#624 1998 Austrian Grand Prix

2021-04-17 00:00

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#1998, Fulvio Conti, Davide Scotto di Vetta,

#624 1998 Austrian Grand Prix

McLaren doesn't stand for it: after the controversial ending of the British Grand Prix, run at Silverstone, with Michael Schumacher crossing the finis


McLaren doesn't stand for it: after the controversial ending of the British Grand Prix, run at Silverstone, with Michael Schumacher crossing the finish line from the pit lane because he was about to serve a Stop&Go imposed on him by the stewards, then cancelled in the following hours, Ron Dennis confirms that he will lodge a complaint with the International Federation. On 27 July 1998, the Paris Court of Appeal will rule on the matter, deciding whether or not to modify the order of arrival, perhaps by imposing a penalty in seconds for Schumacher. The appeal is unlikely to be accepted, as it is the stewards themselves who caused the chaos and not Ferrari, who adapted to the situation as best they could. The same three commissioners responsible will be put on trial two days later, through an extraordinary session of the Federation. Ecclestone, returning to the subject, said on 24 July 1998:


"It was a mistake on the part of the stewards, there is no blame to be laid on Schumacher, Ferrari, Hakkinen or McLaren. There was nothing to be done, the situation was completely out of control and now we have to wait for the appeal and the verdict of the judges, recognising however that McLaren's reaction is justified".


However, before we get to the trial, we have to keep thinking about the championship, which thanks to Schumacher's three wins in a row is officially reopened. The German reduced to two points the gap to the leader in the standings, Mika Hakkinen, who, during the tests scheduled at Monza between 14 and 16 July, returns to talk about the Silverstone race:


"Silverstone was an extremely exciting race for me, I had a lot of fun racing in those conditions, with the slippery asphalt. I mean that seriously. Of course, I was a bit disappointed to finish second, but during the race I think we showed how competitive we actually are".


No comment, however, on the team's decision to appeal the dramatic conclusion to the Grand Prix:


"These are matters for Ron Dennis, I can only say that it was a strange ending".


During the first day of testing, the Finn goes off the track due to a mechanical failure: despite the growing rivalry with Schumacher, the Italian fans warmly welcome the driver as soon as he gets out of the sandy car, and Mika reciprocates by throwing his gloves at them. His team-mate David Coulthard also has a few problems: after three retirements in four races, the Scottish driver undoubtedly needed to shake off a season that risks becoming a real nightmare, even though he owns one of the two fastest cars. But even at Monza, following a violent excursion at the Parabolica corner, the McLaren driver damaged his car and forced his mechanics to make extraordinary repairs. For the next Grand Prix in Austria, at the Spielberg circuit, Ferrari tests a new version of the F300 with a long wheelbase. Jean Todt repeatedly insists that the advantages of this innovation are unclear, but based on the experiences of teams that have already adopted it, one can deduce a better balance, excellent traction and extraordinary grip in fast corners. After returning from Silverstone to Maranello, Schumacher's chassis no. 187 is modified by inserting a composite material thickness of around 15 centimetres between the engine and the gearbox, increasing the length from the usual two metres and 95 centimetres to three metres and ten between the axles of the rear and front wheels. After that, the F300/L is shipped to Monza:


"The problem is very simple, if at Monza Schumacher can set faster times than the short car, then we might as well take it to Austria right away. If instead this doesn't happen or maybe some surprises come out, we will continue the experiments with the long-wheelbase but we will go to Austria with the normal car that has a great reliability".


On July 15, 1998, after testing the car, Schumacher's opinion is positive:


"The first driving impression is good. The car is very sensitive, but I am not yet able to say if it is better than the one used until now, with which I won four races. In any case, I am confident for the championship, regardless of which car I use, because the F300 is still a very competitive car".


After Monza, Ferrari's tests continue at Fiorano, but it seems that the long-wheelbase car will not be at Zeltweg. According to some rumours, however, many other innovations can be introduced, such as the bodywork number 188, lighter than the previous one, reserved for Schumacher, and a more powerful engine to counter the Mercedes one on the Austrian straights, the 047/2D. The new specification is characterised by the different positioning of the external accessories, in particular the recovery and pressure pumps; the objective remains a lighter weight and aerodynamic improvement. At the end of these intense days of work, Michael Schumacher goes to Frankfurt and on July 18, 1998 holds a press conference at which he officially announces the renewal of his contract, signed the previous day, which binds him to the Maranello team until 2002. In 1998 and 1999, he will earn around 25.000.000 dollars, which will rise to 30.000.000 in the following three seasons, without counting the countless revenues from sponsors, which will bring him close to 50.000.000. This news was already in the air, and the two-time World Champion comments as follows:


"You don't change a winning team".


This is how Schumacher begins in front of the journalists gathered at the Frankfurt Trade Fair, also admitting that he has important offers from other teams:


"Of course, the victories have accelerated the definition of the agreement with Ferrari. This is the most appropriate situation compared to the three contacts I had in place. I race to win and the progress made with Ferrari since the start of the season made me realise that renewing would be the best solution. I'm a free man and I made a choice in complete freedom. I aim to win at least two more world titles, as quickly as possible. And if I don't win immediately, it means that I will have made an investment in my future. "I have had financial proposals that are identical or even better than those from Ferrari, but there are some arguments that are more important to me than the economic ones. I'm referring, for example, to all the great work I've done together with the team and the continuous support I've received over the years at Maranello, which have been crucial in convincing me not to look for other ways. The Ferrari choice was, for my personal satisfaction, and in terms of my sporting career, the best of all".


The excellent results achieved over the last few months are certainly part of the reason for the renewal:


"In the last few races we have broken the McLaren-Mercedes domination, something that seemed impossible at the beginning of the year. Everything is going in the right direction and I am fully satisfied and optimistic for the continuation of the World Championship".


And finally, Schumacher admits:


"I want to take Ferrari to a leading role in a new era of Formula One. The first objective is obviously to win this world championship, but we don't want to stop there. I want to be World Champion with Ferrari, but not just once. You have to be consistent in your commitment, so McLaren managed to make the 1980s its decade in Formula One, and then Williams did it in the 1990s. Now it must be Ferrari's turn: we must be the winners of the millennium that is about to begin. By signing I have accepted a duty: only when the mission is accomplished will the time come for a toast. Why sign with Ferrari? For four reasons: firstly, because I don't want to throw away the last three years like that, I'm not one to say goodbye and thank you. I'm not one to say goodbye and thank you, and less than ever would I do it without first winning a world championship with this team. It's what I owe to everyone who works with me, and also to myself. Secondly, I appreciate how I am consulted and involved by the company in all technical decisions: it even happens that they phone me at night to hear my opinion on improvements to the car. In other teams, the drivers are asked to just race. Thirdly, they let me do everything, play football or whatever. They know that I would never take initiatives that would damage the image of the company. And this trust is a huge thing. And finally, the fourth reason comes from the guarantee of continuity in the team's work: I accepted a four-year contract because I believe in success and because all the people who matter, starting with Todt, remain in their places".


In addition to his track commitments, Michael will also be busy acting as an ambassador, acting as a testimonial at various presentations, or through a few commercials:


"The terms of my ambassadorial work on behalf of Fiat are all yet to be defined, particularly concerning the post-race. For Ferrari, I think I will do a similar job to the one Lauda did in the past. From now on, however, there will be more advertising done together. It's something the others had offered me as well, but in this way, I will be supported even better at Ferrari".


His manager Willi Weber, on the other hand, explains that the delay in signing was caused by a termination clause that had to be cancelled; it consisted of Schumacher being able to leave the team if he did not finish the championship in the top three positions. The promise of marriage between Schumacher and Ferrari is not the only news in the market, which in these days of approaches to the Austrian Grand Prix is in great ferment. Also in Ferrari they are working to keep Eddie Irvine, whose performance in this first part of the season has been excellent (six podiums in nine races), so much to convince the top management in Maranello to propose a contract extension; the two parties are getting closer and closer to finding an agreement. On the contrary, it is official the divorce between Jacques Villeneuve and Williams after three years of partnership, with a special mention for the second one, the one of the World Championship won at the last race against Schumacher. Wednesday 23 July 1998, BAR, the new team that will rise from the ashes of Tyrrell starting from the 1999 season, announced through the major shareholder of the team as well as Villeneuve's agent, Craig Pollock, the engagement of the Canadian driver, who will earn ten million pounds.


"He has a lot of money, I won't end up like Hill with Arrows last season".


Says the Canadian driver, who then confesses:


"I dreamed of Ferrari, but never with Schumacher, that's Michael's team now. And I never believed he would leave because no one else can give him that kind of money. If he has a great image now, he owes it to Maranello. I wish one day I could get there too".


A courageous gamble by the reigning champion driver, who is leaving a team like Williams that is certainly in technical difficulties, but is still a top team, to embrace a completely new project, whose competitiveness on the track will have to be verified. The team of Frank Williams and Patrick Head seems to be planning to revolutionize its pair of drivers for 1999, as Frentzen is also being sent away to Sauber, probably in place of Johnny Herbert, who is also close to Stewart. The first of the two new Williams drivers could be Alex Zanardi, an old acquaintance of Formula 1 who is making waves in the CART championship. Having arrived in Austria, the topic of the day remains the renewal of Schumacher's contract, who responds to Montezemolo's invitation to start speaking Italian:


"I won't say a word in your language until I know it properly".


Then we go back to talking about the German's decision to continue believing in the Ferrari project. Schumacher reiterates:


"I had other possibilities, but with Ferrari I still haven't achieved my objective, which is to win the title, and I wanted to make sure I did. Would you say that I am now a Ferrari driver for life? Well, I hope to live longer. My decision wasn't dictated by money - I've read in the newspapers that the figures aren't real - but by the good work we're doing".


On the eve of the tenth race weekend on the calendar, the situation of teammate Irvine is still not well defined, but Schumacher has no doubts about what the choice of the Northern Irishman should be:


"There are only two strong teams this season and I believe also next season, us and McLaren. So Eddie has to choose whether to stay with me and be second driver or become first driver somewhere else, but without being able to get on the podium".


Michael also says a few words about his rival from last season, Jacques Villeneuve, newly acquired by BAR:


"For him it's a different experience, that is to grow a young team that has to learn. It's hard to say now if he did well or badly".



And on the prospect of staying at Ferrari for life, Schumacher replies:


"Actually, I'm counting on living, and maybe still racing after 2002. When I'm 33 years old, I might as well stop. I'll go down in history for having spent seven years with Ferrari, but I also want to be remembered for what I won where no one else has managed to do so for twenty years. I also decided to stay because I wouldn't want anyone else to enjoy the work I've done over the years".


The A1-Ring in Schumacher's opinion has more similarities with Magny-Cours, rather than with Silverstone, so he expects a dominant F300 as seen in France, since in England it was the rain that levelled the performance that otherwise would have seen the McLaren slightly ahead. And if his prediction comes true, a rainbow overtaking of Hakkinen could also take place:


"Here I could overtake Hakkinen, but maybe I would lose the lead immediately in Hockenheim, only to regain it in Hungary. It will be a tough fight until the end of the World Championship".


In the red car's pit box, Irvine's F300 is fitted with asymmetrical sides as in the Monza tests the week before. Schumacher explains why:


"We are studying a different cooling system. Eddie will try it in free practice to collect data. Maybe I'll use them too. On the other hand, there is no new engine, although the one we use here has a few more horsepower, and my new bodywork is not any lighter than the previous ones. The story of the engine with thirty more horsepower is just a joke, but there are indeed improvements, we are working well".


However, Mika Hakkinen is very confident that he can do well at Spielberg, to the point that on the eve of the Grand Prix he goes so far as to say:


"The gap between McLaren and Ferrari is clearer than, due to bad luck and strange situations, it appears in the race. But I'm not worried, there's no reason to be. We had irresistible tyres, Goodyear worked well, they cancelled the disadvantage, but now our Bridgestone has started the development again and soon Ferrari will be far away. We are superior in the chassis, in the engine. In the last tests at Monza we broke two engines, but Schumacher never managed to lap on our times, not even with the long wheelbase. In Austria, on the other hand, we will present some innovations that will make us fly in qualifying".


David Coulthard, who has now been cut out of the fight for the Drivers' Championship, but is still a fundamental part of the British team's battle with Ferrari for the Constructors' Championship, must also be confident. Some rumours even had him sidelined in favour of Villeneuve before the Canadian made his arrival at BAR official. In the previous season, Coulthard ended the race on Austrian soil with a distinguished second place, a placement that would now give him a boost of confidence:


"It's clear that at the start of the season I would have hoped to be leading the championship at this point, or at least in a good position to aim for the top spot. Unfortunately that is not the case, but with the exception of a fortnight ago at Silverstone, I don't think I can blame myself for many mistakes. On a few occasions luck has turned on me. It's also true that lately Ferrari seems to have better reliability, but we are working hard to get back in front. I'm confident here, even if the characteristics of the track are more similar to Magny-Cours than to Silverstone. And Ferrari did very well in France".


And speaking of Ferrari, here's a little dig at Irvine:


 "Whoever says that Eddie is helping Schumacher in the fight for the world championship doesn't understand much about the sport. They also give him too much credit. Irvine has only helped Schumacher at Magny-Cours this season, he has never been and will never be able to get close to Michael. And whoever says that Ferrari has an advantage because they are betting everything on Schumacher, while McLaren could lose him because they don't distinguish between Hakkinen and me, is talking nonsense".


Judging by the results of the first two free practice sessions on Friday 24 July, one can safely say that neither Schumacher nor Coulthard knew what they were talking about when they indicated the Red as the favourite. Wrong predictions that satisfies the Scot, a little less the Ferrari driver, only seventh at the end of the day ahead of his teammate Irvine. It is Coulthard himself to get the best time of the day, with only one thousandth of advantage over Giancarlo Fisichella, at the wheel of a Benetton that is competitive again also thanks to the Bridgestone tyres, which appear much more at ease on this track than the Goodyear ones. In third position there is Hakkinen, followed by Herbert, Barrichello, Wurz and the two Ferraris. Due to a couple of retirements and a lot of difficulty in finding an adequate set-up, Schumacher no longer exudes the same optimism he had shown twenty-four hours earlier:


"I can't be as optimistic as I was on the eve of these tests. I had more problems than expected. In the morning my front tyre locked up and I went out into the sand, losing the whole session".


A problem that is repeated in the afternoon:


"This time it was the rear tyre that locked up, but the nature was identical: both exits were due to poor braking distribution. Only at the end I was able to improve the setup of the car, but I don't think it is enough to guarantee us good qualifying. The gap to the McLarens is too big, we will have to work hard".


A curious fact happens during the afternoon session: a camping fridge containing ice bars is brought into the Ferrari box. These are placed in the air intakes of the radiators to prevent the V10 from overheating, a more imminent danger since Zeltweg, being 690 metres above sea level, has thinner air, and as a result heat dissipation is much slower. What's more, you have to consider the summer heat that surrounds Spielberg. However, this is not necessary on Saturdays. Heavy rain cools the atmosphere and gives the spectators an intense wet qualification. Intense but shorter, since in the first thirty minutes of the session no one dared to take to the track, until the drivers brake the delay, and enter the car to face the copious rain. Inevitably, mistakes are made and the drivers go off the track, the worst of which is Jacques Villeneuve, who ends up in the gravel and loses precious minutes. In such prohibitive conditions, Michael Schumacher obviously exalts himself, comfortably leading the time classification until ten minutes from the end. In the meantime it stops raining, the track dries quickly and chaos breaks out. Qualifying becomes a real lottery, won by whoever manages to complete the lap with the best timing and without making any mistakes. This is not Schumacher, not Hakkinen, not Coulthard, but Giancarlo Fisichella. The Roman driver crosses the line to start his last attempt when four seconds are left, he takes off and conquer the first pole of his career, lapping in 1'29"598, seven tenths faster than another outsider of the day, Jean Alesi, who is also good at making the most of the uncertain track conditions. Once he realised he is on pole for the first time since he's been in Formula 1, Fisichella exclaimed:


"It's incredible, unbelievable. And to say that I was desperate for the rain as my car was fine in the dry. In the end I changed the tyres, fitting a wet type but softer, and I pushed hard. I was also lucky: I went off the track a couple of times but didn't suffer any damage. It was also good because I went for the last lap four seconds before the chequered flag was shown. I dedicate this pole to my family and to Luna, my girlfriend".


In such an insidious qualifying, which relegates drivers like Villeneuve to eleventh position, Coulthard even to fourteenth and Wurz to seventeenth, all in all the two duellists for the world title could not despair, since they place themselves on the second row: Hakkinen, third, preceded Schumacher by a few hundredths of a second. On the third row, Rubens Barrichello brings Stewart to fifth position, while Mika Salo celebrates an excellent sixth place for Arrows. Eddie Irvine, only eighth two seconds behind Fisichella, summed up the chaos created in the last few minutes perfectly:


"We shot ourselves in the foot. At a certain point we decided to run on intermediate tyres, but it takes time to get them up to temperature and we didn't have much time. So, in a hurry, we put back on the rain tyres, which weren't warmed up enough. There was a bit of nervousness. I also realise that the choice wasn't without risk, because if the track hadn't dried so quickly we would have made another mistake. Also, even though we had modified the set-up to suit the wet conditions, the car was slipping all over the place. The race will be very interesting as there are drivers in the top positions who are not used to starting so far ahead. My problem will be getting past them".


Unlike Irvine, Schumacher fitted and used the intermediate tyres and managed to climb to third position. The German driver also explains in more detail the choices made in synergy with the team:


"The truth is that we had planned two outings on wet tyres, but when we realised that the track was drying out and that Alesi was continuing to improve on intermediate tyres, we changed our strategy to use the same type of tyre. However, in order to do this, we had to change the setup and wait for the same tyres to come up to temperature with the tyre warmers. It took a long time and in the end we didn't manage to complete all the laps we had available. The track was also really slippery, much more so than on many other occasions".


According to him, however, Fisichella and Alesi are not a big problem, unlike Hakkinen:


"I will have to set the race on him. The ideal would be to get off to a great start and arrive at the first corner ahead of everyone.


After a few months of relative peace, as if the Silverstone diatribe wasn't already enough, McLaren and Ferrari are once again at war over regulatory issues: on Saturday morning, at around 10:00 a.m., Ron Dennis goes to the Ferrari motorhome to warn Jean Todt that he is going to lodge a complaint about the F300's braking system, which according to the Woking engineers reproduces the four-wheel steering mechanism, already judged illegal at the beginning of the year by the FIA following McLaren's controversial third pedal. You should know that we are going to ask the judges to check that traction control system of yours".


Thunders Ron Dennis, but Jean Todt responds in kind to the accusations:


"Dennis came to tell me he was going to make a complaint against our braking system. What did I say? That they were right if they really had doubts about our regularity. So far, however, there has been no complaint and only they know why".


The French manager then decides to anticipate the opponents' moves:


"After Dennis' visit I went to see the FIA's technical delegate Charlie Withing, asking for our cars to be checked. And I suggested the presence of one of his men in the pit lane during qualifying".


The result of the checks is that the F300 is in all respects in order, which angered Ron Dennis even more, who angrily retorts to the French manager:


"The conversation with Todt should have remained confidential".


Jean Todt's intense day ends with a private dinner with Peter Sauber; something that is immediately frowned upon by many, who sees in this meeting a prelude to the agreement between the two teams so that at the start Jean Alesi will not disturb Schumacher's race. The day after, Sunday July 26, the rain made way for sunshine again, and with the values on the field returning to the usual ones, it is only a matter of understanding how long Fisichella and Alesi will last at the head of the race ahead of the two duellists for the title, even if the previous edition of the Austrian Grand Prix can give hope to the outsiders, as in 1997 Jarno Trulli takes the lead after Hakkinen retires at the end of the first lap, and do not leave it in Villeneuve's hands until he is betrayed by the Honda engine of his Prost. At the end of the reconnaissance lap, Schumacher immediately has to deal with a small mishap, as he places himself sideways and too far forward on the grid; the Ferrari driver first raises his arm, then quickly puts his gear in reverse and settles down. An inaccuracy that will not affect his sprint. Actually Schumacher starts well, but not as well as Mika Hakkinen, who at the first bend has already got rid of Fisichella and Alesi; the German driver manages to get rid of the Sauber, while the Benetton of the pole man is flanked and overtaken at the end of the long straight that led to the Remus. Meantime, behind, chaos is breaking out: at the first bend Takagi misses the braking point, he spins off and hits three cars with his Tyrrell. At the following Remus bend, Pedro Diniz makes the same mistake and unfortunately hits his teammate Mika Salo, who is starting sixth, and David Coulthard. As a result, a small traffic jam is created and Villeneuve is stuck for a handful of seconds, but then manages to restart without causing any damage. Not even Coulthard's McLaren would have been damaged, if it were not for the fact that Mika Salo, wanting to restart in a hurry, skids and destroys the front wing of the Scotsman's car, who then has to return to the pits and replace the nose. This does not affect Olivier Panis, who does not even start because of clutch problems.


With cars retired and parked at the side of the track, and debris in the middle of the trajectory, Charlie Whiting opts to bring in the Safety-Car. Luck within misfortune for Coulthard, who although he finds himself last, is already reunited with the rest of the group and can immediately start his extraordinary comeback. After two laps they restart, with Hakkinen and Schumacher in the lead, followed by Fisichella, Barrichello, Alesi and Irvine. Just a few bends are enough to understand that Ferrari has taken on much less fuel than McLaren: Schumacher presses Hakkinen in all bends and overtaking seems only a matter of time, but Hakkinen's defence proves to be masterly, especially when his adversary tries on the outside of turn 4, the Gosser. The Finnish driver doesn't give up, Schumacher locks up and goes wide. Fisichella immediately takes advantage of the situation, but he doesn't manage to keep the second position for long. On the next lap, in the same spot where Hakkinen had held on, Fisichella again gives way to Schumacher, who is able to chase down the race leader once more. The tussle also raged in the middle of the pack, where home driver Alex Wurz tries to fight his way through Jos Verstappen, but ends up on the gravel at the exit of Jochen Rindt, losing several positions. On the seventh lap, Schumacher tries again in the same spot, crossing the line as he has done with Fisichella, but once again Hakkinen is not surprised and held on tightly. In the meantime Barrichello retires due to brake problems. This allows Irvine, who has overtaken Jean Alesi, to get close to the podium, although Fisichella is already some seconds away. Alesi, on the contrary, seemed to act as a stopper, and so behind him there was a lively little train of drivers formed by Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher, Hill and soon also by David Coulthard, who in a few passages recovered from the last to the ninth position. On lap seventeen, while Frentzen was also retiring with his Mecachrome engine on fire, Michael Schumacher was the author of a heavy off-track on the penultimate bend, exactly where a short while before Wurz had made the same mistake. The Roman driver, however, after spending more than half an hour alone in the motorhome to cool off his anger, declared himself blameless:


"If anyone is to blame, it is certainly not me. I would do that manoeuvre again, I was faster, I was convinced I would pass. I thought I had, I couldn't see him anymore when suddenly I found him in front of me. At that point I had no choice but to run into him. I don't want to make a fuss, Alesi has always been my idol, but in that corner he braked beyond belief. Mine was a good braking move, but within the norm. His wasn't. To think that until that moment I hadn't taken any risks, I hadn't tried to resist Hakkinen at the start, I had pulled away from Schumacher, because I wanted to finish the race, to get on the podium. It all went away in an instant. Maybe in a few days with Alesi we will laugh about it, but not now. Now I am too disappointed, sad. My tactic was clear, my strategy was to pass right there, I couldn't wait any longer. Given Schumacher's problems, I was convinced I would finish second. Instead, I was left with nothing. The umpteenth missed opportunity: there are beginning to be many".


Hakkinen runs more and more alone. Irvine, now second, is far away and has to look behind him, because Coulthard has reduced the gap. The umpteenth shake-up in the upper parts of the classification allows Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli and Jacques Villeneuve to occupy the remaining points positions. Behind them, however, came Michael Schumacher, who at this stage was the fastest driver on the track, a sign that the car had not suffered heavy or irreversible damage. The two-times world champion overtook whoever was in front of him with disarming ease, and around lap 30, after overtaking Hill and Herbert, he found himself in seventh position, next to Trulli and Villeneuve. In the meantime Irvine stopped for the first of the two scheduled stops, allowing Coulthard to climb to second position. In McLaren, instead, they opted for only one stop, which Hakkinen made calmly on lap 34 to avoid a group of lapped drivers among whom Schumacher was also present. Coulthard, on the other hand, who had already stopped to replace the wing, changed tyres and refuelled only when he was sure of having gained the necessary advantage that allowed him to get back in front of Irvine, thus keeping the second position. The stop took place without a hitch and in McLaren they began to smell a one-two. Michael Schumacher meanwhile enters the points zone, overtaking Villeneuve and Trulli. After the second pit-stop he drops back again to seventh position, but once the second wave of stops is over he is fifth; on the way to the podium there are his brother Ralf and his team-mate Irvine. Two easy overtakes, some might venture. Young Ralf, however, once caught up with his older brother, has to fight for the place. Michael risked a collision between the cars on lap 52 when he overtook deeply and almost hit the rear end of the Jordan, which was avoided by a matter of centimetres. The Ferrari driver finished long, aware of having played the last joker of the day.


The next passage he tried again, with less fervour, to overtake Ralf, who closed the trajectories perfectly without hesitating. The third attempt was the good one: at the Gosser bend Michael flanked him on the inside and didn't leave any chance to his brother, however the protagonist of an excellent defence. Fifteen seconds separated Eddie Irvine from his team leader. After FIA's decision to ban team orders following the episode during the opening race in Australia involving the McLaren drivers, Ferrari had only to choose the best excuse to justify Irvine's sudden slowdown. The Northern Irishman, in fact, starts to lap with times over two seconds a lap higher than Schumacher, who quickly reduces the gap. Some journalists approached Jean Todt to ask what was wrong with Irvine, and the Ferrari team manager dismissed them with a laconic brakes problem. Believe it or not, three laps from the end Schumacher easily overtook Irvine and moved up to third place, limiting the damage as best he could, since in the meantime Mika Hakkinen went on to win quietly for the fifth time this season. David Coulthard completes the McLaren one-two, which had been missing since 10 May in Spain, and gives himself one of the best performances of his career. The Ferrari crosses the finishing line forty seconds later, then Ralf Schumacher and Villeneuve complete the top six. On the podium, Hakkinen's joy is such that his Bridgestone-sponsored cap falls off his head. He doesn't even realise it as he waves his arms about, and it is Coulthard who gently places it back on his head. Mika does well to exult, because with this victory he can pull away in the standings from Schumacher who seemed to have gained the necessary momentum to overtake him. Now the gap between the two is eight points. At the press conference, when they pointed out that he had not won since the race in Monaco two months earlier, the Finnish driver exclaimed:


"Has it really been that long? Well, in that case I'm even happier to be back on top. Today is a victory that I could call excellent. The team played a key role in making it happen. The one-stop strategy paid off because even though I had a heavy car in the first part of the race, I was still able to push and be fast without too many problems. In the morning, in the warm up, I realised that we could give the Ferrari a second a lap, and on a short circuit like this, that's a huge gap. It's a precious success, which gives me a lot of confidence because we won on a track that was not congenial to us".


His feline sprint at the start was undoubtedly decisive for his victory:


"Starts are always moments when anything can happen, you never know how well those in front of you will start. The only thing I can do is try to get the best possible start every time, and luckily I managed that today. I had good traction in the first few metres, also thanks to the Bridgestones, and by the first corner I was already first. I've been racing since I was six years old, and I've made a lot of starts, and I can say that I don't know if this is my best ever, but it's certainly the best this year".


Then the fight with Schumacher, during which he defended himself brilliantly:


"I realised that he had started to make two stops and was therefore running more empty than me. A slight problem with the balance of the brakes in the first part of the race meant that I couldn't brake in the ideal spot, which is why Schumacher was able to stick with me, but that didn't make me nervous. If you do this job, you have to consider the possibility of having an opponent attached to the back of your car, even for the full seventy laps of a race. And if you start thinking...oh my God, he can overtake me now, sooner or later you end up making a mistake. I knew that if Michael continued to stay so close to me, sooner or later he would have problems with engine overheating or tyre problems. He tried to pass me, failed, and then made a mistake himself".


There was also great satisfaction for Coulthard, who after a period of total obscurity returned to show off his talent with a masterful comeback:


"It was without doubt the best race of my career. It's nice to be back on the podium, especially considering the bad qualifying we had yesterday. On the eve of the weekend I never expected to have to start so far back, but in those conditions anything can happen and you have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and I didn't do that. After the incident at turn two I was lucky that the Safety Car came on, so I changed my front wing and came back on the track last, but without having to make up ground on those ahead of me. And when you have a fast car like mine, overtaking becomes quite easy. Also, I have to congratulate all the drivers I passed, because they were all very honest".


Michael Schumacher's expression and tone of voice contrast sharply with the happiness of the two McLaren drivers, whose disappointment at having made a mistake, which he himself describes as trivial, is palpable. The Ferrari driver begins by saying that there was no team order, keeping to the same line as Jean Todt:


"There was no agreement. We both had brake problems and Eddie's were probably worse than mine. On the radio they invited us to slow down, and so I caught up with my teammate. It's clear that at that point it wouldn't have made sense for Irvine to get in my way and zig-zag in front of me. When I decided to attack him at the end of the finishing straight, he didn't give way and ended up on the outside kerb. At that point it was easy for me to get alongside him and pass him. If you want we can go and listen to the radio communications together. The fact that Irvine accelerated again after I had overtaken him doesn't mean anything, it could have been that there was a later communication from the pits that allowed the acceleration".


Then Schumacher talks about his mistake, which actually paved the way for Hakkinen to win:


"Considering the exit I made, my Ferrari turned out to be as strong as a truck. I literally jumped up in the air and lifted so much dirt that it even entered the cockpit, turning the rest of my race into a kind of Japanese back massage. At the time I was thinking about the damage and the fact that I had to do a full lap without a wing before I pitted, which meant I lost a lot of time. In any case, it was my fault: I took the wrong line and lost control of the car. The mechanics did a great job changing the nose".


After that, the comeback begins, which takes him to the podium:


"In the accident I had lost the deflectors, but the car seemed to respond well and so I climbed to third place, a good challenge with myself, especially after the second stop I found myself behind those drivers who I had passed a few laps earlier".


It is a result that represents a step backwards in both championship standings, given that the McLaren one-two puts Ferrari twelve points behind in the constructors' championship:


"I'm not overly worried. So far we have been competitive on many tracks, and in view of Hockenheim we have some news coming up".


Reached by journalists, Irvine obviously confirms the version given by his team manager and teammate, who saw him in crisis with the brakes:


"I had problems with the front brakes, and I was forced to intervene on the knob that distributes the braking to move it more to the rear. I was in danger of going long at every corner, so that's why I slowed down. Why did I start pulling after Michael's overtake? I simply tried to push a bit harder to try and follow him. To see if I could keep up with him, but in the end I realised it was better to save the brakes. I'm still happy. I got a decent start, considering I had a clutch problem and the gears were coming in hard. It was a problem I had already had in the warm-up and we hadn't managed to solve it completely".


Finally, Jean Todt comments on the outcome of the race:


"I can't say we're happy, McLaren has made up nine points, Schumacher is eight points behind. It will be a tough fight, we will not give up. The race for the world championship is always open. On Friday we will try the long car, at Monza it gave encouraging indications. We will do everything to reduce the gap with McLaren. We will have to know how to better exploit favourable situations. That's what we couldn't do on Saturday. We lost time choosing the tyres, and by a handful of seconds we missed the last lap and therefore pole".


Rather than the team orders nimbly concealed by Ferrari, the FIA will have to ask itself whether in this team sport, where there have always been number ones and number twos within a team, the new rule introduced at the start of the season, which prohibits this, is in fact a glaring oversight. Bernie Ecclestone dismisses this by stating:


"I don't believe in teamwork. Ferrari had problems, I think they're happy to be at the bottom".


In the meantime, the circus doesn't stop, because the following week there is another race on the historic circuit of Hockenheim, in Germany. An ideal context for the native of Kerpen to avoid that his rival in the title fight can try to escape.


©​ 2023 Osservatore Sportivo


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