The first team to present the single-seater that will run in the 1999 championship was BAR, which on the Epiphany day presented in Brackley, England, the BAR 01, which had already covered its first troubled kilometres in Catalonia. The doubts about the competitiveness of the team, which proposed the Brazilian driver Ricardo Zonta at Villeneuve's side, were not the only ones that Craig Pollock had to face during the first days of the new year.
The ex-Tyrrell's manager, in fact, does not accept the FIA's prohibition that did not allow the team to go on track with two cars with different colours for sponsor issues. Pollock would intend to colour the livery of Zonta's car yellow and blue, advertised by State Express 555, and Villeneuve's car white and red, for the Lucky Strike logo. Both are among the most famous names of cigarettes produced by British American Tobacco.
Despite the FIA's veto, the team threatens to take legal action, and on 6 January 1999, at the presentation of the car, the two different colours can be seen. Pollock admits that the team is looking for other sponsors (in addition to the cigarette logo on the liveries, only Teleglobe's is present), but stresses that if there is anything to worry about, it is the new team's finances:
"As far as funding is concerned, we are at the level of McLaren, Ferrari and Williams".
That is around 500 million dollars over three seasons, including the construction of the headquarters. Jacques Villeneuve unceremoniously ignores the controversy regarding liveries, claiming to be only interested in the competitiveness of the car, which according to Flavio Briatore:
"It will be the surprise of the World Championship. BAR has everything it needs to succeed immediately: money, drivers, vehicles. It reminds me a bit of Benetton in its heyday".
But the Canadian driver makes a point, without hiding old grudges:
"At BAR I feel great. With Williams I'm still on very good terms, at Ferrari I couldn't think less. I don't give a damn about how the Maranello team will do in the next championship. I would only go if I was asked, but for now it's Michael Schumacher's team".
After the presentation of BAR, on January 13, 1999, it is announced that Arrows changes ownership after the previous owner Tom Walkinshaw announces the sale to a consortium that includes Nigerian prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, who on January 28, 1999 makes himself known in the Formula 1 world by declaring:
"It's time Formula 1 was no longer the exclusive preserve of whites and I'm here for that. Motor racing has never attracted blacks, nor has it ever strived to do so. I've spent a lot of time at Formula 1 circuits over the last couple of years, at Grand Prix events, and I've never seen more of my own race. It's time for things to start changing".
On 16 January 1999, in the headquarters of Enstone, the new Benetton B199 was unveiled, born from the ideas of Pat Symonds and Nick Wirth, which as in 1998 will have at the wheel the young promises Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz. During the presentation, the twenty-nine year old Rocco Benetton, managing director of the team of the same name, let himself go with a very optimistic forecast:
"With this car we can compete for the world title, both of our drivers, Fisichella and Wurz, are capable of fighting for the top three places. The budget is in the region of $80 million, around 10% more than last year. Not including the wind tunnel, of course".
Benetton will have at its disposal a new wind tunnel, a futuristic structure that will be able to accommodate a car of original dimensions:
"This required an investment of around $40 million, invested by Ponzano (the parent company, ed.) and by Benetton Formula, which is a separate company. It's a very significant commitment that in itself demonstrates the Group's commitment to Formula 1. The new car is very innovative. This year, with the regulations now stable, there were two ways to go: either we could just make some adjustments to improve, or we could make an innovative car. We chose both paths. This car is very innovative because it has a very high technological content, which is the only way to stand out, to stay at the top. An example of this innovation is the braking system that we tested last year. It's the Front Transfer Torque system, which has a shaft that goes on the wheels to control the front brakes. Visually it's a kind of front axle shaft, but you can't see it because we've incorporated it into the aerodynamic suspension grille. Then there are the aerodynamic refinements and many other small but important details. Due to a series of unfavourable circumstances, we did badly last year. But we have learnt from those mistakes and we won't repeat them".
The technical director of the Italian-English team also speaks of a revolutionised car, with numerous new features, including an innovative transmission and front braking transfer:
"Last year we had found ourselves with new drivers and technical and managerial structure, and we could only prepare a conventional single-seater. This time our designers worked up to sixty hours a week, until Christmas. We're like the jugglers at the presentation, and we have to hope that the pins don't fall in Melbourne".
It's best not to venture too optimistic predictions, as Fisichella confirmed to journalists:
"After last year's championship it's better to keep your feet on the ground. What didn't work? The car and the engine, which haven't had enough development during the season. But also we drivers, technicians and mechanics were not free from mistakes. And there's also Bridgestone, which from a certain point onwards worked almost exclusively for McLaren. Now, however, I'm optimistic: the car has changed a lot and in the wind tunnel it has given us excellent results. Then let's not forget that we will all have the same tyres".
The Roman driver also said a few words for the returning Alex Zanardi:
"As a kid, when I was racing karts, he was my idol. I wish him a season full of satisfaction, as I hope mine will be".
On January 19, 1999, the new Ferrari-engined Sauber was presented, with Alesi and Diniz at the wheel, while on January 25, 1999 it was Prost's turn, with the four-time World Champion of the same name, as well as owner of the team, showing Barnard's AP02 to the journalists, and the new headquarters at Guyancour, just outside Paris. In the meantime, on January 25, 1999, the cancellation of the Argentine Grand Prix, scheduled for March 28, was announced, while the day before, 24 January, in Barcelona, it was Williams who allowed the car to be photographed by photographers.
A very long wheelbase, a raised nose that looks like that of the '98 Ferrari, reduced side pods but larger than those already shown by the new Benetton: this is the new Williams Fw21. Among the new features are the side deflectors that look like those on the McLaren, but even bigger, and the gearbox that changes from transverse to longitudinal. The colours are also new: the yellow nose turns red with a dash of white, then blue at the back of the car. Frank Williams declares:
"After '98 we wanted to change everything. The car was redesigned from scratch and rebuilt from the ground up, unlike others who are perfecting last year's cars. But watch out for Schumacher and Ferrari: this could be their year".
On the eve of the presentation of the new Williams, Zanardi also answers questions from journalists all over the world. For everyone, Alex is the phenomenon that has conquered America after the misfortunes of his first years in Formula 1, but the Italian driver wants to clarify:
"It's better not to raise the hopes of those who want me to be the saviour of the country. I've won a few races, Williams many, but no illusions. Ferrari and McLaren will be the protagonists. But after them there's Williams".
Meanwhile, on January 19, 1999, 500cc MotoGP driver Max Biaggi tested the F300 at Fiorano. Nothing serious that could shake the seats of the two drivers, especially Irvine, but just a sort of gift from Montezemolo to the Roman centaur, who joyfully accepts the chance to drive the Red. Biaggi completed fifty-seven laps, stopping the clock at 1'06"5, seven seconds off the track record. Not bad for a driver who is used to two wheels and who didn't go looking for performance, limiting himself to savouring every lap. Moreover, the time set by Schumacher a few years earlier was set on smooth tyres and an almost empty tank, while Max lapped on grooved tyres and with fifty litres of petrol on board, showing that the 250cc world champion was not doing badly at all.
"I couldn't afford to mess it up, I stayed away from the limit. Last night I couldn't fall asleep, I spoke to Schumacher on the phone, I felt like I did on the eve of the race in which I won the world championship in '97: agitated, ready to go straight to the track. I followed Michael's advice, started slowly and then pushed on. In the beginning I was driving with the bike in mind, but then I realised that I wasn't using all the power of the engine and so I let it go".
Max declares, perhaps mindful of the test that Mick Doohan carried out in his time with the Williams, destroying the single-seater. Then he remembers that it was a test for its own sake:
"It was a test, the gift promised by Montezemolo. Nothing else; and I still have the satisfaction of having had an experience that every Italian would like to try, that is, driving a Formula 1 Ferrari on the track, and of having been the first motorbike driver to do it".
The president, however, leaves a chink open:
"It was a fun test, but as we say in Italy, if they are roses, they will bloom. After all, there is already a precedent: with Surtees, World Champion with us in 1964 after winning on motorbikes".
Eddie Irvine's ears pricked up, and Montezemolo's words certainly didn't please him, because if there's anyone who will have to make room for Biaggi in the unlikely event that he decides to take this step from two to four wheels, it's him, certainly not Schumacher. During the usual week organised by Marlboro in Madonna di Campiglio at the end of January, on January 20, 1999, Irvine had some fun snowboarding, then gave himself up to the journalists by speaking in Italian, albeit in certain circumstances with big gibberish that made him even more likeable:
"I still can't read the newspapers, but my manager translates them for me and I know that the press is against me. But it comforts me to know that the fans are not against me".
The Northern Irishman talks about the offers he has received from other teams, but they have not convinced him to leave Maranello:
"At Ferrari they pay me well for results. If I don't get them, they can fire me at any time, my life is marked by this rule. But I want to stay at Ferrari, a fantastic team where I get better and better results every year. Last year was my best year, and Ferrari also had one of its best years, finishing second and very close to McLaren. We could have won the world championship and we deserved it, but they won it. What proved decisive was our bad start to the season, while they had an extraordinary car and better tyres. For this season, there are no tyre problems. As for the car, we need to maintain reliability but improve performance. Knowing Ross Brown and Rory Byrne, I think they will make a great car".
A great car that will hopefully give him the chance to win his first race in Formula 1, which despite his three years of experience in Rosso has not yet arrived, often because he has found himself in the uncomfortable role of Schumacher's squire, to whom he has had to give way on several occasions:
"I would like to win Grands Prix. But I work for Ferrari, which has to win the world championship and has to win it with Schumacher. So I have to respect this business necessity, I will help Schumacher. As I have already done many times: in four or five Grands Prix it was me who let Michael pass, otherwise things would have gone differently".
Obviously, also Schumacher arrived at Madonna di Campiglio, albeit a day late. At dawn on January 21, 1999, he climbed into his personal jet, landed in Bergamo, boarded a helicopter and finally descended onto the snow at Madonna, where he gave his first public interview and began by speaking sceptically - something he had already done during testing - about the new four-groove Bridgestone tyres:
"The grip on the asphalt has still been decreased. The result will be that when you approach another car to overtake it, you won't be able to rely on the wheels and you'll also lose aerodynamic grip. It's a big mess and it's the fault of those who didn't want to listen to the drivers' opinions. We've accepted a compromise which is not good and it's also risky because there will be more off-track and the spectacle will get worse. We drivers have our own opinions, but those in charge have different ones: that's why we will try to make ourselves heard. Right now Monza is adopting a special asphalt to absorb water better in case of rain. We will test it and if it goes well we will ask for it to be used at other tracks like Spa, Barcelona and Budapest. It's normal that I'm involved in safety, I'm directly involved and happy to be a stakeholder in the campaign promoted by the International Federation. I have never been fined for speeding, maybe just a few for parking".
Regardless of his doubts about the tyres, Michael is almost sure that McLaren is still the car to beat:
"Be careful though: it's also true that we are the opponents they have to beat. I don't think much of the other teams, even though surprises can never be ruled out. But nobody has engines like ours and McLaren's. We were ahead and we will stay ahead. We were ahead, and we will stay ahead. This year we should have a car that can win immediately, because that's the only way to win a world championship. As McLaren proved in '98".
Afterwards, Schumacher indulges in a few confessions concerning the ad filmed for FIAT, concerning the launch of the new Multipla on the market:
"I had a lot of fun. We spent three days at Fiorano shooting it while I was also testing. The other actors were working, and then I arrived to do my scenes. I'm happy, they're selling a lot of Multiplas. And I've also learned a bit of Italian. I'll tell you something: during my holidays in Norway I had brought a CD-ROM to learn Italian but, alas, I had no one to practise with. So I ended up learning a little Norwegian and I still have to perfect my Italian, but I'll manage".
Twenty years after the Cavallino team's last Drivers' Championship success, Schumacher believes this could be the time to end the long fast:
"We have everything to win, a great team, a great engine, a great chassis, great aerodynamics. That's my sporting wish for the end of the century for Ferrari. As for me, I hope to be able to spend more time with my family, who have another child on the way. Enzo Ferrari used to say that for a driver, every child is equivalent to an extra second per lap, but times have changed and today, for a professional driver, a family is a great comfort".
Finally, the German spends a few words talking about his relationship with Irvine:
"He has indeed helped me in several Grands Prix, I thank him. He has improved a lot in recent years and it could happen, especially if we have a great car, that he is leading the world championship: if that were the case, I would not hesitate to help him, because Ferrari has to win the title, that is the primary objective".
Responding to the words of Niki Lauda, who had declared that all the blame for Ferrari's lack of success lies with Todt, one of his greatest admirers, Schumacher said:
"There are many former drivers who talk in circles, without knowing the facts. They are not credible. Mr Lauda is completely wrong. In the last few years he has mainly been minding his own business and his contribution to our team has not been so important. The same applies to me: when I am no longer fast enough I will leave. This is a team sport and you cannot attribute any negative results to one person, even if there has to be a team manager. I am very disappointed with Lauda".
Villeneuve also never misses an opportunity to speak negatively about Schumacher and Ferrari. Why?
"Maybe he doesn't feel secure enough and thinks that as a team we are too good for them".
And there's even Damon Hill, who has written a book in which he talks more about the German driver than himself:
"It's true, I'm a gold mine for others. I should ask for a percentage of the takings to be donated to charity. Anyway, it's better this way, it means you're taken into account anyway".
A few days before, Max Biaggi had tested at Fiorano, and Schumacher spoke of the advice given to the Roman driver:
"I told him: get in and drive, don't worry about the stopwatch, you have to get used to the car, the rest will follow. Don't be in a hurry. And he followed my advice and did a great test. Me on his bike? Biaggi said yes, but the problem is that now I have to ask Todt's permission to test a bike, and I don't know if he'll give it to me: I could get hurt and ruin Ferrari's plans".
Niki Lauda's reply to Schumacher's statements, invited to think about his own business rather than that of Maranello, was certainly not long in coming: from Kitzbühel, in Austria, Lauda and Berger were among the numerous VIPs in the stands admiring the skiers in the spectacular downhill race. On January 23, 1999, the Austrian doesn't contain himself, and continues to talk about Ferrari and Schumacher:
"Either he wins the World Championship this year or never again. In 1999 Schumacher will reach the maximum of his performance, the apex of his capacities. And if at the end of the season Michael had to leave Ferrari, I think that Maranello, after having staked everything on the German driver, will do better to abandon Formula 1, because it will have to start all over again".
Moving from one controversy to another, on 29 January 1999, just a few hours after the presentation of the new Ferrari, there was talk again of Bridgestone's proposal to reduce the tests to a maximum of fifty days, divided equally between general and private tests; furthermore, each team could have a maximum of two hundred sets of tyres for those days. The problems arise when a top team such as Ferrari, which in 1998 managed to run one hundred and fifty days of testing, suddenly has to reduce the amount of work so drastically, and consequently slow down the research and development programme considerably.
Another unclear issue is that the Japanese company intends to continue the development of its tyres, and to do so, at the suggestion of the FIA, it should benefit from the performance of Ferrari and McLaren. If this is the case, it would be necessary to understand whether or not the tests carried out for Bridgestone will be added to the total of fifty days available, not least because the tyre manufacturers point out that the teams will not be able to work on their own cars. This answer is a bit too vague, because detailed checks would be needed to ensure that this does not happen, especially in a world like Formula One, where it is never wrong to think the wrong way about matters of a technical nature.
All this was discussed again inside the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow, where the team principals, Bridgestone and Ecclestone, reached an agreement based on the proposals made. So: fifty days of tests, twenty-five organised by the FIA and twenty-five private ones (like those carried out by Ferrari at Fiorano, or Williams at Silverstone), and a maximum of two hundred sets of tyres.
On 30 January 1999, the new F399 is presented in Maranello. If Benetton was talking about a revolution, the same could not be said for Ferrari, whose new car was an evolution of the previous year's project, the competitive F300, a single-seater that led Michael Schumacher to fight for the world title right up to the last race, winning six of the sixteen races held.
The most important changes involved rear suspension, improved weight distribution, an upgraded engine and a lower centre of gravity. In addition, the long-wheelbase, introduced during the 1998 championship, now became a constant. Aerodynamics is the sector that has been revised the most, and finally, it should not be forgotten that the F399 will have Bridgestone tyres, an absolute novelty for the Maranello team.
Separately, Gianni Agnelli arrives at Maranello in a Multipla driven by Michael Schumacher, Paolo Fresco on foot and in a blue jacket in the polar frost that feels like an Antarctic base, and then Paolo Cantarella, Susanna Agnelli and Luca Montezemolo in Siberian pinstripes without a coat. The marquees that welcome the seven hundred guests at the launch of the new Ferrari are authentic sheikh's tents, full of pinnacles, carpets and nice and warm. For the first time, the entire sports management, i.e. Ferrari's racing department, is present at the presentation of a new car. Over four hundred people work in anonymity but they are the true architects of Ferrari's success.
"I would like to thank the shareholders, for the honour they do us and for standing by us. And I thank the sponsors, without whom our technological progress would be impossible".
Montezemolo exclaimed at the opening of the ceremony. Eddie Irvine does not go into detail about the team's stated objectives, which are to return to winning ways:
"It's not the case to make predictions. Only at the Australian Grand Prix on March 7, will we know if we are really winning or not. I start with the objective of winning Grands Prix since I won't be able to win the title".
A statement that in any case reflects the reality, since Irvine is the team's declared number two. And Jean Todt justifies in case there was any need, why the hierarchies within the team:
"History teaches us that Schumacher is the strongest, and it is right that Ferrari is once again relying on him as the first driver".
He then points to a different start to the season from 1998:
"A year ago we were competitive from the sixth race, this time we want to be competitive from the first".
Michael Schumacher dares to say a few words in Italian, without launching into long speeches, as he did during his unscheduled appearance at the Golden Helmets:
"I am very motivated, the F399 has impressed me a lot as purity and clean lines. I have a lot of confidence".
A bit of Italian also from Ross Brawn, who said:
"We have been testing vital parts of the F399 on the F300, and we know that everything works. We don't expect any negative surprises".
Avvocato Agnelli also indulges in a comment on the new F399:
"It looks very nice to me, really. On the other hand, the people at Ferrari are very good, they always work very well. There are two world titles to be won, and we can finish first or second. Obviously I would prefer the first solution, but how can you say that now, so far in advance? But we can fight to win it, we have everything to do it. It's only been twenty years since Ferrari has won and that's a long time, we don't have to wait for the twenty-first because then the wait would be too long. With Schumacher we talked about many things, I wanted to know what he thinks about the new car, not the World Championship. Schumacher also wants to win it, that's natural, and there's no need to remind him. He has all the numbers to win it. I just told him that he has to be patient, not to get angry, to stay calm".
However, we have to wait until 5 February to see the new Ferrari in action on the private Fiorano circuit. After a whole day of preparations, the F399 takes to the track when the night is falling. Schumacher stopped the clock at 1'03"99, an interesting time even for a short test run, which was used by the technicians to check the correct assembly of the single-seater.
Meanwhile, the diatribe between the FIA and BAR continued, after the former threatened Vìlleneuve and the team directed by Craig Pollock with a heavy suspension. To discuss the case further, the British team is summoned to a meeting to be held on March 12, 1999, in Geneva, to defend itself against the accusation of having damaged the image of motorsport. The risks: reprimand, fine, suspension for one or more races, up to exclusion from the World Championship is, technically, just the team. In the event of disqualification, drivers would be free to race with other cars. However, this hypothesis is clearly not feasible. On the other hand, it seems possible that BAR could be stopped after its debut at the Australian Grand Prix. The team would be blamed for going to arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce over the issue of the double livery proposed for Villeneuve and Zonta's cars.
On 6 February, Ferrari continued testing at Fiorano. However, after only two laps the rear wing of the F399 flies into the grass at the side of the track, and in the absence of the 1800 kg that compress the car downwards, the Ferrari goes into a spin, controlled by Schumacher himself to slow down from 280 km/h and avoid further and irreparable damage. Schumacher leaps from the cockpit, calms everyone down and returns to the pits in the ambulance to avoid the unscheduled walk.
"Nothing to worry about, we knew that one of the two new solutions for the rear wing could be less strong than the other. We are analysing the situation so that we can continue working. The programme now has to be updated. It all depends on what we can do in the next few days before we go to Mugello".
Admits Schumacher at the end of the test.
"We had one very important answer. The others concern the base of the F399. When I pushed everything worked perfectly. It seems strange but it's good that this problem happened immediately. So we know how to work for the future, before Melbourne. Anyway, the strong wind is not the cause of the wing detachment. I didn't get scared. When a car is all-new, even if you push on the gas, you always have to be more careful. Also because problems like these can always occur. We have been criticised because we preferred to start setting up the F399 at Fiorano instead of going to Barcelona. If we had been in Spain, the wait would have been even longer. Instead, we'll do it quickly. Last year the same thing happened to McLaren and in this early season something similar happened to Bar and Benetton. That's part of the game: when a car makes its debut, every detail is taken to the limit precisely to put it under strain. Then you go on with the appropriate modifications because one thing is design theory, another is the track. In any case, given that in 1998 the McLaren that went on to win the World Championship was involved in the accident, we hope it will bring us luck".
A Ferrari spokesman also confirms what the German driver admitted:
"It was an experimental wing, an extreme solution that had not presented any problems in the wind tunnel. It's clear, however, that the actual stresses caused too much pressure. We were already working on a stronger wing for use on Monday, and we will now continue with this programme".
At the same time, Badoer continued to work with the old F300 on different solutions for the new materials to be used for the braking system, including discs and pads, completing sixty-six laps.
The next day, February 7, 1999, on the Montmeló circuit, under the slightly worried gaze of his wife Marlene, Niki Lauda tested, together with his sons Lucas, 20 years old, and Mathias, 18 years old, the two-seater McLaren, a car built on a normal 1997 chassis, but lengthened to carry a passenger, made available by Ron Dennis.
As diligent as ever, the three-time World Champion takes care of the car's set-up, then picks up a TV commentator for whom he works, then the two youngsters and finally Sonja Kirchberger, one of Austria's best-known TV actresses. At the end of the rehearsal, the passengers, one by one, get out of the car in a daze, with dizziness and strong feelings.
"He's crazy, I don't know how he managed to be a driver. Between the engine noise and the vibrations, I couldn't understand anything".
Mathias Lauda admits. Niki, on the other hand, shows his enjoyment:
"These cars are easier to drive than the ones I had in the race. But going fast, to the max, is still a problem as it was many years ago. The engine is extraordinary, very elastic, you could leave the pits in fifth gear. This two-seater has two clutches, one normal with the pedal, and the other on the steering wheel. I'm not stupid, so I used the classic clutch for the first few minutes and then I switched to the automatic. It really is a piece of cake, you just have to push on the throttle accelerator".
Talking about Ferrari, Lauda admits:
"My connection with Ferrari had been over for three years. But I continued to be friends. Now I have no agreements with other car manufacturers. It's just that Ron Dennis, the owner of McLaren, and Norbert Haug, head of racing at Mercedes, phoned me and said: 'For your 50th birthday, would you like to try our car? That's a good idea, I said. And they added: come to Barcelona and bring the family. At first I didn't understand, but then I remembered that there was a two-seater Formula 1 car. I'm very glad I did. I work for the RTL network and when I commentate on races, I didn't really know how these cars from the 1990s ran. Now I have a direct impression. Honestly, Ferrari had never asked me to test them, and I hadn't done so. Apart from once with an old 312T at Monterey, but that was a trip into the past".
Then, talking about the World Championship, Lauda declares that in his opinion only McLaren and Ferrari can fight for victory:
"The reason is simple. Villeneuve has a new team and nobody has ever won on debut. Williams is in a transition year waiting for the BMW engine; Benetton has no manager. Ah yes, there's young Rocco, but he doesn't seem to have much experience. So the math is soon in. Even if we'll have to wait until Saturday in Melbourne to get precise indications. However, I am convinced that I am right. Today the best driver of all is Michael Schumacher. But it must be said that Hakkinen is also very fast. The Finn also has a clear head now, he won't be racing with the pressure of winning his first race and his first world title. He will have an easier life, without too much pressure, he will have to think only about driving. For a driver this is very important. So Hakkinen will be even better than in the past. But I am also convinced that the German, on paper, is still the man to beat. Provided he has the right car to win. I don't think it's worrying that the wing broke at Fiorano on Saturday; these are accidents that happen. But time is running out and Ferrari had better be able to fine-tune their car as soon as possible. Then we'll see".
Also in Barcelona, and again on 7 February 1999, Minardi unveiled its single-seater, which had already been running at Mugello in the previous days. Marc Gené, a 24-year-old Spanish driver, will be the first driver, and without hesitation he declares:
"I'd like to win right away, but so far I've only done 20 laps in Formula 1, so I'll have to gain some experience first".
The car, named M01 has the appearance of a traditional car, but Gabriele Rumi, Minardi's major shareholder, says:
"Our technical manager, Gustav Brunner, worked on it for a year and also did six months in the wind tunnel. Wait until you judge us for what we can do".
The engine is a Ford of the type used by Stewart last year, updated and with Magneti Marelli electronics. As for the second seat, Luca Badoer, Shinji Nakano and Norberto Fontana are in the running. The next day Minardi starts testing on the Montmeló circuit together with McLaren, Jordan and Benetton. On the track, but at Fiorano, also Ferrari with Schumacher, after the new wing of the F399 was finished during the night.
On February 9, 1999, in Spain, without any grand presentation or spectacular ceremonies, McLaren-Mercedes presented the new Mp4/14, the single-seater which would defend the two titles won in the previous year and which, above all, according to technical director Adrian Newey, had nothing to do with the Mp4/13 in terms of the components used.
"We started work on this car in June last year in a British military wind tunnel, to iron out the car's flaws and optimise performance with the new four-groove tyres, although we had to slow down a bit every now and then because Ferrari was going so fast that we had to deal with the evolution of our car. We also got a new seven-speed gearbox and a different weight distribution. The result is the result of my project, but also the work of a very strong group. Everyone has copied us a little bit, but that's normal in Formula 1. We have also copied ourselves, but we have taken another step forward. This car is an evolution of the old one, but there's a difference: we haven't used almost any component from the old one because everything is new, everything has been rethought and redone. We've done a lot of work, even by eye you can see that this car is completely different. It has a low trunk nose, a lot of aerodynamic refinements, we've reworked the rear end, and we have a completely new Mercedes engine".
Square lines, huge baffles on the sides, and aggressive aerodynamic solutions. It's not on the track yet, but the new McLaren is scary just to look at. A confident Ron Dennis tells the press:
"It's the biggest change our team has made. But don't ask me for details, I can't tell you. We'll take a few risks, especially for reliability, but we're confident: we've won and lost enough in the past to be able to afford it. Hakkinen and Coulthard will start as always on equal terms, then we'll see. Today driving is easier, but you're always on the limit so you have to be just as skilful, albeit in a different way. Schumacher has the advantage of being pushed by his team and helped by Irvine, whom I respect because he behaves like a professional. But we prefer to have two forwards who know how to score goals against their rivals. The challenge for the title will be between us and Ferrari, as in '98, and it will be an open and hard-fought championship".
Norbert Haug, the Mercedes boss, is also convinced:
"Schumacher and Ferrari are our direct opponents. We have worked well, it will be an exciting championship. We have two great opponents, we will try to be worthy".
The figures put forward by Ron Dennis are impressive: McLaren employs 825 people, 350 of them in the racing team alone. But there is a continuous exchange between the various departments, from electronics to aerodynamics, from mechanics to the calculation sector. Not to mention the contribution of Mercedes, which has prepared a completely new engine, called FO 11 OH V10, smaller, lighter and more powerful, as declared by designer Mario Illien, who gives some figures: 2998 cm³, 72" V10, four valves per cylinder. The Stuttgart-based company, through Illmor, employs over 300 people at its English headquarters where the engines are built, but also has around forty technicians at its research centre and around twenty in the USA. It is a truly multinational company that also includes Italian engineers. Hakkinen is obviously very confident:
"McLaren has prepared the new car to make further progress. I'm sure it has succeeded. Does Schumacher say McLaren and Ferrari are on equal wings? I give my team a 60% chance of winning the World Championship. The title has changed my life and I will be stronger than I was before. Having the number 1 on my car will be an extra motivation for the team".
"I can also aim for the World Championship. Ferrari is nice, but our McLaren is better".
In short, both McLaren and Ferrari are convinced that the fight for the title will be reserved for their drivers, in all probability Hakkinen and Schumacher. The Finn to defend the sceptre, the German for revenge after the mockery at Suzuka. At the same time, despite the equal treatment between drivers guaranteed by Ron Dennis, unless there are impressive leaps in quality it will be a season as a wingman for Coulthard, whose contribution, just as in the case of Irvine, will be fundamental for the Constructors' Championship.
However, on its debut at the Montmelò circuit, the new Mp4/14 did not do more than half a lap. On the track in the early afternoon, David Coulthard was soon in tow due to an electrical problem. Later in the day, the car still managed to cover fourteen laps. At Fiorano, in the meantime, Michael Schumacher, at the end of one day of testing at the wheel of the F399, after 57 laps without any technical problem, is satisfied with the new Ferrari with which he will attempt to win the world championship:
"The car is an improvement on the one from last year. There has been an evolution of many details and the effect is a global improvement".
At the same time, Luca Badoer at the wheel of the F300, with the aim of testing components: the Italian driver completed thirty-three laps and then, at the bridge hairpin bend, he spun and ended up against the barriers. In the following days, Michael Schumacher completes another fifty laps with the new Ferrari F399, of which thirty-nine in the rain, after he had stopped immediately on 10 February 1999 for precautionary reasons, since, as Ferrari explains:
"A couple of parameters of the engine were not ideal for the programmed distance, waiting for a possible breakdown would have been useless".
The German driver, however, sums up the first kilometres covered by the F399:
"There are some small things that need to be improved, some adjustments, but we have enough time to do it. In any case, we already have a better car than we did in '98. It's much faster, you only have to compare the times of now with those of then to see the difference".
And on the Bridgestone tyres he says:
"Coming from Goodyear I can say that these are very good, without a doubt Bridgestone is working well. But the FIA won't allow them to work even harder to make us go faster, they want the speed to be limited. Anyway, the situation will be the same for everyone this year; there will be circuits where the influence of the tyres will be felt more and others less. We will see".
Michael, however, does not want to make predictions, he just repeats the phrases already heard during the previous months, namely that it will be a challenge McLaren against Ferrari:
"Predictions? It would be better to ask me the weather forecast, it would be easier to answer. It will certainly be a great battle between Ferrari and McLaren, but I don't know who will be in front. Without a doubt our car has great potential, but this is a sport and you can never say with certainty what will happen".
All this, while in Barcelona the new McLaren continues to grow. Hakkinen with the MP4/14, in the tests in Spain, was the fastest with a time of 1'21"26, beating his teammate Coulthard at the wheel of the '98 car by three tenths. But there were also excellent performances by Wurz (Benetton) in 1'21"55 and Alesi (Sauber) 1'22"22. From these first tests on the Montmelò circuit, for the moment, a substantial balance between different cars is evident, a good omen for a hard-fought World Championship.
In the meantime, in Spain it becomes clear that Todt has decided to move the work of Schumacher and the F399 to the Catalan track on February 13 and 14, 1999, as in Italy it would have been impossible to proceed due to bad weather. For this reason, the other teams, as soon as they heard of the French manager's decision, decided to stay.
While waiting for this important confrontation, on February 11, 1999, during the return flight by private plane (a Canadair-challenger) from Maranello to Geneva, Schumacher, in the company of the pilots and his physiotherapist, Baibir Singh, almost feared for his life when the inside of the plane was invaded by a cloud of dense grey smoke, a few minutes after take-off. The fright did not last long, as it was soon discovered that the failure was caused by the engine's coolant leaking into the ventilation system, causing the smoke; evidently, by mistake, the airport ground staff had also injected the cabin's pressurisation air intakes. The problem was solved immediately, but for Michael it was an adrenalin rush mixed with fear that he would have gladly spared himself. The pilot told reporters from the German newspaper Bild:
"We had just taken off from Bologna, the bad weather had forced us to interrupt the Ferrari tests, so I decided to enjoy the forced break by joining the family at home. But suddenly smoke began to gather in the cabin. Baibir and I looked into each other's eyes, and I was terribly afraid. I immediately remembered that the smoke in the cabin had been the start of the Swissair three-engine plane disaster that claimed 229 lives in September".
In Barcelona, Schumacher completed 68 laps and Coulthard 73, who returned to the pits on the last lap with a blocked gearbox.
Michael's best lap time was also good: 1'22"29, just 36 hundredths behind Coulthard's McLaren MP4/14 (1'21"93), which has been running on the Catalan track for five days now.
One thing is striking when you look at the Ferrari, as it is full of thermo-tapes, marking the temperatures reached by every part of the car: suspension, gearbox, radiators, pipes, and parts of the chassis are covered by these strips, accompanied by a hundred or so thermometric sensors and lasers to measure the temperatures in and around the radiators, on the brake discs, on the calipers and even on Schumacher's seat. At the end of the second day of testing, Michael leaves the Montmeló circuit with a sense of intimate satisfaction: the direct confrontation with the Woking team is reassuring.
"Everything is going well. We've identified areas for development. We have a few things ready that can bring us down 1-2 tenths. Our fault? I felt the engine failing and preferred to stop. The technicians have figured out what it is, it should be a minor problem."
The second round of three-way testing (Ferrari with Schumacher, McLaren with Hakkinen, Benetton with Fisichella) is a challenge on the edge of reliability.
And in this sense, even Ferrari's Sunday seemed to start badly, after the German driver, entering the track, felt the engine lose power, turned it off and parked less than half a kilometre from the pits. As a precaution, the Maranello team decides to replace the engine on the F399, while the Finn runs laps, the fastest of which (1'21"59) on new tyres and who knows how many litres of petrol on board. Michael starts working at noon, but from this moment he completes eighty-one laps, the best of which (1'21"730) at the end of a run of twenty consecutive laps, and therefore with old tyres.
Then, in the early afternoon of Sunday 14th February 1999, the engine of the Mp4-14 explodes in a cloud of smoke at the end of the straight, suggesting that Mercedes has not managed to find a solution to its reliability problems. On the return to the pits, a mixture of water and oil leaked from the car, a sign that the fault should have occurred in the upper part of the Mercedes engine. Benetton also showed growth, as Fisichella improved to 1'22"051, just three tenths down on the Ferrari.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, thirty thousand spectators flocked to the Williams and BAR tests on the Kyalami circuit. In two days 55.000 tickets were sold: in its own way a record that testified the hunger for Formula One. On a summer's day, the public was not discouraged even when they saw that practically only the Williams of Ralf Schumacher (two spins but also the best time of the day: 1'23"957) and Alex Zanardi (1'24"456 with a spectacular straight at the end of the day) were running. For Jacques Villeneuve's BAR, on the other hand, even the second day is an ordeal, due to worrying gearbox problems that prevent the Canadian from testing regularly.
On 18 February 1999, Minardi and Ferrari announced that Luca Badoer would drive alongside Marc Gené in one of the Faenza single-seaters, confirming the good collaboration relations that have linked the two teams for several years. The agreement with Ferrari, in defining the loan of the driver, provides however that Badoer's commitments with the Maranello team will remain a priority. For this reason Minardi will nominate in the next days a reserve driver, to be used in case Ferrari will employ its test driver in other roles during the season. Badoer comments:
"My main job remains being a Ferrari test driver, but in the race I will drive the Minardi. I am in an enviable position. I even have two teams; it doesn't happen to everyone to be able to test the Ferrari and then race with Minardi. For this team, among other things, I see a very interesting future".
Jean Todt is also satisfied:
"I am happy to be able to help Team Minardi and to give Badoer the chance to take part in the Grands Prix. And I also interpret the thoughts of our president Montezemolo".
In the meantime, work continues on the new Ferrari F399, which makes its positive debut on February, Wednesday 17, at Mugello.
Schumacher tested the new car and simulated a Grand Prix, completing seventy-three laps without a single hitch. During a break in the tests, the driver also receives a visit from Gabriel Batistuta, whom he wishes a speedy recovery. The following day, the Ferraris continue testing, to the delight of the public admitted to the circuit. Schumacher, in his eighty-one laps, still improved his time, while Irvine laps in the F300 and Badoer does forty-eight laps in the Minardi, setting a faster time than his new teammate, Marc Gené.
On the third and final day of testing at Mugello, February 19, 1999, Schumacher covers a distance of 425 kilometres, simulating a Grand Prix, while Irvine tests the F399 for the first time, completing a total of forty-five laps. The Ferrari returns to the track on February 22, 1999, at Fiorano. But a technical failure, a flame that blocks the 048 engine on the second model of the new Ferrari F399, interrupts the test of the single-seater driven by Schumacher earlier than expected. After the Maranello technicians quickly put out the flames, the car was brought back to the pits to study the nature of the fault.
The tests continue on 23 February, again at Fiorano, before moving to the Mugello circuit on 25 February 1999. On the Tuscan circuit, Ferrari simulates a Grand Prix divided into three sectors of twenty laps each, although there are seventy-eight laps in total, with refuelling and tyre change. In the meantime, Eddie Irvine, who is not on the track, meets the photographic needs of the Maranello team.
A few days later, on February 27, 1999, in the German weekly Focus, Schumacher's manager Willy Weber announces that Schumacher will retire from racing in 2002. In his last three years on the track, Weber assures, the German driver will not betray the Red: no passage to McLaren-Mercedes, a possibility that was much talked about at the end of the previous season, but full respect of the contract that binds him to Ferrari, on board of which the world champion of 1994 and 1995 will race until his farewell Grand Prix. After that, according to the current programmes, Schumacher will be the ambassador of Ferrari and Fiat in the world.
In the meantime Maranello prepares the expedition to Australia, where the 1999 World Championship will start on March 7, after that on February 28, in Fiorano, Luca Badoer completes the testing of the two cars that in the evening, from Milan, leave for Melbourne, while on March 1 it is the turn of the third car, not yet completed, that will act as a mock-up.
"The F399 is definitely better than the F300. We saw this by comparing the times on the three circuits where we tested, Fiorano, Mugello and Barcelona. Then, the times are just one parameter: the F399 is more driveable, it goes better in the corners, Schumacher is satisfied with it. That's why I say it's a better car".
Says Jean Todt at the end of testing, going on:
"We had less time to test it, but also fewer problems. Last year, from January 7 onwards, there were a lot of problems. The F300 was made by a team that was at the beginning of its structure, some technicians had just arrived, and we didn't have the new wind tunnel yet. For the F399, on the other hand, we had a complete team working together, and in addition we were finally able to make full use of the tunnel, with good results. This will also be a McLaren-Ferrari championship. Looking around, I don't think there are any revolutionary things to fear that a third team could win the world championship. The fear is something else. For what the winter tests are worth, we could see that other teams are going well. Here's the thing: I fear that there will be more teams close in terms of times, fewer differences than a year ago. The championship will be more interesting, but we'll have to be more careful. There can always be trouble from others, not only for us, but also for our direct competitor. They say the McLaren has a great engine, that it weighs little, and this scares me a little. Ten kilos less means three tenths of a second less per lap. It's not a small thing. But we've been working on that basis, to close this gap as well. We have to be strong straight away, we have to win straight away because then it's difficult to go back up".
In recent months there has been a lot of talk about the miraculous beryllium in certain engines:
"Miraculous? What I do know is that beryllium is harmful and expensive, which is why we didn't want to use it, especially because it is toxic and dangerous. However, it's not banned and anyone who wants to can use it. I hope, however, that this is the last year, and that they decide to ban it from 2000. Let's use even less polluting petrol and leave the beryllium lying around?"
A few days before the start of the championship, there are already suspicions of tricks and cheats, such as the flexible wings, which change shape in straight and cornering. But Todt is lapidary in responding to this provocation:
"There is a technical regulation that everyone tries to interpret as best they can. We do it too, but we respect the regulations. We also had flexible ailerons last year, they're nothing new. A lot of work is done on the wings, not only to get better aerodynamic performance, but also to try to save weight. That's what we're working on, but I don't know if there's any cheating going on, so we'll see. We are working to win the world title, and we think we are well prepared to win it. This year there's no longer the tyre variable, as they're the same for everyone. We win with the engine, the chassis, the driver and the team: we are second to none".
Most of the other teams in the meantime had been meeting since February 14, 1998, at Montmeló. After two days of McLaren domination, at the end of the third day at the top of the timesheet is the Jordan of Heinz Harald Frentzen. The German set the best time in the morning, but on soft tyres and with an empty fuel tank. The ex-Williams driver then does his best in an interesting race simulation, which he completes with decent times, but not even close to those of Coulthard.
However, the already evident supremacy of the Woking team had some shortcomings: the Scottish driver had first to reckon with hydraulic problems and then with some malfunctions which hit the radiators, while Hakkinen, after making a simulation of race pace constantly on 1'22, was obliged to stop because of some troubles which also appeared on his single-seater.
Little action on the track because of the poor reliability also for the other Jordan driver, Damon Hill, stopped by troubles to the gearbox and suspensions; the same was true for the Stewart cars driven by Barrichello and Johnny Herbert, the new purchase arrived from Sauber. It rained on the wet for Prost, who after a disastrous year, started the tests even worse. The dark faces of Prost and its two drivers, Jarno Trulli and Olivier Panis, left little room for interpretation.
With the winter tests over, Ferrari covered a good 3.500 kilometres, 600 more than its designated rival, McLaren. The Rossa did not encounter any particular problems, apart from a couple of breaks in the new 048. This is why Schumacher, on March 1, 1999, in an interview with the Dpa agency, stated that he believed that Ferrari would, in the worst scenario, present themselves at the Melbourne Grand Prix with half a second less than the McLarens.
As far as the MP4/14 is concerned, there is no doubt about its performance: Newey's creation is undoubtedly the strongest car, the Mercedes engine designed by Mario Illien is of disarming power, but compared to the start of last season it does not boast an abysmal gap to Ferrari, which for its part says it is capable of contending for victory with Hakkinen and Coulthard. After a very intense pre-season, including presentations and tests, the Australian Grand Prix was held in Melbourne on March 7, 1999.
Davide Scotto di Vetta