It took just under two months for Michael Schumacher’s 24-point lead at the end of the Canadian Grand Prix to dissolve. Indeed, after the race held in Budapest, valid for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Ferrari driver is second in the standings, two points behind Mika Hakkinen, when five races are missing at the end of the 2000 World Championship. On the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, in Belgium, the German has the difficult task of recovering points so as not to let Hakkinen get away too much. On a track that Schumacher knows well and that recorded his debut in Formula 1 in 1991, Ferrari will have, according to the German driver, the opportunity to fight at par:
"We’re completing a new, more powerful engine. In Belgium it will not be easy to overtake, but it won’t be like Budapest, where overtaking the opponent is almost impossible".
At Ferrari there is the awareness of having to work a lot, but they will still be able to do it. On Wednesday, August 16, 2000, on the Mugello track, Schumacher races for a long time (sixty-nine laps, stopping the clock at 1'27"337), together with Sauber and BAR. Even in mid-August, at Fiorano, Schumacher has worked, making one hundred and fifteen laps. On the Modena circuit, the Ferrari driver has even tried the start eight times. It seems that the start of the race is the most critical moment for Ferrari, but for Michael it is not so:
"No, it’s not a problem that bothers us too much because I don’t think it’s the only technical aspect to work on. Of course, McLaren got the best of us from the start, we must try to do the same. At the start, they managed to unload all the power from the car, we didn’t. So Ferrari, despite having improved a lot compared to last season, has to do something more".
There are those who have speculated that there was something irregular about the McLaren, a technical device not allowed that would have benefited Michael at the time of the start.
"We, who are part of a big group like Fiat, could not put in place illegal things and I think they don’t either. And then the FIA did the checks and everything turned out to be fine".
Wanting to follow the mood swings of the media, for which Michael as a hero becomes a jug with a disarming ease, he comments:
"Everyone thinks as well as they want. I am a normal man who does his job with serenity. And it is the very fact of being German, an aspect that you often reproach me, that gives me the strength to go on with so much conviction".
Yeah, serenity. Is that a word that still reigns in Ferrari’s pits, or does a bit of nervousness emerge?
"The environment is definitely warm for the temperature, but not the Ferrari team, that is working really hard. We are just two points behind and there are still five races to go".
But doesn’t the loss at the Hungaroring circuit worry the championship leader?
"Numerically in Budapest I lost the first place but the missing points are those we have left on other occasions".
Are there any specific strategies for the next races?
"Of course, it would be a problem if there weren’t. The important thing is to be able to optimise everything to try to give back to fans the title that has been missing for 21 years now".
In addition to testing at Mugello, Ferrari also works with Luca Badoer at Fiorano, where the focus is mainly on the left rear tyre. In particular, the technicians collect information on the instantaneous temperatures of the tread in an attempt to make better use of the roofs themselves, and to understand how the car’s adjustments affect their degradation. At the end, the test driver from Treviso runs one hundred and seven laps (the best in 1'01"620) and also performs a dozen starting simulations. To signal also a spin with consequent exit of track in the afternoon. The problematic departures of Schumacher, as already mentioned, continue to be a topic of actuality in Germany, fomenting continuous polemics certainly destined to find new ideas after the interview with Ross Brawn appeared in the weekly Sport Bild. Ferrari’s technical director does not hide criticism from the German:
"Certainly there were years in which the start was better. If Michael started better, he would have had less problems. Who starts slowly, is then overtaken by those behind. Technically, there is nothing wrong".
The question that follows is logical: So Schumacher is wrong?
"Yes. We do everything to make it possible for the driver to get an optimal start. And Michael often tries the starts. Schumacher would always like to reach the optimal point between the clutch and the accelerator to be able to start in a fantastic way and not just so. If it suits him, a rocket start comes out, otherwise the consequence is a weak start".
Sport Bild, provocatively, still asks Brawn if he cannot even order Schumacher himself a standard way to start:
"If everything were so easy... how can I tell him how to drive? He’s the driver, not me. The start is the most important moment of the whole race weekend and moreover it is a very personal thing. The danger of accidents is very high. You can’t get mixed up with a superstar like that".
Meanwhile, at Monza, Jean Alesi has the opportunity to test the new layout of the circuit, with the most substantial change to the first chicane. At the end of the day, the Prost driver declares:
"An exceptional job was done especially at the first variant in terms of entertainment and safety. Before, overtaking at the end of the main straight was almost impossible because the track became practically a funnel. The new design, instead, prevents you from jumping from one kerb to another. And it’s good. In the past years, I have prayed that those shots would not break the suspensions".
Jean was less impressed by the second variant:
"The change is almost imperceptible".
And on the rainy asphalt, applied to the first chicane:
"The redone stroke is too short to be able to give a judgement and then we are just experimenting to see if it holds up to the stresses of a Formula 1 car. But if it works, it will be laid on the straight and that will be a good step forward because it will ensure better visibility in case of bad weather".
All is well, therefore, even if there is a small drawback: despite the organisers have placed on the left side of the track an arrow to indicate the curve, the entrance of the latter is not well identifiable because of the straight line that continues as an escape route:
"But the FIA will definitely put up tyre barriers, and that will help us. Lap times? I cannot provide reliable data because here we are running in Spa configuration, but I think we will be about two-three seconds slower".
On Thursday, August 17, 2000, Rubens Barrichello is also at Mugello. Together with him there are Villeneuve and Zonta on the BAR, Diniz on the Sauber and Vinella on the Minardi. For the first time this season, the gates will reopen to allow access to the spectators, who can then attend the tests of Ferrari in comfort and not seated on the hill that dominates the curves Savelli and Arrabbiata 1 and 2. It is up to the Brazilian to test the evolution of the engine, which in all probability Ferrari will use at Spa. On the subject, Rubens explains:
"We worked on the balance of the car and the engine. In particular, we were very pleased with the latter: I hope to be able to use it in Belgium".
Overall a good day of practice, during which Barrichello runs ninety-eight laps, the best of which in 1'27"227. All while in Fiorano, Luca Badoer tries the F1-2000 on the wet track, in rain configuration. BAR-Honda also works intensely: Jacques Villeneuve, runs seventy-three laps with the best time of 1'28"409. The Canadian is confident for the race at the end of August in Belgium:
"This circuit is very similar to that of Spa. These tests were very important".
Both Villeneuve and Barrichello take to the track the next day, and Michael Schumacher is there to keep them company. The two Ferrari drivers continue to work on the structure of the car and its balance, without neglecting the engine tests. At the end of the test, Jean Todt has no doubts: to win the World Championship, Ferrari is doomed to win already from Belgium, and has the right aggressiveness. Ferrari’s sports director arrives at Mugello by helicopter, even carrying a carbon fin still to be painted. The three days of testing at Mugello were satisfactory:
"We have a specific working program for Spa. We always work to have a good performance in the race, and even if this did not happen in Budapest we should not think that the sky fell on our head".
Ahead of over seven thousand fans hot for the high summer temperatures, Schumacher completes sixty-five laps, stopping the clock at 1'27"007, two seconds more than Barrichello (seventy-one laps) that runs in 1'25"770. In total, the two Ferrari drivers travel almost seven hundred kilometres. Michael explains:
"We did a lot of set-up tests ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, and even the endurance tests carried out on Thursday by Barrichello left us very satisfied".
Schumacher is optimistic, and not even the sudden failure that forces him to stop around 5:30 p.m. worries him. In the evening, Ferrari technicians minimise it, talking about an indefinite problem that does not cause any concern. At least in words. And it remains the conviction that at Spa Ferrari will be much more competitive than in Budapest. All day long the two drivers of Maranello whip the F1-2000, in search of that consistency of performance, as Barrichello says, which is still missing at the Ferrari. Schumacher returns to the track on August 21, 2000, in Fiorano, to test the frame of the forklift to be used in Belgium, as well as some inevitable starting test. These are not easy times for Jenson Button who, if he can take lightly the fine that the FIA commits for the delay of twenty minutes at the press conference scheduled on the eve of the Hungarian Grand Prix, cannot do the same with the decision of Williams to prefer Juan Pablo Montoya to him in the role of driver of the team together with Ralf Schumacher. The British team loaned the young Jenson to Benetton for two years, with the option of taking him back to the team in 2003. BAR is also active on the drivers market, which formalises the agreement with Olivier Panis, McLaren test driver, for the 2001 season, replacing Ricardo Zonta. When he reaches the Ardennes, Michael Schumacher resumes the speech of the press that tends to criticise him with some ease, the same with which he then gets on the cart of the winners after his victory:
"You Italians are like that, I mean you’re too emotional. Whether someone wins or loses, you destroy him, and the most emblematic example is Zoff. Now I say: you have to look at the positive side of things. Not everything is lost and everything can change again. The championship is not over at all. I remember the headlines of the Italian newspapers some time ago: Hakkinen in crisis. But what crisis? Now he is in the lead. And so I don’t want to hear about any crisis at Ferrari, or Schumacher in crisis. And in the last race in Budapest it is not true that I started badly: it was Hakkinen who started better. Hakkinen’s start was a surprise to everyone. We believed we had worked very well to improve the starting system of our cars but they worked better than us".
Optimism, therefore, triumphs. And the reasons are there. Just to start the new engine, the famous 049C, but it will only be used in qualifying, while in the race they bet on the 049B. Then there is the aerodynamic package with many new things from which Schumacher expects remarkable performance. Michael also talks about his family museum, whose foundation stone he laid a few days earlier. Fussy as he is in all things, he wants to specify:
"It’s not a museum, it’s a family exhibition of my career and that of my brother, that’s all".
On Friday, August 25, 2000, the drivers will be on track for the two free practice sessions of the Belgian Grand Prix. Already in the morning, McLaren confirms the superiority shown in recent months. David Coulthard is first, Hakkinen is second, Schumacher only fifth at eight tenths, preceded by Johnny Herbert and Jacques Villeneuve. Rubens Barrichello even ninth. The premise, therefore, is to the detriment of Ferrari, with Schumacher running exasperatedly in search of the best set-up without being able to find it. Coulthard and Hakkinen appear much more confident. The Scotsman recorded his best time on his first real attempt, in the first hour of free practice (1'53"398) which he then approached only once. Hakkinen, on the other hand, is initially behind Schumacher, but then reduces the disadvantage from his teammate from over a second to 521 thousandths. Like Coulthard, Schumacher did the time shortly after taking to the track, never managing to improve, unlike for example Herbert with the Jaguar (the only one to descend below 1.54s together with the two Silver Arrows) and Villeneuve. Schumacher makes several laps often returning to the pits to change the set-up; the biggest problems are recorded in the fastest part of the circuit, a little less in the driven one, where the greater aerodynamic load helps. But overall, the McLarens are better. Despite a worrying delay, already from Saturday, Ferrari promises clear improvements, thanks to the new engine that should ensure greater speed. The surprise, in addition to Herbert and Villeneuve, is the sixth place of Alexander Wurz, who overtook his teammate Fisichella (eighth). Dutch Jos Verstappen is seventh, while Jarno Trulli has to settle for tenth place. Well the Minardi of Marc Genè (eleventh) and Mazzacane (nineteenth), who for once is not in last position, where instead are the two disappointing Prost-Peugeots.
David Coulthard’s Friday performance undoubtedly translates into a nice injection of confidence. In the trio of candidates fighting for the World Championship, David is the least popular. A bit due to certain mistakes made in the past, a bit because compared to Hakkinen and Schumacher he cannot boast a great palmarès. Until a few weeks earlier he seemed the most serious rival of Michael, but as soon as the Hakkinen quotations have resumed to rise, his have dropped. Two uncertainties at the start were enough to cancel out the good things done in the German and the Hungarian qualifying, and obscure the brilliant first part of the championship. But on a track that Ron Dennis himself has defined for real drivers, here is that Coulthard immediately stands in front of everyone, opening important gaps:
"I cannot deny that from a psychological point of view it can be a good start, even if these days there is nothing to win. The time is actually interesting, but it is even more interesting to find the right adjustment of the car. Everyone here pays attention to the Eau Rouge, whether or not we do it with the pedal down, but there you can lose a couple of tenths at most. The difference is the second stretch. The gap I gave to Mika? And the one to Ferrari? I worry about rivals only on two occasions. One hour on Saturday afternoon and then from 2:00 p.m. on Sunday".
David claims to have learned the lesson regarding the starts:
"I studied Mika’s start, and I think I understood something about it. I’d like to prove it right away".
While waiting, David can confide in the words of Ron Dennis, back on the question of team orders:
"Since 1991 it has been written in the contracts of our drivers that they must be subjected to the decisions of the team because they are fully dependent, but we have applied this rule more or less five times since then. So, even if you argue throughout the weekend about strategies, then let them behave as they want and we are willing to pay the price for this freedom".
The team principal of Woking’s team also engages in a dispute with rival Jean Todt, in which there are accusations and counter-accusations. The last episode is at the end of July, when on the occasion of the German Grand Prix it emerged the story of a letter sent by Ferrari to the sports commissioners of the previous race in Zeltweg, concerning the famous missing seal on one of the control units of the victorious McLaren of Hakkinen. An episode that has poisoned the relations between the two stables and that seems anything but healed, in the light of the statements made on Friday by the two managers. Todt states that:
"We respect McLaren, it is a tough opponent, but precisely because we are fighting we thought we were entitled to ask the FIA clarification on the subject. That’s why we sent a letter to the FIA and our rivals: nothing secret, everything in plain sight".
Dennis' reply is:
"I am sorry to have to come back to a subject that would be better to forget, but we have not received any communication and the letter has not been sent to the FIA but to the sports commissioners. This is so unacceptable that it took only 30 seconds for the Commissioners to reject it. However, it is better to put an end to the matter, it is not productive for the races. And even if our relations with Ferrari will remain difficult, I prefer to compete on and off track with loyalty".
Todt, for his part, does not change his mind:
"I believe that I have acted correctly, for me the commissioners represent the Federation and if it were to repeat such an episode I would not hesitate to behave in the same way".
On the Adrian Newey topic, or his move to Maranello, he agrees with the two executives. Todt explains that:
"We contacted Newey last time in 1995, and everything else is speculation, perhaps staged to destabilise the stable. I’m proud of the people who work with me, and I want to win with them".
But Dennis replies:
"I’ve heard these rumours about Newey, too, but he’s very involved in the team, even though he’s not a shareholder, and he’s well paid. I think he’ll stay with us".
On Saturday, August 26, 2000, Mika Hakkinen takes pole position (the 26th in his career) for the Belgian Grand Prix. Next to the McLaren driver, surprisingly, there is Jarno Trulli, driving the Jordan Mugen-Honda. In the second row, another surprise, as Jenson Button’s Williams-BMW is placed in front of Schumacher’s Ferrari. Coulthard, in shape during free practice, is only fifth. The other Ferrari driver, Rubens Barrichello, is even tenth, also because of a spin occurred in the final stage of qualifying. From the top of the dominant pole position, Hakkinen can afford to joke, and smiles:
"How will the race end? It depends on what these two bald young people will do".
In reference to Trulli and Button, two young drivers not really used to starting from the high areas of the standings:
"I will try to maintain concentration, to be regular throughout the race, not to make mistakes. I expect that the start and the race will be very interesting".
Mika is quiet after getting the third consecutive pole position on the Belgian circuit. And he did so thanks to a great time, lapping in 1'50"646, seven tenths better than Trulli:
"We made some radical changes during free practice this morning, and I went on track as soon as possible to understand these changes".
The nightmare can turn into a dream. The cursed track, where Hakkinen never won, can become the theatre of the great escape. Far from Schumacher, from his desire to return the world championship to Maranello after twenty-one years. Strange pretensions, Mika does not allow her. And to prove it, he brings out an explosive Saturday, a great feat, nine tenths of a gap against his rival, almost a second and eight tenths to the other Ferrari driven with a thousand hardships by Barrichello. An abysmal gap. There would be no reason to hold back the euphoria, however:
"Something always happens here in the race. I’m not the type to be conditioned, I know very well that if you do not make mistakes, you get the maximum result. Just hit every corner and keep the speed I had today. I don’t believe in curses, but I prefer to wait for the race with some apprehension. It will help me not to make mistakes. I still remember 1998 as a nightmare, when I came out at the first corner, after a Herbert collision. My first start was fantastic, but it didn’t matter, because the race was suspended. And after the second start I spun. And I don’t forget last season either, my teammate Coultard burning me at the beginning, I was chasing and I couldn’t catch him anymore".
Hakkinen was better placed in the standings, but McLaren refused to give the team orders, taking away from the Finn, in a fight with Irvine, four precious points in the standings. Certain risks are no longer possible this season, in the sense that Mika knows perfectly well that he cannot expect favours. That is why he smiles when he sees the other McLaren so far behind, and even more so he can be satisfied when he sees the troubles of Schumacher, fourth and worried.
"My car flies, especially in the second sector, the longest and most challenging. The others focused more on the first and third parts. That explains my advantage".
To which he will try to add a great start, along the lines of the last two, fantastic, Hockenheim and Budapest:
"I trained a lot last week at Silverstone, I don’t see why I should get worse".
Ferrari breathes a whole new air. Nobody hides the problems, but few are out of the question about remedies. Starting with Schumacher:
"The truth is, it’s all our fault that we’re behind McLaren today, and I don’t deserve them. I am convinced that without the yellow flags at the end of the session, the front row would have been within my reach and also for this reason I feel like saying that tomorrow the race will be very interesting".
The diagnosis of the German driver is dry:
"In the long run, if you want to win, you don’t need lucky circumstances, you always need to be competitive. The car on the one hand is not quiet in the chicane, on the other hand in some places it lacks traction. And we cannot understand why".
There was no point in tireless night work with exhausted and sweaty mechanics. The Ferrari suddenly seems to be incurable, so much so that at a certain point, inside the radio headset you can hear the almost dull voice of Barrichello who asked to try the old ailerons. The answer is as disappointing as the whole day: Rubens, Michael has already tried them, but it was all useless, no difference. In this tragic response of a technician there is all the bitterness of a team that does not back down in front of any request, and now heartbroken looks at the results. With great effort, Schumacher manages to climb a place, despite the yellow flags flying on the track. The new engine, the much talked about 049C, did not help much: the speed has increased a bit, but the lap time does not bring Schumacher over a fortunate fourth place, which means second row, tight between very fast drivers like Coulthard and Villeneuve, and young men like Trulli and Button, standing in front of him. Even worse is Barrichello, who is not cornering with a Ferrari that projects him into a fantastic tail head, which has no traction, with probably wrong aerodynamics. The Mugello tests aimed at Belgium had been so much praised, but then, after free practice and qualifying, it turns out that the car is not working. Nothing goes wrong: the engine, the aerodynamics, the traction. The faces speak for themselves and seem to mean: it is all to be redone. Schumacher tries to express positivity:
"All in all it went really well, I was in worse shape and only in the end I managed to climb over Coulthard, thank you very much. But I am fourth, I have a second of detachment, I just can’t be happy. What happens? I don’t even know, we have to analyse a lot of data to be able to grasp the edge of this very intricate skein. There is no precise explanation, it’s the whole car that is not working, we have problems with the aerodynamics, with the traction, with the engine, maybe only the tyres are in place. But I don’t know why either".
Even more drastic is Barrichello:
"We tried everything there was to try, the results are not there and no one knows why, it is really disappointing to see that the car is not together".
But not all is lost, according to Schumacher:
"That’s right, I have not yet lost the Belgian Grand Prix and all in all we have to be optimistic. Everyone in Hungary thought Hakkinen was dead, and instead you saw what he did, passing me at the first corner. I can do it too, I have to try to imitate him and then I might even come out winning this miserable weekend. It will be a very interesting race, you will see. A victory would raise our fortunes in this race towards the world title. But if our perspective is that of the title then we must win by force, with our means, we cannot stay here to hope that it rains or that misfortunes happen to others, because otherwise we do not win anymore. So, I want to win without rain, but if it rains I certainly will not hold back".
The satisfaction is so great for Jarno Trulli, who equals his best result in qualifying obtained in Monte-Carlo a few months earlier, thanks to an exceptional performance. All while the most experienced teammate, Frentzen, is only eighth.
"I managed to prepare the car very well, in a circuit that is a continuous challenge. Here each of the three sectors has its own history: in the first you have to be very fast and I have always done the Eau Rouge in full, without ever lifting my foot. In the second it takes a lot of aerodynamic load, the car must be crushed on the ground and mine was. The third one needs traction and I also had that. My Jordan was perfect. It’s not a dream, this second place. I expected it, after the free practice, I knew I could get it".
Jarno will start ahead of Button, and especially Schumacher:
"I don’t have a problem with it. I won’t be conditioned. Dirty part, clean part, who cares. I just start, as fast as I can. It would be nice to get Hakkinen into the first corner, I will try to do it. As I will try to keep Schumacher and Button behind. Too many times this year I missed the podium, I’ve been dealing with bad luck all season. In Hockenheim, with that unfair Stop&go who deprived me of the podium, in Monte Carlo, when I started second, as I am now, and I couldn’t get to the end, without forgetting Zeltweg in 1997, when I was still driving the Prost. Jordan made me suffer, we had reliability problems, sometimes even quality, like my front wing in Budapest. But now I feel that fate has changed and I want to take back what I’ve lost. My day must come".
The only thing in which he feels inferior is the starting system. Trulli explains:
"We don’t have automatic systems like Ferrari and McLaren, we do everything like road drivers. I have a great reaction time, but it’s one thing to have to modulate the gas by myself and another with the help of electronics. Out of ten starts, maybe one is better. But in the other nine, the man always wins the car. I had not started badly in Monte Carlo. Only that time Schumacher got it right. And he fooled me".
This time he will try to do it. Threatening even Hakkinen:
"He tries to influence us, talking about drivers not used to the first rows, but Button and I are not afraid. We are the future of Formula 1, sooner or later everyone will notice it".
Not even the rain, whose probability is high, scares him:
"I am also good in the wet, last year at the Nurburgring I made sparks, I brought the Prost in second place. And even a month ago at Hockenheim I could have finished on the podium. There is less grip, but that’s no problem. I would keep the car like that, without changing anything".
On Sunday morning, the warm-up of the Belgian Grand Prix is affected by heavy rain. The wet track seems to favour the Ferrari, which becomes much more competitive. At the end of the short session, however, Hakkinen scores the best time in 2'03"392, but Schumacher follows him just a tenth away; third, and still fast, Button, who precedes Barrichello and Coulthard. In difficult conditions, there are many off-tracks: the most spectacular and at the same time tremendous one involves Giancarlo Fisichella. The Benetton driver, exiting from Blanchimont and at the entrance of Stavelot, grazes the white strip on the asphalt, loses control of the car and crashes against the tyre protection that performs its job very well. The car ends its mad race upside down on the track, but after moments of terror, Fisichella quickly gets out of the cockpit on his legs, and then gets thoroughly examined by the specialists of the medical centre, who do not detect any ailments. In the early afternoon, the track is still wet due to the rain that fell during the whole morning and the race direction, recalling perhaps the disastrous route of the 1998 edition, opts for a start under the Safety Car regime: to be precise, after a single lap behind the safety car, the green flag will be waved and the drivers will be able to push to the maximum. Almost all cars are fitted with intermediate tyres, with the exception of Pedro Diniz’s Sauber, who takes a risk putting on dry tyres, with the hope that the track will dry out sooner than expected. A choice that does not pay, though. When the Safety-Car is pushed aside, Michael Schumacher immediately tries to be seen in the mirrors of Jenson Button, who safely closes the trajectory at the first corner. Behind, Coulthard looks ready to exploit any mistake. Hakkinen knows that it is necessary to make the most of the laps that Schumacher will spend behind Trulli and Button, so he immediately starts pushing hard to get away. Since not a drop of rain has fallen on the track for a while, the asphalt continues to dry, so that a dry trajectory can already be glimpsed in some stretches. After the first laps, therefore, Hakkinen is the leader of the race, ahead of Trulli and Button, followed by Schumacher and Coulthard, while Ralf Schumacher closes the points area.
Rubens Barrichello, who started tenth, climbs to ninth position thanks to the overtaking at La Source on Herbert. Again at La Source, Button tries to surprise Trulli with a far too deep braking, which leads the young Briton to finish wide, with Jarno promptly crossing. But the Jordan driver is visibly in trouble compared to those who follow him; this makes the game of Hakkinen who gains a second and a half per lap on his pursuers. Button continues to put pressure on Trulli, but at the entrance of the Bus Stop positions himself incorrectly in braking and is overtaken by Schumacher. The latter takes advantage of the moment, and at the next turn, La Source, also surpasses Trulli. Button gets a little confused by lengthening the braking, but this time ends up ramming the unfortunate Trulli, who ends up in the tail and turns off the engine of the Jordan. Unfortunately for him, his race ends like this. Because of his reckless manoeuvre, Button is bypassed by Coulthard and teammate Ralf Schumacher. Young Jenson pays a lot of money for his inexperience. In a few corners the first six positions undergo a drastic change. At the end of the fifth lap, Hakkinen is on the run, Schumacher and Coulthard follow him at ten seconds; Ralf Schumacher and Button’s Williams-BMW are in fourth and fifth position, while Jacques Villeneuve climbs to sixth position thanks to Trulli’s retirement. During the sixth lap of a race that promises to be exciting, some drivers, in this case Alesi, Gené and Verstappen, decide that it is time to put on dry tyres. As soon as the other teams take note of the partial records recorded by the Frenchman of Prost, the mechanics are almost all called up to prepare. Most of them, because only the McLaren crew stays still. Hakkinen and Coulthard, in fact, remain on track with intermediate tyres, while the two Schumachers and the rest of the group go into the pits to mount dry tyres. When Jean Alesi records the fastest lap, it is clear that the team of Woking has committed a lightness in not bringing back at least one of the two drivers. And if Hakkinen stops at the next lap, Coulthard has to wait two laps for the tyre change.
After everyone has done the pit stop, Hakkinen is always in the lead of the race, but his gap over Schumacher has dropped. Ralf Schumacher is up in third position, ahead of Jean Alesi, very good at coming back first and especially at taking advantage of the dry tyres, Button and Villeneuve. Barrichello is in seventh position, while Coulthard is even ninth, behind Frentzen’s Jordan. Such a result would risk excluding the Scotsman from the title fight, as at the same time his two rivals lead the race in first and second position. With the rival’s McLaren in sight, Schumacher records several times the fastest lap of the race, also helped by the fact that the track is constantly improving. Hakkinen, however, loses almost a second each time he crosses the finish line. At Spa, despite the promised rain, even the sun rises, and with the progressive drying of the track even Hakkinen begins to have a greater confidence. The head to head between the two becomes tight, but then, along the Stavelot curve, the twist: Mika trusts too much of the inner kerb, evidently still slippery for the water, and in so doing, he ends up in a half-tail that luckily does not lead him to bump into the barriers. The inaccuracy costs the reigning champion dearly, because now it is Schumacher who is the leader of the race, with a five-second advantage over him. All this at the thirteenth of the forty-four laps expected. Meanwhile, the other Ferrari of Barrichello cannot get rid of the BAR of Villeneuve, despite an obvious difference in pace. So, while Schumacher takes advantage of a moment of Hakkinen’s fog to bring his gap to ten seconds, near the twentieth lap Rubens returns to the pits to try an undercut on the Canadian, changing his strategy from two to three stops. Hakkinen seems to recover only after Schumacher makes his stop at the end of the twenty-first lap; a stop that lasts 11.1 seconds, and returns the Ferrari driver to third place, between the two Williams, waiting for them to pit. Compared to his opponent, Hakkinen lengthens his stint with the aim of minimising the gap that will divide him from the lead of the race after the pit-stop, which is carried out at the end of the twenty-seventh lap. The mechanics complete the operation of tyre change and refuelling in 8.8 seconds, and at the exit of the pit lane, Hakkinen pays six seconds from Schumacher. At this point, the only ones to make the second stop are Frentzen and Coulthard, paired for a good part of the race with the Scottish never able to worry the only Jordan remaining in the race.
Returning from fourth and fifth position, it becomes the task of McLaren mechanics to allow their driver to take the position. A task that is performed perfectly, because while in the pits Jordan makes a mistake mounting a tyre, the men of the Anglo-German team are perfect, and so Coulthard returns to the track in front of Frentzen, in seventh position. In front of him, in addition to Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen and Ralf Schumacher, there are Barrichello - climbed fourth but with the third stop to be made - Jean Alesi, who hopes to bring the first points for Prost, and Button. The focus, however, is all about the top positions, as following the last pit-stop Hakkinen begins to score fastest laps over fastest laps, drastically reducing the gap from Schumacher. At twelve laps from the end, the duelists are divided by just two seconds, and with the difference in terms of top speed between Mercedes and Ferrari in favour of the first, for Schumacher promises to be a difficult end of the race. No end of the race, however, for Rubens Barrichello, who remains stationary at the entrance of the pit-lane just in the lap when the mechanics were waiting for him at the pit-stop. The mechanics of Ferrari go running to recover the Ferrari and push it to the pits, where, however, there is nothing more to do despite the frantic work on the rear of the car to understand what went wrong. For the Brazilian comes the third retirement of the season after a positive streak of eight races constantly in the top four positions. On the same lap, unfortunately, the race of Jean Alesi also ends due to a problem at the petrol station. The Frenchman was one step away from the feat, but once again Prost left him on foot. There are now ten laps to go, and Hakkinen recovered the six seconds that separated him from Schumacher. The two run together. Between the two it is a head to head that will deliver to the winner the leadership of the World Championship. If Hakkinen wins he can even start to think of a gap, since it would have six points more than the German and thirteen more than Coulthard, who meanwhile has overtaken Button and has taken fourth place; otherwise, Schumacher would be back at the top of the drivers' standings, two points ahead of his rival. On lap thirty-seven, Hakkinen breaks the delays: perhaps disturbed by the lapping of Gené, Schumacher finds the McLaren closer than before. Hakkinen takes advantage of the whole slipstream, tries to jump on the inside but Schumacher closes with determination and perhaps with a minimum of delay.
The defensive move is not appreciated by Hakkinen, who reacts with a frantic hand gesture. To avoid the disaster, the Finn had to lift his foot, however Schumacher remained within the limits of the regulation, changing trajectory only once. But Hakkinen does not give up, and the next lap tries again. This time, there is the BAR of Ricardo Zonta, which Schumacher, as he will later reveal in the press conference, welcomes as a godsend because the Brazilian’s lapping can allow him to take advantage of a slipstream on the long straight of Kemmel, and secure himself at least this time from the attacks of Hakkinen. A prediction that turns out to be wrong. Mika is once again very aggressive on the way to Eau Rouge-Raidillon, and is very close to the Ferrari. Schumacher takes advantage of the BAR’s slipstream, and goes on the outside of Zonta to do the lapping and prepare for the Les Combes detachment. Hakkinen, however, turns right, inside, discards Zonta himself, and at Les Combes incredibly surpasses Schumacher, who is left without a chance to defend himself. An exceptional manoeuvre by Hakkinen, who thus returns as leader of the Belgian Grand Prix. One of the most incredible overtakings in the history of Formula 1 is also the last emotion of the race: Mika Hakkinen crosses the line as winner for the first time at Spa. The Finn celebrates a huge success in the world championship, and does so ahead of Michael Schumacher, second, and Ralf Schumacher, third ahead of Coulthard, Button and Frentzen. Upon leaving the cockpit, Mika celebrates with his now iconic right fist raised with joy to the sky. With seventy-four points in the standings, four races from the end, a performance of the highest level and a Ferrari in a performance crisis, the Finnish starts to see his third world title. And Ron Dennis, rightly so, gloating after his driver’s masterpiece:
"I continue to say that Schumacher is the strongest, because he is a great communicator, he knows how to conquer everyone. I don’t care, I look at the statistics, the victories, even the mistakes and the way a driver manages to fix them. Hakkinen spun today, but he kept the car very well. And then the overtaking: he gave me an immense gift. At a time when the fight for the title is so heated and the pressure is skyrocketing, it’s hard to have fun. Mika gave me great joy. He was great".
Mika is reluctant to talk about the most beautiful overtaking of his life, but he recognizes that if overtaking Schumacher already gives him a particular emotion, doing it this way makes it even more special:
"In the last three years I’ve been through so many incredible things that I can’t say which one is better".
Two deadly months started at Magny Cours. The driver who had no more stimuli, who had to retire, is now a prized champion, who walks on the clouds:
"Although the secret is to keep your feet firmly on the ground. Now I enjoy this triumph, but tomorrow I will think about the Italian Grand Prix, how to learn the new track. I do not want to show up at Monza as a winner. But as one who will come back from Monza with a success".
An elegant way to say that it is time to close the conversation. It is right in Italy, home of Ferrari. Ten more points would be a blow to Schumacher’s dreams:
"Monza, another cursed track? So was Spa. And I won. This circuit was a nightmare, but I love it. Now I’d like to run here twice a year".
He liked less the way Schumacher, on the occasion of the first failed overtaking attempt, closed the road. He explained it to him clearly at the end of the race, the two gestures were eloquent. But then, with a warm triumph, everything is forgotten. Hakkinen is also great in this:
"What did we talk about? We were scoring points".
Blatant lie. Actually Mika says to the German driver:
"You can’t push someone into the grass at 300 km/h. This is a life or death situation, use some common sense".
But Schumacher leans his head, looks at the Finn and exclaims:
"What did I do wrong?"
And the Finn says:
"If it was a slow turn and you defend yourself and do things that are at the limits, I could somehow accept it because I also use gimmicks on the track. But 300 km/h are so fast that if at those speeds a Formula 1 car goes on the grass, and the height from the ground is about fifteen millimetres at the front, the smallest bump will fly the car".
Mika, however, at the press conference prefers to talk about other things, such as his mistake at Stavelot who had handed over the leadership of the race to Schumacher:
"My mistake. I thought: My God, it’s over. Instead I managed not to damage the car. A car that after the second pit stop went like a missile. I had eight kilometres extra per hour on the straight on Schumacher. When I saw Zonta in the middle, I said to myself: here it gets interesting. I saw Michael going left: well, that’s the mistake I expected. I jumped right and everything went smoothly".
And how does Schumacher feel after having been overtaken like that on one of his favourite tracks?
"I can’t be happy. But Hakkinen was too fast; I tried to do my best, but it wasn't enough. His manoeuvre was extraordinary, I congratulate him. But if he had not managed to pass there, he would have done it two laps later. At that point he was much faster than me".
Not an encouraging statement. On the contrary, it almost smells of surrender:
"We don’t despair. It was a difficult race, but it’s not the end. Nothing is compromised. We are six points behind in the standings, it is not an unbridgeable gap. We will not give up. McLaren is currently stronger, but so have we in the past. The championship is open, although now, after this victory of Hakkinen, everything becomes more difficult. Fans must know that we still have faith. Now we go to Monza, we have to be optimistic and I am. The whole team will push to the maximum. This gap from Hakkinen must be closed, at all costs".
The declarations of intent are good. But the facts show a different picture. It is impressive to see Hakkinen passing a Ferrari like that on the straight.
"He was smart. I, to lap Zonta, went to the left, I thought he would do the same. In that case I would close the road. Because it is one thing to be faster, another to overtake. Instead he chose the right of the track and surprised me. I thought that was the right trajectory. In lapping you always look for the correct trajectory, I thought it wrong to stay on the inside. The facts have wronged me".
The Finn had already tried a lap before and it had gone wrong. But he did not like the defensive manoeuvre, the way the road was closed to him. Schumacher says his opinion:
"In the car we only have the mirrors, the critics have the television. I think I made a correct move. I want to review the images. If I was wrong, I will correct myself".
Ferrari had arrived in Belgium with high hopes. At the end of the race, its top driver says that it could not be done more. What is the reason for this backward step in performance?
"It is difficult to explain. Surely for Monza we will have to improve the whole package, we must continue to work with great determination. Monza has undergone several changes, it has become a new circuit, I don’t know it yet. I hope it will end like in 1998, with my victory. Two years ago Spa had been much more disastrous, there had been the accident with Coulthard, a lot of controversy. Monza erased everything".
The problems, however, remain. And the World Championship seems to have taken a very precise direction.
"I, on the other hand, believe it can still change its face, while recognizing Hakkinen’s strength. I like to fight with him, our duels are always loyal".
A few words also come from the involuntary third unconscious on the occasion of the decisive overtaking for the victory. Ricardo Zonta tells how he lived those moments:
"I did not see Hakkinen at all. I followed Schumacher’s action, I kept an eye on him. And only at the end I realised that Mika was passing on the right. Luckily I kept my line, if I had moved to the right it would have been a lot of trouble...".
At 300 km/h it would have been devastating, mostly. And Zonta agrees:
"Yes, it was dangerous, but we finally saw the beauty of Formula 1. We needed some movement. Madness? No, I wouldn’t judge the Hakkinen manoeuvre like that, although you have to be a little crazy to win".
Sunday among the Ardennes of Ferrari is made even more bitter by the retirement of Rubens Barrichello, tenth in qualifying, able to recover up to fourth place before the inconvenience that compromised everything just before returning to the pits. Rubens explains how sad he is:
"I started well, passing Herbert when the track was still very wet. On the occasion of the first stop I asked to return a lap earlier, but the radio did not work and so I stopped behind Schumacher: anyway we did not waste much time. We didn’t have good speed on the straights and I couldn’t get past Villeneuve. Then we decided to change strategy, a choice that was proving to be right".
Initially Barrichello talks about the pump break, or a draft problem, but then, Jean Todt gives the official explanation, namely a drop in pressure due to an anomaly and certainly not, as was originally thought, to a wrong calculation, with Barrichello coming back too late for the pit stop.
"In fact, the refuelling stop was planned at that moment. But there were margins, we were not at risk. The strategy was right, the failure ruined all the plans".
For Barrichello, however, the most disturbing thing is another:
"On the straight we were much slower than McLaren. And this in view of Monza, a circuit with great speed, is very serious. I don’t think the championship is compromised, we are still there. But of course we have to work a lot and not only on engine and aerodynamics. Here on Friday and Saturday we never managed to find what did not work, it was a weekend to forget. On Sunday the car was fast, but it was too late. I was faster than Ralf Schumacher, but I don’t think I could ever get over him".
At the time of his retirement, he was also angry with the marshalls:
"I shouted at them not to push me, but they don’t understand the rules or even English".
In Maranello, the watchword is not to panic. Jean Todt says it in the post race, Montezemolo reiterates it during the meeting the next day. The President listens to the various explanations, and then draws a balance which is not so negative:
"After all, even on Saturday Ferrari went like the other times in Belgium, neither good nor bad. Unfortunately, the changes that we had studied did not work, but the situation is not worrying. Six points do not cause any panic, on the contrary we must remain 100% lucid. A 1-2 in Monza could be enough and everything would change".
These are the words that filter through Monday’s briefing. And in Monza, the goal is to make things go much better than in Belgium.
"Monza looks a lot like Hockenheim where Ferrari was doing great. There is a new chicane that we will try these days to study all the necessary modifications. There should be no problem to earn a lot of points".
Optimism, then. All-out optimism. Reasoned optimism. Even the mystery of the sudden crash of Barrichello’s car is clarified: in the tank there were only two litres of petrol, too little for the pump to be able to draw fuel and power the engine. A technician explains that:
"Usually we put a little more in order to avoid this inconvenience, but this time what should have been avoided happened. It must also be said that this circuit is very long and a slightly higher consumption can be enough to get to that situation".
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Niki Lauda seems to have no doubts about the comparison between Hakkinen and Schumacher:
"For me, at this moment, they are on the same level. Mika has now reached Michael. And to say that they are equal, in itself is already a novelty. Because many still think of the absolute power of Schumacher. And it is a mistake".
The two do not drive the same car, so often the German fans can always claim that the Ferrari is inferior to the McLaren:
"And they are wrong. The same level means that there is no difference between them. One can impose one, another can impose the other. And always for a matter of cents. It would happen even if both were driving the McLaren".
Spa celebrated the triumph of Hakkinen.
"Mika was stronger, he asserted himself in the direct duel. He may have made a mistake with the spin, you have to consider that too, but during the overtaking he was brilliant. I’ve never seen anything like it in the last few years. It’s been a great manoeuvre. Paradoxically, Hakkinen was helped by the overtaking failure in the previous lap. The way Schumacher closed the road was at the limit of the rules, but it helped Mika to understand that he had to pull out something extraordinary to win the race. A normal overtaking would not have been enough. It took one out of the norm. From the usual schemes".
After such a race, it becomes easy to talk about Schumacher descended from the throne and Hakkinen emperor. But for Niki:
"There is no need to exaggerate. Michael remains a phenomenon, but the Finnish, now that he has found the ancient stimuli, is no exception. And if, as I believe, he succeeds in winning the third world championship in a row, he will enter among the legends".
Schumacher says that nothing is compromised, that Ferrari can close the gap with McLaren:
"I don’t think Ferrari can grow sharply in two weeks. And for Monza it needs a significant improvement, because at the moment it is clearly behind. Monza is a decisive stage and Schumacher risks getting there in anxiety. If he loses there too, it’s over. Or maybe it’s already closed at Spa".
A way to make that overtaking in Les Combes even more prestigious:
"That manoeuvre deserves it. That overtaking may have been decisive for the world championship fight. With Schumacher having to surrender again".
Only several years later it will be discovered that in reality on the car of Schumacher had been fitted the spoilers incorrectly, and that this facilitated the famous overtaking of Hakkinen, as admitted by engineer Pino D'Agostino:
"Everyone said Michael was wrong. Michael never confessed, but we were the ones who were wrong. The mechanic who had to mount the aerodynamic components for the race mounted one of the two wings compatible with the dry track, while the other wing was suitable for the wet track: the car was therefore completely unbalanced, and he had only succeeded thanks to his great ability to keep the opponent behind until four laps from the end. Although many blamed him, Michael never said it was a different problem".
Anyway, after a defeat like this, Schumacher cannot give up, especially with the Italian Grand Prix just around the corner: Ferrari fans expect a strong reaction, a victory that has been missing for over two months, and to prevent Hakkinen from being close to win his third title. It is also curious what happens these days outside the circuit and away from prying eyes. Ferrari team principal, Jean Todt, gets in touch with the manager of the young Spanish driver Fernando Alonso, a promising prospect for the future.
The latter asks not to accept further agreements, as the interest is to bring the driver to Maranello. But Flavio Briatore, also very attentive to young prospects, manages to change Fernando Alonso’s mind.
"We had reached an agreement with Fernando but then he signed with Flavio Briatore. It was after his victory in F3000 at Spa when we got in touch with his manager who came to my house in Maranello and we agreed. And in the end Alonso signed with Briatore and I felt bad after there was an extra contact".
Jean Todt will admit later, while Alonso and Briatore will tell:
"Remember when we first met?"
And Flavio Briatore replies:
"You didn’t have a beard. You were a kid".
So Alonso adds:
"I remember it very well, we met for the first time at your house in London in 2000 and at the time I ran in Formula 3000, I came to visit you with Adrian Campos. You immediately told me that you could help me enter Formula 1 through Minardi, and then I would have had the opportunity to move to Renault. So I told you that I would think about it, and you replied straight away: but look, there’s nothing you need to think about, either accept this proposal or you’ll never be in Formula 1. And that’s when I realised who the great boss was. Then it all went like you said".
Adrian Campos, who is Alonso’s manager, will also confirm:
"Ferrari told us to wait and not to sign with anyone else, but Briatore was already walking with a contract under his arm".