After the thrilling French Grand Prix, won by David Coulthard in front of Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari and McLaren meet again on July 4, 2000, at the Mugello circuit, for a test session that in a somewhat unusual way sees the two teams fighting for the title run simultaneously on the Tuscan circuit. This was made possible by the request made by McLaren to Ferrari; the Woking team rented the track for four days, judging Mugello a perfect circuit to prepare for the Austrian Grand Prix, to be held in Zeltweg. In the late evening of July 3 the first McLaren trucks arrive, thanks to a special authorisation that allowed the team to move from France despite the blockage of traffic for heavy vehicles. On the first day of testing for Ferrari, Luca Badoer takes to the track, covering seventy-six laps stopping the stopwatch on 1'26"680. McLaren works with Olivier Panis, who completes seventy-four laps, the fastest in 1'27"370. The Frenchman has positive words for the track:
"I already knew it because I did some tests here with Prost, but doing it with a competitive car like McLaren is something else entirely. The more laps you do, the more desire you have to continue, and I really don’t understand why you don’t think about racing a Grand Prix on this track".
On the second day of practice, Panis makes another seventy-nine laps, the best in 1'25"966. Badoer makes 81 laps, but he is slower than a second. The big absents for the moment are Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard, who, however, take to the track during the third and fourth day of testing, while Hakkinen and Barrichello enjoy a holiday. The middle finger raised during the French Grand Prix by Coulthard to the German is already a distant memory. At least formally, the two no longer seem to have grudges: before and during the tests they meet and greet from a distance, with a simple wave of the hand. The test day starts around 8:30 am. Schumacher does not start in the best possible way, as he heads around the Casanova bend, and then stops on the Savelli gravel. Ferrari technicians insist a lot on loads and tyres, at the same time McLaren prefers to simulate many starts, and pays much attention to the aerodynamics of the car. During a break, Coulthard, at his first experience at Mugello, does not dwell on the tensions of the race at Magny-Cours, but rather prefers to spend a few words on the track:
"It is a very nice track, especially well equipped and is in a fantastic region. Technically it is a mix, because there are curves very similar to those of many circuits where the world championship is held. A very interesting test session that demonstrated once again the great adaptability to all the tracks of our cars".
The circuit is strictly armoured, although there are invasion attempts by the public, however promptly shadowed by security. On the last day of testing, a couple of radio-controlled models arrive at the McLaren pits. Two reproductions in perfect scale of Formula 1 cars, that the staff of the Anglo-German team makes run on the asphalt trying to kill the boredom that in the moments of pause grips everyone. The last to leave the track is Michael Schumacher, who makes one hundred and sixteen laps, for a total of 608 kilometres; his best time is 1'25"499. For the Ferrari driver there are no exceptions on work, despite having to take the helicopter that will take him to the wedding of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Until the appointed time, Michael is on track working on tyres, aerodynamics and engine. When a laundry attendant brings him to the boxes the shirt pressed and packed, ready to wear, the German smiles, sure to have solved the problems of Magny-Cours, especially with regard to reliability:
"We got to try some solutions, and the fact of having McLaren next to us for the first time on this circuit was useful for both of us. After all, Mugello is very well suited for its characteristics to prepare for the next race of Zeltweg".
About Coulthard’s middle finger in France, he says:
"If he had seen the footage, David probably wouldn’t have made that gesture. The fact that we did not meet here is normal; everyone does their job".
Then it is time to leave work for a moment. The wedding of Luca Cordero of Montezemolo and Ludovica Andreoni is super armored, with witnesses of great name as lawyer Agnelli. The church is that of San Bartolomeo in Pianoro, on the hills of Bologna. The guests are a hundred; among them, Agnelli’s most special gift, delivered two days before the wedding in the villa: a silver grey Ferrari 360 Modena, personally commissioned by the Lawyer to Pininfarina, a unique model. Schumacher comes directly from the Mugello circuit, and apparently organised a live concert by Carlos Santana as a wedding gift. The musical entertainment, after the buffet dinner, is actually entrusted to another good friend of Montezemolo: Lucio Dalla. For the president, a trip to Africa is scheduled, then back to work. Work that already awaits Schumacher the next day, when the Ferrari driver moves to Fiorano to continue the tests. But the agenda of the German is dense, so much so that on the evening of Saturday, July 8, he participates in a charity game at the Flaminio Stadium, between the national Formula 1 drivers and 1990 Germany World Champions. Together with him, among the drivers there are Trulli, Patrese and Wurz. Faced with three thousand spectators, many of them with Prancing Horse flags, Schumacher appears in great shape scoring two goals, in what turns out to be a heavy defeat of 8-4. Schumacher absolutely needs to show himself in shape even in what he does best, that is to drive the fastest cars in the world. On the eve of the Austrian Grand Prix, the tenth round of the World Championship scheduled for July 16, 2000, Ferrari has to fend off McLaren's attempts to recover, which after the difficulties at the start of the season proved to be fast, but above all reliable. But Schumacher is confident:
"Twelve points in the standings are not too much for me, and fortunately the mechanics have spotted the trouble that made me stop at Magny-Cours. But I think the newspapers don’t care...".
A bronze connecting rod bearing produced by the American Glyco-Vanderwell who broke down. This is the reason for his retirement in France that cost him the podium. In addition to working on reliability, there are many novelties at the pits of Ferrari, the most striking one at the pit wall: Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and other technicians will have, starting from the Austrian Grand Prix, twenty-six monitors to control the behaviour of the F1-2000. A concentrate of electronics made by Ciceri Racing Pessano. Unlike previous monitors, the new ones are connected to both television and telemetry. The only flaw: the lack of space. A novelty born from the desire to minimise errors, as claimed by Jean Todt. The second novelty is parked in Michael Schumacher’s box. This is the 204 chassis, the last one built, for the first time without reducing the weight of carbon fibre. The third is represented by the engine electronics, to have a more gradual delivery of power and, again, a few more laps for qualifying. Nothing to do, however, to counter the rarefaction of air caused by the altitude of the Austrian circuit, where the power drops by eight percent, between sixty and sixty-five horsepower for Ferrari. But the power loss is identical for all engines, so everything is ready for the challenge with McLaren.
"We have to eliminate all the small errors. Today I see a slight advantage of McLaren, they already had it at the beginning of the season but did not take advantage of it. Now they are showing it because Ferrari didn’t get the most out of the material. The result never depends only on the driver, but on the work of the whole team".
Schumacher explains by staying on the same line as Jean Todt, while Rubens Barrichello is as happy as those who return from the holidays:
"I spent them in Brazil, in Campo do Jordão, at 1700 metres. Many football teams go there for oxygenation. And when I went back to training in Sao Paulo, I felt great. I kept off the phone, but I regularly called my technicians to update me on the work in the tests: it was as if I had been on track too".
At the moment, Schumacher’s number one opponent is Coulthard:
"David reduced his weaknesses, before he was fast but did not do results. Hakkinen? I don’t know why but lately he can’t express himself at his best".
But the Ferrari driver looks further ahead than the seasonal goal, and speaking of his future prolongs his career:
"I would like to run until I am forty, unless a young man who is much faster than me arrives, without me being able to understand the reason. Besides, even when I stop, I’ll keep working for Ferrari".
On Friday, July 14, 2000, the Austrian Grand Prix begins with the two free practice sessions, during which McLaren immediately shows its muscles, unlike Ferrari who seems to struggle. There is David Coulthard at the top of the time scale at the end of the day, with a time of 1'12"464. The bad day for Ferrari can be summed up in the fourth place of Schumacher and in the seventh place of Barrichello, the latter, in first position in the morning session before giving way to rivals in the afternoon. The Austrian circuit is still difficult for the F1-2000, so much so that Schumacher has to struggle to keep behind the BAR-Honda of Ricardo Zonta, but at the same time he cannot do anything against the exploit of Mika Salo and his Sauber, third behind the two Silver Arrows. Hakkinen is second, two tenths away from Coulthard, but he could not turn in the first hour of free practice and a good part of the second, due to a gas pressure problem. On the other side of the box, the Scotsman is frightened by his persistence in recording fastest laps one after the other. A race step that earned him the first place and increased his ambitions to overtake Schumacher in the championship, maybe starting to shave points in Austria, his hundredth Formula 1 Grand Prix. Schumacher, for his part, wants to undermine the negative tradition that has never seen him win in Austria, but admits that the track does not excite him. Rather, he has to deal with a competition that, from race to race, is getting stronger and stronger. The last one to bring Ferrari to victory in Austria was Eddie Irvine, in the 1999 season. The Northern Irish, with that success, ran in all respects as a substitute for the injured Schumacher in the fight at the World Championship. In 2000, as a Jaguar driver, Eddie’s situation was quite different. If the poor results collected up to this point of the season were not enough, at the end of Friday free practice, the vice-champion of the world is forced to leave Austria due to excruciating pains in the abdominals. In London, the doctors at the hospital where he is being hospitalised state that there is no need to worry about the condition of the driver. However, at Zeltweg, Irvine was replaced by Luciano Burti in free practice on Saturday morning. A weekend heralded already difficult from the free practice, becomes even more difficult for Michael Schumacher during the briefing between the drivers, when David Coulthard, also supported by others, lashes against the German and his driving style, specifically its starts within the limits of the regulation. Schumacher does not have time to sit down and Coulthard says in his face:
"Drive like John Rambo, even when you start, and risk your life".
A minute passes and here comes the second lunge. This time by the mouth of Jacques Villeneuve:
"Schumacher runs without a brain on a planet of his own: he is disloyal and will never change".
Disloyalty, little intelligence: Schumacher begins to lose patience. But it is not over yet. It is up to Eddie Irvine, who would later leave Austria:
"We can’t tolerate everything Michael does".
All against Schumacher, except for Frentzen who defends him. In short, an excessive ordeal, so much so that, in the face of the upheaval of the drivers, it is up to the FIA commissioner, Charlie Whiting, to return good humour to Schumacher:
"There was no violation of the regulations by the Ferrari driver".
Schumacher revives and, comforted by the absolution of the FIA, replies dryly:
"Those who want to be in front must use all the means at their disposal: those who say that I play with the lives of others say nonsense. I had wonderful duels with Hakkinen and no one ever complained. Coulthard reminds me of Damon Hill, who was never comfortable with anything".
On Saturday, July 15, 2000, the qualifying session on the A1 Ring seems a replication of the one seen in the previous two seasons: McLaren in the front row with Mika Hakkinen ahead of David Coulthard; Ferrari chasing the two Silver Arrows. And yet, it is not 1998 or 1999, but 2000, a season started under the rule of Schumacher (only fourth), but in Austria he is never able to worry the two McLaren. As evidence of Schumacher’s difficulties, the fact that even Barrichello manages to do better than him, placing third. The Brazilian makes a great lap, slower by four tenths of a second than Hakkinen’s, but barely a tenth of a tenth of Coulthard’s time. In third row, the surprises of the day: Jarno Trulli and Ricardo Zonta, who for the second time in the season beats his teammate Jacques Villeneuve, who immediately placed behind, in seventh place. Wiliams, on the other hand, is absolutely disappointed: Jenson Button and Ralf Schumacher qualify in eighteenth and nineteenth position, only ahead of Burti’s Minardi and Jaguar. The nightmare is over. Hakkinen repeats it several times. Again Saturday’s lord, again master of qualifying, back on pole after more than three months. Imola, the last time. It was April 9, 2000, a very distant date for those who are used to always starting at the front and have built two world titles on speed. Remote enough to psychologically destroy, to lead to a nervous breakdown:
"I was wondering: what is wrong with me? What is happening to me? Why does Coulthard beat me, he who on Saturday always ended up behind me? I asked myself questions and I couldn’t give myself any answers. Mind-boggling. Traumatic".
Mika explains that up to Magny-Cours he had to endure the criticism of those who considered him finished, no more malice, no more motivation, no more desire to win. Then comes Zeltweg, which could be the turning point. Mika returns to destroy the opponents, four tenths to Coulthard and Barrichello, six to Schumacher. The Finnish now attacks:
"Everyone knows they made a mistake. Because now it’s me again, the real one. And when I’m 100%, no one can go faster than me".
Also because his car is back to being quick and perfect. A metamorphosis that joins that of his physical. He needed holidays, the stressed Hakkinen:
"The continuous tests, the promotional trips had strained me. I had to pull the plug, lock myself in my house in Monte Carlo, swim, and play golf. I was so tired that I didn’t even think of a trip. The idea of starting a car engine gave me the shivers. Rest has done me good, because now I feel strong, reborn, in great shape".
A new Hakkinen. In the head and body. But there is not only that:
"My McLaren has also changed, the engineers have adapted it to me again. This is the car I want. Mine is a particular driving style, very abrupt. I stepped on the accelerator and I admit I was in trouble after the FIA decided to limit the electronics. I tried to change the way I drive, but it’s a risk. You can be faster, I was slower. So, after the last Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, I told my technicians: why don’t we try to change the car and adapt it to my characteristics again? I was right and this is the result. I came back very fast and the balance of the car is fantastic. You can’t understand how I feel after I won pole position. It excites me to break the fast, but above all to have solved all my problems, to have given an answer to the many question points of the last months, boring races in which I did not even make a mistake and I ended up behind, because the car did not work. Now I can attack again to the maximum, and I will, because this is one of my last opportunities, given the distance I have from Schumacher".
Speed is back. And so is the warrior spirit. That ability to react, when you have the knife pointed at your throat. Erja also admits it, his wife, the woman who will change his life, since it is now official the expectation of a child:
"Mika needs the pressure, the rifle behind his back. That’s the only way he can make the most, so far there was not enough".
The anxiety came, because the crisis was making the title slip away, and Hakkinen is ready to respond. Even Coulthard cannot feel comfortable. In the previous edition of the Grand Prix, at the second corner there were sparks between the two (with the Scotsman who went to ram Hakkinen) and laughter from the rivals. However, Mika is not afraid that this will happen again, a certainty confirmed by Coulthard himself:
"A collision between teammates is a unique thing. If anything we will have to be careful about the start of Schumacher, given how he behaves. And this time I do not want to be fooled".
The Ferraris are struggling in the second row, and with many questions to ask, above all, the performance of Schumacher, who qualified behind Barrichello. From the Ferrari box they hurry to say that the German never liked the circuit, because it does not fit his driving style. This is demonstrated by some runway exits and a spin of the Ferrari driver. Attempts to remedy these difficulties were many, but Schumacher never managed to find the right balance of his F1-2000. Michael is also stubborn in some experiments, changing type of tyres and aileron several times, up to be confused in a great chaos of data. Barrichello, however, remains constant since Friday, immediately finding the right balance on the car. His balance cannot be used for Schumacher, since he has a driving style which is too different from that of his teammate. Despite the difficulties, Schumacher’s optimism remains:
"Starting from pole is not always an advantage, and this will be a tough race where many things can happen".
In the morning warm-up on Sunday, July 16, 2000, in the Ferrari box a ray of optimism, given by Barrichello, filters. The Brazilian is the fastest of all and gives his team a minimum of confidence for the race. Encouraging but not enough signs to seriously think of threatening the overwhelming power of McLaren revealed throughout the weekend, also because meanwhile the difficulties of Schumacher continue. The two Silver Arrows are in second and third position (with Hakkinen the victim of a harmless spin). Schumacher, fifth behind the surprising Jos Verstappen, takes it with philosophy:
"This is certainly not a favourable circuit for me, but we will give our best to try to recover. It will be important to start well and then we will see what happens. In France we were in front and McLaren won, maybe here the opposite happens".
At 2:00 p.m., the race begins. Luciano Burti, due to a last minute problem on his Jaguar, is forced to start from the pit lane. When the traffic lights goes off, the two McLaren cars have a great sprint, and at the first corner Hakkinen closes without too many problems on Coulthard. The Ferraris, on the other hand, start slowly, being immediately chased by Trulli and Zonta. At the first corner, Barrichello does not close the gap to avoid the fight with Schumacher, who is next to him, and settles for fourth place behind his teammate. Otherwise, Trulli and Zonta delay braking too much at the first corner: the Jordan driver ends, without excessive violence, in the rear of the Ferrari driven by Barrichello, which consequently ends up wide on the gravel. The BAR Brazilian, on the other hand, hits in full the other Ferrari of Schumacher, which is spinning. Trulli cannot avoid it, and there is a frontal impact. In the middle of the group, the contact between Fisichella and Diniz irreparably damages the Benetton of the Roman driver, who remains stuck in the traffic jam created by the Ferrari of Schumacher. Ralf Schumacher has the same fate: he has to reverse to resume the race, which in the meantime is immediately neutralised with the entry of the Safety Car. Michael Schumacher tries the desperate manoeuvre to move his car with the damaged front at the centre of the track, in the hope of causing a red flag and then being able to take part in the race with the forklift. The marshalls, however, efficiently remove the cars of the Ferrari driver, Trulli and Fisichella, all three retired. The Roman is infuriated by the accident caused by Diniz, as he states in no uncertain terms once back in the pits:
"He’s a fool, where did he want to go at 300 km/h? I could get really hurt".
Even Michael Schumacher has a few words:
"I’m sorry for the team, it’s all because of Zonta who came too fast, an inexperienced driver who did not know how to calculate the braking and ran over me. But Zonta did everything unintentionally. Now I just hope to make up soon, in Hockenheim".
At the end of the first lap, in the Safety Car regime, the race sees the two McLarens in the lead, followed by Salo, De La Rosa, Verstappen and Johnny Herbert, the one who has earned the most from this chaotic start, having started sixteenth. The next lap, Verstappen has to replace the damaged front wing, which is why Jenson Button, who also started from eighteenth place, climbs in sixth place. Rubens Barrichello is only seventh, with the bottom of his damaged Ferrari. The Brazilian immediately makes room between drivers who are much slower than him: Button is overtaken with ease, and shortly after it is up to Johnny Herbert. Without the Ferraris to undermine them, the two Silver Arrows run away undisturbed and although there is still a whole race to be disputed, it seems that nothing can prevent the solo ride of Hakkinen and Coulthard, who in the first phase of the race travel in pairs, divided by a second. The fourth retirement of the day is Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who after passing Button and taking seventh place must deal with the umpteenth mechanical problem of the season: the rear of the Jordan starts to lose oil, which ends up on the rear wheels and cause a spin at the penultimate curve of the German driver, which ends his run in the gravel. Behind the two McLarens, Pedro De La Rosa, who overtakes Mika Salo taking third place, and given the anomalous situation that sees Schumacher out of the games and Barrichello with the damaged car, Arrows seriously thinks about the podium. Salo, on the other hand, must beware of Barrichello, who takes the fourth place of the Finn at the Remus corner. If Salo cannot do anything, Johnny Herbert keeps without too much pathos the sixth place on Button and even Marc Gené on Minardi. The most heated tussle is in the centre of the group, involving Alex Wurz and Jean Alesi: the French driver of Prost, after several attempts, manages to get the better of the only Benetton remaining in the race. With the car not at its best, Barrichello is not able to reduce the gap of six seconds that divides him from the Arrows of De La Rosa, who, for its part, keeps itself on an excellent race pace.
On the seventeenth lap the direction of the race sends one Stop&go to Zonta and Diniz, protagonists in negative of the chaos at the first corner. Little changes for the two drivers, who after the disastrous start had already slipped at the back. Meanwhile, Hakkinen decides it is time to get away from any possible attack by Coulthard, especially during the pit-stops, so he begins to constantly gain on the Scottish until he has fifteen seconds of lead on lap 30. It is the thirty-third lap when the Arrows' dreams of glory vanish: due to gearbox problems, De La Rosa slowly returns inside the box, thus decreeing the eighth retirement in ten races. This greatly facilitates the task of Barrichello, who rises to third place, but he is too far from the McLaren. Hakkinen enjoys solitary leadership in the middle of lapping, Coulthard follows him at a distance. At the end of the thirty-seventh lap Hakkinen makes his stop, imitated four laps later by Coulthard, too far to think of an overcut. For the Scotsman it is the umpteenth second place at the Austrian Grand Prix, after those obtained in the three previous editions. With thirty laps to go at the end of an already well-channelled race, Alain Prost must, unfortunately for him, witness the accident between his two drivers at the first corner. A tragic situation within the French team, if you think that already in Magny-Cours Heidfeld and Alesi had already touched. In that case, it was an error of assessment in braking of the young German, this time Alesi tries to get into the first corner, but Heidfeld closes the door, as if he did not expect the manoeuvre, in fact a bit harsh, of the teammate. The two cars end up in the gravel, retired. With less than twenty laps to go, all drivers made at least one stop. The top positions are covered by Hakkinen, Coulthard, Barrichello, Villeneuve, Button and Salo. The 1997 Canadian World Champion was fifteenth at the end of the first lap, but thanks to an excellent race pace and a first stint stretched as much as possible, gained numerous positions until he found himself in the points area. Salo, fourth after De La Rosa’s retirement, has a problematic pit-stop that favours Villeneuve and Button.
The Finn does not lose heart and joins the Williams of the Britishman along with Herbert, who also decides to earn the first point of the season. In addition, Button runs with the damaged front wing after a gravel hike at the last corner. At the box Williams prepare a new wing, but Jenson continues to try to keep the fifth place. Unintentional author of the accident at the start, Ricardo Zonta retires on the fifty-eighth lap due to problems with the Honda engine. The icing on the cake in a day to forget for the Brazilian arrives when the crane that had to remove the car hits him on the head while he was resetting the steering wheel. Before leaving, Zonta gives a nice middle finger to the crane driver. The race offers no other interesting ideas, Button keeps the fifth position on Salo, Villeneuve conquers a high great fourth place, Barrichello limits damage to Ferrari as at Magny-Cours and is third, but above all, Mika Hakkinen returns to victory after two and a half months of abstinence (the last victory was in Barcelona, May 7). He does so in front of Coulthard, who though defeated by his teammate, smiles because he gains another six points in the standings over Michael Schumacher. The German remains at 56, Coulthard rises to 50, Hakkinen to 48. In the constructors’ standings, McLaren bypasses Ferrari to 98 points, six more than Ferrari. The overtaking, however, as well as the success of Hakkinen, remains pending when the race commissioners confiscate the electronic control unit of the Finnish Mp4/15, having found a tampered seal. The confiscation takes place three hours after the end of the race, however, since it is not possible to check the software in Austria for irregularities, the judges take everything to London, where the necessary examinations will take place before making a decision. Sanctions could range from the heavy fine to the disqualification of the driver. A cold shower that ignites some hope at Ferrari, but does not disturb the atmosphere at McLaren. The stable does not comment, but defines itself absolutely quiet, without fear of having flooded the boxes with champagne unnecessarily. Nor does the unbridled Hakkinen lose his smile, euphoric for success, unstoppable in his joy, to the point of launching precise threats to Schumacher:
"The World Championship is back to me. It’s back in my hands again. I know, Michael’s still in the lead, he’s got an eight-point lead, but this win can be a game-changer. Now it is he who does not finish the races, the one who is in crisis. On the psychological level it is definitely worse. While I have definitely solved my problems and my car has returned to being a missile. I am not surprised by the ease with which I won. I have recovered my speed. And I will not lose it again".
An excited Hakkinen, again confident, to the point of feeling master despite the ranking continues to wrong him for now. He overtook, celebrating in the best way, his loyalty record: one hundred and eight races with McLaren, one more than Alain Prost, the longest-running driver in the history of the English team. A magnificent Sunday, so much so that Mika struggles to hold back the euphoria:
"It’s dangerous to let go, but this is too important a success. A driver should always have his feet on the ground, his head cold, but after everything that happened to me this season, I can’t control myself. Here in Zeltweg, my season has finally begun. I know I have a great car and I know I’m the fastest driver in the league, but your superiority is of no use unless you figure it out. Look at Schumacher, here he got it wrong and he’s been struggling all weekend, just like I had in the last two races. The set up is essential, the technicians have now understood what I want, they gave me back my car, the one that fits my driving style. My goal is to tie Schumacher before the last two races. Then everything will be decided. And I have already shown to handle the pressure well. Better than anyone".
To celebrate, the conversation is back on the holidays, maybe to propose that rest that before Austria did so well:
"But don’t say it was my secret. The real help was the changes we made to the car. Small modifications. They may seem insignificant. They were decisive".
And he certainly does not refer to the electronic switchboard, which ended up under investigation in the evening. Also because he guarantees that in Hockenheim the power will be the same:
"If Schumacher wants to do me a favour again...".
A favour that would also be appreciated to Coulthard, in Austria racing his hundredth Grand Prix, for those that he defines six comfortable points. A Scotsman who approaches and does not contain himself on Schumacher:
"I don’t know what happened at the first corner, but surely Michael is to be condemned".
To show that peace between the two is further away. Four 1-2 in the last seven races and a very high level of reliability, as demonstrated by the fact that both cars reached the finish line for eight races. McLaren has been chasing for a long time, after the catastrophes of Australia and Brazil they have lived terrible days, but now they enjoy the fruits of the comeback, with Hakkinen and Coulthard that without race orders divide the victories, while Maranello twists in a crisis of results. The best symbol of this metamorphosis is Norbert Haug, of whom it was rumoured a dismissal in the darkest moment (with Niki Lauda ready to take over), but who never stopped believing, even when threatening Ferrari could seem like a sterile and desperate act of self-defence:
"Hakkinen’s performance in Austria was excellent, but I’m not surprised since our car has become very reliable. For years we had to fight with reliability, but now it has become our strength. And this, combined with the power of the engine and the competitiveness of the car, constitutes a deadly cocktail".
The rest then think the two drivers, never been so fit as at this time. Coulthard is in the best year of his career. In other times, in Austria he would have done everything to join his teammate, but this season he became calculating and content himself with a second place that brings him closer to the head of the championship.
He is more lucid, he keeps away from the headers, and even his now unstoppable rivalry with the Ferrari driver opens important gaps only in the post-race, never on track. A maturation that had made him the main enemy, until the true Hakkinen appeared, uncontainable on Saturday and perfect on Sunday. For the Scotsman, it is like starting from scratch:
"It’s almost as if since Germany we are at the first race of the year. Everything went well and these points were won with ease. Hakkinen was very motivated and not easy to catch. After all, at first I knew I had a lot more fuel than he did, so it was normal that his car was faster. In the end, I could attack him, but I thought of the most important goal, that of the World Championship. And I settled for second place. But I’m in good shape. The chase is over, Ferrari has an advantage thanks to our problems".
At the end of qualifying, Coulthard had a prophetic momentum, when he warned Barrichello:
"If you are going to give the starting position to Schumacher, be careful. Things may not go exactly as you would like".
In the days before the Austrian Grand Prix, nothing else was mentioned but the starts. And, between prophecies, premonitions and veiled threats, it seemed that in the whole race counted only those frantic seconds that passed from the traffic light to the first, insidious, curve. Reality, however, has overcome the most mischievous fantasies. The two McLaren drivers of that disastrous shot will remember only a few fleeting images framed in the rearview mirrors: the smoke, the gravel, the flags, the cars on the track meant that the race was at their disposal. For Ferraris, however, the disaster was consumed. A disaster was also consumed for Prost, with the accident between teammates in the middle of the race. Concerning this, Alesi and Villeneuve blame the young Nick Heidfeld. The former Ferrari driver thunders:
"Nick knew I was faster than him, and I can’t figure out how he couldn’t see me or if he did it because he didn’t step aside. I already have two children and I don’t feel like taking care of a third".
The German justified himself by claiming that he had not seen his rival, but these justifications did not convince even Jacques Villeneuve, who attacks Heidfeld for the manoeuvres of the latter when fighting in the back:
"Nick went back to driving like he used to do in Formula 3000, that is, throwing anyone on the grass. I think such behaviour, when fighting for the fourteenth position, is not acceptable".
What does Prost think?
"Alesi should not have been so aggressive with his teammate, because he would have had to stop shortly after".
All while for the next Grand Prix it seems that the divorce between the stable of the Professor and the Peugeot will be formalised; it was the same Alain to suggest it when Saturday night said:
"There will be an announcement in Hockenheim".
Two days after the race in Austria, Prost, along with Ferrari and Minardi, goes to Mugello for a series of tests; Arrows prefers to go to Vairano (Pavia), while the other teams, McLaren in the lead, find themselves at Silverstone.
The Silver Arrows, with Panis and Coulthard, are the protagonists of the first day of testing. The French test driver scores the fastest time, while Coulthard, in the morning, remains stationary on the track due to electrical problems. A bit of fear for Luciano Burti, who left the track in the afternoon at the Stowe corner. The Brazilian loses control of the car at the moment of braking, going into a spin, crashing violently against the tyres and damaging the left side of the car. The driver is unharmed, but the car is out of contention. With regard to the seal of discord over the Hakkinen car control unit, Jo Bauer, technical delegate of the FIA, explains:
"In my long career, something like this has never happened to me. Then it’s up to the sports commissioners".
No official reply from the team, but Mercedes sources say there is no irregularity. No need to worry. A spokeperson of the team says:
"The information has already been downloaded from the computers and it has been confirmed that the access codes were not found altered".
A fact, the latter, which prompted the same spokesperson of McLaren to be optimistic about the outcome of the event:
"We trust that the matter will be resolved quickly and that Hakkinen’s victory will be confirmed".
In fact, a breach has already been established, and therefore the stable will receive a punishment for sure. Also because the seals of the control units cannot be blown away by a gust of wind: it is a particular adhesive paper with the FIA mark and a number that corresponds to the control unit, in turn covered with an adhesive tape. The stables have twenty-five seals available for each race weekend: they are used to ensure the inviolability of the control units. A special tool is needed to remove them. It will be the German Hermann Tomczyk, the Austrian Walter Jobst and the Irish Brian Brophy to decide what type of action to take against the Anglo-German team, probably after having listened to a representative (Chief Executive Officer Martin Withmarsh, who intervened in Ferrari’s appeal in the Sepang case in 1999). Norbert Haug states with confidence:
"We have no fear: the FIA can safely examine the software of Hakkinen’s car control unit, then it will be clear that everything is in compliance with the regulations. We must first determine who is responsible for keeping the seals but I am convinced that no one has carried out manipulations".
The Federation, however, took time to postpone the decision on the punishment to be inflicted on McLaren in the weekend following the Austrian Grand Prix. The reasons that lead to the lengthening of the times are various: in the first place, it is necessary to consider the delicacy of the verifications that the technical group of the FIA specialised in electronics finds itself to carry out, using also external consultants. The analysis work in progress does not have a fixed location, but uses several laboratories in England. In addition, the technicians also carry out a visit to the headquarters of McLaren-Mercedes in Woking, in addition to visiting the Tag electronic system, the company of the McLaren Group that provides the programs and builds the management units not only to the team of the same name but also to others, like the Jordan. The specialists in charge of the check do not discard any hypothesis, from the possible accidental detachment of the adhesive seal, to the interventions that the opening of even a single unit of edge can make possible. In particular, the reading of access codes - which are secret and owned by the FIA - to be able to then modify the programs without being found alterations to the subsequent verifications. McLaren and Mercedes maintain a precise line on the matter, that of the accidental release of the adhesive caused by vibrations. Waiting for the FIA verdict, we talk again about the incident at the start of Zeltweg.
By fax, Ricardo Zonta apologises to Michael Schumacher. The Brazilian writes:
"I’m sorry for what happened, but it wasn’t my intention to get involved in the accident in the first place, much less you who are running for the title. In the past, although at less important levels, I was in contention for a championship too and I understand the potential consequences of what happened. It was an unfortunate episode, I’m sorry, see you in Hockenheim".
Michael Schumacher appreciates these words. The German, among other things, cancels the holiday week scheduled after the Austrian race to go to Fiorano, starting from July 19, 2000, where he performs numerous tests and seventy-eight laps. But Ferrari, as mentioned, is also active at Mugello, where there is Rubens Barrichello, appeared on track after the podium in Austria:
"After the race, talking to Brawn we quantified the loss of aerodynamic load for that particular broken around fifteen percent, but the technicians then found out that the percentage was much higher: in Formula 1 it is already difficult to overtake and in those conditions it was practically impossible. So I argue that without the accident at the start we could have done another race. Only in France McLaren was stronger, not in Austria".
Waiting for the test, Ferrari starts again from the problems that happened in Magny-Cours. What had turned the initial ride of the drivers into an ordeal? Tyres that had degraded excessively. Well, Rubens' first job is to check with temperatures higher than those of Zeltweg the consistency of the tyres. So, in front of the left rear wheel is mounted an infrared reader that serves to keep under constant control the temperature; at the same time, under the muzzle there is an identical instrument to measure the height from the ground, necessary to optimise the Auditt’s settings. In addition, to make the test even more extreme, at a certain point the air vents in the back are widened to convey more hot air on the tyres. Rubens, author of an off-track that damages the bottom, also tries numerous aerodynamic novelties. At the end of the day, the Ferrari driver spends a few words on the case of the McLaren control unit:
"It’s right to clarify what happened, but I don’t want to think about the advantages of a disqualification of Hakkinen. It’s not nice and in the end you can be disappointed".
As the tests continue, the FIA says that the decision on Hakkinen will be announced on Tuesday, July 25, 2000, and therefore, a further delay is made official. The Federation’s specialists, coordinated by Jo Bauer, inform the Geneva office of the International Federation that they are not yet able to declare their investigation completed, as it seemed possible to do. The investigation, obviously, every day that passes is longer because it is more complex than expected. This prolongation multiplies uncertainty about the outcome of the matter. On July 25, 2000, the Federation puts an end to the case: a fine of 50,000 dollars and a deduction of the points won in Austria with the victory of Hakkinen, in the constructors' standings, for McLaren. The success of the Finn, therefore, is homologated, so the defending champion retains his ten points and remains third in the overall classification, less than eight from Michael Schumacher. The ten points taken from McLaren are not attributed to anyone, and Ferrari returns to lead the world championship with 92 points against 88 of rivals. The Anglo-German company is recognized as the only one responsible for the lack of the seal on the control unit. The judges speak of exceptional circumstances that cause only the constructor, and not the drivers, to be punished. The judges found the good faith of McLaren, who did not take advantage of the lack of the seal to change the electronics secretly and draw some advantages in the race; is also confirmed the responsibility of the team regarding the seal: according to the regulations, a team is always responsible for the full technical compliance of the car with the rules of the regulations. The control unit was without a seal and the fault of this must be attributed to McLaren, which had to better supervise and report to the FIA the possible lack of one of the seals. This did not happen, as it was Jo Bauer who noticed immediately after the conclusion of the Austrian Grand Prix that the winner’s car lacked a seal on one of the electronic control units. The three judges had no choice but to apply this rule (Article 8.2.7 of the Technical Regulation and Article 7 of the Sporting Regulation) and to impose a punishment on the team as responsible for everything that happened. McLaren, after the ruling, acknowledges that:
"The sentence is very harsh, but fair, it would have been really embarrassing if the driver had been punished too".
Ron Dennis announces that he accepts the verdict, and that he does not wish to make any appeal. Ferrari, for its part, limits itself to a laconic comment in which it takes note of the decision of the judges, without entering into the merits. On Sunday, July 30, 2000, the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheim circuit, the fastest of the whole championship, is scheduled. Maranello’s cars are already in Germany with new aerodynamic devices and new engine developments, which should give more speed to Schumacher and Barrichello to counter the McLaren in a delicate moment of the championship.