On September 15, 1999, immersed in one of the many test sessions of the season, Eddie Irvine completed sixty-four laps on the Mugello circuit, recording the time of 1'27"198 as best personal time, almost a second faster than Mika Salo, stopped on 1'28"011. Different structures tested, with different aerodynamic solutions and tests of mechanical components. A test of which the Northern Irish is satisfied:
"The car is fine but even before Monza was fine, then in the race it went as you all know".
The sixth place obtained in Italy was made less burdensome in terms of drivers' ranking by the resounding withdrawal of Mika Hakkinen, gone off the track while he was comfortably in the lead, but at the same time, Mika Salo’s podium highlighted the poor performance of the next Jaguar driver, who, however, claims to be optimistic for the European Grand Prix, held at the Nurburgring:
"What we are doing here is important for the Nurburgring. Compared to Monza the German circuit is less fast and therefore very similar to that of Mugello. We are doing well, so I hope that in Germany too there will be no setbacks. At Monza the car did not go, and then I preferred not to risk: at that point the important thing was to get to the bottom".
Regarding his transfer to Jaguar, he prefer to gloss over:
"It’s a great opportunity, but I would like to get there as World Champion: it would be the best Christmas gift I could do".
After the officiality of Barrichello and the departure of Irvine, the market voices at Ferrari have not ceased: some insiders talk about a Michael Schumacher attempted by McLaren, and at the same time give the Maranello team a step away from the engagement of the designer Adrian Newey, a decisive factor in the creation of the team that in '98 is back to win a World Championship that was missing from the time of Ayrton Senna. President Montezemolo flatly denies both a farewell to Schumacher, that a landing in Ferrari of the McLaren designer:
"We’re happy with Michael and Michael is happy with us: yes, I think we’ll stay together. Newey? I tried four years ago. You know how it went? That he and his wife treated me like I was from Madagascar. Before many stories about schools for their girls and I explained that we had good schools in Italy, even English schools. And they finally said to me: How are our dogs going to do it here? I told them that we love dogs in Italy. And we said goodbye. Now, does it seem possible that after such discourses I return to the charge to bring them to Madagascar? Come on...".
The days of approach to the European Grand Prix are eventful even within the Woking team: Ron Dennis takes an unexpected step back from what he had said before the Belgian Grand Prix, when he assured that there would be no unequal treatment between his two drivers; after Hakkinen’s retirement and Coulthard’s poor race in Monza, Coinciding with the sixth place of Irvine that allowed the latter to engage the Finn in the drivers' standings at 60 points, McLaren team principal says:
"There is also team play, at least when one of the two drivers has better chances of final victory than the other".
Ergo, David Coulthard will help Hakkinen run for the title. The Scotsman, however, is not there, and as soon as the opportunity presents itself, he makes known that he has no intention of becoming Hakkinen’s squire:
"As long as I’m fighting for the title I will never let Hakkinen pass, even though I know very well that it will be difficult for me to win the title, just because my direct opponent is Mika. Only if Hakkinen wins the European Grand Prix I will accept the team’s directives".
Coulthard also wants to clarify the relationship with his teammate:
"I have no problem with him. We are two tough but extremely correct with each other. I only have professional relationships with Mika, as is normal".
Rubens Barrichello also will have to fight to avoid team orders, at least starting from the 2000 season, when he will become a Ferrari driver and teammate of Michael Schumacher. Rubens, one step away from the podium at Monza after an excellent comeback race, hopes to finally experience the joy of winning a Grand Prix:
"If even in my eighth year in Formula 1, at the wheel of a Ferrari, I will not win a Grand Prix, then I must retire. Psychologically, it can’t be worse than in 1995. It was the first year after the death of Ayrton Senna and on my shoulders I felt the weight of the expectations of an entire country. They were all talking about me, and the fact that I couldn’t impose on myself caused me a huge disappointment. Now, driving a Ferrari is not gonna destabilize me. Of course, I’ll have no more excuses, my current team, Stewart, is seven-eight, Ferrari is ten".
After Irvine, who had warned him about the difficulty of having someone like Schumacher in the same box, also his current boss, Jackie Stewart, warns him in an interview given to the German twice-weekly Kicker:
"It will be hard for Barrichello at Ferrari, because the whole Ferrari culture and hierarchy is built around Schumacher. It is the culture imposed by Michael, who is very selfish, egocentric and even aggressive. The German will do everything to maintain this situation and it will all depend on Rubens, if he manages to drive well, the possibility of changing this Schumi-culture".
Stewart admits that he had hoped to keep Barrichello on the team, to form a dream team with Irvine. The desire to drive for Ferrari, however, had the upper hand. Meanwhile, some interesting backstory emerges about the July 11 incident at Silverstone, which effectively excluded Michael Schumacher from the title fight. According to the testimony of Dr Sid Watkins, the medical manager of Formula 1, in the frontal collision Schumacher would have seriously risked his life: generally, the helmet comes out unscathed from violent bumps, but in this case, instead, Schumacher’s has even split:
"Michael hit his head head head head-on, at a 90-degree angle and at a speed of 150 miles an hour against the edge of the cockpit. That’s enough to die. The Schumacher accident is thus important for Formula 1 and for the whole world of engines, in order to increase safety".
Other background, or rather accusations, are addressed to Ferrari while Irvine tests in Fiorano the three F399 to be used at the Nurburgring. Eddie’s poor performance at Monza would have been caused, apparently, by the use of a worn chassis, precisely the body number 191; a choice apparently wanted by Ferrari, and hence the accusation of sabotage by a team that, They say, he’d rather lose the title than win it to Irvine (and not Schumacher). Ferrari’s answer is tough:
"Talk of sabotage is neither in heaven nor on earth. If there had been doubts about Irvine’s car it would not even have been taken to Germany, where it will be used as a forklift".
Again, Montezemolo dismisses the sabotage issue with a peremptory:
The person concerned disassembles the case with the following statements:
"I chose to use the 191, because I’ve been using it all year. With that chassis I won in Australia the first race, then in Austria and Germany where I won again, in Budapest where I almost didn’t do the pole position, and I used it up to Monza, except for the British Grand Prix where I used the 192. I felt it was fine and I kept using it. But it must be the technicians who know if a chassis is a sh*t or not. In Germany they gave me a new one, 196; it never ran, it should be fine".
Busy with an advertising campaign of the Bank of Rome, Eddie shows up in the capital on a gray metallized Mercedes to watch the screening of the first commercials recorded, and appears more determined than ever to reverse the trend of recent races, where the superiority of the McLaren-Mercedes was evident:
"I win. I go to the track, I do good tests and then I cross the finish line first. In Monza it was bad, we got the wrong car, we were not competitive and in a world championship it happens sometimes. It happened to us two weeks ago, it won’t happen again".
After Hakkinen’s misstep, Frentzen’s victory and Coulthard’s refusal to surrender, the title contenders could rise to four. Not according to Irvine:
"No one was added, there were two of us and there were two of us. The world championship is a talk between me and Mika, from this challenge you do not get out. David lied, he said something knowing the truth was different. He will go on track to help Hakkinen because they run in the same stable and because Mika is leading the world and aims to win it for the second time. The rest is talk".
An eventual team game that he does not fear:
"At the Nurburgring I’ll pass Coulthard first and then Hakkinen. I’ll be in the lead, it’s my race, I can win, I’ve never been so convinced. After Monza I realized once more that this could be my world championship. That was a crazy race and will not happen again".
Eddie doesn’t believe that Mika’s mistake, which he reacted with tears of frustration at retirement, could weigh on the rest of the season of the defending champion:
"Mika is a phenomenon of character, a man of great personality and will withstand the pressure. He knows that his eyes are on him, he knows that there are few corners left to decide this world championship. Luckily I know his weakness and I will use it to beat him on Sunday and win the world. He is good when he has to keep an opponent behind him, he does not miss a curve of one millimeter if his advantage is a penny. He’s capable of running the whole Grand Prix in those conditions without the slightest hesitation. History changes when he runs alone, when he runs away, and he has to manage 10, 20 seconds of advantage. He was wrong at Monza, he was wrong at Imola and he was always in the lead. So my tactic is already decided: he goes in the lead, I overcome the others and I climb to the second place. Then I slow him down, I move him along, I disappear from his mirror, he drives safely until he misses. Then I win first the race and then the world".
A few days later, arrived at the Nurburgring, Irvine does not seem at all happy with the statements of Michael Schumacher, guilty of having indicated Hakkinen absolute favorite, having already made some mistakes too during the season, That will hardly repeat in the three remaining races. Eddie replies invivered:
"It’s really nice of him to have so much confidence in the team. A great stimulus for everyone, from mechanics to engineers. But does Schumacher have a contract with Ferrari or not?"
With a colorful language, as usual, the Northern Irish driver insists on the importance that can have a success in this race weekend:
"Here you have to win, no more gifts and bullsh*t from others. You have to attack, go fast and win. It takes a competitive car, capable of making great performances. We worked hard, it was hard, I did five days of testing and I feel that the car is better. I am convinced that we will be strong here because on this circuit and also on the subsequent ones there is no longer any need for aerodynamic discharge that is what makes us suffer. Here we go very charitable and in these conditions we are strong. Also in Budapest, in the same situation we were doing very well, then there was that differential problem; but in qualifying I was very fast".
Someone pointed out that the tests at Monza had also gone well, but then the Grand Prix went differently:
"It’s true, fu*k, but I can’t believe that a case like that is repeatable when we went very well in practice and then in a very bad race. And then we have the new aerodynamic package. I’m sure I’ll go strong, very strong. If I can leave free and only towards the horizon, no one will take me anymore".
Friday, September 24, 1999, we go on track for the free practice of the European Grand Prix. In the morning, Irvine spent most of the session in the pits, waiting for the mechanics to complete the hectic work on the new chassis n.196. Mika Salo takes to the track without any problems focusing the entire session on the race pace. At the Ferrari wall there is also a lively exchange of views between engineer Baldisserri and Ross Brawn: the first asks to be able to examine Salo’s telemetry, and understand why, until then, Irvine was slower; Brawn, however, does not agree. After the second afternoon session, the total time count sees the usual Hakkinen ahead of everyone, followed by fellow countryman Salo, surprise Panis, and Irvine. Not bad for Ferrari, considering that Salo didn’t try fast laps even in the afternoon, and that Irvine used a single set of tyres all day. Salo, on the other hand, drove with both soft and extra-soft tyres worn by Bridgestone. Eddie seems satisfied, but never misses a chance to remove another pebble from his shoe, proving that he has not digested Schumacher’s opinion about the almost certain victory of the World Championship in Hakkinen, except for his gifts:
"It would be nice of Mika, but even last year it was like this: we were at his mercy hoping for a gift".
Jean Todt tries to tone it down by pointing out that Michael never said anything like that to any newspaper, indeed:
"The whole team wished to win the next three races".
Good opportunity to close the whole issue of the alleged sabotage against Irvine:
"What a worn chassis! The frames are all the same. And anyway Eddie had chosen it, just as he chose the one he has here".
If someone expected to see him with the handbrake pulled after the mistake of Monza, he was wrong. Hakkinen reacts in his own way, easily staying in front of everyone for the whole day of practice, taking advantage of a McLaren seemed in excellent shape in the slow and medium-fast corners of the track, well balanced in the direction changes, and with a great top speed guaranteed by the Mercedes engine on the two main straights. Not everything goes smoothly for Coulthard, who is dealing with some driveability problems and at the end of the day is only sixth. Complicated sessions also for the winner of Monza, Frentzen, who due to a gearbox failure in the morning runs very little and is only twelfth in the ranking. The next day, however, the German ex-Williams draws on the interest. A few minutes before the start of the qualifying session on Saturday, September 25, 1999, a shower of rain completely wet the track, just enough to make the teams late to send their drivers on track. Everyone is convinced that the track will dry, as the forecasts do not give more sudden showers. Among the first to test the conditions of the circuit is Salo, who goes on provisional pole. After that, while Irvine is still in the pits, Hakkinen comes out who improves his countryman’s time. The asphalt begins to dry quickly, it is clear from the classic dry strip that defines the ideal trajectory used by the drivers. The track improves in such a way that the time limit lowers lap after lap, and in the last seven minutes you have the beauty of seven different polemen: first Hakkinen, then Coulthard, to follow Panis, but in the end it is Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The Jordan driver spends the whole qualifying hour to discuss with the team, because from the wall invite him to go on track, while he refuses because he says the track is not yet dry enough. Then, in the final stages, the team calls him back to the pits, he agrees but only if it is a fast pit-stop like on Sunday. Frentzen wants new tires to give the final leg. And that’s exactly what he does, because with the time of 1'19"910 gets his second pole position in his career, after the first obtained in Montecarlo in 1997, with two tenths of an advantage over Coulthard, second, and four tenths over Hakkinen, third. Completes the second row Ralf Schumacher, half a second behind the countryman. At the end of qualifying Eddie Jordan is ecstatic:
"The credit is all Frentzen, he had a stroke of genius".
Heinz-Harald is in a moment of extraordinary form, he is experiencing his best season in Formula 1, and with this Jordan in continuous progress it seems that it is licit not to set any limits. Hakkinen knows, who says he’s worried about finding a new rival in the title race:
"The Jordan is a fast and reliable car, it never breaks, it will not be easy to overcome it; if Frentzen wins again, it becomes dangerous".
Frentzen, in fact, did not expect such a result after the troubled free trials he had to deal with:
"On Friday I broke the gearbox, in the morning an engine tube. I lost two hours, I was already thinking about a bad race. I’m happy, but don’t ask me if I believe in the world title. Winning here and keeping McLaren behind is difficult".
What about the Ferraris? Eddie Irvine is in the middle of his last attempt that could place him at least in the first two rows, but the rear of the Ferrari skids, Irvine ends off the track, the lap is practically aborted and the disaster consumes: Eddie is ninth, Salo is only twelfth. The Northern Irish driver justifies the bad result talking about the different choice of tyres made by the team. Ferrari, together with Stewart, is the only team to have focused on the toughest tyre compound. Hence the difficulties on the dry lap, which should not be present in the race. Salo offers a different interpretation:
"We made too sharp changes, if we made intermediate choices we would have been better. We had the wrong strategy".
Starting from the fifth and sixth rows on a circuit where to pass is not at all easy, the two Cavallino drivers must hope that it is once again the rain to mess up the cards, this time maybe in their favor. There is also an eye for the internal struggle of the McLaren team, because if Irvine was convinced that Coulthard would help Hakkinen, after beating him in qualifying, the Scotsman declares confident:
"I’m ahead of Hakkinen, but twelve points behind in the standings. How do you decide before the race who has to win? Why should I be asked to let Mika through? What if he’s wrong?"
Hakkinen doesn’t comment on the subject, while Ron Dennis is vague:
"We never give orders, but we are at the end of the world and if circumstances required...".
At qualifying, an embittered Montezemolo comments on the disappointing result of his team:
"I am amazed. Starting from the fifth and sixth rows does not correspond to the performances made in free practice, that is not our value. Surprised, then, that even our opponents do not occupy the first two places. Their times are close to those of Williams, Prost, Benetton, is unusual. It was strange evidence. I don’t know what caused this disaster, we’re analyzing the timing, Irvine wasn’t bad. Then that off track, something that is part of the game in conditions like this, wet track first, track that dries after. I think, however, that in the race we should go better. Let’s hope it’s a daring race, of those where there is reshuffling because so, at least, we try to climb up the slope. Defending positions would not be good".
At the pits there was a bit of frenzy, he replies saying:
"I wish they’d got into a fight and swearing and then all walked out on their arms. Like in Forghieri’s time, when he took Lauda by the scruff of his neck, saying to his ugly face: why did you go so slowly? Lauda took off his helmet and answered him: put this on and run you. Then Lauda won, but it was another time and we had more fun".
And on Irvine:
"I see him motivated, determined. Then they tell me that we made a good choice for the tyres; I would be happy if he could take two points from his opponent".
Schumacher’s return is still taboo. Can he run in Malaysia? Montezemolo says:
"I would bet on it. But it’s a bet, that is, I can lose it".
Sunday, September 26, 1999, to welcome the drivers at the Nurburgring there is no rain as Ferrari hopes, but black clouds on the horizon suggest that the race will probably be held in variable conditions, And so, even those who start from behind can hope to make the right choices and go back. At 2:00 p.m. lights go out and the race begins, but only for a fraction of a second, because everything is interrupted because of the Minardi of Marc Gené, whose engine has shut down a few moments from the start. There are those like Frentzen and Hakkinen who left, and consequently needs the intervention of the mechanics to be put back on the respective starting pad, and there are those like Ralf Schumacher who for a matter of centimeters does not end up in the rear of McLaren Coulthard, Unlike those around him, he remained almost motionless. Gené, who had to start from the penultimate row, is relegated as per regulation in last position, and considering the aborted start, the race is shortened by a lap. After a few minutes of waiting, the procedure is repeated, the reconnaissance lap carried out, and everything is ready to kick off the European Grand Prix. The start this time is regular: Hakkinen starts fast and joins Coulthard, who is passed at the first corner. Behind, the sudden slowdown of Damon Hill in the middle of the chicane, creates a traffic jam behind the Jordan. Alex Wurz tries to avoid the collision, but in the right turn he ends up against the Sauber of Pedro Diniz, who in turn takes flight and overturns, ending off the track. The Brazilian driver remains upside down inside his Sauber, moving nervously waiting for the marshals to intervene promptly to straighten the cockpit to help him get out. While this operation takes place, the race direction sends the Safety Car to the track. Diniz is taken out of the car with the whole seat, and is transported away by stretcher, after which he is taken to the hospital to check his health. Once discharged, speaking of the incident he declares:
"When I was in the air and I realized the car was capsizing, I started praying. Everything went very quickly, but I had time to feel the fear of dying. I still feel in shock. Wurz changed trajectory to avoid Hill slowing down, they explained that Damon had electrical problems. Immediately after the accident I felt good, I just wanted to get out of the car as soon as possible because I was afraid it would catch fire".
After a great scare, which fortunately remains such, the Safety Car drives the group of drivers for five laps. At the end of the race neutralization, Frentzen did the pace, followed by McLaren’s Hakkinen and Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Fisichella and Panis. Irvine is just outside the points, and thanks the good luck because the accident between Wurz and Diniz almost did not involve him and Salo, which in the meantime has risen to ninth position. At the end of the seventh lap, Eddie easily overtook Panis at the Veedol-chicane, leading him to the points. The first four travel in a row, enclosed in just a second and a half, while Giancarlo Fisichella struggles to keep the pace, and observes in the mirrors an increasingly looming Irvine. In the back, Alex Zanardi finds himself in a three-way fight with Zonta and Takagi at the last corner, but there is no room for three cars, and that the Italian spurs the Japanese’s Arrows is just a logical consequence. Takagi starts again, Alex gets stuck on the outside of the bend. A potentially dangerous situation, managed by the commissioners with a double yellow flag, while Zanardi helps the commissioners to move the crashed Williams. For Alex the umpteenth withdrawal in a season marked by misfortune and the inability to regain the right confidence with a Formula 1 car. Ralf Schumacher, for his part, performs an excellent job at the wheel of his FW21 powered Supertec, Keeping pace with Frentzen and the McLaren. Behind the lead quartet the battle between Fisichella and Irvine starts. Initially the Roman tenaciously resists Eddie’s attacks, but after a few laps the Benetton driver arrives along the Sportwart curve, finishes with two wheels on the grass and leaves the door open to the Ferrari driver, who promptly slips in. Irvine has so free track to be able to push at maximum, having eight seconds to recover on the first four. At the same time as the overtaking, moreover, it begins to rain profusely on the second part of the track. In these conditions, Ralf Schumacher is visibly more confident than his opponents. This is demonstrated by the attack brought to Coulthard at the last corner: the two find themselves wheel to wheel on the main straight, but the Mercedes V10 allows the Scotsman to hold the position.
The next lap is the same dynamic, but this time Ralf takes the wake on the straight and pulls a sharp break at the first corner, leaving no escape to Coulthard. McLaren seems to suffer the mixed conditions of the track: this can be seen from the fact that even Hakkinen loses three seconds in a single lap from Frentzen, who takes advantage to run away. With the rain raging, at least on part of the track, Ron Dennis himself decided to call Hakkinen to the pits to mount wet tires. One gamble, because as mentioned, half of the track is still completely dry. On the same lap, the twentieth, Mika Salo also enters the pits. And here begins the moments of absolute chaos at the Ferrari box. The mechanics do not have the tyres ready for the Finn, and only after an endless stop of 37.9 seconds, Salo can return to the track with wet tires. The next lap stops Irvine, and in this case dry tires are fitted, but you can not find the right rear tire. Irvine raises the visor and shakes the head nervously, the mechanics discuss in an animated way between them even when at the end the tire in question is found and finally mounted on the F399. In all this, 28.2 seconds have passed. But what happened to create such confusion? Well, while Irvine was alerted to return to the pits to make an early stop, Salo warned the wall via radio to have damaged the front wing and then have to anticipate his pit-stop. Lunetta calls Salo to the pits (engineer of Salo) without consulting Brawn. Then they change the tires, taking those of Salo, and mount them. Shortly after, Irvine returned to the pits and the mechanics recovered the tires previously prepared for him; however, the right rear tire has meanwhile rolled into a corner. To find her is Bruno Maglienti, who points with his finger and exclaims to the mechanics:
"It’s there, it’s there".
The only positive side of this casino - so defined by Irvine himself - is that the decision to mount tires from dry turns out to be the exact one. After their respective pit stops, Hakkinen is eleventh, Irvine is thirteenth, but, lucky for him, it stopped raining. As a result, after a few laps the Northern Irishman reaches the rival for the title and passes it in looseness, for positions that are still far outside the points. The other Salo Ferrari, meanwhile, is rounded by Frentzen, and returns to the pits again to reassemble slick tires. This time the pits are ready. After being overtaken by a Minardi, Hakkinen must do the same, making his second stop to recover dry tires. The world leader is back on track from dubbed. The current situation is idyllic for Frentzen: with a success, in conjunction with the current positions of Hakkinen and Irvine, the German would fly to the top of the drivers' standings on equal merit with them, at 60 points. Eddie Jordan dreams of an unexpected world nomination, but the race is still very long. Behind Frentzen, in fact, looms threatening Ralf Schumacher, closely followed by Coulthard, who with the drying of the track has regained confidence. On lap 28, Ralf made his first pit stop, and exited the pit lane in sixth. Climbed to second place, Coulthard plays the charge by recording the fastest lap in 1'21"835. At the same time, a discouraged Hakkinen runs on very high times, so much so that he is also voiced by Fisichella. Looks like the reigning champion has already given up. On lap 32, Frentzen and Coulthard went into the pits together: Jordan’s mechanics were impeccable, and they kept the home driver on McLaren. But only for a few moments. At the first corner, the reliable Honda-powered Jordan seems to betray his driver at the very least opportune moment. The cause is initially attributed to an electrical problem, the same one that caused Hill to retire early in the race. Frentzen slows down dramatically until he stops at the side of the track. His race ends like this, his hands pounded angrily against the steering wheel, and his world dreams vanished into thin air. However, several years later, Mark Gallagher, marketing manager at Jordan, will tell:
"The teams had an anti-stick system to prevent the car from getting bogged down and stopping. The key to the system was manual activation and deactivation by the pilot, and Heinz did not disable it when he left the pits. His race engineer, Sam Michael, reminded him by radio to always turn off the system once he left the pit lane, but on that occasion he did not and focused on communicating to the driver the margin of advantage over Ralf Schumacher. There was a lot of pressure on Heinz because he was leading the race before his pit stop. You can imagine how all the attention was focused on getting Heinz back on track first, which the team did beautifully. In an atmosphere of tension and adrenaline, Sam had probably neglected to give that instruction to Heinz by focusing on maintaining the advantage over Schumacher’s Williams and the system was not disabled. When the car was taken back to the garage and turned on perfectly the first time, everyone was immediately clear what had happened. It’s indescribable what the feeling was in the team that night, because we realized so quickly that it was a self-inflicted defeat. But there was no anger towards Heinz. We have to consider that we still won two Grands Prix at Magny-Cours and Monza. The feeling of the team towards Heinz could not have been better. With all due respect to Damon, Heinz was pulling the maximum out of the car and it was in his heyday, especially after the pole position the day before. None of us needed to tell him it was a mistake he shouldn’t have made. He knew that this was a devastating blow to his chances of championship".
The situation is diametrically opposed to Coulthard, who now, in the lead of the race and with Hakkinen and Irvine far from the points, can seriously think of re-entering him in the title race. But the race still holds many surprises. The clouds that caused the brief shower never left the circuit. When, around lap 35, it started raining again, behind Coulthard there was Ralf Schumacher, followed by Barrichello, Fisichella and Herbert, with the two Stewart’s taking advantage of the tougher tyres and not yet stopped at the pits. This time it is a real flood what is unleashed on the Nurburgring, but as before, only the second part of the track is subject to this downpour. There are many, including Johnny Herbert who is the first, to return to the pits to mount wet tires, while other drivers, such as Coulthard, attempt the risk of continuing with slicks. The storm, however, is gradually involving the whole circuit, as a result, controlling cars with dry tyres becomes increasingly difficult. In all this, Irvine finds himself unexpectedly in seventh place after the endless pit-stop, not far from Jacques Villeneuve; the chances of gaining some points, therefore, are not yet completely gone. During the thirty-eighth lap, however, the hope of David Coulthard to fight for the World Title definitely wanes: the Scottish driver finishes straight in turn 3, concluding his race against the barriers. An error around the corner, for those like him who chose not to change tires. After yet another twist of a crazy race, Ralf Schumacher is the new leader with twenty seconds ahead of Fisichella, second, who in turn precedes the Stewart of Herbert and Barrichello. In fifth place is Jarno Trulli on Prost, who, following an inaccuracy of Barrichello, gains a position. Track conditions continue to be extremely difficult, an insidious hybrid between dry and wet due to which tyre choices are differentiated from driver to driver. On lap 42, Irvine returns to the pits to mount wet tyres, a sign that at this specific moment of the race is the most suitable tyre; Hakkinen, who continues in his catatonic race in the middle of the group, doubled on the occasion by Johnny Herbert, doesn’t think so.
The difficult conditions put Fisichella in trouble, on track with dry tyres, at the Shell curve: the Roman driver is visible, goes for meadows but fights as he can to avoid the barriers and start again; a maneuver that fortunately succeeds, Allowing him to keep the second position, which becomes even faster when on lap 44, Ralf Schumacher returns to the pits for the second scheduled stop, during which the mechanics still mount dry tires. The German comes in third, behind Herbert; the two are attacked, Ralf tries to pass Stewart, but Johnny makes the shoulders wide. Meanwhile, Toranosuke Takagi, who ended up on the wall, and Mika Salo, retire due to brake problems. For Mika, however, it is a race already largely compromised by the long pit-stop. The rain has now ceased and the track improves in sight, to the point that Herbert returns to the pits to put dry tires. The Briton kept the third position ahead of Trulli, seeing some serious podium chances ahead of him. Giancarlo Fisichella is firmly in the lead of the race, although he still has to make a stop that would still allow him to remain in the podium; however, at the 48th lap, Fisichella makes the same mistake made a few laps before: You can catch a glimpse at the Shell curve, but this time it can’t keep the Benetton away from the barriers, where it crashes and irreparably damages the car. Enraged with himself, Giancarlo throws away the steering wheel, gets out of the cockpit and leans against the nets on the side of the track, where he covers with an arm his face lined with tears. The podium, as well as a point finish, is missing from the Canadian Grand Prix held in June; Giancarlo was putting a patch to the great difficulties encountered in the development of Benetton, before this slight inaccuracy cost him the chance to return to celebrate a placement in the first three. In the after-race, discouraged, he declares:
"I feel like someone who took a slap in the face and woke up. Then the pain passes, but the swelling stays. It’s my mistake, I would have won sure, the world fell on me. The lap before I had left the headrest, I had no stability. I forgot, so when I sped, my neck went back and I lost control of the car. I wasn’t trying too hard, it’s absurd to go out like this".
In the general chaos, another Italian driver driving an Italian team dreams of the feat. Luca Badoer, in fact, is dramatically in fifth position ahead of Eddie Irvine, just over fifteen laps at the end. A point finish for Minardi would be a historic feat for the Ferrari-owned driver. With the withdrawal of Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher returns to the first position, but in this crazy lottery that takes place on the Nurburgring circuit it seems that anyone who finds himself in the hands of the leadership must for one reason or another hand it to others. Even the young Ralf is not exempt from this dynamic, and promptly an unexpected puncture to the left rear tire forces him to perform practically a full lap on three wheels, then return to the pits and make the necessary tire change. A masterful race that of Ralf, which certainly did not deserve this epilogue. The German is back on track fifth, behind Badoer, at this point even fourth, despite something quite curious happens during his pit stop: in fact, when Cesare Fiorio asks the Italian driver what tyres he would have liked to fit, The latter indicates the dry tires. Cesare tells the mechanics present at the pits to mount the dry tires, but to prepare even the wet ones, but the radio contact does not work properly, and when Badoer returns to the pits he finds himself with the front dry tires, and the rear wet ones. In the heat of the moment, Badoer loses almost a minute, before leaving. On lap fifty-one, Irvine went to the pits again for his third stop, which relegated him to eighth place, behind Marc Gené and ahead of Hakkinen, who meanwhile doubled up passing the new race leader, Johnny Herbert. The driver of Stewart, taken from the fourteenth place, is now dramatically leading the race, ahead of Trulli and Barrichello, who pay a gap of seventeen seconds. With thirteen laps to go, another Italian driver has to leave the race in tears while chasing a dream.
Luca Badoer is in fourth position and sees the historic goal of bringing points at Minardi (which has not collected since 1995, in Australia), when he has to park the car on the side of the track for a gearbox problem. Like Fisichella before, Luca throws away the steering wheel, goes down and kneels beside Minardi, not even trying to hold back the copious tears that fall on his face. For Minardi not everything is lost, because with the withdrawal of Badoer, Marc Gené rises in sixth position, but behind him both Irvine and Hakkinen quickly approach, who, as soon as he smelled points, started to push again after a race mostly played in cruise mode. The Finn earns three seconds per lap on Gené and one on Irvine, significantly slower than his rival. It doesn’t take many laps for Mika to catch the Ferrari, and to try to overtake the Veedol Chicane, where he exaggerates and goes a long way. Overtaking, however, is only postponed. That between Irvine and Hakkinen is not the only battle in progress, because also Jarno Trulli and Rubens Barrichello offer show to the spectators, fighting without hesitation for the second position. Rubens tries the same way as Hakkinen on Irvine, but Trulli doesn’t give up and pushes him back. A few laps from the end, with the retirement of Jacques Villeneuve (fifth until that moment) for a clutch failure, the tussle between Irvine and Hakkinen is valid for the sixth position, And so, for a small point that would mean winning the solitary leadership in the general ranking. Hakkinen is clearly faster than Irvine, who on his part facilitates the task of the McLaren driver becoming the protagonist of a heavy blocking of the front right to the Veedol Chicane; Eddie ends long, and Hakkinen thanks, Climbing in sixth position and chasing Marc Gené to earn a further fundamental point.
The overtaking of the Minardi Spaniard is not a problem; so, from a race potentially compromised and that seemed to have already filed, Mika rises to fifth place, gaining two points over Irvine, He’s getting closer to Gené, but not enough to at least limit the damage by taking a point. At the end of the sixty-sixth and final lap of a crazy race, Johnny Herbert crossed the finish line from first place, giving Stewart the first and only victory in Formula 1, and himself the third in his career, After the two wins at the wheel of the Benetton in '95. On the podium with him, a spectacular Jarno Trulli on Prost, able to keep the pressure and attacks of Rubens Barrichello without making mistakes. Ralf Schumacher is fourth, but complains about the rear tire puncture without which he would probably celebrate his first career victory. Then, Hakkinen and Marc Gené arrive at the finish line, who can celebrate together with Minardi the first point of the season. Irvine is seventh, a second and a half from the Spanish. To close the ranking, Zonta and Panis, for a total of just nine drivers classified. In a day marked once again by the tears of the drivers (at Monza it was Hakkinen, at the Nurburgring at Fisichella and Badoer), under the podium is Paul Stewart, son of Jackie, to move, but unlike those seen previously, these are tears of joy, Meanwhile, on the podium, Dad Jackie enjoys the champagne bath offered by his two drivers. After the '98 season, the last one spent in Sauber and characterized by continuous technical problems to the car, Herbert emigrated to Stewart to try to leave behind the difficult year; however, even this season the misfortune has taken him by target, with the reliability of his car often and willingly passed away. Nevertheless, the British driver never lost his smile and confidence, he continued to push, patiently waiting for the right opportunity to take his revenge, as he himself pointed out at the press conference:
"I was repaid for all the bad luck I had during the season. I’m sorry about Ralf having a tyre problem. This allowed me to take the lead in the race, after which I had a good lead over Jarno, so I just managed the car in the best way possible to get to the finish line. Unlike many others, I fitted the wet tires at the right time. It was a risk, but it paid off. I’m delighted".
An unforgettable day also for Jarno Trulli, on his first career podium. This result is worth the compliments of his team manager Alain Prost ("I have always considered him very strong, he can repeat my career"), to which Jarno responds promptly:
"I dedicate this result to Alain, for me he is like a father, I am his product, he taught me everything".
Then he starts talking about his race:
"At the start I had a problem with the clutch, I saw the Saubers slipping like crazy, then Diniz flying. In the chaos, a rock hit my right hand, debris slipped under my helmet and ended up in my left eye. I couldn’t see anymore, I took a lap before taking it off. I thought: it’s over again. And then luck helped me".
But he has put his, starting from when he decided not to go back to the pits, despite the fact that they ordered the opposite:
"It was starting to rain, they wanted me back in the pits, but I know this track, I preferred to keep the tires dry. I was 11th, I had to take risks, only a risky strategy could help me".
And in the end, with the beautiful fight at the end of which he got the better of Barrichello:
"He was faster than me, but I know that here there are only three points where you overtake. I said to myself: just think about putting the tires in the right places, he will be forced to miss the trajectories. I was great, Barrichello had to give up".
A nice gift to Prost, before leaving him to go to Jordan, where they wait for him with open arms. Rubens Barrichello is unlikely to have another chance to greet Stewart with success unless the two remaining races are as chaotic as this one. Rubens cared about it, but all in all he seems satisfied, giving the right merits to teammate Herbert:
"The battle with Jarno was fun and clean. On this track it is difficult to overcome, I gave everything but it was not enough. We were good and lucky in capitalizing on the mistakes and withdrawals of others. I wish I could have given this success to Jackie, but deep down Johnny deserves it: during this season he had an incredible dose of bad luck. Having two cars on the podium is still fantastic".
At Ferrari, we lick our wounds for a day to forget: Irvine is seventh and out of the points, while Salo is even retired. In Maranello, however, the pit-stops are once again the subject of discussion in this championship at Magny-Cours. Irvine summarizes the disaster as follows:
"What a mess. I don’t know how it all happened. I’m trying to rebuild things, too. So, on the radio we agreed to bring forward the normal scheduled pit-stop. And they say to me, all right, come back in. But after a moment they call me back and tell me: wait, wait, that there is Mika in trouble. All right, I go on another lap and then I come back. They take off the slick tires and I see the wet tires there and on the radio I immediately say: no, no, put back those smooth ones that is stopping raining. Leva, put on, it notes. What a mess, a confusion like the one that there was in Magny Cours. But all in all this time I got better than then".
The Ferrari communications manager, Claudio Berro, in turn tries to clarify:
"We had sixteen tires on the floor, Mika’s and Eddie’s, dry and wet. Then the program change with the reversal of the box entry order actually created some confusion. The missing eraser? Who knows. Perhaps in the hurry the nameplate was not seen. It can happen. But there is no culprit, it is useless to look for him, we do not want to try anyone. We are all united when we win and when we lose. As for the long stop in Salo, it wasn’t just the problem of the aileron to change, there was something to a nut of a wheel, it was this that slowed the whole operation".
Luca Baldisserri, head of the Irvine team, comments:
"The real bad luck was the sudden return of Salo. Twenty-two seconds later, Irvine arrived and couldn’t wait because he was out of gas. And so with so many trains of tires around it was enough a minimum shift of a tire to create all that mess".
It’s a broken Ferrari that will return to Maranello, and you can see it on the face of Jean Todt, who comments:
"What happened wasn’t supposed to happen, but there is no culprit. In fact, I’ve already given my support to the team. We are two races from the end and we must be motivated and determined".
In turn, Irvine always offers a possible solution:
"I have my own idea, and that is: in Magny Cours the mess happened because they were waiting for Michael and instead I entered. Today it happened because they were waiting for me and instead Salo entered. In my opinion it would be necessary to completely reorganize this pit-stop operation, because unexpected events can always come and there is no need to make confusion. It would take two teams, one for each car like in America. Instead in Formula 1 there is only one group of people who must do the assistance to two cars. And then it is easy to lose the head, not to find an eraser, etc., etc.".
Then Eddie tries to see the bright side:
"The most amazing thing about this day is that I only lost two points. All in all, I was also good, very good".
Without this mess, would it have been possible to win?
"Of course, even you journalist, on my car you would have won without all those mistakes".
This is a bit of a rough answer, especially considering the difficulty of overcoming Marc Gené, who was easily overcome by Hakkinen. The problem upstream, according to Irvine, lies in the choice of harder tires, which in the cold did not pay. That can be up to a point, because with the same compound, the Stewarts flew. An interesting background on the pit-stops of the discord is revealed by the chronicler of Tele+, Biagio Maglienti, become a kind of hero of the day for Ferrari, for showing the mechanic where the missing tire was:
"I don’t think I did anything special. I behaved like everyone else in a situation like this. There was a lot of confusion, the Ferrari mechanic was disoriented, he couldn’t find the right tyre, I pointed it out to him. There were a lot of tires on the ground in a very small space. The Ferrari men had yet to put the tires in Salo and they had already prepared the wet ones for Irvine, when the communication came that Eddie wanted dry tires. So every mechanic had three tires on his hands. The mechanic who made the mistake felt uncomfortable, and before Salo arrived, he slightly dodged a tire with his foot. The problem is that the tyres are rather light, so that one ended up quite far away. No problem on Salo’s pit stop. But when Irvine showed up, the mechanic was wrong. The blankets had already been removed, an oversight can happen, he had a wet tire, while the other three were dry. He noticed, but he was no longer in sync with the others. Not only that, maybe he panicked a little and started looking around, trying to figure out where the dry tire had gone, the one he himself had pushed away. I pointed him out and he smiled, like he wanted to thank me. I didn’t hear screams, swear words, one moment everything seemed very quiet and nobody would have imagined what would happen. It was an oversight, it can happen. Unfortunately, television magnifies everything. And he has not forgiven this time either".
A tragicomic scene, which is excellent material for German newspapers, long known detractors of Ferrari, although paradoxically followers of Schumacher. A fracture caused by the driver’s injury and Irvine’s rise. Above all there is the newspaper Bild, which does not use half measures to describe the race of the Maranello team:
"A troop of salami, incredible but this is the Ferrari".
"Stuff to make the chickens laugh. Without Schumacher, the Ferrari is just laughing, it’s an army Brancaleone".
It is no different in Maranello, since during the evening, in a green area of Via Abetone, not far from the structure of Ferrari, being present a Goodyear tyre as an ornament, some citizens decide to attach a banner tied to two poles, with on written:
"Todt, here’s the tire".
And an arrow pointing. The day after the race, in the meeting held in Maranello, Ross Brawn exonerates his team and accepts all the blame in the interview with the president Montezemolo. It’s not a time for Cavallino, we have to look ahead, because there are only two races left at the end, Hakkinen is back only in the lead at 62 points, at +2 on Irvine, and in the constructors McLaren has to manage 8 points on Ferrari. Moreover, the accusations of boycott by the team against Irvine feed further after such a havoc, but the driver himself thinks to reiterate the unity of the team:
"We are all very close, the team is all with me and we work to move forward together in the same direction. This world, despite appearances, I can still win it".
And from Malaysia, Eddie can have an extra ally, ready to return after a long absence: Michael Schumacher.