After the electrifying race on the Nurburgring circuit, host of the Luxembourg Grand Prix, the 1998 Formula One World Championship took an unexpected turn: after the qualifying on the historic German circuit, Michael Schumacher was in pole position ahead of Eddie Irvine, with Mika Hakkinen only third and disoriented by a Ferrari that seemed unbeatable. But the reaction of the Finnish driver and the McLaren arrived and they overturned the situation by winning the race, beating the Maranello team in speed and above all in strategy.
With the seventh success of the season Hakkinen got 90 points, four more than his rival Schumacher, therefore, in the last appointment of the championship in Suzuka the new 30 years old could limit himself to arrive second in case Schumacher should win the race. For the German the task becomes difficult, since, as mentioned, the success may not be enough to guarantee him his third World Title; Hakkinen must finish third or worse, while if the German finishes second Mika would have to finish the race in sixth position. If, on the other hand, Michael finished third, he would have lost regardless of his opponent's result. A few calculations make it clear that bringing the title back to Maranello will be a real challenge, as some of the most representative figures in the paddock claim. Damon Hill, for example, takes Schumacher for granted:
"Four points ahead is a lot with one race to go. If it's true that Michael may be able to overturn all the predictions, I don't think he'll be able to beat a team like McLaren on his own, which on average has been the best throughout the season. And then also Michael, it seems to me, makes mistakes when he is under pressure".
On the same wavelength Jacques Villeneuve:
"I don't see how Schumacher can turn around such an unfavourable situation. Last year he had a one point lead over me and he didn't manage it, this time his position is much more difficult because it won't be enough for him to win, but he will have to hope that Hakkinen doesn't place among the first two. It looks very bad for him".
Niki Lauda, on the other hand, focuses on the importance for Michael of having a car that is up to scratch:
"Schumacher is certainly the best at the moment, there's no doubt about that. If he had had a slightly more competitive car at the Nurburgring he would have won. But if Ferrari does not give him the fastest car at Suzuka his task will be almost impossible because he will have to fight not only against Hakkinen but also against Coulthard who will try to get in his way".
Alain Prost and Jean Alesi, on the contrary, remember that in Formula One everything is possible, especially if there is someone like Schumacher. The four-time World Champion underlines:
"The World Championship is not over. More than once it has happened that at the very last race someone has managed to overturn a favourable forecast. And if anyone can do it, it's Schumacher. Of course, he will have to make the most of every opportunity that comes his way. In Germany he could not defend himself: Hakkinen's race was exceptional, surprising if you like, as was McLaren's strategy, which learned well from Ferrari. It also seemed to me that the Bridgestones were slightly more competitive than the Goodyears. But since the best driver should come out on top in the end, I would still give Michael some hope".
The other transalpine, who has also passed through Maranello and is now at Sauber, says:
"The result at the Nurburgring was negative. But let's not forget that Ferrari's trend since the start of the season has been upwards. Now there is still a month to prepare for the last race. And I'm convinced that Schumacher will be able to make it, the fight is still on, let's wait to sell the bearskin before time".
In the meantime, Maranello is meeting to analyse the race in Germany and to plan the next few weeks in the best possible way, which will be packed with testing sessions in order to arrive at Suzuka in the best possible condition. From the Paris Motor Show, Luca di Montezemolo congratulated McLaren, but at the same time gave the team a boost, because although they will go to Japan as underdogs, it is forbidden to raise the white flag before time:
"What happened at the Nurburgring was a race decided by the seconds. Hakkinen did an extraordinary race: congratulations. However, we are alive and competitive, and this is the important thing. We hoped to win but races are always unpredictable, we don't feel inferior as a car and as a team: on the contrary, we have to win at Suzuka, it's imperative. If it is true that you can't have two without three, after Magny Cours and Monza I would like another double in Japan. I spoke with Todt and the drivers, I found maximum determination, we will fight until the last meter. We have a month of hard work ahead of us, with a lot of will and conviction to do well. Goodyear has made an extraordinary effort: it's just a pity for the way things went before Canada. Our goal, however, was and is to win the World Championship: we are not abandoning our intentions".
In the week following the Luxembourg Grand Prix, the teams met in Barcelona for three days of testing. Ferrari carried out experimental tests both on the standard car and on the long-wheelbase one, while McLaren, on the other hand, worked in Spain with Coulthard and at Magny Cours with Hakkinen. On the Catalan track, Alex Zanardi, the new Williams driver for the coming season, will be back to drive a Formula One car, teaming up with Ralf Schumacher. The German, however, is still under contract with Jordan, so he will have to wait until the end of the championship to get on board the FW20. At the end of the tests, the two-time C.A.R.T. champion gave the press his first impressions:
"I didn't think the car was so strange, a non-machine. It is less predictable than the ones I am used to in America, difficult to drive. I have to readjust to many things that have changed a lot during my absence from this world. Pleasant but also demanding".
Alongside him there is Juan Pablo Montoya, the third Williams driver, who is annoyed that the team has preferred the experienced Zanardi and Ralf Schumacher to him. He takes a stone off his shoe and finishes the session with a lap time that is much faster than the Italian. Michael Schumacher set the fastest time in each of the three days of testing, concentrating on the choice of tyres for Suzuka, and on which car to focus his attention, whether standard or long wheelbase. At the end of the tests, Michael declared that he preferred the standard version, which was better suited to the characteristics of the Japanese circuit. However, there is still time to continue testing, starting the following week, when the Maranello team works non-stop at the Fiorano circuit for six days.
"I will only make a decision on everything, from the tyres to the type of car to send out on track, once I have analysed every piece of data available. All in all, I'm satisfied with the results here in Spain, because Montmelò is a very demanding circuit for mechanics, aerodynamics and tyres".
Declares Schumacher before leaving Spain and enjoying a few days of rest, before resuming the gruelling test sessions at Fiorano. The McLaren doesn't match the lap times of the F300, but on the other hand it shows excellent reliability: during the last day of testing in Montmelò, Coulthard completed 157 laps, for a total of 750 kilometres, without any problems. The Scot himself, for the first time since he was completely excluded from the title fight, admits his role as the second driver in no uncertain terms:
"At Suzuka my role will be to protect my teammate. At the moment we are following two parallel paths, on two different tracks, to get as much information as possible".
The Woking team continues to work in parallel on two different tracks, namely Barcelona and Silverstone, focusing on component reliability and the final homologation of the latest version of the Mercedes V10. At Mugello, on 13 and 14 October, 1998, Ferrari had to deal with a small case involving Eddie Irvine: after the race at the Nurburgring, the Northern Irishman suffered back pains that prevented him from taking part in the tests in Catalunya. The problem stems from the fact that Eddie has short legs and long arms, which force him into an unnatural driving position. To deal with the situation, Ferrari prepared a new seat for him so that Irvine could return to the track as soon as possible. In the event of his absence, which is highly unlikely, it will be Luca Badoer's turn to take part in the last race weekend of the year in Japan. The driver from Treviso, who has not taken part in a Formula 1 race since 1996, does not say he is scared in the event of that happening:
"I know the circuit, I know the F300, after 1400 kilometres between Spain and Fiorano. It would certainly be a great opportunity. If it comes to it, I won't hold back. I feel I can honour the myth of the Ferrari brand".
Thanks to the rain that fell on the second day of testing, Badoer also tested the Goodyear wet weather tyres, completing 105 laps for a total of 300 kilometres:
"I feel satisfied because now I know that I can take the F300 to the limit even in the wet, where I achieved the same performance as Schumacher. I'm also satisfied with the handling. We have a new package that has proved to be very good in these conditions. It's a time when everyone has to play their part, and I certainly don't want to be the ball and chain".
Ferrari continues to carry out comparisons between the standard car and the long-wheelbase car, and further tests with the new Goodyears. Schumacher did 105 laps, Irvine 43. The German, driving the standard version of the F300, says that his attentions in this session are particularly focused on the tyres:
"I have dedicated these days almost exclusively to the tyres because it is from them that you can still get something out in terms of performance. I have lapped at Barcelona, Fiorano and Mugello and I think a good job has been done, thanks also to Goodyear who have been working hard to meet our needs. Bridgestone is also working with McLaren in Barcelona, we will see who has done it better. Next week we will also try some things on the car, but I cannot say which ones. In the meantime I'm going to rest for a couple of days in Switzerland, to relax with Gina Maria; then on Sunday I'll be in Kerpen, because on my kart track there will be the final races of an event reserved for eight ten-year-old children, and I'll have to be the one to award the winners".
However, the fact that the former Benetton driver tested for three days in a row using only the standard car suggests that the Maranello team has now decided to use this version for the final round of the season. Although the tyres were the priority, they also worked non-stop with the starts and some unprecedented aerodynamic solutions regarding the wings: the front one was modified by adding several deflectors, while the rear one with two advanced overlapping profiles. The following week, Schumacher, Irvine and Badoer take turns at the Mugello and Fiorano circuits for the last tests to be carried out. On Tuesday 20 October, the driver from Kerpen completes seventy-six laps at Mugello, stopping his time at 1'27"611, while at Fiorano Badoer runs ninety-eight laps, the fastest in 1'01"962. The test driver tested chassis no.183, which the next day, again in Modena, was also tested by Schumacher, who also carried out routine checks on the first three single-seaters to be sent to Japan.
"At this point it is enough, what is done is done, the best possible results have been obtained from these tests, the final impression is positive. I repeat that I am very confident and I would even say optimistic because I believe that the chances of winning the World Championship are good. I can't wait to go to Suzuka to verify these opportunities on the spot; I will leave for Japan on Sunday with my brother. I just need three days to get acclimatised, and by the fourth day I feel great. I've already imagined what could happen if I win and if I lose, the scenarios of the two opposite situations have already crossed my mind repeatedly. But it's not that I don't sleep at night, nor do I have dreams".
Says a Schumacher who, as has often happened in numerous races this season, the decisive factor will still be tyre performance:
"After so many tests I hope to make the right choice. The rest is ready and everything will depend on the final set-up of the car, i.e. whether everything is right. Why the standard car? For a number of reasons: this one generally gives us more guarantees. Compared to the Nurburgring we have grown, and at the end of the day we hope to have worked better than the others".
"What's done is done".
Says Schumacher at least as far as testing for the Japanese race is concerned, since in the week leading up to the Grand Prix, Luca Badoer continues to drive at Fiorano testing components to be used on the 1999 car project. At the same time, Schumacher gave a curious interview to the conservative newspaper Die Welt, in which he spoke about his family, declaring:
"I'm leaving Germany to save my children's right to a quiet life. They would be besieged by their father's celebrity status, persecuted and subjected to constant tests like Schumacher's children. Germany would be the worst place for my children to grow up. It doesn't depend on what the country is like, but on the name and my fame: they would live like people who are too famous, and that is too much stress, unacceptable. I will be able to return to Germany as a visitor, as a traveller passing through, but nothing more".
It is a painful decision for the 29-year-old Ferrari driver, who like his wife Corinna has deep emotional roots in his native Rhineland. Schumacher has been living abroad since 1991 when he moved to the Principality of Monaco, and for the past two and a half years has been living in Vufflens-le-Chateau, an idyllic Swiss village not far from Lake Geneva.
"It's a hypocritical world, and I don't want my children to have to come to terms with experiences that later on could lead them to lacerating dilemmas, to conflicts with themselves. I would love to be able to escape the fame and turn off the switch. If it was possible, I would gladly do without being Michael Schumacher. In the meantime, I have to defend myself by building a wall of incommunicability around myself, in the name of my privacy, and to many people that seems arrogant".
With only a few days to go before the start of the race for Japan, Maranello's technical director, Ross Brawn, reveals that the secret that allows the two McLaren Mercedes cars to make sling starts is not sophisticated electronics, but the clutch, the same one that Ferrari adopted during the Luxembourg Grand Prix, which, however, has a different method of use that the Red hopes to imitate in Japan. The Woking-based team has a clutch that keeps the engine speed within a set limit and proportionally adjusts the engine's power with the help of a start indicator, a procedure that reduces the temperature and unpredictability of the clutch at the moment of disconnection. As Brawn explained, however, the wear and tear on the materials does not allow the operation to take place again with the same precision.
On October 21, 1998, Schumacher continues the tests at Fiorano, while the rest of the Ferrari team completes the tests on the Mugello circuit, in view of the last and decisive Grand Prix of the season at Suzuka, with Eddie Irvine, who also simulates numerous starts, and runs a total of eighty laps. At the end of the work, the Northern Irish driver is very optimistic, declaring:
"I'm satisfied: we've done everything there was to do, I'm going to Suzuka calm and convinced that Michael and I can have a good race. The world title? We can win it, we have a good chance, but it doesn't just depend on us. We must also see what Mika Hakkinen will be able to do with his McLaren: anyway, we have also solved the problems related to the driver's seat".
After a month-long wait, the circus finally arrived in Japan for the last round of the 1998 World Championship, the venue of the Grand Prix that will award both the Drivers' and Constructors' titles. Certainly not without some minor hiccups, since the Ferrari group (fifty-eight in total) embarking for Tokyo from Malpensa on 26 October, was held up for three hours by the chaos at the Milan airport, while president Luca di Montezemolo was left without his suitcase because British Airways lost it.
Formula 1, as we know, is always looking ahead, as demonstrated by the fact that even though the season has not yet come to an end, preparations are already underway for the test session at the same Suzuka circuit, where the teams will be using Bridgestone tyres exclusively. The Japanese supplier will be the only one in the championship from next year, as Goodyear will no longer be present, having already announced its departure mid-season. The FIA, therefore, accepted the Japanese request to carry out tests with the teams that wanted to participate two days after the Grand Prix.
For the 1999 season there are other changes to the sporting regulations, including the maximum number of cars allowed at the start, i.e. 24, or the penalties: the Stop&Go, in fact, will remain at ten seconds, but if it is imposed in the last five laps, the driver will be penalised by adding 25 seconds to the time taken to complete the race. This decision undoubtedly stems from the events of the British Grand Prix, with the controversial ending that saw Schumacher cross the finish line through the pits, having to serve a penalty in the final laps. Returning to the tyres, on the other hand, the grooves on the tyres will increase from three to four, for a maximum width of the tyre that cannot go beyond 270 millimetres.
Finally, the removable seat is introduced, a further step forward for safety, after those already made after the death of Ayrton Senna, as Sid Watkins, president of the FIA medical committee, admits. The new device, which has been in force since 1999, makes it possible to immobilise, with a series of belts, the various parts of the driver's body to the seat, in particular the spinal column and the head, and then to extract him from the cockpit by lifting him up with four cables. This is a safer system than the current spinal splint, which is inserted behind the driver's back before he is pulled out of the car.
As mentioned, however, there is still one more race to go to end this exciting, wide-open season. To mark the occasion, Schumacher will make his debut in free practice with a new helmet, the new features of which are the luminescent silver that replaces the white that used to be the background, and the black band of the German flag, which is enriched with white chequers, so as to represent the flag symbol of speed racing. Ferrari has worked hard during the month-long break, as has McLaren, according to Hakkinen, who speaks of exceptional progress:
"Since the Nurburgring triumph I have had a very intense month, lots of testing, promotions. But I've also found time to spend a few days in Finland, at home: to relax, clear my mind and focus even more on preparation. Our tests in Barcelona? The progress has been exceptional. Reliability remains an unknown that you can never zero in a Grand Prix: I'm waiting for Sunday to see how it will go, but in any case we have all worked hard in McLaren. We are ready: everyone will give their best. It will be difficult, very challenging, but I am sure I can win, and I have total confidence in the team, the car, the tyres, the engine. I really can't see anything negative in the next Grand Prix. Obviously everything will have to work perfectly because there will be no more rematches".
The four points they have to manage over their rivals represent a considerable advantage, but Hakkinen stresses that it is not possible on a circuit like Suzuka to start on the back foot and aim for second place:
"Nobody knows what can happen in a Grand Prix like Sunday, on a track that allows overtaking but is very selective. However, I admit that starting without being forced to win is a situation that I psychologically prefer. The advantage I have in the standings is not huge, but I feel more comfortable in front than behind. For now, the strategy is to stay ahead of Schumacher. But Sunday could also change based on the results of the tests".
There are those, including Schumacher, who insist that psychological strength will be fundamental. An aspect on which, according to the hypothesis of the Ferrari driver, Mika would not be strong. But the Finn replies, saying:
"I worry about my mind. Because it's only from there that I can get the energy to drive at the highest level for the duration of a Grand Prix. And there is an area of the brain that is dedicated to concentration: a special area that can express enormous strength. That's where I draw my real chances of winning. Michael says I don't have strong nerves. I prefer not to answer and say what I think of him: it's too private a subject".
Woking team manager Ron Dennis also reiterates that Hakkinen will race to win:
"The only way to achieve a one-two finish in the Drivers' and Constructors' championships is to go for the overall win. To approach a Grand Prix you choose a strategy which, for us, is flexible up to three hours before the start. But already qualifying will be critical. A good position is decisive to put Mika at ease. Overtaking is difficult, and then a good qualifying allows you to adjust the car better. The strategy also has to be right, to avoid being overtaken in the pit lane. The perfect race at the Nurburgring makes me confident. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just realistic. Michael is a formidable driver, I have no doubt. Goodyear has improved his tyres without giving us a break. Ferrari has bombproof reliability. For our part we have worked well, the car has always been fast and after the last tests it is more reliable".
Ron dwells on Hakkinen's alleged psychological fragility, defending a driver who this season - but also throughout his career, if you look at his great return to racing after the frightful accident in Australia in 1995 - has shown few signs of letting up:
"Hakkinen is relaxed, anyone here can see that. He follows both a physical and mental preparation that has allowed him to have a high-level season, despite the great pressure and the enormous commitment between tests and races. Mika is in great shape. He can be glacial and focused. He doesn't lack speed. He is very determined: when he sets himself a goal, he pursues it no matter what, improving as he goes. He also has a very good relationship with the engineers, and he has helped to improve the atmosphere in the pit and the development programme. That's how we increased reliability and won eight races. Mika's method allows us to make both thoughtful decisions and important choices in an instant, both of which are common in Formula 1. He surprised me particularly in the last race: he was perfect. I admired his patience in insisting behind Irvine, without exaggerating or anticipating the overtake, which then came with a textbook manoeuvre, with a style very similar to that of Schumacher. Then the assault on Michael: when he created the conditions to overtake at the first stop, and no later, he was sublime".
For the special occasion, Japan is entirely covered with posters advertising the most important race of the year. Curiously enough, in spite of the tension for the title fight, it is not the faces of the two contenders for the title that are represented in the foreground, but the cars and helmets of the home idols Takagi and Nakano, respectively in Tyrrell and Minardi. A bizarre choice, justifiable up to a certain point by the Japanese pride in having two drivers in the top car category. In the usual press conference on Thursday, however, the four drivers who will necessarily be the main protagonists of the weekend are present: Hakkinen and Coulthard sit in front, while almost as if they wanted to represent the order in the classification, Schumacher and Irvine are behind. Michael begins by saying:
"I only have one goal: to win the race. The rest doesn't interest me, I can't do anything else. With Ferrari we have done everything we needed to do to prepare for the race. In this month of rest, in the tests we have carried out almost non-stop for thousands of kilometres, the car has made progress. Small improvements that we can't calculate, we just know that it runs better and is faster than before. The tyres are also fine, I think we made the right choice. But we don't know where our rivals are, so only at the last moment will we find out the truth".
"We worked a little less, focusing more on quality than quantity. I am very happy with the way things are going as far as our performance is concerned. I am convinced that the car will be faster than before. And then we have the support of Bridgestone, which has made further progress. I've also had time to rest for a few days, which isn't bad".
Then again Schumacher, convinced that his greater experience in such struggles will make the difference:
"I have already had several experiences, but each one is different. At the moment I am calm, maybe on Sunday I will become nervous, but this will not change the situation".
For Hakkinen, on the other hand, this is his first chance to win a Formula 1 World Championship:
"I don't want to think about it, I hope it's not the last one, in any case it will be better to concentrate only on the race. I haven't decided on my tactics yet, it will all depend on the situation".
Coulthard and Irvine will be secondary but fundamental protagonists: Schumacher, in fact, besides winning the race needs the help of the Northern Irishman, in excellent conditions after the worries for the back problems. Coulthard, on the other hand, has the task of acting as Mika's wingman:
"I don't expect anything special. Coulthard works for McLaren like me, so we both have to bring home the best possible result."
On Irvine, however, Michael declares:
"This is the track that Irvine is best on. He has already been very good this year in racing, and especially in setting up the car. He will do his best, as much as he can".
Those involved are asked what code of conduct they will adopt on the track, and when Coulthard says not to expect accidents, Michael intervenes with a veiled reference to the events at Spa:
"You of all people are talking about accidents?"
David shrugs, then concludes by stating:
"I have always behaved correctly, I have never broken the rules and I will continue to do so".
Irvine also claims to agree with his Scottish colleague:
"I also think it is necessary to be fair. But in this situation, if I am in front, Hakkinen will have to be more careful to overtake me. I, like David, have nothing to lose".
Friday 30th October 1998: the last free practice of the season. Montezemolo also shows up at Suzuka, in the pits from 10:00 am. After having spent a few minutes talking with Jean Todt, the Ferrari president gives himself up to the journalists, to whom he reveals:
"As soon as I arrived at the hotel, do you know who I met? Mika Hakkinen and his wife. We chatted a bit, especially about the Mille Laghi rally. But nothing related to the race, I just congratulated him on a good season".
Montezemolo talks about his meeting with the top management of Bridgestone, in order to define the agreements for the 1999 season, almost a formality to hear the president speak. On Tuesday there will be tests to get first impressions with the new tyres, but Montezemolo changes the subject, reminding everyone, if there was ever any need, that the championship is not yet over:
"What are we doing here thinking about next year? I don't give a damn, it's like talking about the moon. I came here for something else, and I think I was right to come here, however it will end. It's going to be tough, very tough. We couldn't have done more than this, being here to fight for the title at the last race confirms that our season can be considered more than good, never has Ferrari won so many points as this year. It's a shame about that bad start, on the evening of the Brazilian Grand Prix none of us could have imagined such a recovery and such an improvement, to be here now fighting for the title. We have had some unfortunate moments, many last beaches from which we have come out without drowning, we must basically be satisfied. Between satisfaction and unbridled happiness now is this race. Let's hope well, we are certainly competitive as Schumacher has just assured me. Yes, Michael will also need some help, we know that very well; there is Irvine in great shape and on his favourite track ready to give it to him, and maybe even his little brother Ralf or someone else. What more can I say? Come on, guys".
Energized by the presence of Ferrari's number one, Michael Schumacher recorded the best performance of the day, ahead of the two drivers who would swap seats after this race, his brother Ralf and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the former heading for Williams and the latter for Jordan. Irvine is fourth, Hakkinen is only fifth, eight tenths from the German's best time. The McLaren seems not to want to reveal its cards until the qualifying session; however, Hakkinen says he is satisfied with the many laps run and the excellent reliability shown, as well as an excellent balance, but he also admits that he could easily have been closer or even ahead of his rival, if only he had not found the Minardi driven by Esteban Tuero running along in the last chicane during his attempt.
On Saturday October 31, 1998, as never before this season, the title duellists did not allow anyone to interfere in their battle for pole position. Hakkinen took to the track just five minutes into the session, while Schumacher had just put on his helmet and was about to get into his Ferrari. The leader of the World Championship goes immediately fast, turning in 1'37"095, a second and a half faster than the absolute best time set in free practice.
Halfway through the session, Schumacher replied with a time of 1'36"769, three tenths faster than Hakkinen. Not content with that, Michael tried to deal the death blow to his opponent by further improving by half a second: with a time of 1'36"293, pole seemed untouchable. In the meantime, Montezemolo watches the qualifying from the pit wall behind Jean Todt and is filmed while he energetically shakes his fist following Schumacher's super-turn. At the end of the session Hakkinen tries everything, with Schumacher returning to the track just in case he needs to adjust his lap time.
The McLaren driver scored an excellent first sector, but in turn 9 he ended up with two wheels on the gravel, and so had to abort his attempt, resigning himself to the idea of starting behind Schumacher, who, warned by the pits of Mika's mistake, lifted his foot and returned to the pits. Hakkinen pays almost two tenths, while the two squires Coulthard and Irvine make up the second row, one second and two tenths and one second and nine tenths respectively. An enormity.
From the third row to the seventh row the two Williams, the two Jordan, the two Benetton, the two Sauber and the two Prost qualified in the order. A strange spell was broken in the eighth row, occupied by the Arrows of Mika Salo and the Stewart of Rubens Barrichello. Author of three poles in a row, Michael Schumacher made only the first of a series of steps that could lead him to win the World Championship. Despite the pole, in fact, the German remembers that there is still a lot to do, and above all, an eventual victory of the race is not synonymous with winning the championship:
"Needless to say, I would prefer a direct fight without having to do too much counting, but unfortunately that's how it is and we can't do anything about it. In any case, I don't have to think about that, but about how to win. We have our chances, we will have to try to be good enough to take advantage of them".
Michael will start up front, but Hakkinen sees the glass as half full:
"Second place is more than good enough for us. In the worst case I could be last, disqualified, or something like that. So I'm very satisfied".
There is one worrying statistic for Schumacher ahead of the race, and that is the number of positions the Kerpen native has lost at the start during this season: a good twenty-seven. It's a significant statistic that highlights the Ferrari driver's difficulties when the lights go out, and one that, as David Coulthard points out, will be something for McLaren to exploit:
"The idea is that Mika is leading at the first corner and I'm also able to pass Michael and go into second, which is possible given that some of his starts this year have been bad".
It is now 8 pm when both Schumacher and Hakkinen leave the circuit. Schumacher has dinner with the team, in the presence of the Ferrari president and manager Willy Weber, with just a couple of spaghetti and boiled vegetables, then goes back to the hotel, undergoes a massage session, and goes straight to bed.
The second spent the evening with his wife, manager Keke Rosberg and press officer Didier Cotton, having dinner in a restaurant before returning to the hotel. During dinner, a local middle-aged woman completely ignores the partition and approaches the Finn without restraint to declare her immense passion for him, to the point of having dedicated a macrobiotic restaurant to him. A little annoyed, Hakkinen invites her to leave him alone, and after finishing dinner he leaves the restaurant using a back door. It's 1 November 1998, and the last race of the 1998 World Championship is about to take place, which not only acts as the final curtain for the season, but also for some historic presences within the circus.
After thirty-three years of supplying racing tyres, Goodyear said goodbye to Formula 1, leaving everything in the hands of Bridgestone, with the hope of abdicating as reigning champion. On the contrary, there were 28 years of Tyrrell's participation in the championship, among World Championships won in the early '70s (three to be precise, one Constructor's and two Drivers'), and a slow decline made of few joys, like the last victory gained by Michele Alboreto in 1983 at Detroit, or the last podium in 1994 at Montmelò with Blundell, and many disappointments, up to this season, during which Ken Tyrrell's team didn't win even one point, and moreover it will run the farewell race with only one driver, Takagi, since Rosset for the umpteenth time failed to qualify, remaining out of the 107%. Having fallen into the abyss of mediocrity, the team was taken over by British American Tobacco and Craig Pollock, Villeneuve's manager, who with considerable investments aimed at creating a winning team, starting from the outgoing champion.
And Jacques is also saying goodbye, leaving Williams after three years of cohabitation. The British team is hoping for one last burst from the Canadian to conquer third place in the constructors' championship. With 35 points, the British team had to watch its back against Benetton, with 33 points, and Jordan, the surprise of the second part of the season, with 31 points. These are all topics that, however, take a back seat, because, as it should be, the attention of the whole world is focused on the first two rows, where the two McLaren-Mercedes and the two Ferraris are placed. In Maranello, fifteen thousand Rossa fans, regardless of the cold, gathered in the piazza at 5:00 a.m. to watch the race on the mega-screen set up especially for the occasion. A few minutes before the start of the race, Hakkinen kindly chats to ITV Sport reporter Martin Brundle as he pensively walks around his car:
"Right now I'm trying to concentrate as best I can for the start and the race, keeping all the emotions in my body under control, as they wouldn't help me that much at the moment. We are confident, we have a very good set-up and the tyres are working".
Worried about the risk of accidents or unorthodox manoeuvres?
"We are professionals, I don't think Schumacher will resort to unorthodox strategies, the whole world is watching. I'm sure it will be a clean race".
As evidence of the peaceful relationship between the two, before climbing into their respective cockpits, Schumacher and Hakkinen shake hands, as if to say: may the best man win. Everything is ready, the drivers complete their reconnaissance lap and reposition themselves on the grid. The traffic lights start counting down, but when the fifth light comes on, yellow flags are waved in the middle of the pack. As a result, the three yellow lights indicating the cancellation of the start also come on. Hakkinen reacts to the lights by releasing the clutch, as does someone else, but after travelling a few metres he stops.
What has happened? The V10 Peugeot of Jarno Trulli's Prost suddenly switched off a few seconds before the start. The driver from Abruzzo drew the attention of the stewards waving his arms and the whole starting procedure had to be repeated, with Jarno forced to start from the last position. According to article 147 of the sporting regulations in fact:
"In the event of an aborted start by a driver, a marshal must stand in front of the stationary car waving a yellow flag to signal the anomaly. All the other cars have to pass, then the stopped driver can be helped to restart, occupying the last position, which he will have to maintain at the next start".
A few minutes later, it's time for the second reconnaissance lap, at the end of which everyone returns to the main straight to begin the dance. In the few seconds before the lights go out, Schumacher's Ferrari jumps forward imperceptibly. A few moments later, Schumacher raises his arm, freezing the hearts of the men at the Ferrari pit wall, the fans in the stands and the fifteen thousand people awake early in the morning in Maranello or glued to the television. The F300 switched off. It would later be discovered that, when the clutch was released, the hydraulic system momentarily lost pressure, triggering the engine to shut down.
As with Trulli earlier, it will be necessary to do it all over again, and on the third warm-up lap in a row, Schumacher will have to let everyone pass, and then line up with Trulli to start from the last position. The endless test sessions, the perfect qualifying lap, the numerous strategies prepared for the race: everything seems to go up in smoke in an instant.
Hakkinen, even if he remained on the second box, practically started from pole position, ahead of his teammate Coulthard and Irvine, who had the arduous task of passing the two Silver Arrows at the start, hoping that in the meantime his teammate's comeback would take place as quickly as possible. At the third attempt the start is clean.
Hakkinen arrived at the first bend in first position, undisturbed, while his teammate Coulthard was overtaken by both Irvine and Frentzen. In the middle of the pack yellow flags are waved again, as Johnny Herbert is left stranded for a few seconds before he is able to start his race.
Michael Schumacher, at the end of the first lap, is already twelfth, ahead of Barrichello and behind Olivier Panis. The Ferrari driver is the author of a feline sprint, which allows him to gain several positions already on the main straight. In the upper zones of the classification, instead, Hakkinen was leading, followed by Irvine, Frentzen, Coulthard, Villeneuve and Damon Hill.
The Scotsman of the McLaren tried to get rid of Frentzen, clearly slower than him but however good at resisting the attacks; Schumacher, in the meantime, also got rid of Panis and Alesi, and after two laps he was tenth. On the German's way now there are the Benettons, evidently more difficult opponents than the previous ones. Michael, however, didn't seem to notice the difference when he overtook Fisichella first and then passed Alexander Wurz at the entrance of Dunlop Bend, an amazing manoeuvre favoured also by the Austrian's scarce resistance.
The Ferrari driver, eighth, saw Ralf's yellow car in front of him, who literally stepped aside to leave the way to his elder brother, seventh after a few laps, close to the points zone and twelve seconds from the leader of the race Hakkinen, who could not let his guard down as Eddie Irvine was just one second behind him. Villeneuve fifth, Hill sixth and Schumacher seventh.
The last three World Champions were within a few tenths of each other. If Ralf had stepped aside, the two world champions had no intention of making life easy for their old rival, with whom disagreements were not lacking even in this season. Michael made himself visible in the Jordan's mirrors on more than one occasion, both at the first bend and at the hairpin bend, but he just couldn't find a gap. In addition, a risky manoeuvre would officially put an end to the championship.
With Schumacher stuck behind Hill, and Hakkinen who, after about ten laps, started to lower his times and to move away from Irvine, the gap between the two contenders for the crown rose vertiginously, reaching thirty seconds. On the fifteenth lap Hill went to the pits for his first stop, leaving the track free for Schumacher who surprised Villeneuve at the hairpin bend, thus moving up to fifth position. At the end of the same lap Irvine stops and returns to the track always in second position thanks to the huge gap accumulated on Frentzen and Coulthard. In the meantime, Ralf Schumacher's adventure in Jordan ended sadly: coming out of the last chicane the V10 Mugen-Honda of the German driver exploded and Ralf left the car in a hurry with the rear axle on fire.
Having overtaken Villeneuve, in a short time Schumacher attacked Coulthard's rear end, unable to get the better of Frentzen. In order to overtake both drivers, the Ferrarista tried to undercut them by coming into the pits for the first of three scheduled pit stops. With a stop of 6.8 seconds, Schumacher returns to the track seventh behind Jean Alesi, but ahead of Hill. In the meantime Irvine sets the fastest lap of the race, in an attempt to steal Hakkinen's position when he makes his stop. When this happens, however, Hakkinen retains the lead of the race following a 7.3 second stop.
While Schumacher is setting record laps of 1'40 low, it is Frentzen's turn to make his pit stop, lasting almost ten seconds, which suggests that the German is on a two-stop strategy rather than three. In any case, at the exit of the pit lane Schumacher is ahead of him. For the Ferrarista this is another position gained, which allows him to establish himself in fourth position, twenty-six seconds behind the race leader.
The fourth position became the third after Coulthard's stop, who gained a position on Frentzen but lost it on the recovering Ferrari.
When twenty-one of the fifty-one laps were run (originally fifty-three but because of the two false starts the race was shortened by two laps) Hakkinen was still the leader, with six seconds on Irvine. Schumacher moved up to third position thanks to a fantastic comeback, after which Coulthard, Frentzen and Hill followed, closing the points zone.
Schumacher's impossible mission, however, was only half done, because it was right now that the most difficult part came: the two-times world champion pushed to get closer to the first two, without dispensing with making a few mistakes, such as a slight off-track at the chicane before the finish, or numerous blockages under braking that also caused blistering on the right front.
These efforts were in vain, as his and Hakkinen's race pace was almost similar; what's more, it should be considered that the Finn was managing and not forcing his hand. On lap 27, Irvine made the second of the three scheduled stops; back on track, Schumacher was immediately behind the Irishman, a couple of seconds behind, but without having stopped for his second stop yet.
With the race experiencing a stalemate, the only variant that might allow Schumacher to hope to fight for the Title is a Safety-Car or some technical problem on Hakkinen's McLaren. On lap 28, at the chicane there was a spectacular accident between Takagi and Tuero, with the Minardi driven by the Argentinean who rammed the Tyrrell of the home driver, flying away and landing in the gravel. The contact left numerous debris on the track, but in spite of it the Safety-Car intervention was not called.
At the end of lap 31 Michael Schumacher's sporting tragedy takes place: on the main straight the right rear tyre of the Ferrari explodes without warning, irreparably damaging the rim and suspension. After managing to drive the first corner on three wheels, Schumacher can only park the damaged F300 on the grass at the side of the track.
Michael sits, dark in face, on the wall at the side of the track, and for a couple of laps he watches Hakkinen pass him as he drives undisturbed towards his first World Championship title. When the McLaren pit wall told Mika about Schumacher's retirement, as he would later admit, the Finnish driver could not resist the impulse to start singing, because no matter how the race ended, he was the new World Champion.
At the Woking team's garage they are already starting to celebrate, even if to do it in the best possible way they have to bring home the victory of the race. On the other hand, Montezemolo tries to console the mechanics as much as possible, hugging and shaking hands with everyone, something that Schumacher himself will do once he is back in the pits. Hakkinen made his second and last stop two laps after the Ferrari driver retired, and returned to the track with three seconds on Irvine. The Northern Irishman, however, as well as Coulthard, is on a three-stop strategy, so, after stopping for the third time, he is twenty seconds behind the leader, while Coulthard is far away, at 44.
With Hakkinen in total control, Irvine began to gain a good three seconds a lap, but the victory of the new World Champion was never in doubt. On the last lap, Mika was already raising his finger to the sky at the last chicane, after which he crossed the finish line where his mechanics waved a dozen flags with the McLaren logo in celebration. Mika Hakkinen wins for the eighth time this season, winning half the races available, which is exceptional. Most importantly, he is officially World Champion.
Irvine finished second ahead of Coulthard, who completed McLaren's celebration, giving the British team the Constructors' World Championship, the eighth laurel on a par with Ferrari. In front there is only Williams with nine points. To complete the points zone there was Damon Hill, good in overtaking Frentzen during the last lap to take the fourth place, and to follow the two Williams, that with this result keeps the third place in the Constructors' Championship. Thanks to Hill, instead, Jordan overtook Benetton for the fourth place, marking the best result ever in Formula One for Eddie Jordan's team.
Once in the parc fermé, the first to congratulate Hakkinen is Schumacher himself, who shakes the Finn's hand and then leaves. Then Mika received a hug from his teammate, and finally Ron Dennis arrived to do the same. Before climbing onto the podium, the new World Champion runs towards the track, towards the last chicane to be precise, where there is a sector full of fans waving Finnish flags in the stands. Mika thanks them by kissing them and waving from a distance, then, still running, he is ready to go back to take part in the podium ceremony, where he cannot escape, let alone try to escape, the champagne shower reserved for him by Irvine and Coulthard. In the press conference, Hakkinen quickly reviewed his career, which, amidst many ups and downs, reached its peak this season:
"I don't know where to start to explain what I feel at the moment. Since I started racing in Formula 1 in 1991, it has always been a hard battle to get results, and now, together with McLaren, with whom I have been racing since 1993, we are World Champions. It took time, but we finally got there".
Mika then turns to the troubled start, and how much of a difference Schumacher's absence made when the lights went out:
"When the red lights start to come on, you are usually so charged up that your only thought is to release the clutch as soon as they go out. This time, at the first start, they didn't go out but the yellow lights came on, but I was so charged up that I started anyway. Without Schumacher at the front it was easier to manage this race than any other this season, I'm sure. The pressure was on from this morning starting in the warm-up. In the race, however, I was calmer and I managed the lead without too many worries. There's always a big difficulty in these situations, and that's maintaining concentration. Ten laps from the end, with the lead I had over Eddie, I almost started whistling in the car, and as a result it's easy to make trivial mistakes. It's a difficult circumstance to deal with: Ron would often contact me on the radio and urge me to stay focused. Don't sleep now, you're world champion but you also have to win the race, they said on the radio, so I went back to my normal rhythm. I realised I had won the title when David Ryan told me over the radio that Schumacher was out of the race. Then I saw the Ferrari parked at the side of the track at the second corner and I could hardly stop myself from shouting and singing".
Obviously, the thanks to the team arrived on time:
"The team has been perfect, we worked well even before the start of the championship, when we prepared the car by presenting ourselves at the debut in better shape than our opponents, and for this reason I was able to take a good lead, which proved crucial in less productive moments of the season. In any case we have always been at the top. Special dedications? To the team, and to all our partners. I think this was also a great day for Keke Rosberg, who has always believed in me and supported me."
Keke Rosberg himself, when asked about it, said:
"Hakkinen's victory makes me happy and is even more deserved when I think back to his terrible accident in Adelaide. He did well, but part of the credit also goes to McLaren who believed in him".
He already sees the start of a new winning streak, Ron Dennis, although he stresses that defending the world titles will be anything but easy:
"A new era has begun, after that of Lauda, Prost and Senna, for McLaren. We have changed style, colour, engine, almost everything. Unfortunately, I am convinced that it will not be easy to stay at the top for as many years as it has been before, but we will try. We have shown in the most difficult moments that we are a united team, capable of reacting in the best way to any problem. The decisive turning points came in Belgium, where we also had a bit of luck, and at the Nurburgring. We were coming off a heavy defeat at Monza and we could have lost our heads. On Saturday we were disorientated, on Sunday we rose again winning a very important race".
While in McLaren they are celebrating the return to victory in the championship after years of disappointment, at Ferrari's the problem experienced shortly before the start of Schumacher's F300, the inconvenience that in fact delivered the World Championship into Hakkinen's hands.
Ferrari says that it was a drop in pressure in the hydraulic system that controls the gearbox and clutch and that as a result created a malfunction when Schumacher pressed the clutch lever behind the steering wheel and engaged first gear; the manoeuvre failed and the engine cut out. Rumours circulating in the paddock, however, speak of an engine that was on three thousand revolutions, which was therefore idling and had to be kept higher. Ergo, the fault could lie with Schumacher himself, or with the electronic software that manages the system.
It doesn't matter, because what counts is the result, which for the second year in a row is unfavourable to the Red and to Schumacher. If in '97 the fight with Villeneuve had ended badly because of the accident between the two and the consequent exclusion of Schumacher from the championship, this time the German came out with his head held high from the hard battle undertaken with Hakkinen. In front of the journalists, Michael first of all congratulates his rival:
"I have to congratulate Hakkinen and McLaren. They worked better than us and it is right that they won. We weren't far behind, but we had an uphill start to the championship. On the second start, when I put it in gear, the engine suddenly cut out. We had done really well in qualifying and I had to start from the back of the grid. In a way I enjoyed it too, with all the overtaking. When I got behind Hill, he didn't make it easy for me, but I didn't expect gifts from Damon. The tyres were fine, even though I flattened the front right tyre under braking. I felt some vibrations and I was afraid that something strange would happen to me. I radioed the pits, to stop and change the tyres, but they said to go ahead, I should have stopped, I think, after three laps. Suddenly, without warning, the right rear exploded, damaging the rim and suspension, and I had to retire, which I regret because the car was competitive."
Michael doesn't believe the tyre explosion was caused by picking up debris following the incident between Takagi and Tuero:
"I don't know what the failure was caused by, I don't think I ran over debris from either of the two cars that had crashed in the chicane just before my problem. There were vibrations, but I kept pushing to recover. When you have one of those problems, there's nothing you can do. nI'm especially sorry for the team, for the guys who did so well. No team could have made the improvements Ferrari has made since the start of the season. The world keeps turning, we will reach our goal in 1999."
The German driver also draws up a personal balance sheet on his season, characterised by extraordinary performances such as in Argentina or Italy, but also by lapses such as Monaco and Germany:
"I'm not infallible, sometimes I make mistakes, but I think I give my best to my team at all times, from practice to the races. When you are forced to take risks, to recover, everything becomes more difficult. I am convinced that Ferrari is happy with my work, even if sometimes I don't manage to achieve what they expect. It's clear that this should not have been our year, because along with our mistakes, we have also had a bit of bad luck. Now we're starting again, but not from scratch. Ferrari is a reality. McLaren will remain the team to beat next year. I don't think there will be any more entries at the top right away. If we are able to start from the first race at the top of our game, we will be able to take our revenge. I'm sure we will."
Schumacher concludes with these challenging words, confident in view of the 1999 season.
A lot of bitterness as it is logical to expect also from Montezemolo, who eats his hands for the vanished pole position:
"Unfortunately yes, I cannot deny it, it was a crazy blow. Thank goodness I had already said that this Grand Prix would be a roulette. It was. But who could have imagined, I won't say predicted, what happened? Schumacher starting last. We had pole position, we had even set the best time in this morning's warm-up, he comes in first place and his engine dies. I don't know what happened, they tell me that at a rough guess it should be down to the clutch, but they still have to examine the car. It has happened before that Michael has had a bad start and I know that they have worked a lot on this problem, I know that Michael himself has trained many times at Fiorano, Mugello and elsewhere, but never before has the engine gone out. Unfortunately the rules are clear: whoever messes up a starting procedure then has to start from the back of the grid. I have no complaints about this, of course".
Although all seemed lost, the president admits that he always had a glimmer of hope:
"Even if it was in anger I thought: but you'll see he'll make an exceptional comeback, we can still hope. And so it was because Michael made a comeback that will remain in the memory for a long time, from last to third. But that's the way racing is, there's good and there's bad, you have to take it all in, you can't choose".
Losing the championship twice in a row at the last race is undoubtedly very difficult to swallow:
"I experienced the same situation twenty-two years ago here in Japan when we were leading the championship and lost it at the last race. It's always hard to swallow but then you do it because the world keeps turning and you can't go down, and I don't want to go down. Also for a reason. Let's face it: we lost but we are also the team that has grown the most over the year, you look where everyone else is, you look at the differences in scores. Thanks to the tyres, but also thanks to the effective work of a commendable team. We will win next year. We have all the cards to do it and one more that wasn't there this year, which is the tyres. Next year they'll be the same for everyone, so we'll be able to start going fast straight away".
After a defeat by just a few points, it is logical that the opportunities missed during the season take on greater depth, above all the defeat in Belgium:
"I must admit it was a very bad day. Of course we could have used those points, but we have to look at the championship as a whole. And so it is undeniable that we suffered in the first part, let's say until Canada, then it was a continuous crescendo of improvements, performances and results. With ups and downs, good times and bad times, but that's the way racing is, you have to take everything into account. Tonight we're going to celebrate anyway because all these guys have done an excellent job, with incredible dedication, they deserve a big thank you. And I'm sorry that the home team isn't here, they must have suffered because of this result, but they too have done a great job. The truth is that we have worked hard and well, and now is the time to know how to lose, swallowing a bitter pill but losing with our heads held high".
Like Schumacher, the president also congratulated Mika Hakkinen and McLaren:
"I gave them congratulations and compliments that I felt in my heart because it must be said that they also worked very hard and well. This morning I met with Ron Dennis, he came to have coffee with me. I wished him the best of luck and he got it. That's the way racing is, all it would have taken was one little thing for Hakkinen, one of those unforeseeable things that can always happen, and now we would be here celebrating the world title. But what counts are the points and they scored more, well done".
Finally, a thank you to the fans:
"I thank everyone for following us and for the strength they give us. I would like to tell them that we had everything to win, we lost with our heads held high but we will make up for it with their support".
Through its main figures, the Maranello team recriminates above all for the lacklustre start to the season when compared with McLaren, which in the first months of the championship benefited not only from technical superiority but also and above all from Bridgestone tyres that were clearly better performing than Goodyear. A handicap that also recalls Jean Todt, who just like Montezemolo and Schumacher, talks of a lost title at the start of the season:
"It's trivial to say that I'm disappointed, but it's the truth, I am and very much so. We knew it would be difficult to win, but the race was harder than expected. Michael couldn't take advantage of his pole position because of a problem with the hydraulic system, a drop in pressure. In any case, perhaps he could have taken first place but not the championship. We lost that at the start of the season, when we weren't as competitive as we wanted and needed to be. However, there are positive notes: our team now knows it is strong, capable of staying at the top. We have accumulated six wins and a points total that is an all-time record for Maranello. The new car will not be a revolutionary one, but an evolution of the current one on which we have accumulated considerable experience".
Is Villeneuve's Williams-Renault stronger or Hakkinen's McLaren Mercedes? Todt replies:
"I think the McLaren-Mercedes complex was stronger than the Williams-Renault complex last season. In '97 we had arrived at the last race with a one-point lead, and with twenty minutes to go we were champions. Here we were four points behind and things got bad for us straight away. So in my opinion it was harder to lose in Jerez than in Japan. Anyway, I want to congratulate our opponents. They are not all nice, but they are certainly strong".
Concludes the French team manager, whose task now is to make the team forget the atrocious disappointment in order to look forward to 1999, which starts already on November, Tuesday 3, with the tests organised by Bridgestone to allow the teams that until now have used the services of Goodyear to get a first impression of the Japanese tyres.
The next day, Michael Schumacher leaves the hotel after lunch, calm and smiling, and goes to play five-a-side football. The line-up consists of Schumacher and Coulthard together with Barrichello, a German friend of Michael's and a McLaren mechanic, against Fisichella, Giovanni Minardi (Giancarlo's son), Giulio Delfino, Alexander Wurz and Benetton's fitness trainer. The match, for the record, ended 8-12.
On the other hand, the misadventures of Montezemolo and Todt did not end, as they were forced to make a long, unplanned stopover on their way home due to a plane crash. At the end of the match, Schumacher, interviewed by the televisions, finds it difficult to speak, and when asked why he has this hoarse voice, the German replies:
"Maybe it's because yesterday, during that race and those starts, I was talking a lot on the radio with the pits".
But they point out to the Ferrari driver that he spent the night doing karaoke with your brother Ralf:
"What about it? Yes, we sang, but my voice wasn't working anymore, but we had a lot of fun. Look, the Ferrari mechanics aren't worldly types, they're hard-working guys who want to spend the evening in peace with each other, so last night there was no party. We ate at the Italian restaurant and then we went to the karaoke, not even all of them. Everyone sang there, there are some kind of booths where everyone sings on their own what they want, and Ralf and I sang. Until what time? I don't remember, we felt free and carefree, maybe we were late, because my brother is still asleep. It was a cheerful evening, we had a lot of fun, we made a lot of noise, I certainly beat Hakkinen at that. What did I feel at the second start? Do I have to be honest? I had a great desire to get on the radio and say to the pits: do something to stop this start as well. But then I realised it was nonsense, it was unsportsmanlike, so I just concentrated on the traffic lights. And this time it went well. The car is still there, I don't know if they've dismantled it, then in Maranello we'll see. These days I'm testing with the other one. Yes, of course, we'll have to see, but with that same car I got a good start and went well for all 31 laps. But there were no breakdowns. Something didn't work at the time, but it worked afterwards. Ours was an impossible mission, everything could not go perfectly. However, we didn't lose the championship at Suzuka, but in the first races: if we had done better then, everything would have been different".
This is the end of one of the most hard-fought championships in the modern history of Formula One, which paradoxically seemed already closed after the first six races, when Hakkinen, by winning in Monte Carlo, came to boast the beauty of 22 points of advantage over Schumacher, then third in the standings behind Coulthard. Then came the sensational and unexpected rise of Ferrari and Schumacher with three victories in a row, giving life to a very tight head-to-head, spectacular but never unfair, and exciting until the end. Schumacher's experience and talent were never enough to beat McLaren's desire to return to the top, Adrian Newey's genius in designing a car that was as fast as it was reliable - the main difference with the 1997 car, which tended to break down too easily - and Mika Hakkinen's extraordinary consistency: the Finn never made any gross mistakes, he was always focused, constantly humiliating his teammate, who at the end of the season had only one win against Mika's eight, and showing all those who claimed he didn't have any, exceptional mental toughness.
Yes, because those detractors had perhaps forgotten Mika's recent past, which was sufficient in itself to highlight his mental strength. From a rookie capable of beating Ayrton Senna in his first qualifying session at the wheel of a McLaren, over the years Hakkinen has also been able to show how fast he is, despite having a McLaren far from being the one that dominated in the days of Senna and Prost. Mika had to be patient in order to have a car that would allow him to fight for the victory; in the meantime, a terrible accident in 1995 almost cost him his life, but with a determination more unique than rare, he came back the following year and immediately went to the points, immediately answering those who suspected that such an injury could have taken away something in terms of pure speed. This is not the case, on the contrary the experience between life and death helped Mika to mature further, and in 1997 more than once he found himself close to the first victory in his career, only to be mocked due to reliability problems. After several attempts, the longed-for success arrived, although in particular conditions, at Jerez, with first Coulthard and then Villeneuve who gave up their positions in the last stages of the race.
After that victory, however, Mika never stopped and this season was his definitive consecration: eight victories, nine pole positions and six fastest race laps, for a total of 100 points. Hakkinen has bordered on perfection, he has reached a very high level of competitiveness that is difficult to maintain in the years to come, especially if your opponent is called Michael Schumacher. At the same time, however, having a rival of such calibre could be a benefit for him, a further motivation to raise the bar. The challenge between the two is only on hold for a few months, after which it will start all over again in Melbourne, in March. And it will be Ferrari versus McLaren again, Mika Hakkinen versus Michael Schumacher, at least until mid-season.
Not even the time to celebrate its new World Champion, that on November 3, 1998, Formula 1 was already projected towards the new season. At Suzuka, where the last round of the World Championship was staged, which saw Mika Hakkinen getting the better of Michael Schumacher at the end of a duel that went on for the whole season and fought point by point, the teams immediately set to work to test the Bridgestone tyres with four grooves also on the front (in 1998 there were three for the front tyres and four for the rear ones); important tests above all because after Goodyear's departure, the Japanese company will become the only tyre supplier of the championship. With one hundred and twenty-one laps covered in two days, the vice World Champion Michael Schumacher admits to being satisfied with the behaviour of the Japanese tyres, a novelty for Ferrari, until a few days before Goodyear's historical customer:
"The Bridgestone tyres I tried here satisfy me quite well. The Ferrari's performance has not deteriorated as we expected, indeed we have already managed to improve it with appropriate adjustments. The final test, however, should be in one of the three test periods already planned for December in Spain. However, these tests with the four-groove front tyres are important, because they were our first contact with the new supplier, and they allowed us to evaluate the behaviour of the front tyres with which we will be racing in 1999. It is impossible to compare Goodyear and Bridgestone immediately. The first feeling is that they are good tyres even if they have a harder compound, less grip than the old ones and consequently give a lower performance. For us it's more difficult because we've been used to working with the methods of Goodyear's engineers for years and now it's hard to get used to the Japanese ones. Unfortunately they only gave us three sets of tyres and that's not enough time to understand the differences from one brand to another. But we will move forward and I hope to do so throughout the year in good spirits because being bitter about the past is useless, especially not to change the past. I'm not going down, I'm heading straight ahead. Initially I was worried about this news. I still remember very well the disappointment I felt last winter when I tested grooved tyres for the first time. The car was difficult to drive then. It was impossible to do more than five or six laps in a row with acceptable times. This time, on the contrary, I can already assure you that the difference between the three and four grooves on the front tyres is not so great. Of course, Bridgestone will need to prepare front tyres with a harder compound to satisfy the FIA, but for now, the impression is good".
The fastest driver at the end of the test (even though he set the best time on three-grooved tyres), David Coulthard was rather critical of the new tyres at the end of the first day:
"Today I had the worst time since I've been in Formula 1, these new four-groove tyres are madness: the car can't be controlled anymore, it's difficult even to go straight: this will end up ruining Formula 1".
But over the next few days of work, his judgement softens:
"Bridgestone has adapted the tyres to the '99 regulations in an appropriate and technically interesting way. I leave Suzuka with the feeling that these first tyres will benefit from developments. They will fit like a tailor-made suit to our new car, which is already at an advanced design stage".
In Japan, there is also room for a curious little joke, which sees Jean Alesi running towards Schumacher, exclaiming:
"Faruk, Faruk, my friend, come here, I want to hug you".
Michael looks at him from afar, takes a look around and waits for Alesi. To the astonished Schumacher, the French-Sicilian driver tells the story of the Algerian newspaper, defined as governmental, according to which Michael and his brother Ralf (originally named Hassan) were not born near Cologne at all but in Bilda, south of Algiers, to a German mother and an Algerian father. At an early age, back in Germany with their mother, they would find another father who is Rolf. What is really funny in this matter is the fact that the Algerian newspaper, having made the sensational discovery after an alleged week of investigations, forgot to look at and publish the photos of the Schumacher presumed father, that is the aforementioned Rolf. The affair leads to colossal laughter, at the end of which Schumacher decides to give Alesi a new name, calling him Mohammed:
"If I am Algerian, I am German, what are you Sicilian?"
Funny little jokes aside, to learn more about the new tyres that will be available to all the teams for the 1999 season, we have to wait until December, during which three test sessions are scheduled, two in Barcelona (from 1 to 4 December 1998 and from 15 to 17 December 1998) and one in Jerez (from 8 to 10 December 1998). The sessions are not attended by the newly crowned champion Mika Hakkinen, who, after November, marked by celebrations and publicity events, leaves all the work in the hands of his teammate Coulthard and the young test driver Nick Heidfeld. Ferrari, on the other hand, put both its two regular drivers, Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, and test driver Luca Badoer on the track.
There was also a lot of work to be done by Williams, but not only in terms of tyres and the 99's car, as there was Alex Zanardi - who had emigrated a few years before to the United States where he won the Formula CART Championship twice - who, once back at the wheel of a Formula One car, had the absolute need to grind kilometres to regain the necessary confidence to push to the maximum, together with the other new Williams's purchase, Ralf Schumacher, coming from Jordan. Surely absent for the first tests in Barcelona are Benetton, engaged in the inauguration of the new wind tunnel, and BAR, a debuting team born from the ashes of Tyrrell. In addition to McLaren, Ferrari and Williams, Jordan, Sauber, Prost and Minardi will also be at Montmeló.
The subject of tyres remains the focal point, both because of an extremely hard compound requested by the FIA, which is not so much appreciated by the drivers, and because Bridgestone makes it known that it doesn't want to make crazy economic efforts that it cannot afford, going to produce an immense number of tyres, therefore asking the teams for a huge reduction in testing. If no agreement is reached, there is even a risk that the other two test sessions scheduled for December will be cancelled. At Montmeló, meanwhile, each team is supplied with just three sets of tyres per day per driver, rising to five if the team has two cars. These are new, much harder compounds, made to slow down the car's performance by three or four seconds a lap, but as mentioned above, the drivers don't like them. Some, like Coulthard, joke about it, saying:
"With these tyres I could run until July without stopping".
The times, however, at least for the moment, proved the FIA right, as Luca Badoer's best time on the first day was four seconds quicker than Hakkinen's pole in May on the same circuit (1'20"262). On 2 December 1999, the F300 is driven by Michael Schumacher, who takes four laps to record the best overall performance. The German, who during the day was to be the protagonist of an off-track at the Seat corner, as a result of which he slightly damaged the car, at the end of the day expressed his scepticism about the new tyres:
"In this situation the car is slippery and, as happened to me, all it takes is one gust of wind to lose control. Also, the aerodynamics are very disturbed and this prevents you from overtaking. Unfortunately it's the FIA's decision, and we have to respect it. We drivers have a different opinion, but it's obvious because for people who have never driven these cars it's difficult to feel what we feel".
FIA President Max Mosley dismisses the drivers' complaints, saying:
"Last year it was the same. The drivers complain, then in the middle of the season they are as fast as the year before. It's better not to jump to conclusions. The FIA wants to reproduce the same behaviour in the dry as in the wet: low grip. This will give an advantage to the best drivers, who will be able to overtake more easily, while the less skilled ones will make more mistakes".
On 8 December 1999, at the Hilton Hotel in Terminal 4 of London's Heathrow Airport, the top management of the teams met with Mosley himself and FOCA President Bernie Ecclestone. The hot topics were obviously the supply of tyres, the division of TV rights, and the calendar for the next season, with the Chinese Grand Prix, to be held at Zhuhai, ready to be postponed because the facilities did not meet the required standards, just as the cancellation of the Argentine Grand Prix seemed certain, due to economic problems. At the end of the meeting, Max Mosley took his leave of the journalists with a quick:
"Everything is fine, everything is going according to plan".
But the truth is that an agreement to approve a reduction in the number of tyres supplied, and therefore of the test sessions, has not yet been reached. There are those, like Ferrari and Williams, who point to the differentiation between collective and private testing, while those, like McLaren, espouse the policy outlined by Bridgestone. In the meantime, from London comes a heavy attack by Damon Hill against Michael Schumacher. The former World Champion, now at Jordan, gave an interview to the Times newspaper in which he declared:
"Schumacher works on the psychological aspect, he digs inside you with insinuations through the press. In 1994 he said I wasn't a top driver just before our final clash. He's always been like that: he knows that the more worried you are, the more you want to beat him. That year I had a conversation with him in the paddock. I told him he had a lot of talent. He listened, but I don't think he understood: I don't think he ever understands anything. Schumacher is there to win, no matter what. The difference between the Senna-Prost rivalry and the Hill-Schumacher rivalry is that I was never valued by my opponent. In '95 I almost finished my career, just because I lost to Michael. He feels like Goliath: he's full of disdain for his enemies, it's as if he's saying: 'Why are you putting these mortals in front of me? There's nothing I like less than arrogance. This year, at the Canadian Grand Prix, he said that I had tried to kill him by zigzagging while he was trying to overtake. All this in the race in which he had run Frentzen off the track".
Despite the uncertain situation, the teams go to Jerez anyway, where between December 10th and 12th, 1999, the tests scheduled by the International Federation take place regularly. Schumacher and Ferrari are the ones who produce the most kilometres, without running into any problems whatsoever. The two-time world champion concentrates on tyres and weight distribution, driving the standard version of the F300; it's Luca Badoer's turn to work on the long-wheelbase version. The amount of data collected is so much that Ferrari can forego the third test session in Barcelona, two weeks later.
In Catalunya there is instead the newborn BAR, whose debut on the track was originally planned at Silverstone a few days before, but it was then postponed due to Bridgestone's refusal to supply the tyres, as part of its cost-containment policy. However, before returning to the track, on December 12, 1999, the FIA organised its end-of-year gala in Monte Carlo. Among the main protagonists of the evening was Mika Hakkinen, who was called on stage by Max Mosley at the moment of receiving his trophy. The Finn watched the season's film in a religious silence, showing his best performances of the year: from his victory in Melbourne, through his success in Germany, to his perfect finale at the Nurburgring and then Suzuka. Then he received the trophy, kissed it, raised it to the sky and took his leave to the applause of those present. The new reigning champion explained to journalists how he had spent the last few weeks:
"I have just come back from a series of meetings with sponsors and advertisers. Having completed my commitments in Italy, I am going on holiday to the Caribbean. In these days I have slept very little, also because on Thursday we celebrated Keke Rosberg's birthday until dawn".
McLaren Mercedes team manager Ron Dennis, talking about his driver, says he does not doubt that he will continue to maintain the highest levels:
"Mika has improved a lot, he has matured, and we are sure that he will guarantee us many successes".
The next day, at the Autosprint Golden Helmets award ceremony in Bologna, there was a surprise waiting for Mika Hakkinen. With a blitz by helicopter from Maranello, Michael Schumacher first appears backstage and then on stage, to the delight of the many Ferrari fans who had come for the occasion. The two rivals exchange a smile, then venture a few words in Italian.
The former ventures.
The other replied. Before leaving, Michael tries to say a few more words, and although without supporting articles, he completes a meaningful sentence:
"Possibly next year a good year for us".
A simple phrase, but enough to send the fans into raptures. Hakkinen, on the other hand, although not in Italian, talks about the importance of becoming champion, and his expectations for the '99 season:
"Winning the world championship has changed my life, of course. But it will be important to keep your feet firmly on the ground: as a champion, it's easy to have everyone's attention, and you can lose your head. To avoid that you have to be hard on yourself. Next year the fight won't necessarily be just between Michael and me: apart from him, I'll certainly have to fear my teammate Coulthard. But there are other champions to watch out for: Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve above all".
Finally, regarding Schumacher's unexpected visit, he admits:
"Being rewarded by Michael surprised me: it was a fantastic gesture, a gesture of friendship that is good for Formula One, but honestly I hope I don't have to return the favour next year".
On December 15, 1998, the Supertec-powered BAR - an engine designed by Renault Sport, built by Mecachrome and sold by Flavio Briatore - made its debut on the Montmeló circuit, with Jacques Villeneuve, the first driver and secret shareholder of the team together with former manager Craig Pollock, taking BAR01 onto the track. A bitter debut, lasting just fifteen kilometres, because the car with Reynard chassis, McLaren-style nose and still provisional colours, after just three and a half laps has to deal with a gearbox failure. A disappointed Craig Pollock tells the press:
"These failures are natural because it's a new car, which is why we asked Bridgestone to let us test it last week at Silverstone. It's one thing to go back to the factory from there, it's another to do it a few thousand kilometres away".
Villeneuve was also visibly annoyed and lashed out at Bridgestone, just as Pollock had done:
"They have already made us lose a month and a half of work because the car was ready a week ago and now, if we lose these tests too, we will have to wait until January to solve the typical problems of the new cars".
On the second day of testing things are not much better. The Canadian's BAR lost its bonnet twice, and then the rear wing flew off. All this in just six laps. According to the team, the problems are due to the excessive vibrations caused by the 10-cylinder Supertec. The problems, however, are not only of a technical nature, since the main backer of the team directed by Craig Pollock, manager of the Canadian driver, is taking legal action against the FIA because he believes that the latter is limiting the freedom of ideas and action in making the most of British American Tobacco's sponsors:
"We have tried every avenue to solve this problem, which we consider vital, but the FIA has not offered us any chance to change this rule. So we have been forced to take legal action. I believe that our team has already demonstrated that it has done everything possible to become a serious and competitive competitor in Formula 1, so we intend to continue on this path to protect all our interests".
There was a slight improvement during the third day, with Villeneuve managing to run seventeen laps before having to stop again due to a radiator explosion.
"I drove the car for three days in Barcelona and I was thrilled. We achieved the fourth fastest overall lap time without making any special adjustments or looking for performance. Since in these cases it is the first impression that counts, I am very optimistic. I like the car and I am happy with the environment in our team. We work hard and with a very positive mentality. I think we will be among the major players in 1999".
Says the 1997 World Champion, who stopped at 1'23"360, seven tenths from the best time set by Ralf Schumacher, who up to now has been consistently faster than his teammate Alex Zanardi, who for his part is not alarmed:
"I would be worried if we were the slowest ever and I was going even slower, but that is not the case. I just need time to get to know the car and the team".
The last kilometres covered by the Formula One cars in December 1998 are characterised by David Coulthard, who takes to the track in the morning wearing a Father Christmas hood tied to his helmet. The Scotsman reminds everyone that it's time to call it a day for a couple of weeks and relax, before returning to Formula One in January, when the presentations of the new cars begin.
To put behind him the bitterness of a championship that could have gone the way of Maranello, the president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, during the classic Christmas dinner with the specialist press, decides to give space to irony:
"Next year will be transitional. After two seasons at the top, it's time to reflect. All in all, we have everything new in the team: Jean Todt, the car, the drivers, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, the engineers, the entire team".
Says the Ferrari president, to which the journalists respond with astonished faces.
"No, I'm joking. The aim is to be competitive from the first race".
Accompanied by a willingness to joke, Montezemolo gives the order to give away a Christmas hamper containing an object for each race, including a detail of the F300 with the label and the inscription:
"Engine bearing from the Australian Grand Prix, beware, it is indigestible".
To recall what happened in Melbourne shortly after the start, when Michael Schumacher was forced to retire precisely because of the failure of this engine component, accompanied by a plastic bottle of mineral water from Spa. But in addition to this, there are also three bottles of sparkling wine for as many pole positions, 133 Emilian tortellini (one for each point won), a piece of Parmesan cheese for the energy accumulated in the six fast laps achieved in the race, the one-two wins in Monza and Magny Cours celebrated with panettone-torrone and zampone-lentils (typical Italian dishes), and finally doli jams, mustards and fruit in alcohol to celebrate the six victories. A nice idea, with the hope that next year the basket can be filled only with pastries and sparkling wine.
"The opponents are strong. I always fear McLaren, but also a return of Williams. And we also have to keep an eye on Jordan with the Honda engine and Benetton, which I think has no intention of giving up. Rocco Benetton is young and needs to gain experience, but he will prove his worth. The Ferrari for 1999 will be an evolution of the F300, based on what we could do to improve it. It was already going very well at the end of the season. The engine will also be a step forward compared to the 047 that we will supply to Sauber. The car will be presented between January 27 and 29. We don't want to speed things up too much, so it's better to come out well prepared. On the contrary, the car won't go on the track straight away, but we'll be working on development straight away, so as not to make any mistakes".
And concerning the diatribe on limited testing, at the behest of Bridgestone, the chairman said:
"We will do all the tests planned with the other teams, but we will all also have two hundred sets of tyres available over the year, which we will use to work on the car as we please, on the tracks that belong to us, namely Fiorano and Mugello. We agree to the reduction in the number of testing days, but we want to have freedom".
The only controversial note of the evening concerned the use of dangerous materials in Formula 1:
"Beryllium, banned by the FIA because of its high level of harmfulness, went out the door and came back in through the window. They tell me it is used to make engine parts".
In addition to this, Ferrari has to respond to the heavy accusations made by former consultant Niki Lauda from Germany via the Bunte newspaper:
"It is a disgrace that Ferrari has with it what is undoubtedly the best driver in Formula 1, but cannot even give him a halfway successful car. Imagine that next year Michael, due to technical problems, fails to become World Champion. What would happen? That Michael will announce his move to another team, or even stop racing. Either way, from that moment on, Ferrari would start a rapid decline".
Then he is asked to explain, with his experience as a former Ferrari man, who he thinks is to blame for the Prancing Horse's long world fast. Lauda does not hesitate to point the finger at Maranello's team principal, Jean Todt:
"I myself brought Todt to Ferrari, so I know him well. And I can say that he is egocentric. He wants to decide everything himself, and he did everything he could to get me ousted from my role as advisor to the president. It's time for those at the top of Ferrari to make things clear for themselves and finally understand who they have to thank for Schumacher's failure".
However, on January 8, 1999, Jean Todt ignores Lauda's words, and talking about the new season declares:
"We have a strong team and it continues to work for us. Nobody leaves. We just work, one meeting after another to make this new car. The new Ferrari that you will see on January 29, 1999 is all new, you can tell by looking at it. It's longer, thinner and also lighter, but you can't see that to the eye. The regulations are now stable and there are no longer the worries of last year. The cars will all look more similar. And it's logical: when the rules change, in the first year everyone interprets them as they want, while now everyone will copy the best and all the cars will be similar. Ferrari has also been copied. Ailerons and many other things that we did well were seen and incorporated. But it's not a fault, it's normal, it always happens like that. And we didn't have a car to throw away. Then, let's be clear, it can also happen that someone invents something new, and that's normal in Formula 1".
Asked if it's true that Ferrari has made a completely new engine, Todt replies:
"Are you kidding me? Assuming and not conceding what you write in the newspapers, namely that Ferrari is full of money, are we crazy? Making a new engine every year? No, all we have is an evolution of the '98 engine. An engine is never the same, every time you go to the track you try something new and eventually things progress. That's the evolution. An engine that was great before, is great now, there is no reason to make a new one".
Davide Scotto di Vetta