In the days following the triumph at Imola, Ferrari continued to work tirelessly to maintain its first place in the Drivers' Championship, where Michael Schumacher is four points ahead of Eddie Irvine, and in the Constructors' Championship, where McLaren, despite its superior performance in the early stages of the championship, pays dearly for the poor reliability of its Mp4/14. However, the tests held at Fiorano a few days after the San Marino Grand Prix are overshadowed by an alleged argument between the two Prancing Horse drivers, which takes place on 6 May 1999, and for the first time in four years they are involved in an altercation. One would immediately think that the quarrel is caused by the proximity in the drivers' ranking between the two, with Irvine perhaps tired of his role as wingman. Actually, as Schumacher explains to the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag:
"We didn't have a boxing match. But it's true that I called him an idiot. It happened in a discussion about safety, which he wasn't taking seriously enough. But we've been working together for four years and this is the first time it's happened. I don't want to know how many times he did it without anyone hearing him".
Nothing, therefore, can put at risk the tranquility present at this stage within the team directed by Jean Todt. Michael, in fact, prefers to focus on his first success of the season:
"It was a great team victory. We made our rivals feel the weight of our presence, but that doesn't mean the championship is done. If you then want to give other meanings to it because we were racing in Imola, because Ferrari had not won for sixteen years, everything is fine. We just need to keep our feet on the ground. We mustn't reduce the pressure on our rivals, I imagine that McLaren's reaction will be adequate and won't take long to come. That's why we are working full time".
Schumacher continues testing, and on 7th May 1999, he completes sixty-nine laps at Fiorano. The German is full of energy in view of the Monaco Grand Prix where, according to him, Ferrari will be the favorite. A prediction that doesn't seem crazy at all if you think about the performance developments made by the F399 in just a few weeks. A line of thought that the Ferrari driver maintains also on Wednesday 12th May 1999, during the usual press conference that opens the race weekend.
"Repeating the success of Imola? If we have to, this is the right place and the right time. I have a small advantage in terms of points to administer, I would love to go home on Monday after having increased it. If Ferrari still has a technical disadvantage against our direct rivals, there's a chance to make up for it here. They say that here the driver counts more than anywhere else. We'll see, I'll try. Monte Carlo is certainly a difficult, demanding race. I know that Hakkinen is very fast here, but I'll try to keep up with him".
Speaking of lapping, a hot topic following Ron Dennis' rant at Imola, who saw the drivers' lack of readiness to back off as the main reason for Coulthard's defeat in the fight for victory with Schumacher, the latter says:
"You have to be very careful on this track and prepare any overtaking attempts calmly. I know something about it, last year I wasted my race just to gain the position on Wurz. But I wouldn't make a big deal out of it, I've had my problems with overtaking. It happened recently in Brazil".
The secret to being fast on this twisty street circuit, according to Schumacher is:
"Prepare well the set-up to get a lot of traction and adjust the engine to make it as supple as possible. Then two crucial points have to be tackled perfectly: the Casino curve and the Piscine Esses. We tested it at Fiorano. There is an aerodynamic package that should give good results. The technicians have also discovered the reason for the breakage on Irvine's car at Imola. It shouldn't happen again. Otherwise, we are confident, but we have to wait and see what our rivals have done".
Speaking of opponents, McLaren-Mercedes is showing all its desire to make things clear both on the track and in the world rankings, bringing to the Principality as many as five cars, an absolute record, this after having worked relentlessly to make progress on performance, but above all on reliability, the real Achilles heel of this car. Although Schumacher argues that it is pointless to make a case around the behavior of the drivers to be lapped, on the eve of free practice, a meeting took place in the pits, to which almost all the drivers took part along with FIA delegate Charlie Whiting. Many wondered why, following his appointment as race director, penalties were no longer imposed on drivers who ignored the blue flags three times in one lap, which indicate that the driver following is to be given way. Whiting is not giving a precise answer, nor will there be any official statement but apparently, after Dennis's criticism and the clarifying meeting, likely, the penalties for those drivers who are slow to step aside will be increased. Traditionally, the first two free practice sessions at Monte Carlo are held on Thursday, and for the first time in this championship, Ferrari leads the standings at the end of the day. Michael Schumacher recorded the best performance, a tenth and a half ahead of Mika Hakkinen. An unexpected third place goes to Olivier Panis, who celebrates his first, and so far only, career victory here in 1996 driving a Ligier, in a downpour that claimed many famous victims, including Schumacher himself, who crashed into the barriers a few corners into the first lap. He made up for this in 1997 with a masterful performance, again in the rain, which allowed him to dominate the race. The love-hate relationship with this track, however, continued in the 1998 season, with the German, author of one of the worst races in his career, characterized by the accident with Alexander Wurz and, at the end of a race finished in last position and lapped, by a futile attempt to split from Pedro Diniz, who almost lost a very precious placing in points for Arrows because of that maneuver. But the victories, if you add those obtained with Benetton in 1994 and 1995, are three, and from the way he begins his weekend, Schumacher intending to catching up with Alain Prost, who has just four wins on the streets of the Principality. At the end of the second session, the driver from Kerpen declared:
"We are very close, but I'm happy because the car seems to run a little better than in Imola. It wasn't too difficult to keep up the pace: we found a good setup. This is where it counts a lot, along with the driver's concentration. I think the overall times are realistic. The important thing here is not to find a wall of cars in front of you at the start because then you can't overtake. As far as we are concerned, in some sections of the track we were faster than last year. This means, considering the extra groove in the tyres, that Bridgestone is working very well. I hope the weather will be good this weekend, although I'm not too worried about the rain. But what counts most on this circuit is to have a very high concentration because here it is easy to make mistakes, and just the slightest error is enough to finish outside".
And Schumacher knows it well, as well as trying out a new rear wing, some aerodynamic tweaks necessary for the layout of the circuit, and a new super-electronic steering wheel, in the morning he overdoes the kerb at the Port Chicane and breaks a tie rod of the left suspension. After that, the Ferrari slithers slightly against the guardrails, but Schumacher returns to the pits and the mechanics can see that the damage is not so serious, and the time lost to repair the car is minimal. In fourth position, behind Olivier Panis, there is Eddie Irvine, followed by Giancarlo Fisichella, with a Benetton slightly more on the ball than in Imola thanks to the new wings and suspensions. The Northern Irishman is among the drivers testing the new extra-soft tyre brought by Bridgestone and, like almost everyone else, he is not fully satisfied with it. Too much rapid wear and excessive understeer are what limits the qualities, in Irvine's opinion, but all in all he says he is happy with the balance of the car. It is difficult, therefore, for these new tyres to be used by anyone in the race, especially as this would mean opting for a multi-stop strategy, which on a track like Monaco is not very convenient. With Hakkinen second and Coulthard sixth, McLaren has to admit Ferrari's superiority on this track. The drivers of the two Silver Arrows struggle to find the right set-up, however, while Coulthard shows concern, the same cannot be said for the reigning World Champion:
"There are ten cars packed into one second? Good. A bit of balance will only add to the spectacle. People won't get bored. In this situation it will also be more fun to take pole position. I know very well that Ferrari is strong. But I am calm. I've worked a lot with my engineers, and I'm convinced that we've found good technical solutions for the car. I'm not worried, neither for the timed laps nor for the race on Sunday”.
First place in free practice certainly doesn't relax the men from the Prancing Horse, who can already smell pole position, which in Monte Carlo is the equivalent of having half a victory in their pockets. In fact, on the Friday break between free practice and qualifying day, Michael Schumacher, together with his engine engineer Castorino and electronics engineer Czapski, raided Fiorano for a mini-test session, during which they concentrated on starting, another crucial element, especially when racing in the Principality. The tests are jeopardized by the morning fog, which complicates the journey to Fiorano, but Schumacher is willing to do anything to get to the Ferrari’s track, even drive there if necessary. The solution soon arrived: he flew to Nice by helicopter, chartered a plane to Bologna and then flew again by helicopter to Fiorano. Schumacher tests the car number four with the last body (number 194), which will become Irvine's mule for the rest of the weekend. The German driver completed a dozen laps without any problem, and then made several practice starts, careful to return immediately to the pits so as not to exceed the fifty-kilometer limit allowed by the FIA during Grand Prix week. After the work was completed, Michael declared:
"By now we should be at a level of competitiveness equal to the McLarens, even in qualifying. I'm not just basing it on Thursday's practice, but on the fact that I feel the car has a good driveability, it is responsive to all stresses, with a good overall set-up. I don't know if I'll be able to take pole, but I know I'll be able to fight for it and that's already very important, it means we've made progress. Yes, I asked to go to Fiorano because I wanted to practice the starts and that is impossible in Monte-Carlo. That's all there is to it, nothing new or secret, we had already done what we needed to do on the car. And it looks pretty good".
Eddie Irvine, unlike his crew chief, spends the day relaxing on a boat. Asked by the press about Schumacher's trip to Fiorano, he jokingly replies:
"I sent Michael to test my test mule, so I could get more sleep. I stayed on the boat, then went back to the hotel with the team. I wanted to go out to sea with my mom for a while, but it wasn't possible to move the boat, two others were in the way. I moored it in front of the Ferrari motorhomes, so at night I can check that the cars don’t get stolen".
The winner of the Australian Grand Prix is a candidate for a place on the second row, although he does not rule out the possibility of being among the very small group of drivers who will compete for pole. Team manager Jean Todt reiterates the concept, declaring that he hopes to have, at the end of qualifying, one car on the front row and the other on the second, a situation he says is ideal for the race. As for Schumacher and his test in Fiorano, on Friday 14th May 1999 the French manager reveals:
"Schumacher went to Fiorano to test a new system for starts. When he makes a mistake at the start, you journalists take it out on him; actually, we have not given him yet a car capable of starting well".
Ferrari is at the top of the championship standings, but it cannot logically afford to let its guard down:
"Six points are not enough, at the end of the world championship it would be a good thing, but now it's too little, all it takes is one race that goes wrong to go backwards. We have to be very careful because at McLaren they are monsters. They have a great engine, a great car, a magnificent organization, an innovative designer and then a budget that is enormously higher than ours. How much do they spend at McLaren? I don't know, but we are 450, they are over 700. I'm not looking for excuses, I'm just saying they're good and they're richer. It's right to fear them".
So what is missing for Ferrari to be at the level of the Anglo-German team? Todt replies:
"Nothing or very little. For example, we lack five or six specialists in as many sectors, but we are filling the gap. Our real strength is the team. When I was at Peugeot, every morning I would go and say hello to all my men one by one. There were 60 of them, here we are 450, but I do it at least once a month. It's important to get to know each other, talk to each other, look each other in the eyes. At the moment we're still about two tenths slower, we're there but not yet ahead. But we're in with a chance, also because we're the only ones with Michael".
Talking about his relationship with Schumacher and President Montezemolo, the Ferrari team manager concludes by saying:
"Schumacher, off the track, always makes it clear about what he thinks, especially the things that are wrong, but he never gets angry. Montezemolo does, he gets angry. You criticize, he gets angry with me".
On Saturday 15th May 1999, Michael Schumacher has an accident during the morning's free practice at Sainte Dévote and takes part in qualifying with a test mule. It doesn't matter, as the accident doesn't seem to affect the German's confidence with the car and the track: during qualifying, Michael is in the lead from the start. Then, in the final stages, with a time of 1'20"611, he took half a second off his direct pursuer, Hakkinen. Pole position seemed to be a done deal, and with Irvine third before Barrichello, and Coulthard only sixth, Todt's rosy expectations were promptly fulfilled. While Ferrari was already celebrating, however, the two Silver Arrows were back on the track in the last available minutes, for a last desperate attempt. Mika Hakkinen starts his lap: in the first sector he gains a little on Schumacher's time, the same happens in the second sector. Everyone is convinced that in the third sector, the weakest point of the McLarens up to that moment, Hakkinen leaves a few tenths, but this is not the case. With a time of 1'20"547, the reigning World Champion outwits Schumacher, who is already sure of his first pole start of the season, and took his fourth consecutive pole position, with just 64 thousandths of a second ahead of his rival. Shortly afterwards also Coulthard arrives, who ousts Irvine from the third position, hoisting himself onto the second row. The two Silver Arrows make a remarkable comeback, which, as a beaming Ron Dennis says in the post-qualifying session, is extremely important for the race. The team manager sings the praises of his driver, author of an amazing lap:
"Hakkinen's is a tremendous feat. Starting in front here is like a victory, we already have half a Grand Prix in the bag. And Schumacher can only applaud us".
Equally happy is Mika, himself in disbelief of his great lap when, after seeing the time on his display, he curses a liberating 'Jesus':
"It's my masterpiece, one of the greatest performances of my life. Exciting, wonderful, a joy to share with the whole team, because my mechanics and engineers were perfect here. We had a terrible start on Thursday because we had problems with the setup and the balance. In three days they were able to change the car, making it go faster each time. Even before my last attempt, we made corrections. It was the right thing to do, as I overtook the Ferrari".
The Maranello team complained about the yellow flags on the track for Hill's car, which stopped because of an engine failure, but the race direction explained that everything was regular, since the warning had been there for several laps and everyone knew what to do; moreover, the Jordan was stopped off the trajectory and wasn’t a danger. To dispel any doubts, Hakkinen, after overtaking, lifted his arm and stated in the post-qualifying session that he had lifted his foot slightly, a manoeuvre that cost him perhaps a tenth of a second. The pole position lost at the end of the race annoys Schumacher, who continues to complain to the media about the yellow flags not being respected. President Montezemolo, however, threw water on the fire to extinguish the controversy:
"Let's not cling to these excuses, it was explained to me that everything is regular, this is the grid. No excuses, we have been the strongest in the recent days, we said that a front row would be good for us and we got that. That's great, even though I would have liked pole more. Unfortunately, it was a pity that in qualifying Michael had to use the test mule which did not go as well as the race car, which he had destroyed in free practice".
In the third row, behind Ferrari and McLaren, follow the usual third wheelers, Rubens Barrichello and Heinz-Harald Frentzen; promising seventh position for Jarno Trulli on Prost, ahead of Jacques Villeneuve on BAR and the two Benettons of Fisichella and Trulli that close the top ten. Qualifying session to forget for Marc Gené, who in the space of sixty minutes, that is the duration of the qualifying session, managed to go to the wall twice: first he lost his wing near the chicane and crashed into the barriers, then, he crashed at the Tabaccaio corner after a driving mistake, destroying the two Minardis at his disposal. The 25-year-old Spaniard will start from the last position, and, unfortunately for the portfolio of the small Faenza team, his accidents are not over.
"Two terrible blows, the hardest I have ever experienced. Luckily I didn't get hurt".
On 16th May 1999, the chances of rain are averted by a clear sun that ensures a completely dry race. Seventy-eight laps for a total of 263 kilometres, during which it will be forbidden to lower one's guard even for a second, because in Monte Carlo the guard-rail is always at the palm of one's hand. The audience remembers Ayrton Senna's mistake in 1988 when he crashed into the barriers at the Portier while he was calmly managing the first position. The slightest distraction on the part of the Brazilian phenomenon, and all of a sudden victory was in the hands of the rival Alain Prost. The fourth Grand Prix of the year will have in the starts and in the strategies the crucial factors to assign the success, because with modern Formula One cars, overtaking in Monaco is almost impossible, especially if you are fighting with cars running at almost similar times. On this hot Monegasque Sunday, it is not Hakkinen's phantasmagorical pole position that proves to be crucial, but Michael Schumacher's Friday at Fiorano. When the lights go out, the German driver surprises everyone with a scorching start, and at the first bend Hakkinen is sensationally behind. Eddie Irvine does the same and manages to get the better of Coulthard. A dream start for the Reds, which throws the disappointment of 24 hours before behind them in no time at all. Schumacher pushes on the accelerator right from the start, recording the fastest lap in 1'24"316. After three passes on the finishing line, Hakkinen already pays almost four seconds. In the middle of the group, in an attempt to recover positions after starting seventeenth, Damon Hill throws himself into Ralf Schumacher's car at the Port Chicane. For the 1996 world champion, however, there is no room to enter the bend, Ralf closes the door and is rammed by the Jordan. The German of the Williams restarts, Hill has to retire, and the marshals remove the damaged car from the trajectory with great timeliness a few seconds before the arrival of the outrider Schumacher, thus avoiding the entry of the Safety-Car.
The other Williams driven by Alex Zanardi is in tenth position, but he clearly slows down the large group of drivers following him, led by Alexander Wurz. In the following laps, due to a braking error at the first bend, the Italian Formula CART champion is relegated to the back of the field, turning this into another race to forget. In the first stages, the race is rather static, with the first six positions, valid for the points, unchanged: Schumacher takes the lead and goes on gaining on Hakkinen, who keeps a gap of five seconds on Irvine, third, with Coulthard who closes a rather crowded quartet at about three seconds from the Northern Irishman. Further behind are Barrichello and Frentzen. A worrying cloud of white smoke, however, comes out of the rear of Coulthard's car every time he comes out of the hairpin turn, and it became more and more consistent lap after lap. In the meantime, not even the first lapping slows down an unrestrained Schumacher, who on the seventeenth lap lowers his time limit again, going under the wall of 1'23"0. Hakkinen cannot do anything: now he is twelve seconds away and, at the same time, he has to start looking at himself in the mirrors because Irvine has reduced the gap to less than two seconds. The first driver to come into the pits for a pit stop is Jarno Trulli, on the twenty-third of the seventy-eight laps planned. The pit stop lasts only 7.4 seconds, so it is logical to think that the Prost driver has adopted a brave two-stop strategy, intending to enter the points zone, being up to that moment in seventh position. On lap 25 Marc Gené's race ends, and for the third time in two days he destroys his Minardi, this time crashing into the barriers at the first corner. It is lap 32 and the time for Michael Schumacher to make his pit stop is approaching. To try to keep the first place anyway, the Ferrari driver steadily increases the gap, makes a new fast lap in 1'22"288, which is one second faster than the fastest race lap recorded last season.
Simply extraordinary, if you consider that with these new tyres with an extra groove you would have to rely on much less grip. Hakkinen, on the other hand, is in clear difficulty, so much so that even Coulthard stuck to what is now a real trio formed by Irvine's Ferrari between the two McLaren-Mercedes. Irvine almost has a chance to overtake Hakkinen when the lapping of Pedro de la Rosa gave some trouble to the Finn, who, despite the small thrill, keeps his position. Poor Johnny Herbert has to retire for the fourth time out of four races with Stewart: he has to reckon with the failure of the right rear suspension, perhaps caused by a light contact with the barriers in the previous bends. The Briton stops on the Mirabeau escape route, and also this time the Safety-Car entry is avoided. On lap 36 the first real surprise of this race is recorded: the direction frames the fight between Hakkinen and Irvine, but behind them there no longer is David Coulthard. The Scotsman runs a lap at very high times, after which he has no choice but to return to the pits and retire for the third time in four races. Once again, McLaren is unable to bring either car to the checkered flag. Considerably faster than Hakkinen, Irvine is called into the pits for an undercut on the Finnish driver on lap 38. The mechanics do their job perfectly, so Eddie maintains the third position and immediately begins to push as planned. All this while, in a lap and a half, Mika Salo retires, crashing at Loews with brake problems on his BAR, Toranosuke Takagi due to an Arrows engine failure, and, as already mentioned, David Coulthard, for what Ron Dennis reveals to be gearbox problems. Irvine's run-up is facilitated by a serious mistake made by Hakkinen at Mirabeau: Mika blocks the front right side, resorts to the escape route to avoid the guardrails, but to get back on track he is forced to reverse. He loses an enormous amount of time, to the point that Irvine is already behind him. Overtaking is now a formality. Hakkinen's inaccuracy is due to the oil stain left on track by the engine of Takagi's Arrows.
On lap 42, with all the calmness in the world, thanks to the more than forty second lead, Michael Schumacher makes a 9.9-second pit stop and comfortably takes the lead. A very solid leadership to be managed until the end, always paying attention to the barriers. Irvine again attacks the exhaust pipe of Hakkinen, who still hasn’t stopped, but he doesn’t need to attempt any reckless overtaking manoeuvres, as he already has second place in his pocket. When Hakkinen returns, on the fiftieth lap, the Ferrari one-two begins to materialize. On the same lap Barrichello also goes into the pits, engaged in a close fight for fourth place with Frentzen. The German continues, lowering his lap times for an overcut that will be successful. At the Ferrari pits, the mechanics prepare several times for a possible stop of one of the two drivers: according to some rumours coming from the pits, Schumacher is not satisfied with his tyres and wants to change them since there is the margin to do it, while he is sure that Irvine has taken less fuel during the first stop and therefore he will have to make a second pit-stop. Eddie's second pit-stop is made at 20 laps from the end: the Northern Irish driver keeps his position without any problem on Hakkinen, not very fighting and in a crisis with his McLaren. The Finnish driver has only one flash on lap 67, when he sets the record of the day in 1'22"259, just 30 thousandths better than Schumacher's previous lap. Then, however, he returns to high times and manages the third position until the end, as Irvine is seven seconds away and reaching him - but above all overtaking him - is an impossible mission. The final stages of the race are lit up by Giancarlo Fisichella's pursuit of Rubens Barrichello, a fight for the fifth position.
The Brazilian feels the pressure and loses control of his Stewart at the Piscine, crashing into the barriers. The rear part of the Stewart is destroyed, as well as the morale of Rubens, who remains desperate at the side of the track leaning his head against the guardrail, not finding peace for the mistake made only five laps before the end. Barrichello's retirement allows Alexander Wurz to enter the points area, so that Benetton can celebrate an unexpected double points finish. With half a minute's lead over his team-mate, Michael Schumacher triumphs for the second consecutive time in the championship and for the fourth time on the historic circuit of Monte-Carlo, matching Alain Prost in this special ranking. What makes this success even more unforgettable is the fact that Michael surpasses Niki Lauda in terms of victories driving a Ferrari. The German now has sixteen victories, one more than the Austrian champion. Irvine completes an extraordinary Ferrari one-two, which is also the Maranello team's first at Monte Carlo. In short, it is a historic day for the Prancing Horse. Hakkinen is third, with Schumacher's monstrous start in his mind, even if, with the race pace shown by the two F399s, a good sprint would not have been enough. Frentzen continued his solid season, finishing fourth before the Benettons of Fisichella and Wurz, who, with this result, ousted the disastrous Williams from fourth place in the constructors' championship. A classification led with authority by Ferrari, which with this double win flies to 44 points, 24 more than McLaren. The dominion is also useful in the drivers' ranking, where Schumacher increases the gap on Irvine and Hakkinen. The German has 26 points, Irvine 18, Hakkinen 14, and Frentzen is fourth with 13 points. Disappointment appears on Mika Hakkinen's face during the post-race press conference. The Finnish driver begins by saying:
"You can't tell now, but with a good start surely the race would have been different. I felt that my car had something in the front that didn't work as usual. But I don't want to say anything until I have assessed exactly what happened".
McLaren later speaks of a double problem on the Mp4/14 of the reigning World Champion: one with the suspension, which penalised road holding, and the other with the steering, which hardened throughout the laps; an inconvenience probably caused by the particular structure of the front geometry of the car, since McLaren is the only one to have a fairing, in addition to the suspension triangle, also the steering linkage, which runs diagonally inside an airfoil. Excessive use of the kerbs or slight contact with the barriers could thus have led to the malfunctioning of the components, resulting in Hakkinen losing speed, who goes on to say:
"This has been a very difficult weekend for us, and I knew almost immediately that my car would not have the right balance to finish the race well. Also for second position. Michael made a very good start, while I let the tyres skid too much. I could have forced the first braking, but it would have been a dangerous situation and would have not been worth it. The championship is long and anything can still happen".
But the mistake at Mirabeau certainly didn't help:
"I saw the yellow flags waving but I didn't understand what was going on, whether there had been an accident or something else. I didn't realize until I was going straight on that there was oil on the track from the car that had passed just a moment before me. I didn't want to end up in the barriers and I aimed for the run-off, trying to get out of that situation as quickly as possible. I can't be satisfied with the result, but at least I can console myself with the points collected. The championship is still in its infancy. Ahead we have time to progress, and I am convinced that the team can manage to improve the engine and the balance of the car: I am optimistic".
Remaining at home at McLaren, David Coulthard also gives a brief account of the umpteenth race ended early, who so far has only scored six points in the season and already sees his championship hopes fading:
"At the start I couldn't stay ahead of the Ferraris, but even with a full tank I was running at a good level. At a certain point I started to have problems with the gear selection, and from the box they warned me of a loss of pressure in the hydraulic circuit that would not have allowed me to finish the race".
Ron Dennis sums up the entire weekend by labelling it as unsatisfactory, while Norbert Haug tries to see the positive side of what is a resounding defeat:
"This result is the best we could do, today the Ferraris were definitely stronger. Everything happened to us: Coulthard breaking his gearbox, losing oil and having to retire, Hakkinen starting badly, finding oil on the track and going straight into Mirabeau corner. Usually, in these cases, nothing is collected. So, if nothing else, we are still in the race".
As at Imola, the joy is tangible in Ferrari, which maintains the leadership in both rankings, and enjoys Schumacher, who is in a state of grace. In the press conference the two-time World Champion begins by talking about his exceptional start:
"To be honest I was a bit surprised myself. I was on the left side of the track, and I was right on the line for the first corner, which is very close to the starting point; Hakkinen tried a little bit to close the road on me, but I managed to pass anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not saying Mika was unfair, not at all: he didn't move much, let's just say it was an understandable and acceptable manoeuvre in those conditions. Why did I manage to get away so well? Probably because my car was lighter than his because I had less gasoline on board".
The sprint was crucial to the course of the race, which saw him dominate far and wide, but Schumacher is convinced that:
"I could have overtaken him in the race as well, but at that moment I just tried to get a good start and that's how I managed to take the lead straight away. That made things easier for me, of course. If I have to be honest, I wanted to show everyone that I could start well and I did. It's nice, it's nice, it's very nice".
Then, Michael goes on to describe his solo race:
"At the beginning, I didn't feel comfortable at all. I only had one goal: to try to build up a good lead so that I could make the pit stop without losing the lead. So I had to go as fast as possible but also I had to be careful not to make mistakes, and we know that here in Monaco you always need great concentration. Once I started from the pits, then, the car wasn't going very well, it was behaving badly, so much so that I thought I had some problem with the shock absorbers. But maybe it only happened because I was so full of fuel. After a few laps it was already going better. And after the stop, I didn't push much. I had a forty-second lead and I could afford to take more risks. Well, I had made it a personal tactic to not let Hakkinen get within twenty seconds of me, but every so often it happened and then I would start pulling again to re-establish the gap. In short, everything was under control".
As for the strategy adopted, Schumacher admits that the team had foreseen every possible scenario, and based on the course of the race would have chosen the most suitable plan:
"If I had started in the lead I would have done one pit stop, which I did. If I had started second I would probably have done two. We had a flexible strategy, we studied the various hypotheses and we were ready to choose the right plan".
The same applies, Schumacher explains, to Irvine, who stopped twice:
"During the race it was decided to allow Eddie to overtake Hakkinen. And it worked out perfectly. We have a great team, it was an amazing strategy".
Returning to the start, it is inevitable to talk about the tests held at Fiorano on Friday:
"They were very useful, I really wanted to test the car myself. But I can't say why. I will in twenty-five years".
First Ferrari one-two at Monaco and the most successful driver in the history of the Prancing Horse. Certainly a special day:
"It means a lot. To be a Ferrari driver is already something special, to win with Ferrari is something super-special, to be the one with the most wins with Ferrari is even something extra-special. If I'm honest, I'm feeling this now that it's over, whereas when I was in the race I was thinking about something else. In any case, for me at the moment it's more important to look at the championship and the points I have to defend. Of course in the future, when I retire from racing and look back, I will remember these statistics with joy. It's great now, but in a few years it will be even better".
For the rest of the World Championship, Michael says he is optimistic but aware that McLaren will come back stronger than ever:
"It's already a good thing to have two wins in four races. We are creating a cushion that will come in very handy because it would be a mistake to believe that now all the races will be like this, that they will end in wins and one-two finishes with Irvine. There will be difficult races coming up, starting with the next one in Barcelona. Here the circuit has undoubtedly favoured us, there it favours our opponents. In the meantime, let's take this success for now, it will come in handy when we have to defend ourselves. We still have to make progress and we will start preparing for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. Now I have an advantage that allows me to race within the limits, not beyond as I had to do when I was behind, and I had to chase. This also means that I am less likely to make mistakes and have to take fewer risks. Maybe I'll make a few mistakes myself, I'm not perfect, but having a good points lead means we can feel more comfortable. In short, we can manage things better. But it is also true that we have to work to make more progress and if I look at the work done so far by our team there is no point to doubt that we will be able to move forward. I hope we can get the new evolution of the 048 engine for Barcelona. We could do that, but it's not the only thing we're preparing".
Although he didn't witness his team's triumph up close, Chairman Montezemolo spoke enthusiastically to the press, keen to stress that this success wasn't all that difficult to predict:
"A lap of death like the one Hakkinen did to take pole away from us was beautiful, but it didn't mean we were defeated at all. Since last Thursday we have shown that we are stronger. In everything, drivers, mechanics, cars, strategies, we were really strong, so let's say I expected that. Then there is another thing: in all races, and this one in particular, you never know what can happen and so I was shaking until the end, but inside, yes, I expected it because I knew where we were and what we could do. What did I enjoy the most? Everything. Beginning with the start. At the start it's a bit like a penalty shoot-out, but this time we started very well and they didn't. Also, Michael's first thirty laps at qualifying pace were exceptional. And then Irvine, he was great. And that strategy - what does Todt call it? - flexible, it's not the first time we've shown that skill. This time we were really the strongest. Now maybe someone will say that Hakkinen's spin favored us after all. But the oil on which Hakkinen slipped was found by Schumacher, it was found by Irvine, and yet they didn't crash, they didn't make a mistake. In every race some variables are the same for everyone, but some make mistakes, and some don't. And finally, that scene after the drivers arrived, hugging the mechanics, and above all the two drivers hugging each other: it wasn't a matter of circumstance, it was really a strong feeling of people who work together every day, and who sometimes suffer. I would also like to say something else: Todt deserves the credit for all this, he really is a rock, he built this team piece by piece, he is really good, we have to give him credit for that".
Ferrari is enjoying the moment, celebrating the new goals achieved together with Schumacher and for the first time in years it can seriously say it has the strongest car on the grid.
"I worked until three o'clock on Sunday morning, I woke up after three hours and now I can't take it any more, I'm falling apart".
Admits Ignazio Lunetta, engineer in charge of Schumacher's car:
"What a party, it was just an expression of our own joy that we hadn't felt for a long time".
And to the journalistic assertion Engineer, listen, he replies:
"But I really don't even know if I am an engineer. I did my scientific studies in Sicily, then I went to Modena to do a course on the Automotive project and I got a short degree. What am I? I know I have a contract as a metalworker. Another thing I know for sure is that I am responsible, for better or worse, for Michael's car. How do you work with Schumacher? Very well. He always knows everything. When he comes to Fiorano in the evening he leaves us the homework to do. He makes a list of the things he wants to find and try the next morning. Then maybe at night he comes back and says: you have to fix the nolder too. I tell him it's OK. And he says: sorry, I wanted to make sure you understood. I didn't understand much at first, so Ferrari sent me on an intensive English course, and things are going much better. But it's not always easy. We won today, so I'll say it: some debates happened. When he restarted from the pit stop he asked me on the radio: how are the tyres that you took off? He wanted to know whether they were very worn or not. I realised, however, that the tyres we had just put on him weren't right and so we had a new change prepared. It would have been a disaster. Then the misunderstanding was cleared up and he went on to win in peace. On the radio there are noises, discharges, moments when you can't hear anything and then there's him talking, talking, talking all the time. Schumacher doesn't shut up for a moment, and sometimes he even plays terrible tricks on us. One day, all of a sudden, with an excited voice, he says to me: the engine doesn't work, it doesn't work, it loses power. We all rushed to the telemetry and everything was fine. But he insisted. Then he laughed at me over the radio and said: I was joking. I just don't understand how the hell he can stay focused and at the same time talk and joke on the radio. It's not easy to prepare his car well. Michael hates an understeering car and therefore wants a complicated set of adjustments that only he can drive. For example, he wants more weight up front and a more agile, balletic rear end; he wants the car to have good corner entry and then he'll see if it skids. It's not easy to drive like that, only he can do it".
Is it McLaren that has gone backwards or you that have made progress?
"Both. They started off with a new car full of complications, plus they arrived at the first Grand Prix with very few tests behind them. We hadn't even done a long run before Melbourne. In Australia I knew we would win because we were reliable. Then they had to think about reliability and sacrifice something in performance. We had reliability and we could think about performance. It looks like this is going to be a good year for Ferrari, although deep down I think we should have scored more points than we have because they are good. The Australian Grand Prix was a lottery, everyone with new cars and little experience, anyone could have won, we won and that's great. Imola is a brake circuit and we have the best brakes. Monaco is another lottery but we did well. Brazil was the only real track so far, a technical track, and we lost there. This means that we still have to work to make progress and get ourselves ready for the next Grand Prix".
Admits Lunetta, before rushing off to bed to get some rest, giving way to Gianni Petterlini, Schumacher's chief engineer, who says:
"You see Schumacher throwing buckets of water at the mechanics? That's our secret. We are a family, a united team. So many secrets, many electronic and aerodynamic ones meant to remain so, and so much work, ingenious ideas and an almost obsessive search for the next step forward, as demonstrated by the tests already scheduled from Wednesday to Friday in Barcelona".
Paolo Martinelli, the engine designer, explains:
"Useful to make our superiority complete and make us forget this triumph quickly. Never underestimate your rival, McLaren is not dead, so keep your feet on the ground and work".
Ferrari's growth has been outstanding, considering that in March, in Australia, McLaren took a second off the F399s, while now the Woking team still hasn't understood how to deal with the car's lack of reliability, but above all, it has to accept the fact that at the moment, the reference team is another one. Italian television ratings are also enjoying it, since 11,535,000 viewers watched the race, for a share of 63.57%. Not even during the Grand Prix of the Republic of San Marino had Formula 1 been so followed, since on that occasion the share was 61.41%. In such a tight fight, however, it is legitimate to expect a decisive reaction from the World Champion team, after the burning and unexpected defeats of San Marino and Monaco. A decisive reaction that Mika Hakkinen will also have to have, who in these last two occasions has not been at all impeccable, between the off-track with consequent withdrawal in Imola, followed by the slow start and straight to Mirabeau in Monte Carlo. Mika knows that it takes more than that to face a mastiff like Schumacher.