A few days after the sensational Belgian Grand Prix, on September 2, 1998, the teams moved to Monza for a test session in which eight teams took part, including Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes. As expected, it wasn't Damon Hill's surprising victory, which gave Jordan its first historic success, but the controversial accident between Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard, with the consequent reaction of the German driver, who rushed into the McLaren box in a rage for having lost the first position that would have allowed him to become the new leader of the drivers' classification. Among insiders, the question is whether and when there will be a clarifying meeting between the two.
Well, at the end of the first day of testing Schumacher seemed anything but willing to discuss the incident with Coulthard. In fact, in the evening, having entered a restaurant close to the hotel where they were both staying, Schumacher bumped into the Scottish driver; it would have been a perfect opportunity to have a chat, but Michael preferred to speak to a waiter and be moved to another room.
Just making eye contact with the McLaren driver apparently gets on his nerves. The clarifying meeting seems a long way off. This is also evident from his statements to the German newspaper Bild, the only newspaper with which Schumacher breaks the press silence imposed in agreement with the team:
"Coulthard's responsibility in the accident is unequivocal. You have to understand the situation. From one second to the next I was thrown out by a lapped driver, and by a McLaren. Who wouldn't have lost their temper? I'd love to know why at the start of the race, and even after the incident, he was able to lap in 2'11", and why he was five seconds slower when I caught up with him. If he really wanted to let me pass, then he got it all wrong and did it too late. In the previous corners he had come out accelerating in a completely normal way. How do I know he's suddenly not accelerating anymore? He can't do that, not at that point. And especially not when you know you can't see anything behind. I hit it right on the nose. I had no way out. Earlier, at the Source, there was the possibility of passing me. I was next to him at that point. If he really wanted to pass me, why didn't he do it there? Also, the lapped driver takes himself out of the ideal trajectory. But David stayed on the trajectory without giving gas. If you want to tell me something, you know where to find me. I have nothing to apologise for".
With a media campaign aimed at attacking Schumacher and around 7.000 spectators present at Monza to watch the tests, it is difficult to expect a pleasant welcome for David Coulthard, who was pelted with whistles, insults and banners with all kinds of attacks, such as Coulthard licence to kill - Mercedes, with the final S replaced by a hooked cross, or Coulthard wanted, with a handsome $25,000 bounty written at the bottom. It is, however, a play on words, arousing hilarity even in the McLaren box, that wins the prize for the most imaginative banner:
"'McLadren, Schumi against everyone".
The Anglo-German team responds to the accusations by issuing a communiqué, through which it says to Ferrari, in a decisive manner:
"McLaren has seen, with regret, a press release issued by Ferrari regarding the incident that caused Michael Schumacher to retire during the Belgian Grand Prix. It was unbelievable how immediately after the incident tensions rose, and an unfair solution was sought. We are sorry that this incident happened, and that Ferrari's subsequent interpretation cast doubt on the (moral) integrity of the team and the driver. It is clear, however, that the incident was accidental and a consequence of the actions of both drivers involved who were racing in prohibitive conditions. The Belgian Grand Prix stewards received a detailed account of the incident from Coulthard and examined the car's performance information taken from the FIA. At no time during the incident did David touch the brakes or step on the clutch, he was simply driving in such a way as to facilitate Schumacher's overtaking move. The stewards concluded that the crash was a racing accident and that there was no responsibility on the part of our driver. McLaren looks forward to continuing to compete in a sporting manner, and hopes not to be drawn into repeated public discussions with Ferrari about the incident, but extends an invitation to discuss the matter later in private if he wishes".
For his part, Coulthard expresses his bitterness at the attacks received from Italian fans, claiming that he does not deserve such lynching. In any case, he too does not seem willing to take the first step towards a clarification with Schumacher:
"I have nothing to say to him. I respect him as a driver, but now I am very irritated by his reaction. This is racing and it was a racing incident. Anyway, if we talk to each other, it will be private, face to face".
Bitter, but certainly not at all slowed by the controversy. Turning 1'23"597, David was the fastest at the end of the first day of testing, during which the Woking team also tested experimental components with a view to 1999. Ferrari, on the other hand, in the morning with Schumacher and in the afternoon with Irvine, concentrated above all on finding the right balance and the most suitable tyres for the Italian Grand Prix, scheduled for 13 September. A lot of work is done, in particular, on brakes and suspension.
In the afternoon of the following day, the F300 is fitted with the new 047/D engine with 780 horsepower, already used in qualifying at Spa-Francorchamps. The aim is to exploit it also in the race, and the ninety-eight laps run by Schumacher (no one like him) at a 1'26" pace are certainly a good sign. In the time classification the German is seventh, while Eddie Irvine, three tenths quicker than Mika Hakkinen, takes the record of the day, declaring himself satisfied with his and the British team's tests:
"We are again looking for a huge increase in the performance of the car. I am happy that Monza is one of the three decisive rounds. In the past I had wonderful experiences here, and I also tasted the podium. Monza feels like my track, close to my nature. Winning here is always important. This year it will be even more important. That's why we didn't hesitate to throw into the fray the most powerful engine that Mercedes can give us now, with a reasonable degree of reliability. And Bridgestone is also working hard".
In the morning, the Finn is spotted wandering around the Ferrari pit lane, presumably to get some unknown details about the F300. On this unscheduled visit Hakkinen says:
"It's normal for me to do that. I went there just to look at the cars of my direct competitors, to see the faces of the mechanics. Every now and then you can see some tension on the faces of the technicians: it's never time wasted. On the faces of the Ferrari men the tension seemed to be quite high, as it was at McLaren on the eve of the British Grand Prix".
In the meantime, even during the second day of testing, banners with offensive slogans directed at David Coulthard continue to be displayed, a situation not at all appreciated by Jarno Trulli, who sides with the McLaren Scotsman, labelling the protesters as stadium fans, not at all sporting. The Prost driver explains that, in his opinion, what happened in Belgium was simply a race incident due to the adverse conditions, and that the person responsible for this, i.e. the fans' riot against Coulthard, was Michael Schumacher himself:
"The crowd was stirred up by Michael's arrogant and disrespectful behaviour. We all know the risks we run and I don't understand how you can accuse David of wanting to throw him out. We are idols to these people and we must behave accordingly".
On the last day of testing at the Lombardy circuit, which took place on September 4, 1998, the unexpected news came from the pits: at the end of the test session, Schumacher and Coulthard would meet in a neutral zone, in the Sauber motorhome to be precise. This will be possible thanks to the crucial intermediation of Alex Wurz, advisor together with the two aforementioned of the Grand Prix Driver Association, with whom the Austrian needs to meet as soon as possible to discuss the response received from Max Mosley regarding the letter written and forwarded to the FIA by the drivers during the Austrian Grand Prix, containing suggestions and requests on several issues, such as the kerbs and pins placed at the first variant of Monza, which are causing some concern to the drivers. The appointment is initially set for 6 pm but will be moved to 6:30 pm after the test session is extended by another thirty minutes.
Coulthard and Alesi wait in the Sauber motorhome, but Schumacher is not seen. Shortly afterwards, David is informed that the meeting is postponed until the Thursday before the start of the Italian Grand Prix, as Schumacher has had to hurry to catch his plane back to Geneva. The Swiss airport closes to flights at 22:00, and the Ferrari driver, with his private jet, had to stop off first in Cologne to drop off his brother Ralf and his father. As Schumacher wanted to have an in-depth exchange of views without having to constantly look at his watch, it was decided to postpone the meeting for a week. Surprisingly, meanwhile, on September 8, 1998, came the first opening words from Schumacher:
"I may have exaggerated, but I am also a man and when you lose ten points for a retirement caused by a lapped driver, it is perhaps human that you react in an exaggerated way. Even if the impression has been given that I wanted to attack Coulthard, I can assure you that this was not my intention, I have a lot of self-control".
While waiting to return to Monza for the fourteenth round of the World Championship, Max Mosley and Eddie Irvine also tried to defuse the tension related to the events in Belgium, inviting not to point the finger at either of the two protagonists. Busy in Salsomaggiore for the European Road Safety Week, Mosley also justified Schumacher's fury in the pits, telling the press:
"The nervousness shown by Schumacher at Spa is understandable. Drivers are under a lot of pressure in a race, especially when it rains. On television everything looks easy, but in reality you drive practically blind in the rain. Drivers are normal men who can overreact in borderline situations".
Irvine does not openly side with his team-mate, but rather breaks a lance in Coulthard's favour, not giving credence to the theories of those who accuse him of deliberately causing the accident:
"Immediately after the race, and also afterwards, I simply said that I could not believe that Coulthard had deliberately committed such an impropriety. The public at Monza should not remember that episode in a negative way, they should only encourage Schumacher and Ferrari from the first moment to the last because there are chances to achieve an important feat. And I will try to do my best, maybe trying to stay ahead of Hakkinen".
For the Italian round, the Northern Irishman is banking on the F300's marked improvements:
"Perhaps we have never been so close to the McLarens on a track with these characteristics and I am convinced that Michael has a good chance, especially in the race. And that he still has plenty of chances for the championship. The decisive race will be at Suzuka, and remember what he and I did there last year? It would be great if I could give him a big help as I did then. I always have great confidence, and so does Michael".
On the afternoon of September 9, 1998, Luca Badoer tests three of the four long-wheelbase F300s that Ferrari will bring to Monza. To prepare the cars, the Ferrari mechanics work in forced stages. The most complex work is the construction of all the composite parts that make up the package of modifications needed to lengthen the single-seater. The shock absorbers are also new, made to exploit the trajectories in the variants as much as possible. The engines, at Monza, will probably be the most powerful ones used in the Belgian tests. Another controversy has also been nipped in the bud after the German newspaper Auto Motor und Sport indicated that the two McLarens used in the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the season were irregular and liable to disqualification. The irregularity would have consisted of just one centimetre less width on the car. According to the German weekly, this case could be of great importance for Ferrari, because if the case were to be reopened, Hakkinen would lose ten points. But the case cannot be reopened:
"It would have taken a complaint then. Without this, it is impossible today to reopen, or rather open for the first time, a dispute of this kind and it is unthinkable to arrive at a disqualification six months later. Those cars were checked and found to be in order, so where is the evidence of any irregularity?"
Says FIA spokesman Francesco Longanesi. According to Ferrari spokesman Claudio Berro, too, every road is impassable:
"We are not aware of any such irregularity either. In any case, there is no possibility of opening such a dispute today, which we would not be happy about and have no intention of raising".
Ron Dennis' response was not long in coming either, stating:
"In my team there will never be panic, and their game cannot succeed. But when things are said against your team, it is mandatory to respond. And it's not easy to remain cool and calm, although I try to do so. I've got broad shoulders, I've never backed down from a fight, but I'd like the World Championship to end in a calmer atmosphere, without backstabbing from the other pits or the press".
Finally, the fateful Thursday 10 September 1998 arrived, the day when Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard were due to meet face to face: in the Williams motorhome, the two discussed far from prying eyes for over an hour, and once they were out, they gave themselves up to the photographers with a handshake. Coulthard returned to his motorhome, where he recounted the highlights of the discussion without giving too many details:
"It was a calm discussion, we agreed that it was an unpleasant episode and that we would have to discuss it with our colleagues because it was a blue flag issue. In those conditions it was almost impossible to see them. There have been many dangerous incidents like the one between Fisichella and Nakano. We will discuss this with the FIA. In the meantime, we are once again ready to challenge each other on the track, wheel to wheel. As always".
However, the McLaren driver lets slip a little criticism addressed to the German, guilty of excessive victimisation, as well as not wanting to accept the point of view of others:
"His attitude didn't help. After what happened in Argentina - the contact between the two caused the McLaren to spin - we had clarified things. But if everyone sticks to their own positions, the situation doesn't change".
Schumacher seems to have completely cooled off his anger and judging by his words he is ready to go further to resume the hunt for the world title:
"We talked to each other for over an hour. It was right and necessary to meet and try to clarify certain points. And we did. Now it seems clear to me that he didn't do it on purpose before it wasn't at all. It took ten days to change my mind? Yes, because situations are created and develop under different conditions. In the beginning, for example, some indications led me to believe that there was something shady going on. To believe in his guilt, in other words that he had done it on purpose to throw me out. But then you start looking at other indications, which you couldn't have known while you were behind the wheel, or which you only had a feeling about, and you start seeing things in another way. Immediately after the accident I lost my temper, it's true. But appearances are not always true. For example, I have never hit anyone in my life, it's not part of my concept of life, and when I was walking to Coulthard's pit lane I didn't want to fight with him at all, I was furious and I wanted to tell him so. I know what I was feeling at that moment inside. I was very disappointed, here at Ferrari we work like crazy to try to win this world championship and in a moment like that the anger is strong. Then time passes, you calm down, you start to reflect, to look at some technical data, such as lap times, and you realise that it wasn't anyone's fault. We were both victims of a series of unfavourable circumstances and conditions, nothing else. But then he still made it to the finish line and I lost a crucial race. That's where a lot of strong feelings and sensations come from. My world championship is much more difficult and I am sorry for the great work we have done. Everything becomes more difficult. Here at Monza for example I have to try to win. It's not a favourable circuit but we have made a lot of progress with aerodynamics and the engine, so I will try. And I have to try to win".
And about the alleged irregularity of the McLarens in Australia, Schumacher replied:
"I heard that the McLarens would be illegal in the first Grand Prix in Australia, but I haven't read it so I don't know. Of course it's something I'm interested in, but I can't make any judgements without being properly informed about it. In any case, I don't think it's nice, now that we're at the fourteenth Grand Prix, to question the first one. We can't do anything about it, so it's an affair that serves no practical purpose. Peace made or not, after two weeks in which nothing else was talked about, the paddock can leave the matter behind and turn its attention back to the exciting title fight between Hakkinen and Schumacher".
Seven points divide the two contenders, a gap that remained unchanged after the Spa race, where even Hakkinen did not increase his advantage, having retired on the first lap. Based on the results of the German Grand Prix, run at Hockenheim, on a track very similar in characteristics to the Monza one, it is legitimate to expect a dominant McLaren and a Ferrari in difficulty. However, the progress of the F300 a month and a half after that disappointing weekend is remarkable, as can be seen from the results of the tests the week before. Even the first two Friday free practice sessions confirmed the good work done at Maranello: Eddie Irvine was first, with a time of 1'24"987, while Michael Schumacher was second, three tenths of a second behind his teammate, to the delight of the many Prancing Horse fans present along the circuit. Hakkinen and Coulthard were forced to chase.
"I only had problems with the temperature being too high and then I damaged the car by going onto a kerb. Rain would complicate our lives, as we have set-up problems in the wet".
Admits the Finnish driver, while Coulthard goes further, and says:
"If it rained it would be even more dangerous than at Spa because you really can't see anything here".
There are those in the paddock who say that Ferrari's advantage may also derive from the fact that a series of pins that forced the drivers to tackle the variants with a very precise trajectory have been removed. By removing them, the trajectories have changed. It was a commission of the drivers' association, namely Coulthard, Schumacher and Wurz, who recommended this action because those pins would have forced many drivers to cut through the chicanes on grass, kerbs, lawns and embankments. Now the trajectories have changed, as have the braking distances, with the result that many drivers have been forced to do exactly what they wanted to avoid: cut the chicanes in every possible way. Of course, the doubts didn't end here, since it was assumed that the McLaren, which had a very long first gear, could obtain advantages not only mechanically, but also in software, and therefore could exploit these characteristics at the start: this hypothesis arose from the fact that in the parabolic the Silver Arrows faced the bend in first gear, while the Ferrari in third.
Saturday September 12, 1998, there is rain to welcome the drivers during the morning free practice. On the circuit there is a real downpour, which stops only shortly before the beginning of the qualifying: when the qualifying starts, although the sun is coming out, the track is still completely wet. The first to feel the track conditions was Damon Hill, after thirty minutes from the beginning of the session; the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix ran only one lap, after that he went back to the pits.
A few minutes later, all the drivers poured onto the track using intermediate tyres, with Michael Schumacher taking provisional pole.
Later, Coulthard put on dry tyres and managed to lower the time limit considerably, providing useful information to the competing teams. But the track was still treacherous, despite improving lap after lap, a bit like what happened in Zeltweg, when it was Giancarlo Fisichella who took the only pole position so far that wasn't a McLaren-Mercedes. And so, while Johnny Herbert ended up against the barriers, team-mate Alesi incredibly installed himself in first position, until, a few minutes from the end, Hakkinen set a better time, subsequently beaten by Michael Schumacher, which sent the fans in the stands into raptures.
It wasn't over yet, however, as Hakkinen had one more try. Unfortunately for him, however, the Finn not only fails to do better than his direct opponent, but is also beaten by Jacques Villeneuve, author of an exceptional performance, worthy of a World Champion. Mika is therefore third, flanked on the second row by Coulthard. For the second time in the season, there is no McLaren-Mercedes on the front row. Irvine and Ralf Schumacher qualify in the third row, while Alesi is only eighth, behind Alex Wurz. The two Italian drivers, Trulli and Fisichella, qualify tenth and eleventh respectively. For Jarno this is the best qualifying of the season: the Prost driver equals the result obtained in Monaco. Schumacher celebrates his first pole of the season, followed by his rival Jacques Villeneuve. The duel between the two is rekindled, thanks to the amazing second position grabbed by the Williams driver, who logically aims straight to the victory:
"I have nothing to lose. And this is very important. They are fighting for the title, I'm just looking for a win, which I've been missing for too long. Maybe someone could think it's a sacrilege, me winning when everyone expects Schumacher or Hakkinen, but it doesn't matter to me. I think I have a chance, and I'm not going to back down. I knew we would do well, because it had already happened at Hockenheim, and the two circuits are similar. I learned to fight with understeer, a flaw my Williams continues to have, and now I feel competitive. In between those two I'm going to have fun. Monza is exciting, the people with their heat push the car, they make you fly. I have always had a great feeling with the Italians. And someone cheered last year when I took the title away from Schumacher. I feel at home here, it's the right environment for an act of great revenge. The only way I can win this race is to take the lead at the first corner. Schumacher is not as quick as the McLaren drivers at the start, and then he has other things to think about, he won't be able to risk much".
A theory not shared by Schumacher, who states:
"No, that's not true, because I need a win and I'll only think about that, and to get it I know I'll have to risk it".
Then, talking about the pole he had won, the German ironized the press:
"Here is the pole position, sorry for the delay. Now I can seriously think about winning this Grand Prix because the music has changed. If I can get a good start and stay in the lead at the first corner, that's it. I'll be the one to set the pace, to impose strategies, I won't have to adjust to the others anymore, I'll be able to do what suits me best and the others will finally have to adapt".
This, despite the Ferrari driver being sceptical on the eve of the Grand Prix:
"It's true, at the beginning I was sceptical because I knew that here the difficulties for us were great, once they seemed almost insurmountable, I had justified fears. But then a lot of things changed. The first thing is that we've been practising here at Monza for seventeen days and so we arrived very well prepared. Even last week, although I felt the improvements from all this work, I wasn't very sure. But in the last week at home we have continued that work and arrived here in a magnificent condition. I felt I could take this pole, I didn't want to say too much because Ferrari is at home here, in front of its huge, passionate crowd, and I didn't want to get ahead of myself, but I really felt it inside. At the end of that lap I had the feeling that I had done well, but you can never be sure because someone behind or in front of you may have done a better time. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw people getting excited in the grandstands, the Ferrari people on their feet. It could only be for me, and in any case for Ferrari. I understood, and just a moment later they told me on the radio that I was on pole. It was beautiful, I wanted to get out right away and do pirouettes on the track. During qualifying, I went out for the first time on intermediate tyres, and I said to myself: I'll go and see for myself and then change tyres. And some parts of the circuit were really wet, especially the first Lesmo corner. When I saw it I said to myself: mamma mia, what am I going to do here? But I went back to the pits, put on the smooth tyres and off I went. Best time in the first sector, best time in the second sector and best time in the third sector. So I got pole. It felt even easy, too easy. I didn't expect that. But it was really needed. When I think of all those mechanics and engineers who often came back from dinner at Maranello at eleven o'clock in the evening and were still behind their computers, looking at me, smiling and saying: here we go, Michael, here we go. And I was trembling because I have faith in them".
A hint of disappointment can easily be seen in the McLaren household, even if Hakkinen does not make dramas:
"Luck. Schumacher was lucky. When he did the time, he drove without traffic on the track, I found him in my face. There's no point crying, it's happened now, but that Stewart I was ahead of lost at least half a second. And then this qualifying had very difficult conditions, the track was dry in some sections and wet in others, it seemed like a lottery. We all waited to come out of the pits, it was risky to concentrate our efforts in the last ten minutes, but we couldn't do otherwise, because with the puddles you can never set a time. Unfortunately it was my loss. When I saw the sun come out, I was worried. I had no confidence, I felt it would go badly, because our car struggles in intermediate conditions. Schumacher and Villeneuve did a great job, we didn't. I was hoping for pole, also because we have always lapped faster than the others here at Monza. I didn't expect Ferrari to make such progress, but I'm not worried about the race. I'm convinced that we are still superior. The start is fundamental and I will try to get ahead of Schumacher right away. But we have to be careful until the first corner".
Spurred on by the pole position conquered by Ferrari, on September 13, 1998, one hundred and fifty thousand fans show up at the Autodromo di Monza to watch the Italian Grand Prix. The conviction of the public is only one: Schumacher can win. But the vast majority of the supporters in celebration is immediately silenced after a few seconds from the turning off of the traffic lights. Even though the McLaren mechanics made a mistake in measuring the tyre pressure on Hakkinen's car, as Dennis would admit two weeks later, with a move that was anything but cautious, the Finnish driver slid at great speed between Schumacher and Villeneuve, who in turn got off to a very slow start, to the point that even Coulthard overtook them both even before they reached the first chicane.
Schumacher even slipped to fifth position, also passed by Irvine and Villeneuve, but taking advantage of the Williams' slipstream on the Curva Grande, at the Variante della Roggia the Ferrari driver managed to get alongside him and recover at least one position: an important manoeuvre, that allowed him not to lose contact with the Silver Arrows, also because Irvine immediately stepped aside after a couple of laps, leaving the track free for his team leader who could thus start his pursuit of the two Silver Arrows, which were already four and a half seconds away.
Excellent start also for Damon Hill, who started fourteenth and was already eighth after a few passes on the finish line. Even if gradually, Schumacher approaches the McLaren duo, gaining a few tenths per lap. Hakkinen was not very fast, perhaps also because he was penalised by having to run with a mule, due to problems with his car during the warm-up. Coulthard, who started with less fuel to carry out a two-stop strategy, differing from Hakkinen and Schumacher who rely on a single pit-stop, chases the Finn.
Given the German Ferrari driver's comeback, the McLaren pits gave the order to let Coulthard have a freeway, to allow him to take advantage of the lighter car: on lap 8 the exchange of positions took place, with the Scottish driver who took the lead and immediately left a few seconds behind Hakkinen, in his turn approached by Schumacher.
In the meantime Hill's excellent recovery continued, who had adopted a two-stop strategy: on lap 10 the Briton passed Ralf Schumacher, thus entering the points zone, and a little later, during the 15th lap, he also overtook Jacques Villeneuve on the main straight. The Jordan driver, however, had to return the fifth position to Williams at the end of the same lap, as he stopped in the pits for the first scheduled stop.
Johnny Herbert's nightmarish season continued and he had little satisfaction after his only point of the season in the opening race in Melbourne. The next Stewart driver ended his race in the gravel, coming out of the second Lesmo corner. Shortly afterwards Shinji Nakano also retired due to a broken Ford engine. The rear of the Faenza car also started a fire, which was quickly contained with fire extinguishers by the track marshals. We are at the sixteenth of the fifty-three laps planned.
Coulthard leads the race with an eight-second margin over Hakkinen and Schumacher, now separated by only nine tenths. A battle between the two rivals for the title can only benefit the Scottish driver, who must necessarily increase the gap as much as possible by having to make an extra stop. For Coulthard, however, the hopes of winning for the second time in a row at Monza after last season's success went up in smoke at the exit of Curva Grande: the Mercedes V10 exploded without giving any warning, and David only had to park his McLaren at the trackside.
At the same moment, disoriented by the great smoke caused by the Mercedes engine, both Hakkinen and Schumacher lifted their foot. The Ferrari driver, however, is more reactive in taking the situation in hand, and at the Variante della Roggia he attacks his rival. Hakkinen covers the inside, but ends up long and is forced to a very bad exit from the chicane, on the contrary of Schumacher, who sets his trajectory perfectly and overtakes the leader of the World Championship. A perfect manoeuvre by Schumacher, who in a handful of seconds becomes the new leader of the Italian Grand Prix. Hakkinen keeps the pace only for a couple of laps, then Michael starts to gain ground, also thanks to the many lapping that damage the race of the Finnish driver.
After twenty laps, Schumacher and Hakkinen lead the race, followed by Eddie Irvine, Jacques Villeneuve, Ralf Schumacher and Jean Alesi, who closes the points zone. On lap 30 the series of pit stops for the leading drivers begins. The first to come back in is Ralf Schumacher, who after a 9.3 second pit-stop returns to the track sixth ahead of Fisichella, Frentzen and above all Hill, whose two-stop strategy is for the moment thwarted by the Italian Benetton driver and the German Williams driver.
With a six second lead over Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher also pits for a pit stop. At this point, the McLaren driver would need a miracle to snatch the position from the German, having to make some very fast laps to make a winning overcut on the Ferrari driver. Mika tried anyway, and set a personal best, being six tenths faster than Schumacher.
An insufficient effort, because on the 34th lap, once the pit-stop has been made, at the exit of the pitlane Schumacher is five seconds away, practically the same gap that divided them before the stops. Fisichella and Frentzen were the last ones to come into the pits on the same lap, but while the German's stop lasted twenty seconds because the engine went out, the Italian's lasted thirty seconds because of problems in fixing a tyre. A disaster on both sides that favours Damon Hill, who gains both positions, although it doesn't allow him to get into the points zone, being seventh behind Alesi.
At the thirty-seventh lap, however, Villeneuve ends slightly long at the first Lesmo bend, fouling the tyres, and at the entrance of the second Lesmo bend, after touching the white line, he loses control of the car and crashes against the barriers. Both Ralf Schumacher and Alesi take advantage of this circumstance, as does Damon Hill, who has now entered the points zone. At the front of the race, Schumacher and Hakkinen had to reckon with problematic lapping, which in this case favoured the Finnish driver, who was three seconds behind the leader. Todt gets impatient and, as usual, goes to the pit walls of the other teams to make sure that their assistants step aside as soon as possible. The French team manager is just leaving the Benetton wall, as Fisichella is in front of Schumacher when at the Variante della Roggia Hakkinen loses control of the McLaren.
In a dynamic similar to the one at Silverstone, Mika spun at unbelievable speed along the entire gravel section and then stopped unharmed in the middle of the track. It was a big scare for him, but despite everything he was able to resume his race, still in second position, while the excitement and celebration of the fans in the stands were increasingly overwhelming. However, there was something wrong with the Mp4/13: Mika was running very slowly, and at the first corner he ran wide again, allowing Irvine to close in on him. The Northern Irishman was four seconds quicker on each lap and the overtaking move at Ascari corner was a mere formality.
Hakkinen didn't offer the slightest resistance, more concerned with trying to finish the race than defending his position, and shortly afterwards he also gave way to Ralf Schumacher, who came up the main straight and passed the Finnish driver without any problem.
It's the last lap. Schumacher runs calmly towards the finishing line, with almost forty seconds of advantage over Irvine. Michael is so relaxed that by the last corner he is already waving to the ecstatic crowd, ready to celebrate a fantastic Ferrari one-two. Michael Schumacher wins for the 33rd time in his career, and for the second time at Monza as a Ferrari driver, a joy that few can boast of. The German driver now has six victories in the season, a number that should not be underestimated, as it has not been since 1952 that a driver from the Prancing Horse won so many in a single championship.
Ralf Schumacher completes the podium, taking the lowest step. Hakkinen finished fourth, as Jean Alesi was too far away to worry him in the final stages. Behind the Frenchman of the Sauber, fifth, there is Damon Hill, author of a remarkable recovery from the fourteenth place. In the parc fermé, Jean Todt is so euphoric that he even includes Ralf Schumacher in his warm group hug, as well as his two drivers. On the podium, Michael conducts the orchestra while the Mameli anthem is played, a gesture that will become increasingly famous over the years. It was an almost perfect day for Ferrari. At the press conference, the first question put to Schumacher was about his slow start, to put it mildly. Michael replies:
"Bad? Very bad, one of the worst ever. I had the impression of someone going for a walk, not a race. I said that this was the decisive moment but it all went wrong. I let the tyres skid and started off in slow motion while everything was happening around me. Then I started to chase. Luckily I soon overtook Villeneuve and Irvine, who helped me by not putting up much of a fight. And then off I went, behind Hakkinen and Coulthard, who were going very fast".
Then the focus shifts to the fight against the two McLarens:
"For a good number of laps Mika and I were very close. Then Coulthard broke his engine, which was good luck but up to a point. It was clear that he had a different strategy and so at that moment he could go faster and there were chances for him to be in trouble. It was a bad thing that break, because there was such a cloud of smoke rising from the engine that you couldn't see anything on the track anymore, and when I found myself behind Hakkinen it was a really bad moment. I couldn't even see which side of the track I was on and which side he was on. Hakkinen was going quite slowly and I thought he was having some problems with the car, so I was trying to speed up the time to overtake. Then he backed off a bit, put his wheels on the grass, kicked up dirt and dust. I mean, we both slowed down in that cloud but I think I was quicker to accelerate and get ahead. I managed it, and that changed the whole race. Hakkinen didn't make it easy but I wouldn't say he was unfair. It was a difficult situation, you had to gamble a bit. Mika also had problems, I could tell by looking at how he was anticipating the braking and where he was braking. It was clear that something wasn't working properly on his car. But I wouldn't call it luck, because overtaking in those conditions was very difficult and I think I was able to take advantage of the only suitable moment to do it. After the pit stop I wasn't worried at all because it's true that he was getting closer, but once behind me he would have had to overtake me and that was impossible. It was impossible because we had the same top speed, and if you are not able to go much faster an overtake is not possible at Monza. In any case, I tried not to let him get too close, I didn't want to mislead him, I knew he would never make it. Even I had difficulty lapping a Minardi, just imagine how difficult it would have been for Hakkinen to overtake me".
Finally, a special thanks goes to Irvine and his brother Ralf:
"I have to thank these two guys who overtook Hakkinen and are now sitting here next to me. They took points away from him that could prove fundamental".
And looking to the future, the German driver admits:
"There is no reason not to win the last two races. Unless we make mistakes, which we haven't done so far. But I think it's difficult to make a false step in the wonderful condition Ferrari is in now".
Away from the podium since July, Irvine does not hide his satisfaction for the double win in front of the Italian supporters:
"It's been a while since my last podium, I was starting to get bored with this negative trend. I had a good start, almost like the McLarens. I held well in front of Villeneuve, then Jacques had a problem and seeing that Hill was far away I slowed down. In the end, instead, when they told me from the box that Hakkinen was in crisis, I started to push again and I was able to catch him in a few laps. I am very happy. As Jean Todt also recalls, Monza was Ferrari's second one-two of the season after the one obtained at Magny-Cours. A very important result in the championship: with the ten points gained against Hakkinen's three, Schumacher reaches the Finnish driver in the drivers' classification with 80 points. For the first time this season, Mika is not alone in first position. The German's comeback, which seemed utopian at times, is now complete".
The sixteen points scored by the Scuderia of Maranello also sensationally reopen the constructors' championship, where McLaren now has only a ten-point lead.
"Yes, the championship is open".
Says Todt, who then goes on to remind everyone of the team's great progress:
"To come out of Monza in this situation some time ago was unthinkable. I am very proud of the team's work. However, we have to keep our feet on the ground, I have already said this several times since the championship began. We knew that Hockenheim and Monza would be difficult obstacles for us to overcome. In Germany we did badly, here it went much better: on Saturday we took pole in special conditions, and in the race we won after a bad start. I think the McLarens are still slightly superior. Now we're going to Mugello for three days to test new aerodynamics and suspension. We are ten points short in the constructors' championship and therefore we can also aspire to win this title. Everything is very open, it's up to us to play this great possibility. We are still and always first in terms of reliability, and this is a great weapon to look at the near future. We're on a level playing field, we're playing for everything. But McLaren is also playing for everything. I hope that in a fortnight time at Nurburgring the situation will be even better. We also have to thank Goodyear for the great progress with the tyres, and our engine specialists who are doing a great job. The best moment? The podium felt like a family party, with Michael, Eddie and Ralf".
Ralf Schumacher himself, happy to be able to celebrate on the podium with his brother, expresses his thoughts on who is the favourite to win the championship. His verdict seems almost obvious:
"Fantastic: together on the podium, it has never happened before. Hopefully this is the first time in a long series. Michael will now win the World Championship, I'm almost certain of it. And it would be wonderful if the decisive point turned out to be the one I snatched from Hakkinen here at Monza. I would like to thank everyone, including the Italian fans, who cheered like hell for me when I had Hakkinen in my sights. They gave me an exceptional charge. Now I understand how excited my brother must feel when he has all these people supporting him".
The Italian Grand Prix recorded a record of more than 13.000.000 spectators in front of the television, with almost 70% audience share. A figure that had never been reached in Italy for Formula 1. But the Schumi-mania also shocked Germany, where on RTL, the television channel that, among other things, has Schumacher himself under contract, over 11.000.000 Germans tuned in, more than 60% of whom were young people between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Hymns to Schumacher and Ferrari appeared on the front pages of German newspapers, with smug references to the fact that the famous Silver Arrows had finally been beaten by the national ace. Among the spectators who followed the race with passion was Avvocato Agnelli:
"I think it was one of the most beautiful Sundays for Ferrari, for its drivers, for all the men in the team and also for us passionate spectators. It was a fascinating race, one that you never forget because after a difficult start we witnessed an extraordinary comeback that only a champion like Schumacher could have done".
At home in McLaren the atmosphere is anything but happy. First Coulthard's retirement, then Schumacher's overtaking of Hakkinen, and finally the latter's going off the track, completed a nightmarish weekend for the British team. Mika reports on a day full of mixed emotions:
"The start was a really good one. I saw Schumacher planted and I burst out laughing to myself. As I passed him, I was wondering what the hell he had done. I'm very disappointed of course. Ferrari showed a more competitive set-up this time. As for me, I raced with the forklift after breaking down during the morning warm-up; I started to have problems with oversteer and balance. I started to have problems with the brakes from lap seven, and by the end they were hardly working anymore, so I went out at the Roggia. I was doing 300km/h at that point and it was impossible to stay on the track. I couldn't climb and ended up in the sand. While I was spinning I saw myself as a goner, with no points in my pocket. I managed to get going again, but with my brakes damaged I just wanted to get to the end and limit the damage. In the sand I thought: here I can't even get to the finish line. Luckily, at least I got three points. Now we are zero-zero, the team has to work hard, otherwise we risk sinking. But I remain confident despite everything. I'm sure we'll do a better job at the last two Grands Prix, especially as we'll be playing at home: in Germany for Mercedes, and in Japan for Bridgestone".
David Coulthard, who was the only one able to contend with Schumacher's victory, was disconsolate. The Scot also recounts the dynamics of his overtaking of Hakkinen, which took place with the team's approval:
"Dennis gave me the OK by radio. He said Mika had balance problems and shouted at me: go and bring home the ten points. I was convinced I could do it. The car was going great, then suddenly the engine started. It was a tremendous disappointment: I wanted to do the encore at Monza".
Ron Dennis can only admit to the great competitiveness of his rivals, but he also takes the opportunity to recall a decision he made at the start of the season that could prove decisive for the championship:
"I must admit that Ferrari is showing exceptional reliability. At this point I am delighted with the decision we took in Australia when we asked Coulthard to let Hakkinen pass so that he could win. Many people criticised us, but now those four points could be decisive".
In fact, despite Ferrari's exciting comeback, at the Nurburgring, where the Luxembourg Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the championship, will be held on September 27th, Hakkinen has his first championship point at his disposal. In case of success, in conjunction with Schumacher's failure to finish in the points, thanks to the best placings obtained (two second and one third place against one second and three third places for Michael), Hakkinen would mathematically be World Champion. With six victories apiece and eighty points, Hakkinen and Schumacher are preparing for a final rush in which the slightest imperfection will not be contemplated.
Davide Scotto di Vetta