A few days before the start of the new Formula 1 championship, with the opening round to be held on the street circuit of Melbourne, in Australia, Arrows and Minardi announced that they had respectively signed Toranosuke Takagi and Luca Badoer to complete their driver line-up, which until early March still lacked the second component. The Japanese driver will join Pedro De la Rosa, while the Ferrari test driver will be paired with Marc Gené for the team of Faenza. With the appointment of the driver from Treviso, the Italian drivers on the grid rise to four, a number equalled only by the British drivers.
If Badoer - who is back to compete in Formula One after two years from the last time, when at the wheel of the Forti he had very little satisfaction - is aware of the fact that to gain some points with the small Minardi it will take a miracle, Giancarlo Fisichella, in his third year as a regular driver, the second with Benetton, has much higher aspirations. The Roman admits that during testing, the new B199 did not complete as many kilometres as expected, but anyway:
"The results, especially after the last test at Silverstone, have been comforting. This new car gives me more confidence in fast corners while it can be improved on slow ones. We were expecting more from the engine, especially in terms of weight, but the handling and reliability are there. And over the course of the season we expect to make three or four evolutions".
And in view of Melbourne he sets his goal:
"To qualify in the top five and finish on the podium".
He hopes for a better Prost than in 1998 Jarno Trulli, who after the success in Austria in 1997, when only a Honda engine failure prevented him from winning the race or at least getting on the podium, had to deal with a car that was never able to fight for points. According to Jarno, however, things will be different this season:
"The basic car is good, and the time at Montmelò proves it: sure, I had little fuel in the tank but everyone, except the McLaren, was running in the same conditions that day. Unfortunately, though, we still have big problems with the quality of the materials and reliability".
Like Luca Badoer, Alex Zanardi returns to Formula 1 after a few years' absence. The new Williams driver is back from two seasons of absolute dominance in the United States, where he won the Formula CART championship twice. The 32-year-old from Bologna faced difficult winter test sessions, struggling to find the right feeling with the FW21, and as a result was consistently slower than teammate Ralf Schumacher. There is certainly an eye on him, also because the last driver to arrive from the USA, Jacques Villeneuve, debuted with pole position and second place. It is difficult, if not impossible, to match such results, especially because the Williams of 1996 was of a disarming superiority, and only a distant relative of the new car, which, despite the steps forward compared to the FW20, is still far from the two favourites for the Title: the F399 and the Mp4/14.
The Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes single-seaters, the two teams that fought it out for the 1998 title right up to the last Grand Prix, are, according to the experts, the undisputed favourites for the Drivers' and Constructors' championships this season. As a result, there is no shortage of grumbling from their rivals, who are hurling accusations at the two teams in the run-up to the Australian Grand Prix. The doubts concern the rear wings which flex in a straight line in such a way as to become mobile appendages, thus allowing for less drag and greater top speed. These attacks do not seem to affect the top management of the teams concerned, who are sure that they are in the right and have not violated the regulations.
Rules that, by the way, include more than a few innovations, some of them concerning the drivers, who will no longer be able to intervene on engine mappings and differential programmes during the race; moreover, the pressure of the braking system will have to be identical on both sides. Finally, as far as safety is concerned, the frontal crash tests have been made more stringent (the impact speed for the test is now thirteen metres per second), while the seats must be removable even with the drivers on board, in order to facilitate rescue.
The favourite to win the world title was the man who, a few months earlier, had put an end to Ferrari's and Michael Schumacher's dreams of bringing the title back to Maranello after two decades of abstinence. In 1998 Mika Hakkinen won 50% of the races he contested, and beat the driver considered to be the best around after the end of the Prost-Senna era. Therefore, the Finn is aiming to repeat this in 1999:
"A lot of things have really changed, the title has undoubtedly given me further confidence in my means and in the car. There is also a different, relaxed atmosphere in the team. And it's nice to be back here, where I started my climb to the world championship".
Last season, in Melbourne, the McLaren Mercedes was unstoppable, and humiliated the competition by making it clear, through a clear show of strength, that the values on the field had changed. The Finn, however, does not go into details, stating that this superiority will be difficult to replicate, also because at Woking there is some concern about the hydraulic system, which caused some problems during the tests. Even team principal Ron Dennis, confesses:
"Repeating the feat of a year ago on this track will not be easy. Certain circumstances do not always repeat themselves. This year I think the competition will be closer to us, also because of the harder compound tyres that make the cars slower in the corners, thus hiding any chassis defects or lack of grip of some cars. In the winter tests we didn't get a great performance because we always ran with a lot of fuel on board. That's not an excuse: when do you see cars running on low fuel? Only in qualifying and at the end of the race, or before refuelling. So, in our opinion, in order to really understand the behaviour of a car and to develop it properly, you have to run in those conditions. Others, for reasons of sponsorship or a kind of psychological warfare, don't always do that. Sometimes, Ferrari is among them".
A light jab from Dennis at the designated rivals, followed by another when he ascertains that, as in the previous year, Hakkinen and Coulthard will be treated identically, with the same material and without favouritism, unlike Ferrari who concentrate on a single driver. Finally, the British manager denies the rumours that McLaren is under investigation for some aerodynamic solutions, including the aforementioned rear wing, while on the question of beryl, the metal alloy used in some parts of the Mercedes V10, which is apparently harmful to those who work on it, he says:
"The Germans are doing a lot of research on this particular part, which among other things does not seem to give great advantages. It will be up to the FIA to clarify the rules on the subject".
At Ferrari, on the other hand, Jean Todt talks about an F399 being much faster than the F300:
"We saw this by comparing the times on the three circuits where we tested, Fiorano, Mugello and Barcelona. The F399 is more driveable, it corners better, and Schumacher is happy with it. That's why I say it's a better car. We've had less time to test it, but fewer problems. Last year 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 yet have the new wind tunnel. For the F399, on the other hand, it was a complete team that was already working together, plus we were finally able to make full use of the tunnel, and with good results".
Will it still be a McLaren-Ferrari battle? According to Todt:
"Off the top of my head, I'd say yes. Looking around, I don't think there are any revolutionary things to fear that a third team could win the championship. The fear is another, that there will be more teams close in time, less difference than a year ago. The championship will be more interesting, but we will have to be more careful. There can always be trouble from others, not only for us, but also for our direct competitor. We have to be strong and win immediately, because then it's difficult to go back up".
Todt also had a few words to say about the use of beryllium:
"What I know is that beryllium is harmful and expensive, that's why we didn't want to use it, especially because it's toxic, it's dangerous. However, it is not forbidden and anyone who wants to can use it. However, I hope that this is the last year, and that they decide to ban it from the year 2000".
On the other hand, there are no doubts about the regularity of flexible rear wings:
"There are technical regulations 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 are 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, and I don't know if there's any cheating going on, so we'll see".
In 1998, the strong point for the Maranello team was reliability. Todt hopes the same will happen this season:
"Last year we only broke one engine, Schumacher's in Melbourne. I'd be very happy if '99 had the same fate in store for us, but my fear is that it's too much to hold out such high hopes. When it comes to reliability you should never take anything for granted. It can always happen that something breaks. It's terrible, but we know it well because Ferrari has earned its reliability with hard work and everyone's ability".
On Thursday March 4, 1999, having arrived in Australia, Michael Schumacher maintains the same optimistic attitude as Jean Todt, he is sure and aware that he can fight on equal terms with McLaren and Hakkinen. The German speaks of a promising, competitive car, the best he has ever driven for Ferrari, although:
"I don't know what progress the others have made and the others don't know what we've really done. In the winter tests, everyone works on their own, there's no real comparison, and then we, and I think the others too, covered ourselves a bit with a mask. In reality we have made progress that we didn't want to show off, we have made progress in all areas and I don't want to say what it is because I don't want the others to know our business. We still have two or three things to improve, so I have a good feeling about the season that is about to start. I feel confident, I don't have any trepidation about this start. The tyres are the same for everyone, but they are harder than before, the driving will be different, and you have to know how to handle these tyres so you don't ruin them and get the best out of them. I think the car and the driver will count for a lot. As far as our rear wings are concerned, they are perfectly regular, there is no cheating, no controversy except for what the press is trying to create. Everything is regular".
The Australian Grand Prix is among those missing from the roll call of races won by the Ferrarista, but he doesn't want to be influenced by statistics:
"Statistics don't count for anything, they are made precisely so that they can be changed".
Then, an opinion on the slight risk of rain for the weekend, and a dry denial of the rumours that he will hang up his helmet in 2003:
"Everyone keeps asking me about rain. No, I'll tell the truth: I prefer to race in the dry, but if it rains I'm not scared, I race anyway and try to give my best. Me retire? I don't even think about it, but who ever said that?"
The rival for the title will obviously be Mika Hakkinen, an opponent to be feared:
"Of course, I fear him but I hope that now that he has just won his first title, he will relax a little and maybe make a few mistakes."
In conclusion, a brief assessment of his three years at Maranello:
"All in all, I am happy. For me it was a life choice that I would make again today. It allowed me to progress and contribute to Ferrari's improvement. Of course, I lost a couple of titles, but when I think about where we were when I arrived, there's something to be happy about".
Before Hakkinen, in 1997 it was Jacques Villeneuve who snatched the title from Schumacher, again during the final round of the championship at the Jerez circuit, with the two contenders coming together at Dry Sac, an incident caused by Schumacher's desperate manoeuvre to close the door on the Canadian. The Ferrari finished its race in the gravel, while Villeneuve went on to become World Champion.
The reigning Champion's season gave Jacques little satisfaction and he only managed a couple of podiums due to a Williams team that was far from being the steamroller of the past years. Thanks to a never idyllic relationship with Patrick Head and Frank Williams, and the desire to make new experiences, the son of art embraced the ambitious project of former manager Craig Pollock, who took over Tyrrell to set up the new BAR (acronym of British American Racing), powered Supertec.
Notwithstanding an important budget, at the level of the top teams, tests were not exciting for BAR 001 driven by Villeneuve and the debutant Ricardo Zonta, all enriched by the controversy for the different liveries presented by the team, not appreciated by FIA. A diatribe that ended with the bizarre idea of keeping the two colours on both cars, one side red and white for the Lucky Strike logo, and the other blue and yellow for the State Express 555 logo, with a zip running lengthwise across the single-seater to keep them together.
These issues do not interest Villeneuve in the least, who in Melbourne says he feels much better without the pressure that he had until last year. A state of mind also confirmed by his track engineer, Jock Clear, who also emigrated from Williams to BAR:
"Jacques is a different man from last year. He's patient, he's understood the particular situation in a new team and he's adapted. Frankly, this surprised me too, because before he was the classic driver who wanted everything right away. His advantage is that he is very strong in the head".
The man himself does not yet feel like judging the single-seater, which has so far proved problematic, especially in terms of reliability:
"We haven't covered enough kilometres to be able to say whether it's good or not. In these cases you have to be realistic, and I won't hide the fact that I know the people I work with better than the car I drive. But precisely because I know who the people around me are, I can say that I have a positive feeling, and I believe that in the end we will be fast enough. The central question is reliability. If we make it to the end we can easily finish in the points".
On Friday 5 March, the chatter and predictions gave way to the roar of the engines on the Albert Park street circuit. And the results of the first free practice immediately set off alarm bells in the Ferrari pits. Not because of problems with the F399, but because of the overwhelming superiority of the Mp4/14. Schumacher pays the beauty of a second and a half from the Silver Arrows, and is third, while Irvine is even fourteenth, far from finding the right confidence at the wheel of a car with which he has covered few kilometres.
"I couldn't get into first gear on the pit straight, the gearbox got stuck, but it's not a big problem so much so that we didn't fit another gearbox. And it won't be difficult to find the right set up for the race".
Says Michael, who is sent back in his memory to Suzuka, when during a practice start the engine cut out - just as happened in Japan - and he has to be towed into the pits by his mechanics; a minimal inconvenience, given that the F399 is not even disassembled to understand what happened. The best time was set by David Coulthard, ahead of reigning champion Hakkinen, victim of an accident coming out of the last corner before the finish line. The Finn loses control of the car and ends up against the wall. The Finn declares at the end of the day:
"Maybe I had become too confident with the car, and so when I least expected it I made a mistake, I couldn't control the car and I hit the wall head on".
An accident that doesn't worry me too much because the two Silver Arrows seem to be way too fast for the others.
What does worry is the tyre grip, because as Jacques Villeneuve says:
"Before, if you skidded you could control the car, now you can't, you go off on a tangent and you don't know where you'll end up".
And even Schumacher is not so happy with the choice made by the FIA:
"If the aim of these new tyres was to slow down our cars, I have to say that they have succeeded. But if the aim was to allow more overtaking to make the spectacle more attractive, then the failure is total. We risk having more accidents and even less overtaking".
On Saturday, the game does not change. The McLaren Mercedes cars leave no hope to their adversaries and monopolise the first row, with the difference that, compared to the free practice, thanks to a flash in the final during his last attempt, Hakkinen conquers the first seasonal pole position beating his teammate by four tenths. Michael Schumacher does what he can, he is third, but one second and three seconds behind the pole man.
"I didn't expect a McLaren like this, but we have room to recover".
Schumacher declares, while Todt admits:
"We are further behind than we expected, we are disappointed. Schumacher never got the most out of the car, either because there was traffic or because he couldn't optimise his lap time. And the tyres are better than we expected, we didn't realise that".
An exceptional performance by Rubens Barrichello, who places his Ford-powered Stewart in fourth position. Very good performance also for Frentzen, at his first race as a Jordan driver: the German opens the third row, and precedes the other F399 driven by Irvine. Williams did worse than the previous year, with a couple of different drivers but with poor car and results: Ralf Schumacher is eighth, more than two seconds behind Hakkinen, while Alex Zanardi qualifies even fifteenth, between the two Sauber-Petronas of Pedro Diniz and Jean Alesi, who have to deal with a troubled qualifying session. The car of the transalpine driver broke the Ferrari engine, the one of Diniz suffered from a low petrol pressure, therefore the former Arrows driver had to run with a forklift.
A discreet test for the debutant BAR, driven by Villeneuve in an interesting twelfth position; certainly much better than the nineteenth position of Zonta, one second and a half slower than his team leader. Disaster, instead, for the two Minardis of Luca Badoer and Marc Genè, inexorably last and far from the competition. The Spaniard didn't even manage to qualify for the race, exceeding the 107% rule, but luckily for him he was admitted anyway, having shown to be quite fast in Friday's free practice.
Given the almost identical premise to last season, an undisputed one-two McLaren is expected in Melbourne. Schumacher is the only one who can attempt the impossible by entering the battle between the two Silver Arrows, but the gap of over a second leaves little hope for the German. However, since this is the first race of the year, it is very likely that the teams will have to deal with faults in the new cars, which are young, unripe and still have very few kilometres on the clock, certainly not enough to guarantee reliability.
McLaren knows something about it, struggling with more than a few problems during testing, as well as on the morning of Sunday, March 7, the day of the first race of the season. On the Mp4/14 of the poleman Hakkinen there is something wrong, therefore the team decides to let the World Champion use the reserve car.
Still talking about reliability, the two Stewart cars of Rubens Barrichello and Johnny Herbert had problems right from the start, qualifying fourth and thirteenth respectively. A few moments after the lights went out, an intense white smoke started coming out of the rear of both cars. The start was cancelled and track officials arrived with fire extinguishers.
A real disappointment for Sir. Jackie's team, which especially with Barrichello could have aspired to an important result. The Brazilian's car was rushed back to the pits in a desperate attempt to repair it, but at the end it was necessary to use the forklift truck and start from the pit-lane; as a consequence, Herbert's new adventure after the farewell to Sauber started in the worst way, being forced to retire before the race even started.
On the second reconnaissance lap, Hakkinen, Schumacher and Takagi struggle to get going. The Finn started before being passed by the entire pack and was thus able to move into the lead. The Ferrari driver and the Japanese Arrows driver, however, were unable to do the same, so in an unpleasant deja-vu of the race in Japan a few months earlier, Michael Schumacher found himself having to start from the last row.
Because of the aborted start earlier in the day, the race distance is reduced by one lap (from 58 to 57), and, because of the problems that afflicted first Barrichello and then Schumacher, the second row remains empty. One problem less for the two McLarens, who at the first start of the new championship took off undisturbed at the first bend, with Hakkinen remaining ahead of Coulthard. Eddie Irvine took third position after a good fight with Frentzen in the first bends. During the first lap, after a contact with Jarno Trulli's Prost in turn 3, Damon Hill retired as he spun and was unable to restart.
Michael Schumacher does not have a brilliant start, so much so that he remains in last position. At the end of the first lap, Hakkinen and Coulthard lead the way, followed by Irvine, Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. To highlight the excellent start of Jacques Villeneuve, started twelfth and already seventh.
Although Irvine had at his disposal soft Bridgestones, unlike the McLarens who opted for the hard compound, after only one passage on the finishing line the gap between the leading duo and the Northern Irishman was three seconds, and in the following laps it went on increasing uninterruptedly: after four laps we were already at ten seconds.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen also had a great race pace, he didn't let go of the rear of the F399 with decision, while behind there was an interesting little train of drivers led by Ralf Schumacher, who slowed down Fisichella and Trulli, who passed Villeneuve for the seventh place, then Diniz and finally the other BAR of Zonta.
In the meantime Michael Schumacher overtakes several drivers, and is in thirteenth position after about ten laps. Then he got the better of Wurz and De la Rosa, climbed to eleventh and approached the group of drivers closed by Zonta, and who were fighting for the points zone. As soon as he had a free track, the Ferrarista was the only driver on the track able to equal the McLarens' time, a fact that inevitably increased his regrets. However, the race is still long and surprises are around the corner.
On lap thirteen, in fact, the camera lingered on the main straight while the race leader Hakkinen came up, but behind him there was no longer the silhouette of his teammate. Shortly afterwards, Coulthard was filmed as he sadly parked his car inside the McLaren garage. The cause of the retirement was a hydraulic problem, which suddenly appeared on the Mp4/14.
During the same lap, close to turn 11, Jacques Villeneuve's BAR lost its rear wing - a problem not new to the cars of Craig Pollock's team - and the Canadian driver, travelling at high speed, lost control of the car. The 1997 World Champion managed to avoid contact with the barriers, but had to leave the BAR Supertec in a potentially dangerous position, forcing race director Charlie Whiting to decide to bring in the Safety Car. The group was then reunited and the considerable advantage built up by Hakkinen over his pursuers was made vain. Behind him now is Eddie Irvine, while Michael Schumacher, taking advantage of the retirements of Coulthard and Villeneuve, climbs to seventh position, behind Jarno Trulli.
When the Safety Car returned to the pits, another twist shook the race: coming out of the last corner, Hakkinen failed to accelerate, forcing the group led by Irvine to have to wait to cross the finish line before overtaking him, in order to avoid penalties. In a few moments, Hakkinen was passed by everyone with disarming ease: reliability, as feared, mocked the McLaren. The Finnish driver continues for a few more laps at low speed, and even makes a pit stop, but at the end he is called back again for a definitive retirement. The reigning champion team begins its defence of the world titles with a double zero.
Irvine is therefore the new leader of the race, and precedes Frentzen and Jarno Trulli on Prost, who surprises Ralf Schumacher at turn three, while at the same time behind them, Fisichella touches Prost and damages the front wing of his Benetton. An inaccuracy that cost the Roman an early pit stop, as well as the fifth position, delivered into the hands of Michael Schumacher, now fifth behind his brother Ralf and ahead of Pedro Diniz.
The Ferrari driver had to overtake, in order, the Williams of Ralf, the Prost of Trulli and the Jordan of Frentzen, then, once behind Irvine, the team order would be enough to take the leadership of the Australian Grand Prix. A possibility that seemed utopian until a few minutes before. Meanwhile, on lap 20, Alex Zanardi's complicated race ended. The driver from Bologna spun and hit the wall coming out of turn 5, forcing the race direction to call on the Safety Car again.
On lap 25 the race restarted and the order of positions was momentarily upset by the strategies: Michael Schumacher moved up to fourth position, followed by Diniz and Wurz. The Austrian tried an overtaking manoeuvre on the Brazilian's Sauber, but ended up wide and had to rejoin the queue. Marc Gené and Jarno Trulli retire after the driver from Abruzzo rams the Minardi at turn 3 just like he did with Damon Hill on the first lap. Prost's weekend ended bitterly, as Olivier Panis also had to abandon the action on the track due to a problem with a wheel nut.
In this elimination race, there are only twelve cars left on the track, a number destined to be further reduced. Michael Schumacher began to make himself conspicuous in his brother's mirrors, but right at the very end a sudden puncture to his left rear tyre forced him to run half a lap in precarious conditions, before returning to the pits for a forced tyre change. During the pit stop the front wing was also replaced, having been slightly damaged. Back on track, Schumacher is again last. After the engine off at the start and the sudden puncture, it seems to relive the 1998 Japanese Grand Prix, which cost the German the world title. However, there is still some chance of scoring points, as with so many retirements, there are not many cars to overtake, although they are quite a distance away.
This series of circumstances allowed Irvine to think even more seriously about the victory, being now averted any team order. Frentzen, however, did not give up and kept within a second of the Northern Irishman. The crucial moment arrived when the two leading drivers went back to the pits for a pit-stop at the same time. The Ferrari mechanics were not conditioned by the excitement and did their job very well, putting Irvine back on the track ahead of Frentzen. Between the two, Giancarlo Fisichella, who had to make another stop, but in the meantime, with a lighter fuel tank, he even tried to trouble Irvine, without however succeeding in overtaking him. Unlike the previous stint, Frentzen was unable to match Irvine's race pace and lost contact with the Ferrari driver, who, once Fisichella returned to the pits, could manage the race lead without too much trouble.
Schumacher's nightmarish race became even more disastrous when the German returned to the pits without warning and found the mechanics unprepared. In order not to lose any more time, he pulls straight in, only to try and stop again on the next pass, all the while driving slowly down the track, suggesting that there is some technical problem with the car. During the pit stop, the Ferrari mechanics replace the steering wheel, and after a 15.2 second stop Schumacher returns to the track, with no chance of scoring any points, except for another wave of retirements. Michael is tenth, but last and lapped. Being by far the fastest driver on the track is little consolation.
In spite of the smoke a few seconds before the start, once started from the pit lane and having served a Stop&Go for violating the rules in changing the car, Rubens Barrichello enters the points zone passing the two Arrows of Takagi and debutant Pedro de la Rosa, thus moving up to fifth position. In the final stages only the difficult lapping of Ricardo Zonta, who took almost two laps to step aside and let himself be overtaken, gave some trouble to Eddie Irvine, who at that juncture lost two of his five second lead over Frentzen.
An inexplicable behaviour on the part of the Brazilian, who perhaps thought he had the other Ferrari behind him and therefore had to fight for position. It's hard to say, in fact, if Zonta let him pass intentionally, given that the lapping only took place when BAR's Supertec went up in smoke and caused yet another retirement in this opening race.
After the problematic lapping, nothing could stop Irvine any longer, in search of his first career victory. The number two of the Rossa drove the last lap with all the caution of the case, so as to reach the finishing line with just one second's lead over Frentzen. But it didn't matter, because Eddie was the first to pass under the chequered flag and was able to celebrate his much-desired victory in his fiftieth Grand Prix at the wheel of a Ferrari.
On the podium with him were Frentzen and Ralf Schumacher, while Fisichella, Barrichello and De la Rosa closed the points zone, from which Toranosuke Takagi and Michael Schumacher were excluded. On the stands dozens of Ferrari flags waved in celebration, the public was ecstatic for good Eddie, the faithful wingman who deserved this victory. And under the podium there is no shortage of choirs chanting his name. At the press conference, the first question he is asked is about how he feels now, having achieved the first victory of his career, made even more special by having done it wearing a red suit:
"Winning with Ferrari is different, because you find Ferrari fans everywhere, even down here the stands were full of our fans. I was also very moved when I suddenly saw the Irish flags waving in the sky, there were a lot of them and I didn't expect that. I felt a squeeze in my heart. I've been waiting three years for this, I've been on the podium 15 times, but going up there is something else. I feel like I'm dreaming, two of my ex-girlfriends dreamt of it, but I never did. The other week my friend Shiga called from Japan, telling me that I would win here, she had dreamt about it that night. Two days go by, and a Canadian friend of mine calls me and tells me the same thing. Strange, isn't it? And I really did win. I guess it was meant to be. Maybe it was also fate that I won on the day my father wasn't there. It had already happened in other victories of mine in other formulae, I feel sorry for Dad, I would have loved to have had him here, to give him this satisfaction, it's a pity".
A dream that began to come true after the pit stop:
"Everything happened in this race. Apart from that I knew very well that I couldn't catch Coulthard and Hakkinen, then Coulthard retired and Hakkinen came back into the pits, and then I started to push really hard to create a big gap behind me. In any case, until the finish line you are never calm, you must never believe that you have already won. On the penultimate lap, Luca, my engineer, shouted at me over the radio: Come on, you're there. I replied: 'Guys, cross your fingers until the finish line because you never know. How exciting. Then I started thinking about what I could have done after crossing the finish line: I really wanted to do two or three burn-outs in front of the public to express my joy, but then I abandoned the idea".
An unexpected success, to say the least, considering the McLaren domination that lasted until lap 20:
"It's true, it was a very tough weekend, but at a certain point I went my own way in developing the settings, even making different choices to other teams in various areas of the car. Baldisserri and I were convinced that we were on the right track, also for the soft tyres. Michael and I had started the weekend with very similar set-ups, and then I made a change we had already tried at Fiorano, but it wasn't working here. We went back to the previous set-up, which proved to be good, but it made the car too slow and it was hard to understand why. Then suddenly, in the race, it proved to be a bit unstable in the direction changes, but as a balance it was exceptional, I would hazard the best Formula 1 I have ever driven. The team is fantastic; they were also fantastic in the pit stop, allowing me to come out ahead of Frentzen. I felt very relaxed, so much so that I started thinking about how many people I should have thanked: thirty or forty, I didn't have time to count them all".
The overtaking move on Hakkinen was the one that gave him the lead in the race, which Eddie never let go of:
"Mika had a problem and, according to the regulations, I couldn't overtake him before the finish line. There was a moment of fear, then when I could do it I took off. That was also an important moment, like the start, when I managed to overtake Frentzen and get into the McLarens' slipstream. In their slipstream so to speak, because they were getting further and further away. If we don't find speed it will be tough".
An important success for the Northern Irishman, a decisive answer to those who see him disqualified at the end of the season. Rumours that don't bother him too much:
"I don't give a damn, I'm going my own way, regardless of what is said or written".
Someone jokes about swapping roles within the team. Irivine as first driver and Schumacher as second. He responds by saying:
"Let's not talk nonsense. If I had 30-40 points and Michael zero, I don't know what would happen. That's why it's better to talk to Todt. Tonight there are drinks for everyone here in Melbourne. Then tomorrow I'm going to Malaysia for the inauguration of the new circuit and I'm sure they'll give me a big party. Then nothing, it's back to work because let's be clear about one thing: today the Ferrari tortoise beat the McLaren hare, and that's great, but we can't go on like this, we have to improve a lot and so I'm going back to work with the men in my team for whom I have immense gratitude for how they have always helped me and also, perhaps, because they have always believed in me."
In the evening Eddie celebrated the victory, took the team to dinner and then spent the night in a local disco with some friends, including Villeneuve and Badoer. But not before receiving compliments from Luca Baldisserri, his track engineer, who told the journalists present:
"Irvine is a fantastic guy, we are so close now that we understand each other on the fly, without the need for many words. For all of us his victory has a special flavour, because we have always been in the shadows behind Schumacher, and to see that we have worked well has given us great pleasure. Obviously we're all the same, it's just that with Eddie things weren't easy at the beginning and for the first few times. Just to say: he's Irish, he speaks English that often even the English don't understand, let alone us. So it took time to understand each other. Then there was a problem of character: not easy, he reminded me of another man I worked with, John Barnard, the one you journalists always called the genius. And he was, of course. I was one of those young men Ferrari sent to Guildford, to Barnard. And I learned a lot, but he certainly wasn't easy. He was very good, but he didn't communicate, he treated us as if we were inferior. Irvine, too, was a bit like that in the beginning, he kept to himself, we either didn't understand each other or there was no discussion, so much so that at one point we even had a fight. Luckily, however, Ross Brawn had arrived and he has exceptional human qualities. He called us both into his office and explained to us that this was not working. Since then things have changed. For the better. Not least because with Ross Ferrari has changed: now there's communication, information flows. And you don't fight anymore because there's never an opportunity to do so".
Baldisserri then goes on to make a few confessions about the Northern Irishman's private life and how he came to Ferrari:
"With Irvine we are friends, yes, but we don't go out together. For me it's not possible. I have a wife and a daughter, he has a different kind of life. In the evening I just want to go home. He's having a good time, but what's wrong with that? He's young, he's single, he's having fun and doing well. It's different for me. I'm doing great at Ferrari, but there's only one problem: the families of all of us complain, they don't see much of us, but they understand".
The mood was decidedly different on the other side of the pit lane, as Michael Schumacher missed an excellent opportunity to put ten points between himself and Hakkinen. His nightmare day began with the problem at the start:
"The causes are different. This time, compared to Suzuka, first gear didn't come in, and I had to be pushed. So I was forced, by regulation, to get in the back of the pack and start from there. Then the trouble continued, because every now and then the gearbox would go into neutral and naturally I would lose speed. And this happened especially in the corners. It all depended on something in the steering wheel, because I would touch the levers and nothing would happen: the gears wouldn't go in or, worse, they would go out. In the pits they couldn't really understand what was going on, because on the telemetry everything seemed fine. In the end we decided to replace the steering wheel. Despite all this, I made up a lot of positions and was fourth. Then there was that strange puncture of the right rear tyre and I was back in last place again".
Schumacher congratulated his teammate, then admitted he was not surprised by the McLaren disaster:
"It was a strange race for everyone and full of trouble for me, but at least I have the joy of seeing that Eddie won, I am very happy for him because after years of hard and dark work he deserved such a satisfaction. McLaren's problems didn't surprise me. It was already clear that they had a lot of reliability problems, so I expected Hakkinen and Coulthard to have some difficulties. But the McLarens were very strong and our only goal now is to try to match their performance, because those were really the surprise here in Australia, regardless of the race result, the double retirement. Now we have a month off, and we need to get to the Brazilian Grand Prix without all these things happening again".
Team manager Jean Todt, although pleased with Irvine's victory, does not hide his concern about the difference in performance with the McLarens, who seem to have a clear advantage:
"You can't hide the fact that there is an important performance gap between us and the McLarens. And we didn't expect it to be so noticeable. Maybe it depends on their better knowledge of the new tyres, or maybe on the solutions adopted. But in short, they are very good rivals, for whom I have great respect. Now it's up to us to catch up with them, and to do this we will immediately implement the evolution programme that we have already prepared. On the 11th we'll try Fiorano with Schumacher, on the 15th we'll be at Monza to test on a wet track, from the 16th to the 18th we'll be in Barcelona and then, on the 28th and 29th, at Mugello. In Brazil we have to be ready".
The Woking team's fiasco does not worry Ron Dennnis, who says he is disappointed but certainly not worried. The team manager confirms that Coulthard's retirement was caused by a trivial hydraulic failure, while Hakkinen was ousted by a problem with the accelerator, which no longer responded to the commands. Ron also points out that:
"None of the top six drivers in the standings are capable of fighting for the world title. So it's like the championship starts again from the next race".
Not worried, but certainly frustrated is Mika Hakkinen, who after the exceptional pole on Saturday was already tasting the first victory of the season:
"We did very well on Friday, Saturday, Sunday morning and for the first half hour of the race. And then here we are without a single point. It's really frustrating. After all, I had a warning when I had to give up my first car because there was something wrong with the engine, and I got on the forklift which I had never tested in these days. When the Safety Car came into the pits, I pressed on the accelerator but nothing happened. We have reliability problems, but we will solve them. On the other hand, as everyone could see, we already have an exceptional performance that even I didn't expect".
After the chaotic Australian Grand Prix, some drivers including Irvine and Hakkinen headed for the Sepang circuit, where the Malaysian Grand Prix was to be held for the first time on October 17, 1999. Once the short test on the new track is over, a series of sessions will begin in the space of thirty-five days, dividing the first race of the year from the second, to be run in Brazil, on the Sao Paolo circuit, where Ferrari hopes to have reduced the enormous performance gap that divides the F399 from the Mp4/14, which, in turn, has more than a month to see its reliability problems resolved.
Davide Scotto di Vetta