On March 15, 1999, Luca Badoer and Eddie Irvine carry out a short but important test of the innovative anti-rain asphalt on the Monza circuit. The test was also attended by some representatives of the FIA, among them Charlie Whiting, Roland Bruynseraede and Ian Brawn, to carefully evaluate the new draining asphalt prepared by Enichem and Agip, aimed at eliminating - or at least reducing - the phenomenon of aquaplaning, and at eliminating the formation of clouds that drastically reduce the drivers' visibility.
A type of asphalt laid a month earlier on the straight, which connects the two elevated sections of the high-speed circuit. Before that, however, Luca Badoer, Minardi's regular driver, but under contract to Ferrari as a test driver, runs a short test session at Fiorano, driving the old F300 instead of the F399s, which have just returned from Australia and cannot be used because they have not yet undergone the appropriate checks and routine overhauls.
Badoer completed fifty-two laps, the best of which was a 1'02"604. Maranello team spokesman Claudio Berro says that some mechanical components to be transferred to the new car needed testing. The aim is to be able to make better use of the Bridgestone tyres, one of the main problems encountered by the new F399 in Australia, where only the reliability problems of the McLaren Mercedes allowed Irvine to go on to win his first career race.
"We realised that we have to try to make better use of the Bridgestones. They are very different tyres, which require a proper apprenticeship and a perfect knowledge of them to use them to the full. McLaren were already using them last year, and are obviously making use of that experience. I'm happy that Michael couldn't come for this day of testing, the more I drive the more familiar I get with the car, also in view of my return to competition with Minardi".
Says Badoer, who, talking about his new adventure with the Faenza-based team, admits he is not very satisfied with the car's handling:
"On Sunday, in Australia, I was even glimpsing the possibility of going to the points, I was sixth when I had the gearbox problem. It would have been a great result for the team and also for myself. On Friday and Saturday, however, we found that we are still far behind in terms of performance, there will be a lot of work to do to develop the car. Right now I will go to Faenza to study the test programme with the team. Next Monday I'll be with Ferrari again at Monza, then I'll dedicate myself for a few weeks exclusively to Minardi, unless the Prancing Horse needs me every now and then. We have to chase the McLarens, who seem to be off to a strong start again. However, Melbourne is a grand prix of its own, certain performances should not be taken for granted; the Australian track is atypical, especially in terms of the consistency of the road surface, and we knew that it would not favour us in terms of speed. Now we'll have to see at Interlagos and Imola; I think we'll be able to see the real Ferrari F399 on the Romagna circuit".
On 15 March, at Monza, the test of the new anti-rain asphalt, starring Irvine and Badoer, lasted just under five minutes: at the wheel of two F300s, the Rossa's drivers made four passes one after the other, going back and forth at different speeds and distances. Finally, the Northern Irishman performs two simulated starts and is delighted when asked by journalists:
"The grip, acceleration and braking of the car are amazing, as is the visibility. But we need to do some tests in the corners and assess the grip when it's hot. You can't use one surface for the dry and one for the rain".
Badoer is also satisfied, talking about an improvement in grip in aquaplaning conditions, as are the promoters, Eni, ACI and the Autodromo, because research into draining asphalts (the patent is Italian) is not just aimed at Formula One, as Piero Ferrari, president of Csai, points out:
"This test was the best answer to those who ask what Formula 1 is for: a laboratory of ideas that can be beneficial for everyone".
The following week, in view of the tests scheduled at the Montmeló circuit, a little mystery involved Michael Schumacher, who skipped the session due to an alleged sprained ankle he suffered while jogging: alleged, because for some the injury was nothing more than a cover to ensure that the German could stay by his wife's side, about to give birth to his third child".
For others, the physical problem is the result of a blow suffered during a football match that Schumacher played with the Swiss amateur team Aubonne. The speculations around the Ferrarista increase, among which also a cracked relationship with his team-mate Irvine, who in the meantime, in Barcelona, turns out to be the fastest of all, even if there is to highlight the absence of McLaren, that prefers to work in Silverstone with David Coulthard.
On March 21, 1999, after recovering, the German returned to drive his F399 and completed 55 laps, stopping the clock at 1'26"201, a time beaten the next day by Irvine, who lapped at 1'25"887. With the second round of the World Championship scheduled for 11 April in Brazil, the teams had a full 35 days to remedy the limitations of their cars, especially those concerning reliability, if one considers the high number of retirements recorded in Melbourne during the opening race. A lot of testing is therefore taking place, despite the limits imposed by the Federation as a result of the tyre supply limit, and this also applies to Ferrari, whose top priority is to close the worrying one second gap to McLaren.
After Barcelona and Jerez, on 25 March the new father for the third time Michael Schumacher starts working on the Fiorano circuit, completing no less than 101 laps with the F399. There are many tests of the start and of possible emergency solutions to restart the car in case of engine failure: necessary because, if we also consider the race in Japan of the previous year, there are two missed starts in a row for Schumacher, who in both cases was forced to start from the last row. In the meantime, from Monza the leader of the World Championship Irvine extinguishes every controversy, since there is no second car to let both drivers try, after some newspapers were talking about misunderstandings between him and Schumacher. The former Jordan reiterates that he has not forgotten his subordinate position:
"If I find myself leading the race in Brazil, I will let Michael pass: it is foreseen in my contract with Ferrari".
A statement echoed by Michael Schumacher, who does not rule out what for now are only remote changes in hierarchy:
"This shows that our relationship is good. It means that if Eddie is leading the World Championship at mid-season, I will work for him.
The next day, still at Fiorano, Schumacher took advantage of two long stops due to bad weather to improvise as a driving instructor, giving a particular lesson to four fellow countrymen kart drivers, at the wheel of an Alfa 156 Superturismo".
The German driver tests for only twenty-four laps, setting the best time of 1'02"082. The Ferrari tests - still on Eddie Irvine's car, chassis number 191 - instead, serve to verify the adjustments made for Schumacher, which had led to the record (1'01"518) of the car on the Emilian track. A test that did not please the former Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni, who on 27 March 1999, from Monza, declared to the press:
"I'm surprised at how slow the tests are. At Maranello they are afraid that from one moment to the next Schumacher will leave them in the lurch".
These words certainly do not impress the men of Maranello. On the Mugello circuit, on March 29, 1999, after thirty-two laps, in front of a hundred fans in delirium, ready to challenge even the rain, Schumacher's single-seater number 3 slides away after just ten laps of the afternoon session, and goes off right in front of the pits. A transmission failure, as Claudio Berro explains to the press:
"A normal accident, nothing to worry about. We have never had such problems in the race".
Schumacher had started lapping around 9:45am, and before the lunch break had completed twenty laps on the wet track due to the rain that had fallen during the night. Because of this, Schumacher's work focused mainly on adjusting the car to the rain configuration, with which he achieved a satisfactory 1'37"388. Not much more he could do.
Then in the afternoon he did some laps on the track that was slowly drying out (the fastest lap was 1'29"539) before stopping due to a transmission failure. A short meeting with the technicians and then the decision to stop testing and postpone everything to the next day, since the car is not able to return to the track.
"The car is going well and I'm optimistic. I think I will be able to have a good race in Brazil. Despite this transmission problem I am really happy with the results we are getting. I'm the one driving the car, I know what we're doing and I'm convinced I can win the world title this year".
Schumacher declares, while in Ferrari there are those who say that Luca di Montezemolo, who has just returned from a trip to Miami with his lawyer Agnelli, could also be seen today at the pits of the Mugello circuit to greet the team, but there are no certainties about the president's movements. On the contrary. What is certain, however, is that Minardi will be on track with Ferrari, having delayed its arrival at Scarperia by a day due to the accident that happened to Badoer on the Fiorano track. At the wheel of the M01 there will be the Spaniard Marc Gené, who the following day will set the best time of 1'31"774.
The mishap leads the Prancing Horse team to extend the test session by another day, so, in addition to the 30th, Schumacher also races at Mugello on the 31st March. These sessions, like the previous one, are not free of minor inconveniences that lead to huge time losses. On the morning of the 31st, the German driver decides to return to the pits after feeling something strange on the engine, choosing to stop so as not to make the situation even worse. After replacing the engine, which took three hours of intense work by the mechanics, Schumacher returned to the track, but not for long, because yet another problem with the gearbox brought the F399 back to the pits. During one of the test runs he preferred to slow down at the San Donato corner and cut back towards the pits, getting pushed in the last few metres. It was later revealed that a right side bulkhead of the rear wing had detached.
At 7:08 pm it was all over. Eddie Irvine surprisingly arrived in the early afternoon of April 1, 1999 at Mugello, and with him came controversy, after an agency reported what Eddie had said to the German weekly Bunte:
"If Schumacher had wanted to win a world championship he should have chosen McLaren and not Ferrari".
Heavy words, which were immediately denied by Irvine:
"Michael and I are friends and we work well together. What happens when we both get out of the car and go home is very different. He goes to his wife Corinne and his children, I don't. If Michael came with me I am sure she would kill him. My words have been misinterpreted. What I said referred to last year, when at the start of the championship the difference between Ferrari and McLaren was really big. Last season, with McLaren, Michael would certainly have had a much better chance of winning".
As for the tests, Schumacher started at 9:30am and finished at 4pm, recording a time of 1'26"801, not far from the Mugello track record (1'26"704). The German driver worked mainly on the set up and aerodynamics, before making way for Irvine who completed forty-seven laps (his best time was 1'27"150) testing, among other things, the tyres.
At Maranello they looked for a remedy to the situation, in order not to allow McLaren to move away in the classification. From this point of view, the double retirement in Australia is a godsend for the pursuers, because everything suggests that the battleship managed by Ron Dennis, with more than a month at its disposal, has undoubtedly found a way to find solutions to the Mp4/14's lack of reliability.
Not an easy mission for Jean Todt, but one that is supported, for reasons that go beyond cheering, by FIA president Max Mosley, who declares:
"A new defeat for Ferrari would be a shame for the whole of Formula 1".
More than anything else, according to Mosley, a season dominated by McLaren without competition from Ferrari would undoubtedly cause a drop in interest in Formula 1.
"The one just beginning is a promising season, provided McLaren does not prove too superior to the other teams. The fact that the two main contenders for the drivers' championship, Hakkinen and Schumacher, did not score any points in Australia is a good thing. In Brazil it will be like starting from scratch. As far as the values on the field are concerned, we will have a more precise idea after Interlagos and Imola. Ferrari has all the means to do it: qualified personnel, engineers, motorists, mechanics, drivers and sports directors. They hold all the cards, and it's up to them to play. I would be surprised if McLaren won easily".
Then Mosley talks about the changes to the calendar for the next few years:
"We don't want to have twenty Grands Prix a year, the teams have to agree because the current rule is sixteen races, with a tolerance for seventeen. The teams feel that workloads and transfer times do not allow for an increase in the number. Above all, they do not want new Grands Prix to propose even more distant journeys".
Furthermore, the increase in Grand Prix is opposed by Formula 1 patron Bernie Ecclestone, since as Mosley confirmed:
"He doesn't want to see an increase in the number of races, because he fears that Formula 1 will be debased. And I can't blame him".
Ecclestone himself, in an interview with the German magazine Kicker, says he is excited about the season that has just begun:
"It will no longer be total McLaren-Ferrari domination. In addition to them, we will see two or three other teams: Jordan and Stewart, for example, even if, for the final victory, there will be no other candidates than the teams based in Maranello and Woking".
Concerning the calendar for the 2000 season, Ecclestone confirms the return of the United States Grand Prix, to be held at Indianapolis, while the situation of the Chinese Grand Prix is becoming difficult. As for the tyre situation, on the other hand, although the Bridgestone monopoly reduces the gap between the teams, Bernie admits that he is an advocate of competition:
"It would be nice to go back to seeing more tyre brands: for example Pirelli with Ferrari, Michelin with the French and Goodyear again. The Americans will be back for sure, but I don't know when".
As anticipated, less than two weeks before the Brazilian Grand Prix, at the wheel of the Ford-powered Minardi M01, after running forty-nine laps, Luca Badoer crashed into the guardrails of turn 5 at Fiorano, and suffered a small fracture to the second metacarpal of his right hand. The Treviso driver was immediately operated on, but after a few days of waiting to monitor his improvement, it was made official that he would not be racing in the second round of the year.
Apparently, the accident was caused by a failure of the fly-by-wire system that manages the accelerator, a theory later confirmed by Badoer himself:
"When I took the throttle off, in fourth gear, to put the car into the corner and then re-accelerate, there was no slowing down. The throttle remained open, the car went off at a tangent and there was nothing I could do. The anti-stall device didn't work, so all I could do was try to get the car onto the sand to avoid a violent impact. However, I couldn't avoid the safety barriers, I hit the front right of the car and felt a pain in my right hand. It's not serious, according to the doctors, but we have decided to perform the operation to speed up the recovery".
Replacing Badoer in the Brazilian Grand Prix will be Frenchman Stéphane Sarrazin, a Prost test driver with some experience in Formula 3000.
Arriving in Brazil on Thursday 8 April, Eddie Irvine confirmed to the press that the priorities at Ferrari have certainly not changed after his first career success:
"Everything continues as before. I do what I have to do, the team works as it has always worked. I want to say that if it were necessary I would make Schumacher pass again. It's my duty, it's my contract. But who knows, if I manage to win again and I'm leading the world championship, well, maybe something will change".
After a 35-day break and so many test sessions, has Ferrari taken a step forward enough to compete with the McLarens? According to Irvine:
"Well, I think so, we've worked a lot, now we know how to make the tyres work well from the first lap, because that was a bit of a fault of ours in Australia. As for the rest, the McLarens surprised us too. But Ross Brown always says: guys, remember that reliability is crucial. And we went to Australia relying on reliability alone. That's not enough. We need to do more. Did we succeed? I don't know, I think we halved the gap to the McLarens, then we'll see. I don't know if McLaren has improved further. In Melbourne, as far as performance is concerned, they made some of the best engineers in Formula 1 feel mediocre. Fortunately, they didn't hold up".
Regardless of whether he's a wingman or not, the world leader sets his sights on Interlagos:
"I hope to win again. I hope to be leading the World Championship also after Imola, so maybe Schumacher will get angry for once. Joking aside, the track is fast, I like it a lot. There are a lot of undulations, so hopefully it will be good for Ferrari too. It's a strange track; for example, they've resurfaced half a corner every now and then, so it's a mess, you never know where to put your wheels. But I don't know why they did that. Anyway, this has always been a tough circuit for Ferrari, but I think we're better placed than in Melbourne".
After an unfortunate opening Grand Prix, a small problem with his ankle that the media went crazy about, and the birth of his son Mick, Michael Schumacher has the right motivation to get his season back on track:
"I went to Australia to win, but I was very unlucky because I was struggling with a lot of problems. My real championship starts here, in Brazil. We worked a lot to improve the performance of the F399, there were some technical solutions that we didn't understand in Melbourne. Now we know the car better. I would have been very surprised if the gap to Hakkinen and Coulthard had remained so large. We've made progress, probably they have too, but I hope the gap in qualifying has closed. We're still not at one hundred per cent of our potential, but we're close. If everything goes well, we'll be at our best for the Imola race in May".
Schumacher exonerates Bridgestone for the difficulties encountered in the search for maximum performance with the Japanese tyres:
"Bridgestone is working very well. If there are any difficulties, they are all ours. It's Ferrari that has to try to adapt to the new tyres, and manage to make the most of them. The track is beautiful and at the same time difficult, I remember great battles in the past, even moments of friction (with Senna, when the German was at Benetton), but only the most pleasant episodes remain in my memory. However, to aim for the title, you need to get results on all tracks. I'm happy that Eddie won in Australia, he deserved it. If he grows further his contribution to the team will be greater. As for the rest, it's pointless to speculate now. Our relationship hasn't changed. I consider Eddie a very good team-mate, and everything has remained as before".
The German made many starts during the tests, hoping not to have to deal with any more problems as happened at Suzuka and then Melbourne. Michael assures that there will be no problems:
"In Japan I had chosen a new clutch which had not been tested thoroughly. In Australia the problem was linked to a steering wheel malfunction which then affected my entire race. These are details that unfortunately in Formula One cannot be eliminated completely. I don't think it will happen again".
Friday's free practice session proved Eddie Irvine right: on a day heavily conditioned by rain and by a track that was only dry at times during the afternoon session, Michael Schumacher placed third, seven tenths down on Hakkinen. A comforting figure only for the fact that in Australia the gap was over a second, and has therefore been drastically reduced. Irvine is fourth, and shows to be in good shape by stopping only one tenth from his teammate.
The two standard bearers of the Cavallino complain about an F399 that tends to be too unstable in some parts of the track, where it is subject to annoying jumps. In addition, in the afternoon a nut, perhaps not tightened perfectly, suddenly unscrewed and Schumacher had to return to the pits on three wheels:
"I am satisfied with the performance of the car, as it is well balanced in the dry. However, I have a problem with grip in the corners; I almost lost control a couple of times. We have to analyse the data and try to put it right. There is still room for improvement, for now I think we are in a better situation than in Melbourne, but we have to wait for qualifying to know the exact truth".
However, the real problem is that with variable weather nothing can be predicted or planned, and so wet testing is only of any use up to a point. What Ferrari is really testing are the dry set-ups on a very bumpy track, where even Hakkinen, who usually barely touches the steering wheel, is forced to hang onto it with two hands. A problem also encountered by Schumacher:
"Before entering the pits there is a point where the car jumps and goes on its own, and I am forced to slow down instead of accelerating".
For his part, Jean Todt admits that although the gap is still too big, having reduced it by half a second is certainly satisfactory. However, we need to understand why the car tends to jump, while the problem with the wheel doesn't seem to be a cause for concern, as it is a random event that can happen to anyone. As usual, Mika Hakkinen was not surprised by the progress made by the men from the Prancing Horse:
"We expected progress from our rivals, but I don't think our supremacy can be questioned. The potential of our cars is always considerable, and it allows us to look for performance with relative ease".
On Saturday, the free practice preceding the qualifying session played a nasty trick on BAR's home driver Ricardo Zonta. The Brazilian driver, following a sudden mechanical failure of his car (probably a suspension, but it cannot be ruled out that the accident was caused by the roughness of the track) near the Ferradura bend, lost control at a speed of around 260 km/h and crashed into the guard-rail with his left side.
As soon as he was extracted from the cockpit and underwent a cursory examination, Dr Sid Watkins immediately discovered a deep, six-centimetre-long cut on the Brazilian driver's left foot. He was flown by helicopter to the hospital, and further examinations confirmed a fracture and a tendon injury on his left foot, making surgery necessary.
Zonta will undoubtedly miss his home Grand Prix, which he will have to watch from a hospital bed, but the recovery time and consequently his participation in the following races are still to be assessed. The incident resulted in a red flag and a stoppage, followed by the cancellation of the last thirty minutes to be contested, a time frame used to repair the guard-rail destroyed by BAR.
Moreover, if Zonta's crash confirmed BAR's serious reliability problems, which had already occurred during testing and in Australia with Villeneuve, parts of the car had failed. Rubens Barrichello and Pedro Diniz also made accusations: the former criticised the new tyres, saying that if they had been wider they would have slowed the car down, while the latter pointed to the danger of the run-off areas, saying that with sand, rather than grass, almost nothing would have happened.
During qualifying, therefore, there was only one BAR on the track, that of Jacques Villeneuve, whose day would certainly not be unforgettable. The 1997 World Champion, in fact, saw all his lap times cancelled because at the end of the session the marshals judged the petrol on his single-seater to be irregular. The Canadian, therefore, will have to start from the last position. A frustrating period for him, who did not expect such a troubled start to the season with his new team, the same one that during the winter was aiming to fight consistently for top positions in the championship.
The frustration was such that on his birthday, Villeneuve did not show up at the small party organized for him with about a hundred people present, opting for an early return to the hotel. On the other hand, everything goes very well for Mika Hakkinen and the McLaren Mercedes, who on Saturday afternoon extinguish the enthusiasm that had been kindled in the Ferrari house after seeing the gap narrowing in free practice. Mika conquered his second pole of the season after the one obtained in Melbourne, at the end of a battle of hundredths fought with his box mate David Coulthard. Four times in a row the two Silver Arrows beat with disarming ease the lap time that earned them pole position in 1998, so much for the measures adopted by the FIA to slow down these cars.
In the end, Hakkinen got the better of his teammate by one tenth and a half, while seven tenths down, in third position, there wasn't Michael Schumacher as it would have been logical to expect, nor Eddie Irvine, but Rubens Barrichello, who sent the Brazilian torcida into raptures by gaining the third position at the wheel of the small but very fast Stewart. The young driver from Brazil makes the most of the soft Bridgestone tyres.
An advantage on Saturday that could turn into a handicap on Sunday, since the other teams, with the exception of Benetton, Prost and Minardi, who, like Stewart, opted for the soft compound, will use hard tyres, and in all probability will run with a one-stop strategy.
"Brazilians loved Senna. When he passed away, many never saw a Formula 1 race again. Now they are coming back because I am here. Maybe not all of them, some, let's say ten per cent, are still shocked, but the others have set foot in a racetrack again and are going crazy for me today. Their shouting drove me, allowed me to beat Schumacher, to scare the McLarens. It's the best day of my life. Right here, at Interlagos, where I was born, I realised I could become Senna's heir. For now I dedicate this third time to him".
Says a moved Barrichello, who hopes he can count on a reliable Stewart capable of covering the entire race distance. Michael Schumacher is fourth, one second behind the pole man Hakkinen, a gap made even more frustrating by being beaten even by a Stewart. A punch that nearly broke through the pit wall revealed the anger of the moment, because after so many tests nobody expected to receive another such heavy humiliation. Jean Todt is worried:
"An important gap, too important. I really didn't expect something like this. I thought it would be four tenths or half a second, but not more than a second".
Friday's rain gave way to bright sunshine and a dry track, but with a pleasant climate, not too hot. Schumacher is almost never able to complete a clean, smear-free lap. Up to the middle of the session the German is only eighth, but in the end he manages to climb up to third position, only to be overtaken by Barrichello. Dark in the face, Michael declared to the press:
"The truth is that we missed the target we set ourselves, which was to be competitive from the first race. Now we have to go back up and it will be very hard. We've already got some new things to try to improve the car, but when you're more than a second behind, you have to take not steps forward but giant steps, and that makes it more difficult. It's not conceivable, it's not acceptable to be a second behind today. I thought, and we all did, that we would be at most half a second behind, but with this car we are more than double that, it's surprising, it can't be like that".
And on Stewart's performance, Schumacher said:
"That was also a surprise. I had reason to believe that Barrichello would do well, he had already done so in Australia, but not this strong, I couldn't believe it. I'm trying to console myself by thinking about the fact that he used soft tyres and so it was predictable that he would be strong in qualifying: the problems for him on those tyres will come in the race. Hopefully that will be the case, but McLaren, who used the same hard tyres as me, were also very strong. It's surprising and incredible what they've done. If there are no external factors involved, it would already be a great result to get on the podium".
Total domination of the Silver Arrows, just like in Australia, where, however, things went differently in the race. For this reason, Hakkinen is not at all calm:
"It will be a race full of unexpected events. All the cars, more or less, jump and go out of control on this track, there will be a lot of accidents, the Safety Car will arrive and so everything will change".
Eddie Irvine is only sixth, also beaten by Giancarlo Fisichella, and ahead of the two Jordans of Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Alex Zanardi's difficulties continued, only sixteenth, one second slower than his teammate Ralf Schumacher, eleventh. Regardless of the Formula CART champion's performance, Ralf's eleventh place is also an extremely disappointing result for the British team, which seems to have even worsened with respect to the past season, when the car already presented many problems, which, data at hand, are far from being solved.
On Sunday April 11, 1999, in a context practically identical to the first race in Australia, only the reliability of the cars seemed to be able to threaten the otherwise uncontested dominion of the McLarens. A question mark that already had half an answer when the lights went out. Hakkinen started well and remained undisturbed in the lead, also because he was not pursued by David Coulthard, who remained stationary on his lay-by without moving an inch. In second place was Rubens Barrichello, who easily held off Michael Schumacher, followed by Irvine, Fisichella and Frentzen.
The marshals pushed Coulthard's car, which was then taken back to the pits where the mechanics tried to get him back on track, although by now his race was in fact compromised. The Scotsman, in fact, returned to the track after three laps of waiting in the pits, and did so just as the leading drivers were arriving on the straight out of turn 3. And even in this case, something was wrong, but not with Coulthard's McLaren.
While the Scottish driver exits the pitlane ahead of Schumacher, at the same time Hakkinen suddenly slows down, being overtaken by Barrichello, his teammate, who is lapped, and Schumacher. It seems all over for Mika, destined to retire for the second time in a row due to mechanical failure. But then, coming out of Descida do Lago, the reigning champion's Mp4/14 regained speed, averting his retirement, at least for now. However, the Finn has lost the lead in the race, which without this minor problem - linked, according to rumours from the pits, to the hydraulic system - he could have run to the end without too much trouble. Instead, now, Hakkinen is third, behind the new leader Barrichello and Michael Schumacher, with Coulthard in the middle not very reluctant to let the Ferrarista have his way.
After the exciting third position obtained on Saturday, Barrichello sends the home fans into raptures, especially because, taking advantage of the soft tyres fitted on the Stewart, Rubens is able to keep the gap on Schumacher constantly on three seconds. In the meantime, Hakkinen easily regained contact with Schumacher, but overtaking him was anything but easy, as demonstrated by the fact that the Finn never made himself dangerous, and more than once had to move away from the rear of the F399 to manage the high temperatures.
Coulthard even managed to set the fastest lap time of the race, 1'19"310, but after about fifteen laps, the marshals waved the blue flags at him, and in the end he had to resign himself to giving way to the duellists behind him, with whom he hoped to be able to fight for victory today.
The action was certainly not lacking behind the points zone, where Jean Alesi overtook Ralf Schumacher for ninth position, while Damon Hill had to retire after a collision with Alexander Wurz, who tried to attack the Briton at the first corner. As in Australia, the Briton ended the race early due to an accident caused by someone else (on that occasion it was Jarno Trulli who rammed him).
After the contact, Wurz goes long, and in this way, after overtaking Ralf Schumacher, Alesi gains two more positions and goes up to seventh. Shortly afterwards, Johnny Herbert arrived, who had to show off in order not to disfigure himself in the confrontation with his team mate Barrichello; the British driver overtook Alesi and moved up to seventh position, with an excellent chance of scoring points, if it wasn't that a hydraulic problem put him out of the games, condemning him to the second consecutive retirement. On the other hand, Olivier Panis is given a stop&go for an early start. An enormous damage for the French driver of the Prost, being the pit-lane among the longest in the calendar (about thirty seconds are necessary to cross it with the limiter).
With Herbert's premature exit, Jean Alesi's ascent continues smoothly and he even climbs to fifth position after getting the better of Frentzen and then Fisichella. Not satisfied, the Frenchman started to reduce the gap separating him from Eddie Irvine, in fourth position and far from the times of the drivers ahead of him.
Coulthard's bad day reached its climax when the Scottish driver spun while closely observing an attempt by Hakkinen to overtake Schumacher, following a complicated lapping for the Ferrari driver. After that, the number two of the Woking team went back to the pits: the Scotsman seemed to want to retire, but the team told him to return to the track, this time four laps behind the leader. Finally, on lap 26, he stopped his car at the side, and this time the retirement was official. A frustrating start to the championship to say the least for Coulthard, who was unable, due to the fragility of his McLaren, to assert his desire for revenge after the clear defeat suffered in 1998. After two races he had zero points in the standings.
One lap later Coulthard's retirement, Jean Alesi returned to the pits and thwarted his efforts to reach fifth position by switching off the engine while he was preparing to restart after his stop. It didn't matter, because not much time passed before a gearbox failure definitively ousted the ex-Ferrarista from the race.
On lap 28, race leader Rubens Barrichello made the first of two scheduled stops. After an 8.8 second pit-stop, the idol of the house rejoins the track in fourth place, behind Irvine, 28 seconds behind Schumacher and Hakkinen, whose fight is now for the lead. Hakkinen tried to exploit to his advantage the many lapping that the two drivers met on their way, but Schumacher didn't get upset and didn't offer any chance to his adversary, helped by an excellent traction coming out of the F399 bends.
At the 32nd of the 72 laps foreseen the race of the French Stéphane Sarrazin, substitute for the injured Luca Badoer at the wheel of the Minardi, ended. The Prost test driver crashes violently against the barriers coming out of the last bend. The Minardi is destroyed, but ends its race at the side of the track, therefore the race direction does not consider necessary the entry of the Safety Car.
It's the 35th lap and Rubens Barrichello, with new soft tyres, gets closer to Irvine's Ferrari, and taking advantage of all the slipstream on the long main straight, at the first braking he doesn't give the Northern Irishman the chance to defend himself, and overtakes him. The thirty-eighth lap is the crucial moment of the race.
Michael Schumacher makes his first and only pit-stop, and returns to the track second, ahead of Barrichello, demonstrating that the two-stop strategy has not brought the hoped-for results. Hakkinen remains on the track trying an overcut, aware of having to make perfect laps to stay ahead of the German once he has made his stop. The Finn encounters a few too many lapped cars, specifically Alex Zanardi, but despite this he laps much faster than Schumacher. After three qualifying laps, Hakkinen is called into the pits. The stop lasts 9.1 seconds.
Schumacher's was one second slower. Coming out of the pit lane, there is no escape for Schumacher: Hakkinen is again the leader of the race, after the problem with his McLaren had relegated him to third position. The Ferrarista pays three seconds from the Finnish driver, and nothing suggests that he can reduce the gap.
Schumacher didn't even have to worry about looking in the mirrors, because on lap 42 the Ford engine of the Stewart betrayed poor Barrichello, who had to say goodbye to the possibility of greeting his fans from the third step of the podium. His performance, however, remains gigantic.
Like in Melbourne, the number of retirements remains decidedly high, demonstrating that the month of rest has not brought the improvements that the teams were hoping for. Fisichella says goodbye to a placing in the points, because of a clutch problem; Alex Zanardi concludes another anonymous race, stopped by the gearbox; and among the many, Jacques Villeneuve also stops, climbed up from the last to the seventh position before a hydraulic trouble ousts him from the race.
It wasn't Hakkinen's time, but Schumacher showed a race pace that was clearly superior to his teammate and the rest of the competition, proving that in Melbourne, without the troubles that afflicted the two contenders for the title, it would have been a different race.
The last stages of the Grand Prix reserved few surprises, with only Irvine who made an unscheduled pit-stop and, also losing time in restarting from the lay-by, returned to the race in fifth position, behind Frentzen, third, and Ralf Schumacher, fourth, ten seconds away.
The leader of the world championship quickly caught up with the Williams driver, but he was unable to make an attack to climb back up to at least fourth position.
Hakkinen manages the first position with extreme calmness, he allows himself the luxury to make the fastest lap on the penultimate lap, in 1'18"448, and at the end of the 72nd and last lap, he celebrates his tenth victory in his career. Michael Schumacher takes his first championship points, crossing the line five seconds behind McLaren-Mercedes. Frentzen retires on the last lap with a fuel pressure problem, but still retains third position, being the only one with Schumacher not to have been lapped.
Ralf Schumacher finished fourth ahead of Irvine and, surprisingly, Olivier Panis, who had not scored points since the 1997 Luxembourg Grand Prix. A result that is even more appreciable if you think about the penalty that the Frenchman had to pay for the jump start, even if we have to admit that the many retirements, undoubtedly, played their part. On the podium, Hakkinen received the winner's trophy from Viviane Senna, who was not spared from the champagne bath of the reigning champion. Same for Frentzen, exhausted at the end of the race to the point of sitting on the podium after receiving the trophy.
The German was immediately targeted by Hakkinen and Schumacher, who showered him with champagne. For the former Williams it was his second podium in a row, a great start for him at the wheel of the Jordan:
"I had terrible cramps in my shoulders because of the tight belts. And then in the race I had breathing problems, because of the fumes from Fisichella's car".
These are the words of the native of Moenchengladbach, who admits to having feared for third position after the problem occurred to his Jordan in the last meters:
"I was in a panic. Luckily Hakkinen closed the race quickly".
The Finn, who with that chill during the first laps was already thinking of a second retirement in a row:
"When I saw Barrichello and Schumacher overtaking me, the world collapsed on me. I thought: my race is over. There's nothing more I can do. My gearbox had jammed coming out of the corner, I was in the middle of the straight and I couldn't get into top gear. It was moments of terror. Then, as if by magic, the gearbox started working again and didn't give me any more problems. It was a success of strategy. We waited to go back in for the tyre change and decided to do it after Schumacher. It was a winning choice, because in those few laps without the Ferrari in front, I was pulling like crazy, even though there was a bit of traffic. There we took part of the margin, the rest was made by the team, with a pit stop one second less than Schumacher. I got back into the lead and there was no more story."
"I admit I was lucky, I've never had a gearbox problem like that in my career, and usually, when something like that happens to you, at least two gears jump. But I also deserved my good luck. I could have overtaken Schumacher on at least two occasions, but I preferred not to take any risks. On a mental level I was perfect. And now we're moving forward, in the next tests we'll increase speed and improve reliability, we'll continue the progress we started after Australia. The thing that makes me the happiest is the set-up, the car has great stability and we always manage to find new things that make it more competitive. I said that this race would be a lottery. Luckily there were no accidents, but several corners are dangerous and the asphalt is very slippery. I am tired but very happy. And in Imola we have to try to gain some more important points to go to the top of the classification".
Hakkinen concludes, that with this victory rises to the second position in the ranking, two points behind Irvine, that with the fifth place obtained, keeps the leadership of the drivers' classification. David Coulthard, on the other hand, is still at zero, and he just can't find peace with the way things went:
"It's frustrating to still be at zero after two races, knowing that I had a fantastic car in my hands, capable of giving Ferrari a second a lap in qualifying, and that I could easily stay ahead of all my rivals in the race. For me it's a very bad moment. You're at the start, on the front row, you try to accelerate and the engine dies. They tell me it is an electronic problem that has affected the gear selector, hopefully we can solve it quickly, because in Imola I would like to be the one on the top step of the podium. I went back out on track, even though I knew my race was compromised, to help the team, to see if we could find the problem through the data. The funny thing is that for a while everything was going well, then the problems started again".
Mercedes racing manager Norbert Haug confirms Coulthard's theory about the problem at the start, one of many that the Anglo-German team is facing at the beginning of the season. Therefore:
"You have to rejoice, but without exaggerating. There is something that worries us, it went better than in Melbourne for reliability, but it was not nice to see Coulthard stopped on the grid and Hakkinen slowed down by gearbox problems. We were scared. For a moment I was afraid we weren't going to bring anything home. Last year many Grands Prix were relaxing, we started in the lead and they didn't catch us anymore, now the fight is much tighter. Ferrari, at least in the race, is much closer than Schumacher would have you believe".
At Ferrari, Michael Schumacher, now fifth in the championship on six points, just behind his brother who has seven, confesses that he believed he could win the race after taking the lead:
"Until a few hours before the Grand Prix I was very pessimistic, because Saturday's result had discouraged me and burned me. When I was in the lead and came into the pits I thought I could do it. But Hakkinen did really well. He pulled really hard for a few laps and when he restarted from the pit stop he was in the lead. He was very good. At that point there was nothing I could do, I had to manage the rest of the race. But second place is very good for me. Before the start the best I could have hoped for was third place, but it could also have been fourth or fifth. That's great. The car is there and, with the work we have planned, I can say today that the positions could be reversed at Imola. Now I am no longer worried about the future, I believe in this car, I believe in the development work we can do. I believe in it. This time last year we were in a very different situation".
Coulthard's premature exit was obviously a godsend for Ferrari:
"To be honest, I have to say I was happy at the time. After all, it was an unexpected gift, you find yourself a little further ahead and that can come in handy. It's not that I'm happy in principle to see someone stop in front of me, but at the end of the day, there are times when it comes in handy. That's right, a gift. However, when you think back you see things differently. In the sense that you don't have to hope that someone will stop to go on. You have to be able to do it on your own, with your own means, on your own, without relying on other people's mistakes".
If the F399 gets a second in qualifying, according to Schumacher the gap gets smaller in the race:
"In my opinion, at this moment between us and McLaren, the real gap is four tenths of a second, maybe five in certain circumstances, but in short, we are competitive. And that is a gap that can be closed. We need a lot of little things. The car is good, the engine is fine. The aerodynamics, yes: that's where we need to work, but there were already steps forward, improvements that had already been studied in the tunnel. You don't improvise from one day to the next according to the results on the track. I'm convinced that with the tests we'll do at Fiorano, and next week at Jerez, these improvements will come. In certain corners the car still jumps a lot, it gets out of tune. In the race it was already much better than Saturday, just to say".
A gap, the one from McLaren, which has narrowed from one day to the next, mainly due to the changes made to the car after qualifying:
"In the afternoon and night of Saturday we made changes that gave us hope for an improvement. And so it was, because Sunday morning in the warm-up was a different story. My smile was back. This is not thanks to me, but to the technicians and the team who knew how to do the right things".
Despite McLaren's much talked about superiority, however, Ferrari is leading the Constructors' Championship, on 18 points, +8 on McLaren and Jordan:
"I have six points, Hakkinen ten. Now we're going to Imola with Ferrari leading the Constructors' Championship and we're only at the third race: everything is very different from a year ago. At Imola I could even go ahead of Hakkinen in the points, but we also have to be careful about reliability: we didn't expect the problems Irvine had, and they show that you always have to take care of everything. But these are all things we can do. Now the immediate problem is to make up those four tenths. It seems to me that we have a team that knows how to work well. I see this 1999 as positive for another reason: it's true that we have some problems, but so do the others...".
He had made the most of the vicissitudes of those who are usually faster than him in Australia, but in Brazil the true values on the field were seen once again. Doubled and light years away from his teammate. Eddie Irvine, in any case, is still leading the championship. Moreover, without the additional pit stop, the third step on the podium would have been his:
"The engine's pneumatic valve system needs a reservoir of air to work, and for a reason we have yet to discover, this air was coming out of somewhere. So at one point I was almost out of air, and I came into the pits for this unexpected type of refuelling, which is never done during the race. This means that we also have to be careful with reliability. For the rest, the car had a lot of problems right from the start of the race with the wing, the tyres and the rear end skidding. We'll have to work on getting traction, because things were really bad in certain corners".
At the end of the race, Ralf Schumacher's assault on fourth place ended without ever having tried to overtake:
"I wanted to try and I was just waiting for the right moment, but when he arrived he skidded and I almost hit him. Then there was no more good moment. The race was over. It is a real shame as I would have liked to have finished on the podium. I would have arrived at Imola with a few more points".
For the San Marino Grand Prix we have to wait another three weeks, during which Ferrari will have some test sessions to find those famous four tenths of a second Schumacher was referring to. McLaren, on the other hand, will have to work hard to overcome the fragility of a car that is otherwise still unbeatable.
Davide Scotto di Vetta