After the return to victory at Monza, Ferrari and Michael Schumacher aim to start from the last words spoken by the German before leaving Monza. With three races to go and only two points behind Hakkinen, Michael turns his attention to the new Indianapolis circuit, where the US Grand Prix will take place:
"A race that is a great unknown, because it is disputed on a new circuit, where no one has data. Something that can benefit us, because in the past I have never had problems adapting to new tracks and I don’t see why I should have them now. It happened also last year in Malaysia. No one had ever run there, but we went immediately very fast".
Not surprisingly, in Malaysia there was the last Ferrari front row, before Monza. For Indianapolis, it seems a special good luck:
"I am convinced that in the United States we will be very strong. The crisis is overcome, we are again able to fight for the title. We will be in Indianapolis and also in the last two races, in Suzuka and in Malaysia. It’s an incandescent fight, because Hakkinen and I are practically on par in the standings, we are two drivers on the same level and we both have very competitive cars".
Before Monza it was said that Hakkinen had now exceeded it in terms of speed. And now?
"Comparisons only make sense if you drive the same car. Mika is very strong, I have always claimed it. But I think I am too. And so is Ferrari. Circuits can make a difference. In Suzuka they seem to have an advantage, we should have it in Malaysia. If this is true, Indianapolis could be a decisive race".
Hakkinen has a strong teammate like Coulthard. McLaren cannot evade team games anymore:
"I have a great help from Barrichello, too. At Monza on Saturday he was very good. Without the accident he could have reached the podium".
On the other hand, Rubinho went on holiday to get rid of the anger against Frentzen, the one who triggered the scary carambola at the Variante della Roggia during the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix. So, to test at Mugello on Tuesday, September 12, 2000, is Luca Badoer, replaced the next day by Schumacher. Without a doubt, the image that has remained impressed on everyone’s mind at the end of the Italian Grand Prix is that of the Ferrari driver who burst into tears during the press conference, following the question that reminds him of the forty-one victories of Senna he achieved. A crying crisis perhaps also due to stress, but certainly no less authentic for this. During a break between tests at Mugello, Schumacher remembers Paolo Gislimberti, the volunteer firefighter fatally involved in the accident at the start of the Grand Prix:
"At the end of the race, when I heard what had happened, I had moments of great tension. It was tears that spontaneously came to me because I felt that the people in front of me were in tune with the moment I was living. It is not right to try to blame someone in every way. We know very well that we do a dangerous sport. We know that we are on the track, those who work around us know it and so do those who attend the races. It is natural that dangerous situations can arise. No one runs to hurt someone, but it can happen. You can get killed in a factory accident, too. For us it is a job like the others and I, like many of my comrades, will continue to strive so that the circuits are always safer. What happened was terrible. Especially when I heard that his wife was expecting a baby, I felt it even stronger. I can assure you that the Drivers' Association will do its utmost to intervene economically. However, I do not think it is right to go into detail, I do not think it is the most appropriate time. One thing is certain: we will not forget what happened in Monza".
A particularly talkative Schumacher, the one who meets German and Italian journalists. Every now and then he detaches his arms that he keeps almost always attached to the body and accompanies the words with his gestures. He speaks German and English, he does not want to make mistakes, he does not want a word, pronounced in Italian, to be misunderstood. On Thursday, September 14, 2000, Badoer, the head of the press office Claudio Berro and the sports director Stefano Domenicali attend Gislimberti’s funeral; among others, there is also Heinz-Harald Frentzen. In the week following the Italian Grand Prix several teams carry out test days in preparation for the US race. On Tuesday, September 12, 2000, Williams and Benetton go to the Estoril circuit, while Jaguar and BAR opt for Silverstone, while on Wednesday, September 13, 2000, Ferrari, McLaren and Sauber go to Mugello, where the Swiss team tests the young Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen, fresh winner of the British Formula Renault Championship. The Ferrari, which had already started the tests on Tuesday, also performs tests on the circuit of Fiorano, with Luca Badoer driving.
"I am still surprised that I agreed to do that test, because three days of testing have a very significant cost. David Roberston infected me with his enthusiasm, and so I decided to give that boy a chance".
Peter Sauber will comment nineteen years later, talking about the first test carried out by Kimi Räikkönen at the wheel of the Sauber. Sauber’s track engineer, Jacky Eeckelaert, will explain:
"It’s crazy to think that just twelve months before that test Kimi was a kart driver. He was a special guy, of course. I was told by very competent people in the karting world that he was an exception, something difficult to replicate. It’s because of everything that was said about him that Peter decided to take that test. He wasn’t the guy who wanted to tell you about your life between runs. He would tell you about the braking, the entry, the distance and the exit of every single curve in a very synthetic way, focusing on the trajectories and the points where he thought he could save time. For us engineers this is a great way to work. Then, in the evening, he would do his usual debriefing. I once asked him what he would like us to do on his car, so he’d be more comfortable. He looked at me with his blue eyes and said: I have no idea, Jacky. I trust you. I’ll just drive the car".
For his part, recalling that test, Kimi will say:
"I remember very well that I was not trained at all. I didn’t have enough muscles in my neck, and because of the high G forces that Mugello subjected myself to, we were forced to always run short runs: two or three laps timed at most, that’s it. It was certainly not the best condition to test, but I did not want to complain on the occasion of my first test ever aboard a Formula 1 car".
While doubts about his physical condition still hover in the garage of the Swiss team, Raikkonen falls into the cockpit of the Sauber C36, the same used the day before by Pedro Diniz, the team’s driver, to develop a set-up that could meet the needs of the driver in his twenties at the first experience aboard a Formula 1 car: the Brazilian makes seventy-eight laps during his test day, stopping the clock on 1'27 654. Kimi takes to the track, sets rookie times, begins to communicate his feedback to the team’s engineers, and finally puts together thirty laps, the fastest of which in 1'30 0, 2.4 seconds behind the best time of Diniz.
"His times were much better than we would have expected from a guy who had only twenty Formula Renault races behind him. I immediately realised how constant he could be. Kimi did exactly the chronos we wanted. The amazing thing is that we did not tell him in advance what time we would expect with certain conditions of fuel or tyres. On day 2 we had him do a very short race simulation with about fifty kg of fuel on board, then he went back to the pits and we told him that we would take away thirty kg of fuel and put new tyres for a qualifying simulation, of course, without telling him what time we wanted him to have. According to our best forecasts it should have lowered its times by 1.2, and guess what? It improved exactly by 1.2".
Sauber will say later.
"He reminded me of the first test Senna did in a Formula 3 on the Thruxton circuit. Kimi asked for more front wing, just like Ayrton did before breaking the lap record. I was there at Thruxton, and at Mugello I felt the exact same feeling: Kimi showed up and asked to have more front wing, because otherwise the car understeered too. We decided to listen to him and so we increased the incidence of the wing: the first flying lap we saw that along the Arrabbiata 1 he was about 20 km/h faster than our car had ever been in that same point. It was crazy, flat out everywhere. I remember that at the end of the day, with the darkness now approaching to drop, he returned to the pits because he said he could not see anything anymore. He had a dark visor, the one from the day with which it was actually impossible to have a good view with those light conditions, but up to that moment he had not cared at all: from telemetry we had seen that he gave full gas wherever he could, as if it were day".
Sergio Rinland, Chief Designer of Sauber, explains. Kimi runs continuously and with increasingly better times, faster and more constant. Until his trajectory intersects with that of the car whose driver is Michael Schumacher, who notices, follows, studies and understands that he is faced with something special. As Eeckelaert will say:
"I was busy drawing up the schedule for the next day when I heard someone knocking on the motorhome door. I opened the door and found myself facing Michael Schumacher, who had followed Eskimo to the track closely. He asked me who the new driver was, and I answered that his name was Kimi Raikkonen and that twelve months earlier he barely ran on karts. He said: well, know that he's going to be very, very fast. Only years later I knew that after looking for me he went to Peter Sauber, strongly advising him to take on the team that still unknown boy...".
And Sauber’s Sports Director, Beat Zehnder, will talk about his signing after the test:
"He was testing with Pedro Diniz and quickly reached the same levels of lap time. At that point, he had big physical problems. Mugello is not the best track for a beginner to start testing, because it is physically very challenging. Kimi couldn’t hold his neck up after three laps. So we did a stint of three laps, interspersed with fifteen minutes of pause, and then another three laps of stint. Josef Leberer - Sauber’s physiotherapist - practised massages during the stop, but it soon became clear that he was a talent. Right after the test, in fact, we decided to bet on him. Peter Sauber had to convince all the team principals, the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, for Kimi's Superlicense. We had some team principals like Ron Dennis at the time in McLaren, who were completely against it. He said he would completely destroy the driver market if we brought young boys into Formula 1 without experience. Kimi had 23 races in Formula Renault, so he missed two or three races. However, thanks to Peter, he got his licence and, thanks to Josef, he was able to drive a Formula 1 car from a physical point of view. And yet, after the test, we asked Raikkonen to spend a month with Josef in the Austrian Alps. He was furious because he wanted to go back to Finland. We then told him that if he wanted to become a Formula 1 driver, we would have to work with him. For the first two days, he didn’t talk to Josef, he was so angry".
At the beginning of the week leading up to the third final round of the 2000 World Championship, in an exclusive interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Jean Todt confirms that Ferrari and Schumacher intend to extend the contract between the parties for many years until 2002. Among the reasons for an extension of the relationship between the German driver and Ferrari, in addition to sports - the German in five years is the driver with the most victories in Ferrari, twenty-two - there is also the fact that, as Todt claims, Michael sees the Maranello factory as a second home.
The Frenchman spends a long time talking about his personal relationship with the driver and emphasising the fact that, after the accident that occurred to Schumacher at Silverstone, this has really become a friendship. As for the continuation of the World Championship, the head of Ferrari sees an exciting fight with Hakkinen and McLaren-Mercedes, that starts from a perfect parity of values:
"Both for the drivers and for the teams, with seven victories for each of fourteen races; I believe that whoever will succeed in winning two of the next three races will become the world champion".
In another German newspaper, Bild, there is an interview with the FIA president, Max Mosley, according to which, since 2001, Formula 1 cars will be less dangerous:
"Minimise accidents, prevent them, even if Formula 1 remains a dangerous sport".
Says Mosley, announcing interventions already decided and made more urgent by the tragedy of Monza. Speaking of the tyre that broke off from Frentzen’s Jordan after the first lap bump, hitting poor Gislimberti, Mosley says that carbon fibre joints that attach the wheels to the frame will have to prevent the wheels from flying as happened in Monza. They will have to withstand, from 2001, an impact force of ten tonnes, twice the current limit. Mosley is nevertheless satisfied with the progress of Formula 1 safety:
"Since the passing of Ayrton Senna, extraordinary steps have been taken in favour of the drivers. Now we have to do something more for the other insiders".
On the eve of the US Grand Prix, Mika Hakkinen is obviously in the spotlight, just back from an Italian Grand Prix where he lost four of the six points of advantage on Schumacher. Mika, first of all, must have seen the superiority of F1-2000 on the Monzese circuit:
"Unfortunately, at Monza Ferrari was much faster. Even if with a perfect start I had managed to jump to the lead, I would hardly have been able to contain Michael. No, I couldn’t have won and the second place is good enough if I think I came out unscathed from the terrible accident at the second variant. In the mirrors I saw a yellow car [Frentzen’s Jordan, ndr] approaching dangerously. I thought it was about me, I saved myself by 20 centimetres".
Hakkinen only reaches Indianapolis after stopping with his wife in Vail, Colorado:
"The United States recalls sweet memories: in Phoenix I raced the first Grand Prix with Lotus, in 1991. I am intrigued by two aspects: Indianapolis must be an exciting scenario and I want to see people's welcome. I hope that the public will have fun, and that the circuit will allow us to create an interesting race with many overtakes".
For his part, in the fight for the title, Hakkinen should now be able to count on the support of Coulthard, that only arithmetic still holds in play. Mika prefers to avoid the subject:
"For me nothing changes: it will be like in the past two years. I will live three races of great psychological pressure and on the other hand even in Monza my heart was pounding hard, but now I’m used to it. It’s gonna be a tough fight, and I think Michael already knows he’s not getting any presents from me".
Speedway of Indianapolis, a circuit famous for the 500 Miglia and for the fact that the track is an oval with four banked and very fast curves. A track completely unsuitable for Formula 1 cars, but that the Americans did not want to cancel completely for the thrill and the show it offers. In fact, the drivers will run on a mixture: a piece of the oval and an all curved track created specifically for Formula 1. A new circuit, therefore, 4195 metres long almost entirely surrounded by covered grandstands inside and outside, ready to welcome 300,000 people on Saturday and Sunday. But how is this circuit, what pitfalls does it offer? It is of little use to talk about it with the drivers, who on Friday wait anxiously for free practice to test the track. Schumacher simply says:
"I was impressed by the vastness of the spaces, I walked for an hour and almost got lost. I saw little of this circuit, I don’t know anything about it, what are we talking about? I saw something in the computer simulations but they aren't very useful".
Even Jacques Villeneuve, who raced and won the American championships in the USA, gets away with a joke:
"I saw the new circuit from the plane, I think it’s nice but first I have to make a few laps to understand something".
There are two main problems: the tyres and the aerodynamic load: the banked curve with a long straight will bring the drivers to almost 330 km/h. In the bend there will be a ground crushing higher than that of all the other circuits. How will tyres and suspensions behave? Michael says:
"We have to trust the data provided to us by the tyre manufacturer, they know more than we do, for the rest each of us will have to find the right trajectories".
Suspension also needs backup, and this is another unknown. Then the engines: for twenty-eight seconds they will be stressed at maximum speed, even more than at Hockenheim. The last two races showed quite divergent values in the field, given that at Spa there was a very fast McLaren with tender tyres, enhanced by a feat of Hakkinen, while at Monza there was a superior Ferrari with harder tyres and on a technically poor track. What to expect in Indy? Theoretically the situation should be more favourable to Ferrari: only two supporting bends, hard or extra-hard Bridgestone tyres. Hakkinen and Schumacher are both very charged and confident; the first considers Monza a misstep simply due to bad adjustments of the car, The second confirms that the last race shows the potential that Ferrari can express in this season finale. Also, Michael has no doubts:
"This will be the most important Friday of the world. It will be a question of whether the simulations made in preparation for this Grand Prix will be served. If yes, go in that direction; otherwise we start again. We think we have worked well, we should start from a good basis for the setup, but we will know that after practices. More than simulations, I believe in reality".
On Wednesday, September 19, 2000, Rubens Barrichello is already in Indy, where he makes some laps on a scooter with Ricardo Zonta. Schumacher arrives on Thursday morning, in time not to get a heavy fine for delay at the official FIA conference, which he participates in, still wearing cowboy boots. The German arrived from Texas, where he spent a few days with Corinna and some friends:
"No, this time I didn’t do anything dangerous like parachute jumps or anything like that, just rock climbing and long horseback riding in the prairies. I feel relaxed, I have been really at peace, here I am not known as in Europe, I like the American atmosphere".
Leaving the Americans a little surprised, Michael says he was never interested in oval races:
"I have never been passionate, I look at the last ten laps at most, I do not consider myself a lover of the sport of the car and its history, just a driver. Without a doubt it’s beautiful here, it’s all great, I’m happy to race in Indy, it’s a special race because it’s the first time in America and because it’s a new circuit. I will do some laps and if there is some point to review I will mention it to the FIA, maybe after the first practice. Yes, usually I have a good ability to adapt to new things, I can easily be fast, but it will be so for others, we are all professionals, we understand things quickly; if anything it will be more difficult to optimise data immediately. On the bend and on the straight there is a very close wall and our Formula 1 cars are not made to bump into it, so at that point everyone will have to be careful. It will be exciting, and today we will understand if it will be a little dangerous too".
Schumacher, finally, sends a message to Ferrari fans:
"It’s time to have joy and excitement, but let’s not celebrate and let’s not get excited if we win this race, we have to wait to do it after the last one, if I win the world championship. Indy counts one-third of the championship that’s left. Of course, team orders and strategies will also matter: Barrichello will do everything to help me because we fight for the drivers' title in the foreground, then also for the constructors' one. We saw in 1999 the reactions of the press and fans to the victory of the second laurel instead of the first; therefore, we would be stupid if we did not behave like this, that is with an effective team play".
Hakkinen, for his part, has every intention of redeeming Monza. But the World Champion knows that in order to achieve such a goal he does not have to waste time:
"If perfectly adjusting a Formula 1 car is usually complicated, on a new track it is three times more complicated. You have to walk around, observe the curves and the kerbs well to try to find the best trajectory. It will take fifty-sixty laps to figure out how to face the track".
A little exaggerated if you think that according to Coulthard and Schumacher ten will be enough. And this raises doubts about Mika’s real enthusiasm for this track. He himself does not hesitate to admit it, a bit like Schumacher:
"I never coveted running on the oval, and the 500 Miglia is not in my dreams. Maybe if I lived here, it would be different. Anyway, these are races I don’t even watch on TV".
This detachment from the American world does not invalidate the underlying optimism with which Hakkinen faces the weekend:
"We did a lot of simulations and Panis did a great job at Mugello, we won’t have any problems. As for tyre pressure there are parameters suggested by Bridgestone that we will follow scrupulously: there is no reason to take unnecessary risks".
Before starting to study the track, Hakkinen is the protagonist of the press conference with the rival for the title, and the speech focuses on their relationship. Mika jokingly exclaims:
"Ah, it's really bad. The truth is that we fight for the title, sometimes without the exclusion of blows, but in the end we must think that the races are not the only thing, and so we esteem ourselves".
A statement that Michael fully shares:
"We respect each other and often after the races we congratulate each other".
The free practice of Friday, September 22, 2000 are obviously exploited by the drivers to become familiar with the circuit (decidedly insidious for the little grip that the asphalt offers), interpret the best trajectories and find the most appropriate setup in view of the race. In the total count of the times are the two McLaren-Mercedes to lead the standings, with Coulthard that in the afternoon runs in 1'14"561, just a tenth better than his teammate Hakkinen. Michael Schumacher does the best performance of the morning (1'14"927), but in the afternoon he does not improve his time and has to settle for the third place behind the two Silver Arrows and ahead of Barrichello. Not bad, it is free practice, where lap times are relatively important. On Saturday, during the qualifying session, when the times really matter, the values on the pitch change: Schumacher gets the thirtieth pole of his career, and he does so by making a super-lap a few minutes after the start of qualifying. An unbeatable time (1'14"266) that comes also thanks to the contribution of teammate Barrichello, which allows Michael to take advantage of his slipstream on the long main straight. In the final stages, Hakkinen tries one last attempt, but in his case the team game works in the opposite direction, because behind him Coulthard sticks, which in passing the teammate makes a quite reckless manoeuvre, gaining second place, but forcing Hakkinen to look for a longer trajectory and settle for third place. The look that Ron Dennis' first guide gives to the Scotsman says much more than words. In the second row, next to him, the other Ferrari driver, Barrichello. Michael wins the first battle, but he cannot relax. The performance of the cars are very close (between his Ferrari in pole and that of Barrichello fourth there are just 344 cents), and the German, as it is known, is certainly not a lightning at the start. In addition, you have to deal with the variable rain, a possibility not to be excluded on Sunday. Excellent performance by Jarno Trulli, fifth ahead of Jenson Button’s Williams-BMW, the future Benetton driver after the team based in Grove made official on the eve of the Grand Prix the driver who will work alongside Ralf Schumacher will be Juan-Pablo Montoya. The only team to introduce a major novelty is Williams, which brings to the track a new front wing with a main arrow profile, a solution already adopted by Ferrari. These are tough times for Benetton, which places Giancarlo Fisichella just in fifteenth position. A result that displeases Flavio Briatore, who does not hold himself and says:
"The differences between our drivers are evident: Alex [Wurz, eleventh on the grid, ndr] focuses and carefully studies the details, Giancarlo relies on his talent, which alone cannot replace work".
On Sunday, September 24, 2000, rain falls in the morning affecting the warm-up, at the end of which Coulthard turns out to be the fastest ahead of Hakkinen and Schumacher, and especially the start of the race, because in the early afternoon the asphalt is still wet. As a result, the drivers are forced to start with wet tyres. The only one who has been trying to gamble dry tyres from the start is Johnny Herbert, from 19th position. At lights out, David Coulthard clearly moves ahead of the others, so at the first corner he leads the race, ahead of Schumacher, Hakkinen and Barrichello. The first lap has just ended when race management puts under investigation both the Scottish driver and Giancarlo Fisichella, also author of a flying start. Waiting for the inevitable penalty, Coulthard keeps the lead ahead of Schumacher, and after some passes on the finish line begins to raise his times to favor the formation of a trio composed by him, Schumacher and Hakkinen, with the aim of favouring the teammate. There is a fight between Button and Trulli for fifth. The two, who had already made contact at Spa in almost identical track conditions, repeat this time but with too much vehemence by the Williams driver. Both end off-track, manage to re-enter but have to return to the pits because their cars have suffered damage. The race for the two young and promising drivers does not last much longer, as first Trulli (due to irreparable damage to a wheel) and then Button (due to engine failure) are forced to retire respectively during the twelfth and fourteenth laps.
Just outside the points zone, the battle develops between the other Williams of Ralf Schumacher and the other Jordan of Frentzen: at the first corner, the latter overtakes the opponent, and conquers what then will become the sixth position thanks to the accident between Button and Trulli. With Coulthard willing to intentionally slow down the pace of the race, Michael Schumacher senses the danger and immediately tries to get rid of the McLaren number 2. Michael shows himself on the inside, and presses Coulthard insistently in the driven part to induce him to error. At the end of the fifth lap, the German driver tries to go on the outside of the first corner, but Coulthard closes with determination. In the search for impossible spirals to get the upper hand, Schumacher risks to play the game of the two Silver Arrows, because he is almost overtaken by Hakkinen. The situation becomes complicated, while in Ferrari meanwhile they are preparing to welcome Rubens Barrichello at the pits, appearing in difficulty and ready to mount dry tyres, given that with the drying of the track Johnny Herbert (who started with slicks) scores partial records. On the second attempt on the main straight, Schumacher goes on the outside again, but this time he manages to complete the overtaking in a great way, pulling himself out of a complicated situation. Coulthard, in no time at all, also lets Hakkinen pass, aware that he is about to be sent a Stop&go, which is promptly communicated a few moments later, both to him and Fisichella. The next lap, Hakkinen imitates Barrichello and mounts dry tyres, unlike Schumacher who prefers to stay on track. The German, in fact, is still able to be extremely competitive with rain tyres, so much so that he gains over three seconds per lap on Hakkinen, whose choice is therefore wrong. At the tenth of the seventy-three laps expected, the points area is completely different: Schumacher is the leader of the race ahead of Frentzen, Diniz and Mazzacane, who like him have not yet stopped. Hakkinen is fifth, and he cannot get past Minardi. Initially Mika makes a gesture of annoyance believing that the Argentine driver is a driver to be lapped, but then he must accept the fact that Mazzacane is simply defending his position, which he will do well for three laps, before returning to the pits. In sixth position, to temporarily close the points area, there is Jacques Villeneuve, fighting with a struggling Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher.
The German of Williams overtakes Rubens at the first corner, and as if that were not enough, soon after Herbert arrives to surprise the Brazilian too, who just cannot get familiar with the car. It is the sixteenth lap when even Schumacher, strong of the forty seconds of advantage accumulated on Hakkinen, makes the stop for refuelling and tyre change, passing from the wet compound to the dry one. Michael easily keeps the lead ahead of Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher, Frentzen, Verstappen and Diniz. Barrichello is only ninth, Coulthard, after having served the penalty and made the pit-stop, is fourteenth. There is no shortage of brawls on the track: Ralf Schumacher records the fastest lap and starts to get cumbersome in the mirrors of Hakkinen, while Herbert fights with Diniz for the sixth position. The Sauber’s Brazilian goes wide and has to give way to both the British’s Jaguar and Villeneuve, while he holds out until the main straight on Barrichello, which then overtakes him. On lap 20, Hakkinen manages to distance Ralf Schumacher, to start running after Michael, who is in the lead. The gap that divides him from the Ferrari driver is reduced quickly: first ten, then eight, finally four seconds. The reunion now seems only a matter of time, but on the twenty-fifth lap, the twist that heavily marks the rest of the race, and probably also the World Championship. From the rear of the McLaren-Mercedes of Hakkinen comes bluish smoke, which in a short time turns into flames. Hakkinen can only sit quietly in the pits, or at least try, because he has to park at the entrance of the pit lane. After an impressive string of consecutive useful results, twelve, Hakkinen is forced to retire due to a problem with the Mercedes engine, which betrays him at the less opportune moment. Schumacher finds himself alone in the lead, with no one to pose a serious threat in his pursuit for victory. Meanwhile, Johnny Herbert, one of the main protagonists of the first part of the race, ruins his excellent performance at the time of his first pit-stop, where he stopped a bit further, and doing so strikes a mechanic. The accident also causes damage to the front wing, which must necessarily be replaced. The stop is long, lasts a good twenty-seven seconds, and the hopes of gaining points for Herbert inevitably fade. On lap 30, the race is animated by the fight for the fourth place between Verstappen, Villeneuve and Barrichello, enclosed in a few seconds. The Dutchman, however, also spoils a potential point finish with a runway exit that ends against the barriers.
Ascending eighth, Coulthard has to confront the other Arrows of De La Rosa, who has a car that manages to reach high speeds thanks to the Supertec engine: despite the slipstream, the Scottish never makes himself dangerous at the first corner, so to pass De La Rosa he invents a nice overtaking in the driven part, which catches the driver of the Arrows by surprise. While Ralf Schumacher inaugurates the second series of pit-stops and then raises his time until having to retire due to technical problems on his Williams, Jacques Villeneuve is the author of a harmless spin during his pursuit of Frentzen’s second place. The error allows Barrichello to gain a position. The last obstacle to the Ferrari 1-2 is represented by Frentzen. To overtake the German, who is in second position, Ferrari mechanics are preparing to welcome Barrichello at the pits; this provokes the immediate reaction of the Jordan box, which does the same with its driver. Frentzen returns, while Rubens is ordered to continue, with the mechanics returning to the pit. A bluff, that of the men of Maranello, which proves to be winning, because thanks to the two laps more made before the pit-stop, Barrichello returns to the track in second place. Less than twenty laps from the end, for Ferrari a very heavy 1-2 in the world championship key begins to materialise. For Frentzen, on the other hand, the trouble is not over, because now behind him comes an angry Jacques Villeneuve, eager to win the first podium for BAR-Honda. The Canadian tries a desperate manoeuvre at the first corner in the final stages, but exaggerates and goes wide. Jacques does not give up, he gets closer to Frentzen, but he does not make himself more dangerous. All alone in the lead of the race, Schumacher is the protagonist of a spin very similar to that of Villeneuve a few laps before. The runway exit is harmless but it serves to wake up the German, who was perhaps relaxing a bit too much. After the slight fright, Michael serenely completes the last kilometres that lead him to celebrate the seventh victory of the season, as well as another 1-2 for Ferrari, thanks to the second place of Barrichello. Frentzen climbs on the third step of the podium, ahead of Villeneuve, Coulthard and Zonta, who got the better of Diniz thanks to an unscheduled pit-stop of the latter in the final stages. Ferrari’s success, in conjunction with the McLaren debacle, drastically changes the situation in the two general standings, where Michael Schumacher returns to lead thanks to his 88 points, eight more than Hakkinen, remained stationary at 80; in the constructors', Ferrari flies at 143, ten points higher than McLaren-Mercedes. With the new leadership, Michael can only be optimistic ahead of the last two races:
"It’s a fantastic victory, also because it’s the first time we’ve come to the United States and we didn’t expect such a welcome. It’s exciting to see so many people celebrating with us this shotgun, it’s the best. After the pressure of some races ago, the situation has improved. Indeed, I would say that this leads us to the dream. But now we all have to remain focused to reach it".
That dream, for which for years Ferrari has invested in the German driver expectations and resources, after the United States Grand Prix seems to be one step closer:
"But it is not yet time to celebrate, for that there will be time when it is done. To the fans I want to send this message: cross your fingers, help me in the last races, as you have done so far. My emotions are the same as people’s feelings. When I feel that there is so much enthusiasm around me, I absorb it until I realise that it is also part of my emotions. I wish I could pay it back".
Theoretically, it could be done in Japan, but it is better not to speak of a victory before the time:
"I know eight points is a great advantage, but arithmetic still doesn’t promote me. I’ll only think I’m champion at the end of the season, not before. You all know what happened in the July races at Zeltweg and Hockenheim when we didn’t score points. I don’t want to be distracted. I know I have more wins than Hakkinen, which I only need two second places, but it’s not easy to reach them. And anyway in Japan I will not look for the second place, but the victory. In order to definitively close the world championship".
No controversy with Coulthard about the start, a few more words, instead, about his race conduct:
"He went too far in trying to slow me down. He knew that maybe they would give him a Stop&Go so he tried to get Hakkinen to approach me. That’s right, he’s his teammate. But perhaps he exaggerated, we also touched on the occasion of the overtaking. I wonder why it is necessary to wait seven laps before deciding whether a car should be penalised or not".
Even Jean Todt uses the same type of criticism about the delayed penalty against the Scotsman. But, like his driver, he avoids explicit controversy. Schumacher also celebrates his forty-second career victory, one more than Ayrton Senna. Michael tries to minimise the result achieved, remembering that without the tragedy that occurred at Imola in 1994, the Brazilian would surely have won many other races. Better, therefore, not to lose focus for the remaining two races, although it is difficult to stay on the ground after such a result. The Ferrari driver explains:
"I don’t think about the world title yet, I prefer to concentrate on the next two races. Then, in the end, I’ll think about the title".
The banana peel is lurking, as shown by the spin in the final stages of the race:
"I wasn’t doing very well, I was keeping a cruising speed. From the pits they told me to slow down again, then I went on the grass and I turned around. At that point Ross Brawn via radio told me to keep concentration, and I told him that I had woken up".
Jean Todt also preaches calmly, according to which it is forbidden to give up even for a second:
"A situation that makes you dream. But you do not have to dream yet, you have to work. Let’s enjoy this success in Indianapolis because setting our record of eight seasonal victories, in a historic circuit like this, is still very important. But we remain with our feet on the ground. There are two races to go, we cannot relax".
On the day of the great return to the top of the Schumacher standings, however, there is also Rubens Barrichello, who finds his smile back thanks to the second place and a podium found after three races. But how much effort, starting from those first laps, and then the change of tyres that led him to lose ground from the first:
"Maybe I came back too early, five or six laps before I had to. But I focused on keeping the car on track, knowing that my time would come. In fact, when Frentzen made his pit stop I had the opportunity to push and be very fast, conquering the second position".
So much frustration mixed with disappointment for Mika Hakkinen, which synthesises with the word disaster his day. Mika gave up hope of breaking the record of consecutive useful results; he had reached twelve, three races less than Reutemann between 80 and 81. But even worse, he risks saying goodbye to the world title, since two successes in Japan and Malaysia may not be enough. The reigning champion tries to gain strength:
"The battle is not over, eight points are not an unbridgeable detachment. Do not believe that the games are made. Everything was going well, I reduced the gap from Schumacher, when suddenly I saw the flames and the engine lost power. I couldn’t do anything. But I didn’t do anything different from the other races. I don’t know who to blame, but Indianapolis has nothing to do with it. And I hope I don’t have to accuse anyone. There was a hole in the engine, but now, with the part on fire, it will be hard to understand what happened. This burning engine can cost me a lot".
When he retired he was four seconds away from Schumacher, he was reducing the gap:
"I was approaching because the tyres had entered the right temperature. You have to ask the mechanics why it is finished. It’s a shame; now Schumacher only needs two second places. Mine was just a bad day: thinking that I was stuck for three laps behind Mazzacane, despite having an extremely fast car".
It was a disastrous day for the entire McLaren, also considering the bad race of Coulthard, compromised by a Stop&go. Hakkinen was unaware of the penalty:
"I didn’t play any team games when David tried to slow down Schumacher. I didn’t even know he was penalised. The problem was turn 11, the curse, the point where the engine gave out. Yet, this McLaren looked indestructible".
"I’m sad, dizzy. Maybe this is the worst moment of the season, because we are almost at the end of the world championship. Now I’m so on the verge of a nerve battle with Schumacher, I can’t afford to waste my energy on anger. I just have to stay calm and focused".
And if for Hakkinen the dream of entering history with a third world title moves away, at the same time the long wait of Ferrari fans seems now close to the end. In Suzuka, it is Michael Schumacher who has the real chance to enter history, bringing to Maranello a world title that has been missing for twenty-one long years.