After the memorable double win at Monza in front of 150.000 spectators, Ferrari can look forward to the last two races of the 1998 season with great optimism. Schumacher's victory in Italy, in fact, allowed the German driver to catch Mika Hakkinen at the top of the Drivers' Championship, with 80 points. Moreover, thanks to the fundamental contribution of the second driver Irvine, the Scuderia was only 10 points behind the McLaren-Mercedes, annihilated by the men in red on the Lombardy circuit. The words of the number one of the Rossa, Luca di Montezemolo, are a perfect summary of what is the satisfaction inside the team:
"This result is the best I could have assumed, it is the result of the hard work done by the team, a harder work than people can imagine. Let's not forget where we were, let's not forget the progress made by the tyres: they made a big difference in this race. And then I'm happy for that wonderful crowd at Monza, for those people who love Ferrari and who always follow us with affection. Yes, I'm really happy. Also because we dominated, showing great reliability on a track where we were at a disadvantage. The best".
However, the championship is far from over, indeed, in the upcoming Luxembourg Grand Prix to be held at the German circuit of Nurburgring, Hakkinen has his first match-point to bring home the first title of his career. As a result, Maranello should not be carried away by enthusiasm, and as Montezemolo says:
"We have to keep our feet on the ground, now more than ever. I've always said that we'll fight until the last metre of the race and I'll say it again. It's going to be tough, but we're in a position to do very well in the two remaining races. By now we have closed the gap with McLaren, at the beginning of the season I talked about the World Championship and we are fighting to win it with all our might. It's going to be a tough fight, also on a psychological level. But this one-two is a good message to our rivals. And it puts us in the ideal condition for the final".
On the evening of the day after the victory at Monza, everyone at Ferrari is back at work:
"Of course, the president also said it: work even harder. Then he added: if it is possible. I answer that it is always possible. For a very simple reason, because of a philosophy that we have been applying at Ferrari for a long time".
Says Jean Todt, who then adds:
"In life, you must always try to reach one hundred per cent, whatever you are doing. We are not one hundred per cent, so we still have room to work and improve. And that's what we are trying to do. There are two races left in the world championship and if we don't ride now it would be like throwing everything away. We started right away. The cars that came back from Monza went to the workshop and we shortened them up. In other words, we went from a long-wheelbase back to a short one. For the next race at Nurburgring, the long wheelbase is not needed. With these short cars we'll work at Mugello until Thursday; then on Friday Schumacher will be at Fiorano; Saturday and Sunday we'll set up the cars for the next race, Monday the test and then the departure for Germany. There is little time, but we will have more afterwards because there will be a month's break before going to Japan. And in that time it will be a sprint for us. Mugello again, then Barcelona. The programme is not yet defined in detail, but it is intense".
However, the major work will not be on the engine:
"No, what super-engine, let's get it over with. The engine is still the same, and it's not true that it has 20 extra horsepower. If only it were so easy to find horsepower by the dozen. When we get two or three more we jump for joy. The real problem is to continue to improve many small things, as we have done so far. We have to continue on that path. And without ever losing sight of reliability, which is our great strength. You can't make comparisons, because sudden failure always happens and it can happen to anyone, to us as well as to them. In any case, I would like to invite caution: wrong or not wrong, the McLarens are still very strong. I can do the math on our business because I know it well. So I say: what has Ferrari broken this year? Here's the answer: Schumacher broke the engine in Melbourne in the first race, Irvine had an electrical wiring failure in Hungary. That's it. So, when I say we've been the best so far for reliability, I don't think I'm lying. The chances are there, and we are going to win. That's all too clear. At the Nurburgring there should be a race of no difficulties. Schumacher did well on that track, even Ferrari is at ease there. We are improving, so it is possible to win on that circuit".
Between the Italian and Luxembourg Grands Prix, the teams have two weeks to carry out the usual gruelling test sessions. Ferrari chooses Mugello to work on aerodynamic innovations, and obviously on the most suitable type of tyre for the penultimate round of the World Championship, accompanied by more than 1,000 fans who came to see the tests and support the team with flags, trumpets, applause, and even an Irish tricolour, a tribute to Eddie Irvine. Other teams, specifically McLaren, Williams, Jordan, Sauber, Prost and Benetton, carried out their respective work programmes at the Magny-Cours circuit. Schumacher arrives at Mugello by helicopter on 14 September 1998, at lunchtime, after a flight on his private plane from Switzerland to Peretola airport. At the end of the first day of practice, after eighty-one laps, Michael admits:
"We're working well, we haven't had any problems. We're working on the set-up and the different types of tyres, and we'll soon move on to the suspension".
In any case, the first certainty comes from the first tests: in Germany, the F300s will run, as planned, equipped with the normal wheelbase. On September 16, 1998, during the second day of testing at Mugello, Michael Schumacher's main focus is on the starting practice, as his sprint at Monza almost cost him victory. However, at 12:30 p.m. a gearbox failure forces an early end to his day's work, which is also his last on the Tuscan circuit. His single-seater was pushed back into the pits and throughout the afternoon the mechanics worked on the engine. Needless to wait, at 5:10 p.m. Schumacher climbs into the helicopter and continues testing at Fiorano, while Irvine takes over at Mugello.
"We're going to Fiorano because the asphalt at the circuit is similar to that of the Nurburgring".
Explains Schumacher before setting off.
"What could make the difference between Ferrari and McLaren? The tyres, I have no doubt. that's why we insist so much on tyre testing".
Last year the fight for the title was with Villeneuve, this year with Hakkinen:
"Villeneuve last year had a very good car but throughout the season he made a lot of mistakes. Hakkinen made some too, but I think it's almost inevitable as we are human beings and so we can make mistakes. Maybe someone makes mistakes in the most important moments and someone else in the less important ones. But to understand who is stronger, who has more brains, who knows how to control nerves better, we have to wait until the end of the season".
While Schumacher rehearses at Mugello, Hakkinen strangely decides to rest because he seems to be tired. When the German is asked if this choice can be interpreted as an excess of tranquillity, the Ferrari driver replies:
"I don't know, but I understand that he is tired because I am too. But at this point in the season I don't feel like just letting the test drivers work. I want to be in the car because the moment is too important. After Monza I regained motivation, when you're up there you want to go even further. What people have to understand is that behind every driver there is a human being. I am very concrete in my work, but I also have my weaknesses and I also make mistakes. When my daughter Gina Maria calls me dad, I want her to speak to the man, not the champion".
On September 17, 1998, Irvine completes sixty-nine laps without any hitch, while Schumacher, at Fiorano, completes only forty-six, thanks to a long pit stop for an engine failure, working above all on the tyres. The next day, the German driver ended the test by setting the track record, after running with a new nose. Sixty-six laps in total, and a time of 1'00"700, which significantly improves the 1'01"310, which had held out since April. In the meantime, at Magny-Cours Ricardo Zonta, the McLaren test driver who lapped faster than everyone else, kept behind the main driver Coulthard, and another third driver and young promise from Williams, Juan Pablo Montoya.
The year before, with two Grands Prix to go, Schumacher was second, nine points behind leader Villeneuve, who had regained first place by winning at the Nurburgring, with Schumacher unable to fight as he was involved in an accident at the first corner caused by his brother Ralf. This year, therefore, fresh from the victory in front of his fans, the approach to the final rush is undoubtedly different.
Excluding the mocking retirement of last season, Michael boasts excellent results on his home circuit (two successes with Benetton and a second place in '96 with Ferrari), located a few kilometres from Kerpen, his home town.
Concerning the youngest of the Schumacher brothers, on September 22, 1998, the exchange of seats between Ralf and Heinz-Harald Frentzen was made official with a view to the 1999 championship, with the former racing for Williams and the latter for Jordan, after Eddie Jordan admitted several years later:
"Michael paid £ two million to terminate Ralf's contract and allow him to settle in Williams. I was happy to do it of course, it was a deal that pleased everyone. Nobody leaves Jordan without paying".
The founder of the eponymous team alludes to the fact that years earlier, after the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, Michael got rid of his contract to move to Benetton:
"Then in that case it was Michael Schumacher who did it, after years I took my revenge".
Ralf signed a four-year contract, which could be reviewed after the first two years, and will therefore team up with Alex Zanardi.
"Frank was mainly looking for a driver who would never give up, someone who would always try to improve his position. But he was also looking for a driver who was skilled in technical skills, who could help develop a competitive racing car".
Says Alex a few years later, who goes on to say:
"That's why he came to me, because in this era the engineers definitely have a lot of help from the computers, but it still takes the driver to give them the right direction to follow".
All to the detriment of Juan Pablo Montoya, fresh champion in F3000, who is forced to wait a few more years before making his Formula 1 debut:
"At the end of the season I was running as well as the starters (Villeneuve and Frentzen, ed.), I was the F3000 champion and everyone was giving me to Williams for '99, and I expected that too. But then they told me they were going to field Zanardi and Ralf Schumacher. Eddie Jordan called me and offered me a seat, but Williams reiterated that I was under contract to him. The final insult came when they asked me to go to Barcelona to help Zanardi. I told them I didn't want to do it, but they told me I had a contract with them. I went and obviously I was faster than Alex. And in Barcelona Chip Ganassi showed up with his manager Morris Nunn. That night Ganassi asked me if I wanted to race for him in CART. I told him I was tied to Williams, but he said: it's OK with Frank. Now, here's the contract. It says here how much you're going to get. No arguments, just sign here".
Returning to the subject of the hard-fought battle for the championship victory, a man who knows a thing or two about World Championships, having won (and lost) more than one, speaks out. Four-time World Champion Alain Prost, now team manager and owner of the team of the same name, during his extraordinary career as a driver won a World Championship at the last gasp in 1986, when he beat the Williams of Mansell and Piquet in the dramatic closing race in Australia, but he also lost one two years earlier by only half a point, to teammate Niki Lauda. Not to mention the stormy and unforgettable years of rivalry with Ayrton Senna:
"That's the beauty of Formula 1. A season opens under the sign of a single team and the games seem to be done. Then two or three bad days are enough, and you start from scratch. Seen from the outside, I'd say that this challenge sees, on the one hand, an excellent driver with what has on average proved to be the best car in terms of performance, and on the other, an established champion, considered by many to be the best of the moment, with a car that is growing race after race and which also has enviable reliability. I don't feel like making predictions. I'd give everyone a 50% chance. It's still a terrible challenge and you need a lot of strength to face it. There are too many unknowns and factors to take into account to choose a favourite: it's autumn, and we know that the weather is turning cold. At the Nurburgring on Sunday we could also find rain, and in theory the wet asphalt should help Schumacher. However, a race in precarious weather conditions can lead to surprising results. A lot will also depend on the tyres. At the beginning of the World Championship, Bridgestone had the advantage, then Goodyear caught up. However, for tyres, every race is a different story, and many things can change in just a few days".
Finally, the transalpine gives some advice to the two contenders:
"If I were in the place of one of the two contenders, I would not try to overdo it. It's logical to aim for victory if there is a chance of grabbing it, but you can also win the title just by trying to outrun your direct rival, staying ahead of him".
Once in Germany, Michael Schumacher invited the team to his own kart track in Kerpen, a chance to blow off some steam before heading into a potentially crucial weekend. The challenge with Hakkinen begins in the press conference, where the two logically enjoy the journalists' undivided attention. Judging by the standings, one would automatically think of a conference with nerves on edge and the pressure on the faces of the protagonists.
Instead, Mika and Michael appear more relaxed than ever, thanks also to the peaceful relationship that has always distinguished them. The first question asked of both is to find the strengths and weaknesses in their opponent. Schumacher responds by limiting himself to stating the merits:
"Mika is a very fast driver. If I can beat him it will be even better for me. He's very good."
At this point Hakkinen intervenes and jokingly says:
"Keep going, I like him."
Then, becoming serious again, the Finnish driver admits:
"Michael has already won two World Championships and these results speak for themselves. As for the negative issues, it would be too uncomfortable for me to bring them up. Maybe I'll tell them to him later."
After that, the strengths and weaknesses of the respective cars. Michael speaks first:
"Our strength lies in reliability. In the beginning we suffered from a lack of top speed, now we have a good overall package. We've won at different circuits, and been competitive at others. At Monza, for example, it was an unexpected triumph".
When it comes to reliability, in fact, the numbers bear out the German champion, who this season is the driver with the most laps completed: 822 out of 897. In this special ranking Hakkinen is fifth, with 737 laps completed. The Finn then says:
"We gave a few gifts to our rivals in the last Grand Prix, but we still have the best car. We have a good chassis, a very powerful engine and great tyres. I'm not worried about any problems with the car's handling. The team also has a lot of experience, because they have been in similar situations many times before".
"They went on well for a few Grands Prix, they seemed unbeatable but we slowly managed to get the best out of our car and in the end we put them in trouble. The truth is that they have an even better car than us but we have the stronger team, I mean the whole team has shown that it can perform better than them, and that's important. Then, our secret weapon is reliability, they still have to conquer that. That's why it's great to see how things will go. Mika is convinced that he has the best car and maybe he's right, but it will be my job to prove him wrong".
How to handle the pressure?
"I think the pressure is more outside than inside. I don't feel it when I drive. I do my job and I am calm. Sure, you might feel something in your stomach before the start, but as you go forward, you're just focused on the race. To be honest, I'm more nervous if I'm facing a football match".
Like Schumacher, Hakkinen doesn't go into too much detail:
"Formula One generally generates tensions of various kinds, about a driver's performance or the circumstances he finds himself in. If I look back, I think I've come through the difficult times well. You have to be confident in your talent and your means, but I can't hide the fact that there is pressure. The important thing is to manage it in a positive way. He's already won two world titles, he's already had this experience, and for me it's all-new".
"But no, having won two titles doesn't mean anything, each time the experience is new. He is very fast. It's a miracle for us to be where we are. Looking back, where we started from, it's a miracle. Nobody expected it, not even our rivals. But the car is still the same, nothing has changed, we have just worked well and we have a team that knows how to take advantage of all the circumstances that arise. But one thing is important: we have won many races and on very different circuits".
The test sessions seem to have satisfied both of them. Schumacher talks about how the team has managed to find satisfactory answers to the questions he was asking himself to tackle the Grand Prix; Hakkinen focuses above all on the tyre question, the choice of which seems to have satisfied him, but points out that it will be necessary to go out on track to confirm these sensations. Then, on the role that his teammates will have in this final season, Schumacher dribbles the question with a joke:
"I'll ask Irvine to stay away from my daughter when Gina Maria is old enough to do a certain kind of thing".
The entire press room laughs, and Mika smiles heartily, then turns serious and declares:
"One thing I will never ask of Coulthard is to throw my opponent out. Instead, I will ask the team to make the maximum effort for this race".
If in the general classification there are only two aspirants to the world crown, according to Schumacher the same cannot be said for the victory of the race:
"The situation in the standings is clear, it's a head-to-head race, but we have to accept that the others are also trying to do their own race, maybe trying to take some advantage".
In this regard, Hakkinen states:
"I will race, as usual, to win. It's an exciting situation, I'm looking forward to the track".
The two look at each other, shake hands. But Schumacher doesn't seem to have much desire for formality, a quick handshake and off they go. Then the photographers called for an encore and he replied:
"You could have been quicker".
But Mika stands up and extends his hand to Michael, who responds cordially to the Finn's gesture.
The Finnish driver's impatience to take to the track is satisfied the next day, Friday 25 September 1998. And the McLaren driver realises his great desire to race by setting the best time in free practice of 1'19"689, ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton and Jacques Villeneuve. Michael Schumacher didn't reveal himself, placing fourth at eight tenths from the McLaren. A gap that does not worry, especially because unlike Hakkinen, the Ferrari driver has not fitted a new set of tyres to go in search of a qualifying lap, but rather runs thirty-three laps with the same set. Michael was happy with his choice of tyres and was a candidate for the pole position.
At the end of the day, he went to the Benetton box to apologise to Fisichella, having obstructed him while he was in the middle of a fast lap, with the Roman forced to spin to avoid contact. For his part, Hakkinen expressed satisfaction but admitted that taking the pole would be very difficult. Moreover, he names Jacques Villeneuve as a third wheel. The Canadian, as defending champion, talks about the fight for the title:
"If you think too much about the scores, about the situation, about the importance of what is at stake, if you get too involved, you will arrive on the track completely cooked and risk making huge mistakes. Between the two, the advantage will go to the one who manages to stay calm. Hakkinen is supposed to be cold by nature, Schumacher has long exercised self-control. But all plans can fall apart if some mishap happens that makes you nervous. In short, you also need a bit of luck".
Saturday's qualifying session didn't start in the best of ways for Schumacher, who ran off the track on his first flying lap. Hakkinen, on the other hand, immediately took the lead, determined to win his tenth pole of the season. It was at this juncture that the Ferrari pits saw the arrival of Jo Ramirez, the McLaren sporting director, as well as an affable and polite man. The Mexican technician approaches a Ferrari executive and begins to take his pulse:
"You're under a bit of pressure, aren't you?"
Jo says, alluding to the surprise hit just pulled by Hakkinen, but the Ferrari driver replies, just as amiably:
"Unfortunately for you, Jo, only one of us will be happy on Sunday afternoon".
"That's right, so let's do this: whoever is happy will go and hug the other, OK?"
Halfway through the session, Michael pulls himself together and completes a lap of 1'18"561, eight tenths faster than Hakkinen's provisional pole lap. At eight minutes from the end, while the Ferrari number one was in the pits, Eddie Irvine surprisingly set a great time that put him in second position, behind his team leader, who was framed by the cameras while he was shaking his fist in sign of satisfaction for the result obtained by the Northern Irishman.
In the final Hakkinen tries everything, he even sets the partial record in the first sector with 170 thousandths of a second on Schumacher's time, but then the rest of the lap is not fast enough, and the McLaren driver stops three tenths from the best lap and a few hundredths from Irvine's time. The Finnish driver ends his qualifying in third position, ahead of Fisichella and Coulthard, only fifth.
Ferrari celebrated its second consecutive pole, the nineteenth in Schumacher's career, and the best qualifying in the season thanks to Irvine's unexpected second place. Among other things, two Ferraris on the front row had not been seen since the 1995 Belgian Grand Prix, when Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi were still at the wheel of the Red.
At the same time, for McLaren it was the worst qualifying of the year, certainly the least ideal moment for such a result. Leaving aside Schumacher's extraordinary time, the balance reigned in qualifying, as demonstrated by the fact that in just six tenths the drivers ranging from the second place occupied by Irvine, to the ninth place occupied by the disappointing Villeneuve, were enclosed. In the McLaren house, at the end of qualifying, fear emerges. The roars that greeted the Ferraristi's times, in a circuit that in its cheering chose Schumacher's Germany and not Mercedes', seemed like boulders on the hopes of the Anglo-German team. Hakkinen looks crushed and not surprisingly seeks consensus, not hesitating to throw his cap at the fans, without fear of the threatening surround of cameras and notebooks, just to sign autographs for the fans who claim him:
"A disaster, this qualifying was a disaster. I was never able to find the right balance on the car, I always had problems with understeer, in these conditions, with such an unstable car, it was impossible to push to the maximum. We have to work on the setup. The difference between me and the two Ferraris is all in the second sector, where there are a couple of corners that I can't take at full speed. I never expected to start on the second row. Now I also have Irvine in front of me, and if I can't get past him by the first corner, the race could get very complicated. I am worried because in the conditions in which I raced today, I could never have caught the Ferrari".
Coulthard, on the other hand, displays his frustration, declaring:
"After Spa, we went into crisis, I don't know why. The only certain thing is that the set-up doesn't work here and the tyres aren't very competitive. I agree with Schumacher, but even Irvine is ahead of us. And this is incredible, I don't think even he would have bet on it.
In short, on Sunday Ferrari seemed to have all the cards to win the Luxembourg Grand Prix, take another step forward in the Constructors' Championship and allow Schumacher to pull away from Hakkinen in the Drivers' Championship, going to Japan with an advantage to be managed".
On Sunday September 27, 1998, just like in Monza two weeks before, the Nurburgring circuit was sold out, with 150.000 paying spectators flocking to watch the penultimate race of an exciting championship. Even though this is Mercedes' home circuit, the vast majority of the spectators in the stands are on the side of Ferrari, and specifically the idol of the house Schumacher.
If Hakkinen's pessimistic prediction that the Ferrari was unreachable turned out to be right, only the rain, expected in the afternoon, could upset the cards on the table: therefore, Mika's greatest hopes of a comeback are placed in the strategy and in the competitiveness of the Bridgestone tyres. With grey and threatening clouds flying over the track, the race begins.
The two Ferraris enjoy an excellent sprint, in particular Eddie Irvine, who at the first bend finds himself in first position, followed by a Schumacher surrendering on the braking, aware of the fact that the position would have been given back to him in a short time. Hakkinen could not repeat his extraordinary start at Monza and this time he had to queue up behind the two F300s, followed by his teammate Coulthard, who took advantage of Fisichella's poor start to move up to fourth.
At the end of the first lap Irvine finished long at the Veedol Chicane, favouring the overtaking of Schumacher, who despite a start that was once again not impeccable, after the first passage on the finish line was in the lead of the race, ahead of his teammate. Michael immediately tries to escape, getting to be a second faster than Hakkinen, who in the meantime remains stuck behind Irvine. This is also since the two Mp4/13s have started with a greater fuel load than their rivals, and consequently take a few laps to lower their lap times.
When this happened, after about ten laps, Hakkinen was right on Irvine's Ferrari, which in the meantime was beginning to have grip problems with its Goodyear tyres. Eddie was skidding everywhere, jumping on the kerbs excessively, on more than one occasion ending up with two wheels on the grass, all this with Hakkinen behind him, eager to overtake as soon as possible to chase down his rival for the title, who in the meantime had accumulated a lead of six seconds.
Irvine was getting slower and slower, with Coulthard and Fisichella joining the fight. This played into Schumacher's hands, who increased the gap on his pursuers dramatically, at least until lap 14: at the Veedol Chicane, in fact, Irvine was surprised by Hakkinen, who made a furious braking move to which the Ferrari driver reacted with extreme delay. Mika took the second position and started to reduce the gap between him and Schumacher, recording fast laps all on the low 1'21", gaining on average half a second per lap on the race leader.
Irvine's suffering, however, had no end, because now behind him loomed Coulthard, Fisichella and even Alexander Wurz, with a Benetton that after a long period of dullness returned to the top of the classification. This is largely due to the Bridgestone tyres, which are proving to be much better performing and more durable than Goodyear.
It was the twenty-third of the sixty-seven laps planned, and Giancarlo Fisichella came into the pits for the first of two scheduled stops, ahead of Irvine and Coulthard in an attempt to take over the third position. The Roman, however, had problems restarting, thus losing precious seconds; an inconvenience that curiously his teammate Wurz also had, the following lap. Michael Schumacher makes his first pit-stop at the 24th lap, when his advantage over Hakkinen amounts to five seconds. The Ferrari mechanics' operation lasts 8.5 seconds, enough for the German to stay ahead of Irvine and Coulthard.
Having started with a greater fuel load, Hakkinen now has a series of laps at his disposal with an unloaded car and Bridgestone tyres still in excellent condition. The Finn lapped well under 1'21", delighted the crowd with a spectacular run through the last corner, and set sensational times thanks to which he gained an enormous advantage over Schumacher, who in the meantime remained stuck behind Jos Verstappen, who was not very responsive in stepping aside. Because of the Dutchman, Schumacher lost more than two seconds in a single lap, which proved fatal on lap 29, when Hakkinen pitted for his first stop.
The pit stop did not present any complication, Hakkinen left the pit lane at the same time as Schumacher, who for a matter of a few metres at the first bend found himself behind his rival. The German tried to exploit the cold tyres just mounted on the McLaren to regain his position immediately, but without succeeding. With an exceptional effort, capitalizing on the best of the lapped cars in the German's way, Hakkinen conquered the leadership of the Luxembourg Grand Prix.
The first phase of pit-stops does not help at all the Ferrari, which also loses the third position of Irvine to the advantage of Coulthard. Same for the Benettons, who allowed the home driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen to climb to fifth position ahead of Fisichella. A result that would be fundamental for Williams in the constructors' championship, where the British team is fighting for third place with Benetton and Jordan.
Schumacher meanwhile doesn't seem intent on letting Hakkinen get away. The Ferrari driver kept himself well visible in Mika's rear-view mirrors, even if he never tried daring overtaking manoeuvres. The logical thing to do is to wait until the second pit stop to do exactly what Hakkinen managed to do during the first stop.
Irvine's race was all about defending himself, in great pain even in this second stint, and threatened by Frentzen, Fisichella and Wurz in the fight for fourth place. The German driver of Williams pressed Eddie, but he made a slight imprecision that allowed Fisichella to get alongside him at the Vesser Chicane; neither of them let go of his grip so much as to remain side by side also at the last bend and on the main straight. Then, at the first braking Fisichella took advantage of the inside trajectory to climb to fifth position. He thanked Irvine, who breathed for a few laps, gaining a few seconds on the contenders for fifth and sixth place.
Fisichella's great manoeuvre was frustrated shortly afterwards, because because of an oil spot left on the first bend by the Tyrrell driven by Rosset, the Roman driver finished long and was passed both by Frentzen and Wurz, thus finding himself out of the points. With the passing of the laps, as already happened in the first stint, Schumacher starts to suffer from the Goodyear tyres, subject to an excessive degradation. Michael does everything he can to keep in contact with Hakkinen, repeatedly blocks the front tyres and ends up with his wheels on the grass on the way to the Castrol.
On lap 47 the pit wall of the Maranello team called Schumacher back for a second stop, a move made necessary by the fact that the Kerpen driver's times continued to rise. A choice that also seemed to be a winner when Hakkinen was caught up in the traffic caused by lapped drivers, just as Schumacher had been before. McLaren consequently took action and immediately called the Finn back for refuelling, which took place one lap after the Ferrari driver. The Woking team's mechanics were once again impeccable, completing the tyre change and refuelling in just 6.9 seconds. At the exit of the pit lane Mika is comfortably ahead of Schumacher by two seconds. For Michael now, the task becomes practically impossible.
Behind the duellists for the victory of the race and the championship, David Coulthard follows detached, third with about twenty seconds to manage over Irvine. Frentzen was fifth, while Fisichella benefited from the game of stops and moved up to sixth after Wurz. Ralf Schumacher was the one who took advantage of pit-stops more than anyone else, who ousted Benetton cars gaining the sixth place, but on lap 53 a brake problem ousted the Jordan driver from the race. The final part of the race did not offer any unexpected events.
Hakkinen calmly managed the first position, with Schumacher who resigned himself to the defeat running with six seconds of detachment from the McLaren. In the very last laps Hakkinen lifted his foot and allowed the German to reach two seconds, but it didn't matter. Thanks to a masterly performance Mika can celebrate the seventh victory of the season, beating in a crucial race his direct rival in the title race, who will go to Suzuka with four points of disadvantage from the leader of the championship.
Coulthard came third, allowing McLaren to mortgage the constructors' title: with 142 points, fifteen more than Ferrari, the Anglo-German team needed only one point in Japan to win the World Championship. Irvine ended a very complicated race for him in fourth position, ahead of an excellent Frentzen and Giancarlo Fisichella, back in the points after five races.
As soon as he stepped out of the cockpit, Hakkinen hugged his mechanics as usual, then, before leaving, he patted the nose of his Mp4/13, which had shone again after a dull Saturday. Afterwards, a rather amusing scene unfolded on the podium, with Ron Dennis running away and the Finnish driver chasing after him to shower him with champagne.
It was a race to remember for Mika, who put in one of the best performances of his already extraordinary season. A sort of early birthday present, given that the next day he will reach his 30th birthday. In the press conference, the Finnish driver recalled the problems he encountered on Saturday:
"We were in a bad way, qualifying didn't go as we wanted, but above all the car wasn't right. We worked hard and managed to change the setup for the better. In the race the car was perfect. I tried not to make mistakes, the rest was done by the team with a perfect strategy, with very fast pit stops that allowed me to get back on track ahead of Michael every time".
For Hakkinen it is a success that is worth a lot not only in terms of the classification but also on a psychological level:
"Without a doubt my situation has changed compared to two hours ago. This success allows us to return to the top of the standings, and also helps the team to prepare in the best way for the last race of the year".
In the first part of the race, with Schumacher in the breakaway and him stuck behind Irvine, it would have been very easy to fall into the abyss of frustration by going and committing a few silly things, but that doesn't concern Mika, who says:
"I was never really worried, not even when I was behind Irvine, and Michael was running away. These are situations where you just have to give your best, maximise your own and the car's performance to gain position. When I was behind Eddie, I noticed that he probably had problems with his car. He was going all over the place in every corner, so I took the first opportunity I had to overtake him. If Ferrari had won here, everything would have been bloody complicated. Luckily Irvine had brake problems and I was able to overtake him quickly".
Afterwards, however, Hakkinen's mood changed completely:
"During the race I would go into a state of anxiety at every lapping. I never spoke to the pits on the radio, I did everything on my own, because when you're fighting for success by tenths, all it takes is one misunderstanding to blow everything up. It wasn't just me, but the team showed they could handle the pressure, we won thanks to strategy. But it was a battle, a very difficult race. It was like being in Monte Carlo".
Hakkinen also remembers the disaster of last season on the same track, when both he and Coulthard, while in first and second position, retired due to a Mercedes engine failure. The German constructor in this case receives all the necessary praise:
"The team here at the Nurburgring was great, managing to solve in one night all the set-up problems we had on Saturday. But I dedicate the victory to Ilien, and I thank him for giving me a powerful and reliable engine, which has improved a lot after last week's tests at Magny-Cours. I'm happy, it's a fantastic day, even if a driver usually only realises the importance of a success when it's cold. Twelve months ago I took my first pole position at this circuit, and today I could have secured the World Championship. Beating Schumacher in a title fight is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but the battle goes on, and I'm not allowed to let go. Now we are celebrating, but it must be short-lived: there are tests in Barcelona, this is a crucial moment, you cannot do anything wrong".
Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, admits defeat and the superiority shown by McLaren, starting to talk about the first phase of the race in which he was comfortably in the lead:
"At the start Eddie got off to a better start than me, I could have risked a counter-take on the outside of the first corner but it would have been useless and risky, especially knowing that I would have had the chance to overtake him later on. As a result, I preferred to follow. Then he made a mistake at the chicane and I was back in the lead. Push, push, go, go. That's what they kept telling me on the radio from the pits. And I was pushing, pushing. That's why I was sure I would make it after the pit stop and stay in the lead. I pushed as hard as I could, I was also taking some big swerves, I took some risks and I didn't want to do that because to go off the track, then it would have been fatal. Still, I was convinced I would have made it, just barely. Instead, he just barely took the lead. I was stunned, out of breath, when I saw Hakkinen running in front of me. Because it was a very bad surprise, something I didn't really expect. How did it happen? I'm still wondering now. I came into the pits for the first pit-stop with a five or six second lead over Hakkinen: how did he get ahead of me? I don't know, I just can't understand. During the stop there was no mistake, we were as quick as ever. When Hakkinen passed me by a whisker I thought: there will be another pit stop and then I can overtake him. But then I realised it wouldn't be possible, because he was faster. The engine was fine, no problems. What I lacked, and I noticed it in all the corners, was traction, acceleration. On entering a corner I was gaining something, but on exiting it was Hakkinen who was leaving. That's why I couldn't follow him, let alone attack him. We will have to work on that now".
Finally, Michael tries to keep up the team's morale despite the crushing defeat:
"The other day I was so happy with pole position that I said I had a 50-50 chance of winning the championship. Now, unfortunately, that's no longer the case. I can't make any judgments, but the chances are much less. Anyway, we're going ahead, we're not giving up, we're going to do our best. If we lose this title as well, I will be very sad for myself and for the whole team. But as far as I'm concerned I'll carry on as before and better than before, rolling up my sleeves. Let's be clear about one thing: whatever the outcome, we've done a splendid job this year, one we can be proud of. We will go on and we will do even more".
Team manager Jean Todt also expresses his disappointment, explaining the strategic choices made:
"Of course, there is a lot of disappointment. The others won because they turned out to be stronger, but it was a good battle that was narrowly lost. Two seconds in sixty-seven laps is nothing. During the first stint Schumacher was complaining about the tyres and we had to bring forward the stop, even though he still had fuel. Unfortunately, in those laps Hakkinen gained a lot and went ahead. We hoped for some rain, but it didn't come. This was a crucial race for the world title, but the last word has not been said, although things are obviously getting more difficult. The situation is this: mathematically speaking, the two world titles are still open. But to win the Drivers' title at Suzuka we need the following result: Schumacher wins, Irvine comes second, and Hakkinen comes third or more. It is possible, but certainly not easy. In any case we are left with great satisfaction. We have 127 points in the world championship, McLaren has 142: all the other teams put together have less than us".
Overtaken on the track by Hakkinen and in the pits by Coulthard, Irvine pointed his finger at the tyres, just as Todt had done. Then, the Northern Irishman admitted that he had been unresponsive in defending himself from Hakkinen's attack:
"I didn't tighten up in the corner because I was convinced he was going to try at the next corner. He took me by surprise. There was little I could do about Coulthard, he was faster than me. Unfortunately the temperature was too low for us. The rain that came before the race cleaned the track, and left us with tyres right at the limit. Hakkinen had a great race, maybe the best race he has ever run. He was great, nothing to say, many compliments to him. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of things to try and luckily there is a four-week break, a very long time, before the Japanese Grand Prix. We will try to use it well. But so will the others".
But Eddie doesn't see Ferrari as an underdog heading into the final round of the championship:
"Fifty per cent us and fifty per cent them. One thing is certain: if we lose this battle, we'll lose fighting to the last".
On the opposite side, Ron Dennis is riding the wave of enthusiasm, who now sees the conquest of the World Championship, won the last time in 1991 by the late Senna, at a stone's throw:
"We had a difficult eve, but we were able to react. The race put us in an almost unassailable position for the Constructors' Championship, and gave Mika a great chance of winning the Drivers' one. I think this was one of the most exciting races in the history of our team. Tonight we will celebrate, but from tomorrow we will already have our sights set on Suzuka".
The final act of the season will take a month to complete. In between, there will be several test sessions to prepare for the season. Then, on November 1, 1998, there will be the showdown between Hakkinen and Schumacher, between McLaren and Ferrari.
Davide Scotto di Vetta