustainable race pace for the others, so that he is preparing to lap even the drivers in the points. The second stop, completed on lap 50, is not a problem, and the rest of the race is just a footbridge towards the chequered flag. Behind, the third step of the podium is contested between Fisichella, Frentzen and Trulli, with the two Jordans on different strategies. In fact, if Frentzen bets on a single stop, Jarno opts for two pit-stops.
The winner is the Benetton driver, who without too much pain keeps the third place behind Coulthard. Button and Jos Verstappen are fighting for the seventh position, and it is the British driver of Williams who has the upper hand. A battle won that later proves to be very important. After the seventy-two laps, thanks to a perfect strategy, an incomparable race pace and the retirements of Hakkinen and Barrichello that facilitate the task, Michael Schumacher crosses the finish line first, winning the Brazilian Grand Prix, with only four seconds of lead over Coulthard, who came close thanks to the management of the car by the German. Fisichella completed the podium, ahead of Frentzen, Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, to close the points area. After only two races, Schumacher accumulated a twenty-point lead over his main rival in the title fight. Hard to hope for a better start, as he himself admits:
"I didn’t expect it, but I knew instead that we would be in a position to win immediately. Twenty points in two races are an ideal advantage, but since we are on the eve of Imola I would like to urge everyone to calm down: the World Championship has just begun, woe if we thought it was already ours. What happened to Barrichello on Sunday could happen to me tomorrow, the season is long".
How is Interlagos' victory different from Australia’s?
"Today we won well. First of all because there was a chance to overcome the McLaren in the race. It hasn’t happened for a long time and this time, thanks to the strategies, we succeeded. It was a further confirmation of how good the car is".
His and Barrichello’s departure finally seemed by the book: is it thanks to the lower load of petrol on board, compared to the McLaren?
"The weight of the fuel counts for little. Sometimes you start better when you have more petrol because you put more weight on the ground on the drive wheels. This time we got better and the system got better. Badoer in Fiorano tried things that have proved to be useful, and we came here with new ideas that worked".
Surprised by the problems that McLaren is having?
"Yeah, I didn’t expect that".
Where can this Ferrari still improve?
"The reliability is quite good but not perfect, as we have seen. On the F1-2000 there will be consistent development everywhere, not in a particular sector. That is, in aerodynamics, in mechanics, in the engine".
In qualifying, for the moment, the McLaren seems even more performing:
"We have to see why McLaren got two pole positions. If you look inside things you see that in Australia and Brazil unfortunate circumstances did not allow me to get the best time: the red flag in Melbourne and then the billboard detached with rain soon after in Interlagos. I think that we are good for both the qualifying and the races".
When Hakkinen retired, he led the race 12 seconds ahead of the German. Without his retirement would the victory still have been possible?
"The margin was actually tight. At that point in the race I wasn’t going fast because the car was a bit difficult to drive. Two-three laps later, I don’t know why, I was again able to push easily. Actually at the time of the stop of Hakkinen we were a bit behind our schedule, but from that moment on I could easily regain. Hakkinen would have returned to the pits first and I would have had a lot of laps in which to force, taking advantage of the greater weight of his car with the gasoline on board".
Then there was the sudden slowdown to three quarters of a race. Todt talked about engine oil pressure dropping, it is not a small thing, usually:
"It’s true. I slowed down and tried to make up for it. But it was only in a particular condition [in the left turns the pump did not draw from the oil tank, in which there was less lubricant than at the beginning, n.d.r.] that there was a drop in pressure, not everywhere".
On the podium, Pelé gave Schumacher the trophy: what effect did it have?
"I love football, and it was a huge emotion. Pelé has been one of my great idols since I was a child and I threw some soccer balls. We also talked, in fact, I asked him to teach me some of his magic tricks and he told me that on the podium it was not possible, so I snatched the promise that he will come to Imola to play with me and with Fisichella, and finally I can see him up close. I’m counting on it".
From Bologna, President Montezemolo is happy almost to the emotion for the success of Schumacher:
"In circumstances like these, it is not the case that I speak. I am happy, of course, but this is a success entirely of the team. It’s all for them. They worked very well: both those who were there in Brazil, as well as those who were here in Maranello. Schumacher made an extraordinary race from start to finish. After Australia I dedicated the victory to lawyer Agnelli, this is dedicated to all the fans who follow us around the world and who have been able to stay close to us in difficult times. And I’m even happier if I think about where we were just five years ago".
On the other side of the pit, disheartened after retiring, Rubens Barrichello tries to make himself strong:
"At least I have shown my people that I can go very fast, that I deserve the Ferrari, that with this car I will win some races. If I had moved on, if I had gotten to the bottom, I don’t know what would have happened. Win? Maybe. Who knows. It’s possible. Because a race is always a lottery, and I was going very fast. This car had the record of reliability, but unfortunately it dumped me just today. Yes, I inflamed the audience a bit, but I want to do it until the end, on the podium, with an endless samba. I’m happy for Schumacher, it’s a great triumph, the car goes very strong, he is a super driver, incredibly fast, infallible. One who never misses anything. I felt the anxiety of the audience, but I was very sure of myself. I drove relaxed, without fear, without worries. I was doing very well. The strategy was right. I had passed Coulthard, so I would certainly have ended up in front of him. Second, maybe first. Schumacher is right: Ross Brawn is really a master in tactics. Michael pushed, me too. Two crazy drivers. I didn’t come here to take second place. I want to win. I will succeed with Ferrari. For sure".
Rubens does not want to get into the merits of his fault. He will deepen this with the technicians, he will understand and make sense of it. For now, there is only room for feelings:
"Ask the engineers what happened, I have only one consolation: now the Brazilians know what I can do with the Ferrari. Cry? I could do it. I was doing really well. But the pain is not for me: at this moment I think of my people. A lot of people had come, I’m sorry. I have only one way to make it up to you: to win a race as soon as possible. If this retirement had happened in England, it would have hurt me less. Here, in my country, it is a stab wound. But I do not throw away this weekend. I have a very competitive car, I will take it home and I will try to throw my anger, my determination on the next races. In the race we are very strong, in qualifying not yet. We have room for improvement, we will continue the development, soon we will be unbeatable even there".
Nine months have passed since the last podium achieved in Canada in the 1999 season, but Giancarlo Fisichella, after a difficult period due to the poor competitiveness of his Benetton, is back to celebrate with champagne together with the best. And for the occasion, the Roman makes a special dedication:
"I dedicate this third place to Andrea, a friend of mine who had a bad accident in January, who was in a coma. Now he’s better, I promised him the podium. I hope he’s happy. I felt it, I understood that the car was very good. I said to myself: don’t give up, because this is the right race for rebirth. The facts have given me reason".
All it took was a Briatore in the team to bring back competitiveness and enthusiasm. An easy recipe, Fisichella laughs on:
"Briatore knows how to make you pull out the maximum. With harsh words pushed everyone to give a hundred percent, and the results were seen immediately. I am very happy. It was my goal, I announced it. I have to thank the whole team because the car is getting better and better, and now I have great confidence in the future".
His strategy was particular:
"I filled up with gasoline at first, because we decided to make only one pit-stop, and after as many laps as possible. It was hard to drive the car from the start, it was very heavy, there was oversteer, I was afraid to go out. I tightened my teeth and after twenty laps the car finally became drivable. I found the right pace and I could push deeply. In the last laps I was even faster than Frentzen. A great race. Things start to work".
Zero points in two races, in stark contrast to the winds conquered by the rival. Mika Hakkinen does not reveal his malaise, but it is clear that he is in one of the most difficult moments of his career, second only to his accident in Australia in 1995 that almost cost him his life. It was in fact from 1994 that Hakkinen did not have zero points after two races. The Finn says a few words before leaving Brazil, but they weigh like boulders:
"I gave up, it will be like this all year, we cannot find the reliability to finish a race, we will have to work a lot. We have always done it, but evidently it is not enough. We must do more. I have no words to describe my disappointment, my state of mind. Nor what happened, ask the team. I was in the lead, and suddenly the engine lost power".
Tests are urgently needed to find solutions to the Mp4/15 reliability problems, so the Finn will take part in the tests at Silverstone during the week following the Brazilian Grand Prix, together with test driver Panis. For now, the only excuses to Mika come from Haug, the German soul of the team, the engine manager:
"Three engines broken in two races are too many. Ferrari had only one problem, the difference is all here".
To tell the truth, Coulthard also had to deal with technical problems, specifically the loss of the third gear after a few laps, and the lack of communication with the team due to the breakdown of the radio. The Scotsman describes his second place as a miracle, considering the conditions in which he ran. But, unfortunately for him, happiness for the McLaren driver does not last long.
During the usual post-race checks by the commissioners on the cars, all the cars that got points - except that of Fisichella - have the suspicion of irregularities due to the damage to the wooden table placed in the lower and central part of the car. Schumacher’s Ferrari, Frentzen and Trulli’s two Jordans, Coulthard’s McLaren and Ralf Schumacher’s Williams showed violent signs of contact with the uneven terrain of the Interlagos track. It should be remembered that the wooden table was introduced with the bottom staircase in 1994. And that season immediately led to a resounding disqualification for Michael Schumacher with Benetton at the Belgian Grand Prix, because the German had damaged the board by jumping on a kerb beyond the limit allowed by the regulation. The commissioners on the occasion cancelled the victory of the German because the wooden board had been worn by two millimetres. In fact, the Federation allows a consumption of one tenth of the thickness of the board: being high ten millimetres, the tolerance is therefore only one millimetre. After repeated cross-checks with the boards dismounted, Schumacher’s Ferrari, the two Jordans and Williams are exonerated. Instead, it remains blocked, controlled by the commissioners in the presence of Adrian Newey, the McLaren, the car of Coulthard. The McLaren case, however, is then different, since a lower ground height of the front wing is found. There are strict rules in this area. The whole wing assembly must in fact be fifty millimetres higher than the reference plane, which is the lowest point of the single-seater. This measurement was introduced in order to avoid errors in the height checks with respect to the ground. The commissioners' decision, arrived only in the evening at nine o'clock, is to exclude Coulthard from the final classification, allowing Fisichella to climb to second place, and Frentzen to acquire the third place. In addition, Jenson Button enters the points area, winning the first point of his career at only twenty years and two months, becoming the youngest in Formula 1 history to do so. The record of the Mexican Ricard Rodriguez, who in 1962 finished fourth in the Belgian Grand Prix at twenty years and four months, is broken. Coulthard’s exclusion is announced through the following statement:
"We received a report from the technical delegate about the post-race checks on the compliance of the body of the car number 2. When it was examined the height of the front of the body it was noticed that the front wing was only forty-three millimetres instead of fifty above the reference plane which is described in Article 3.12.1 of the 2000 Technical Regulation. This shall exceed the five millimetre tolerance limit laid down in Article 3.12.6. The team manager [Dave Ryan, n.d.r.] and the technical director [Adrian Newey, n.d.r.] were summoned. After listening to their explanations, those of the technical delegate, the commissioners resorted to Article 3.7 which concerns the compliance of cars with the regulations, and since the car number 2 was not so after the race, they decided to exclude it from the arrival. The contestant has the right to appeal".
McLaren managers, after Coulthard’s exclusion, explain that with the contact with the ground and the kerbs of Interlagos, the whole front wing group would have slightly collapsed causing a rotation of the muzzle backwards. Hence the lowering of seven millimetres of the side bulkheads, those found out of measure by the commissioners for two millimetres beyond the tolerance. The decision of the Federation is in line with that taken in Melbourne, when the front wing had cost the disqualification, without discussion, of the Sauber. In that case the measure not respected was the proximity of the bulkhead to the front wheel. A real nightmare for the Woking team, which with the zero inflicted also on Coulthard, after the first two races of the season has not yet conquered a point, while Ferrari flies in the constructors with twenty-six points. Coulthard is dismayed but optimistic:
"It’s a concern for the team. I can only assure you that the car was regular at the time of the start, and that if something can be changed during the race it is because of the track wedges or kerbs, certainly not because of me or us. I remain confident, and I believe that the final sentence can prove us right".
Ron Dennis immediately announces that the appeal will be there, explaining the reason in a note:
"The team noted that there was structural damage to both the underside of the body and the frame, along with the fact that the side bulkheads of the front wing were rotated on their axis. All of these things were caused by the heavy spanking of the car on the wedges and the vibrations created by the nature of the São Paulo circuit. The team then decided to appeal against the decision of the commissioners, who did not take into account these mitigating factors".
Dennis adds nothing more, leaving around 10:15 a.m. with Newey, leaving Haug with the burden of being in the spotlight. Holding in his hands a small block on which the profile of a front wing is drawn, the manager of Mercedes explains why the bulkheads were found irregular:
"After the run the bulkhead was tilted backwards, and in that very area it did not comply with the regulations. We can only assume that during the race the wing suffered a blow on a speed bump. It’s definitely not something we did on purpose, because if we wanted to take advantage, we would have angled the wing in the opposite way. Then it must be considered that Coulthard had left with so much petrol on board, so the car was very heavy and spread more. We feel sorry for the team, but we understand the decision and we are aware that the regulations must be respected, even if they should sometimes be interpreted a little more openly".
McLaren clings to the call to limit the damage of an already disastrous weekend. The matter will be discussed the following week at the Paris Tribunal on April 3, 2000. The disqualification inflicted on Coulthard is also commented by Michael Schumacher, the victim himself, as already mentioned, of a disqualification during the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix after winning the race. Without forgetting the case of the deflectors during the Malaysian Grand Prix in the 1999 season, which led to the disqualification of both Ferraris, then readmitted following the appeal of the Maranello team. There too, Schumacher was close to being disqualified as a result of the checks which luckily cleared him. The Ferrari driver tells:
"It seemed like nothing, but you never know how these events end, just remember the case happened in Malaysia. I know very well how to work in Ferrari, it is not possible that they made a mistake of a millimetre. A millimetre is an enormity, you know how to measure it. You cannot go wrong".
But where was this millimetre missing?
"On the skates of the bottom of the car. There are two strips of hard plastic, made specifically not to wear out. These skates are held in place by two titanium retainers. Now, those skates need to be ten millimetres tall and the tolerance is only one millimetre. It doesn’t take much to measure this difference. Just put the car on a perfect plan".
Then why does it take hours to make such a simple measurement?
"Who knows. I don’t even know how they make this measurement. But the fact that so many cars from different teams have stumbled into this error makes me think one thing. And that is that the fault of all this is not in the intent to cheat but in the asphalt of the track. There are depressions here, and when you’re speeding over them, you’re getting terrible dunks. And the car, in fact the skates touch and wear out a little. The problem is that they should control the circuits better. I think they are right to carry out these checks. However, we must do them clearly, surely and quickly. It is not nice after so many hours from the end of a race to see everything questioned".
The FIA Court of Appeal ruling on the irregularity of the McLaren of Coulthard consists of three judges, whose nationality cannot be for reasons of impartiality, neither British nor German. The case does not lend itself to too many interpretations, McLaren argues that the cause of the irregularity is due to a failure of the underbody and chassis and a rotation on its axis of the two parts of the front wing, pushing the point that Coulthard’s car did not benefit from it. But Article 58 of the FIA sports code is clear:
"If a car is found not to comply with technical regulations, it is not a justification or an attenuating claim that it did not occur as a result of an increase in performance".
In the meantime, 29-year-old Coulthard, back in London, says his piece on the appeal:
"I was already not satisfied with second place, let alone now. We hope that the FIA, which showed common sense last year with Ferrari, will do the same with us. The World Championship, however, is only at the beginning and there are fifteen other races left".
The case in question leads the Formula 1 teams to request clear rules from the FIA. Ferrari is among the teams that makes itself felt most of all. From Maranello they claim:
"The subject of verification is recurrent not only after the race, but also before the race. During the whole weekend of a Grand Prix the cars must always comply with the regulations. At any time, morning or evening, cars must always be in order and at the disposal of the technical commissioners. We agree in principle with what is happening today by the supervisory bodies. It is clear that, if possible, it would be better to carry out some checks before the race but it is also obvious that certain checks - electronics, petrol and even aerodynamic adjustments - must be carried out later. Our technicians have the right to adjust and replace parts of the car up to one minute before the start. It would be impossible at that moment to suspend the procedure of the race in order to carry out a verification of the conformity of a car, we will have some delays that would create confusion. As in all sports, checks must therefore be made after the performance. We believe that we must in any case try to streamline, defining certain parameters that can no longer be changed during the race, but certain technical times are necessary".
Cesare Fiorio, sports director of Minardi, says that not much can be done to improve the situation:
"It takes five minutes to verify if a single-seater is in order, but then the men of the team intervene, maybe Ecclestone and Mosley, in short, from the technique you pass to politics and meanwhile time passes. Then there is the serious problem of electronics, which is now out of control. Finally, Whiting realised that they were making fun of him and circulated that document calling for further restrictions on Imola, which will actually become operational at Silverstone. But not much will change, because in a few races everything will go back to the way it was before so it would be better to liberalise all electronics. Why ban the traction control that is now used on production cars?"
Flavio Briatore, on Sunday, had a dream for a few minutes: that of Fisichella’s Benetton, first in the Brazilian Grand Prix. By default. It happened in the tense moments of verification when the news circulating in the pits gave all the cars under irregular examination. In other words, Benetton was the only one in compliance with the rules. Briatore expressed his opinion:
"The point is that the rules must be clear. And they are. But technical commissioners must avoid interpreting them. Or red or black, without interpretations or appeals. And without looking at the brand of the car. And where there are gaps or shortcomings in the rules, we must simplify. I also suggest one thing: those who are guilty of a not serious infringement, remain in the ranking of the grand prix, but in the next race they start from the last row. It would be a good deterrent. Formula 1 must be easy for verifiers and easy for the public that follows it".
Mauro Forghieri, technical manager of Ferrari for more than twenty years, is even more drastic:
"We should check the cars before the race and then if the car does not meet the same parameters at the end of the Grand Prix it must be disqualified. That’s it, that’s it. The Sunday theatre was not qualifying because the technicians of the FIA, examining several times the floors of some cars, gave the feeling of wanting to forgive someone, to the detriment of Fisichella".
On April 3, 2000, the Federation Court of Appeal decides to confirm the disqualification of Coulthard’s McLaren by the commissioners in Brazil. Therefore, the podium remains to Schumacher, Fisichella and Frentzen, while McLaren, after two races, sees more and more Schumacher and Ferrari away. The tribunal shall order that:
"The distance between the reference plane and the plane of car number 2 was only 43 millimetres instead of the 50 millimetres provided for, while the permitted tolerance is only five millimetres. The state of the circuit has been proven by all competitors, including the applicant, since the tests and, consequently, all the provisions could be adopted to regulate the cars in order to cope with the difficulties. The mandatory height between the two floors was not contested with regard to the other audited competitors".
The defensive position of the Anglo-German team, which at the third Grand Prix of the season, to be held in Imola, has been dismantled, is already aware that it can no longer make mistakes. Schumacher, for his part, after the first two wins of the season aims to prolong the streak of successes, which would allow him to be the first Ferrari driver to succeed in the feat of winning the first three races of the season. Equal to what Damon Hill did in 1996 with Williams, and putting in the crosshairs who, like Senna in 1991 with McLaren, and himself with Benetton in 1994, won the four opening races. The record, however, belongs to Nigel Mansell, who in 1992 won the first five rounds of the season. A record difficult to reach, but with this Ferrari so competitive, and at the same time with a McLaren in crisis, nothing is impossible.