Traction control will be legal from the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix onwards. It is a system that prevents wheelspin at the start. In other words, either the electronic differential or the automatic gearbox is not prohibited anymore. A new era begins for Formula 1. It gives the green light to the electronics. The suspicions and the viciousness between the teams will hopefully end. The teams often accused each other of using banned aids. The FIA could not control those electronic systems previously. According to the strongest teams, it is an important change that will not change the pecking order. It is going to facilitate the driving and will probably narrow the gap between the best and the good drivers. The leading driver will push like crazy, given the more permitted electrical development by the FIA. The drivers who are behind will have to trudge still. Ferrari team principal Jean Todt thinks the same:
"I do think that it will not change much with the new electronics".
Schumacher gives his opinion on this topic:
"You can have a technical advantage, that is possible. We are working very hard and we felt at the beginning of the season that we were not ready with all the components, because it's not just traction control, it's also gear shifts and other areas. It's actually many things that you can change from Barcelona onwards. I think the good teams will have further advantage. It will not change anything: the teams’ standings will not change. I am in favor of traction control. We can go faster with it and drive more extremely on the limit. You don't have to take care of any power peaks of the engine. You don't lose anything - I even would say that from my experiences that the difference to my team mate would get bigger. I have never taken time from any of my team mates from acceleration out of a corner. I see it like this: It gives us more freedom to drive a bit faster. And the ability to take the car permanently to the limit is what a makes a good driver. It will increase the whole level of the grid, but at this new higher level, you will see the good drivers remaining the good ones".
Rubens Barrichello promises:
"It will remain a three-way fight between McLaren, Williams and us".
The other tops teams also agree with this statement. McLaren has been preparing for a revolution for a while now. The Woking team should present the B-spec car at Barcelona. It would suggest a significant step forward, even if the Silver Arrows are already the main characters of the 2001 season alongside the Ferraris. Ron Dennis states:
"There will be always little room for the others. Ferrari and Williams are the ones who could fight us".
The winners of the San Marino Grand Prix have perhaps something to fear. Frank Williams waited more than three years to win again. The BMW responsible Berger was crying tears of joy at the end of the Imola race. They also think that the new electronics will not change anything. Anyway, the teams are starting to immediately prepare for the new rules. Ferrari will test three cars at Fiorano and Mugello from Tuesday 17th April to Friday 20th April 2001. Two cars are being tested for the development of the electronic systems. The third car is instead used to understand what was the cause of Schumacher’s retirement at the Imola race. Luca Badoer makes 40 laps on Tuesday 17th, using Sunday’s car specifications. The strange thing is that the F2001 does not have any problems at Fiorano. The deflation of Schumacher’s left front tyre was not caused by a structural issue. It was a defect on the front suspensions that produced a delamination on the interior part of the rim, which ultimately caused the air dispersal. Michael Schumacher tests at Mugello in the following days. The Ferrari driver sets some very fast lap times. The same goes for Mika Hakkinen at Silverstone. The German driver looks back at the Imola defeat:
"Calm down, Ferrari is not in crisis. The team is just not unbeatable but we are working towards it".
Formula 1 veteran Jean Alesi is one of the drivers who is against the liberalization of the electronic systems. The Prost driver declares in no uncertain terms:
"There will be no big difference in terms of driving technique, but the feedback from the cars will be extremely different. The start of the race will lack surprises because there will be no good or bad starts since they will all be managed by a computerized program. The traction control will diminish the direct effects of the driver's degree of pressure on the accelerator with fewer chances for mistakes at the start".
The French driver raced with the 1990s Formula 1 cars. The clutch was a pedal and not a button. The drivers were left with bruised and sore right hands, since they had to continuously change the gearbox shift. It is still run today. The single-seater is the triumph of electronics. Alesi is 36 years old and has 188 Grand Prix starts. According to him, there is no comparison between the old and the new cars. It was better before. In 1989, for example, he started his Formula 1 adventure with the semi-automatic gearbox. It seemed only a bizarre discovery from John Barnard and not a solution which would have revolutionised Formula 1 within a couple of years.
"At the time, the cars were a sort of undrivable missiles, let’s says almost lions to tame. The important thing, back then, was to get the engine and the tyres up to temperature and to push on the accelerator to do the best lap time possible. You needed to put your heart into it and to have the driving sensibility to keep those cars on track. It was so easy to make mistakes, especially in the wet or slippery asphalts like the Monte Carlo one. Furthermore, with the manual gearbox, you would drive with one hand, especially on those street circuits, because you would spend a lot of time changing the gears. Choosing the right gear ratio was important and it was only up to the driver to do this".
These are things that will not occur anymore. According to Jean, it will be even worse:
"Firstly, the drivers will not control the reactions of the car anymore, but the exact opposite. The tyres will feel the grip of the track and will be given the right power, through the inputs given by the electronic control units. So, if, absurdly, a driver was to press down hard on the accelerator pedal when tackling a slow corner, they would no longer spin. The traction control would adjust the speed to come out of it unscathed".
It will not be the only thing that will undermine a driver’s ability:
"With the introduction of the automatic gearbox, you do not have to worry about selecting the right gear. You select first gear and simply press on the accelerator, then the electronic control unit will recognize the right engine speed to then switch to the following gear. Also, you need to program your computer with the desired gearbox ratios, based on the track characteristics and that is it: the computer will select the right gear at the right time".
Mistakes will not occur anymore. Coulthard unfortunately made one at the start of the San Marino Grand Prix. Don’t forget that the Scotsman let the tyres slide at the start. He paid a heavy price for it. In other words, he thwarted pole position and ultimately ruined his chance for victory. The Prost driver voices his concerns:
"You only need to press on the accelerator and the engine will go under the right regime on its own and, one meter after the start, will be all automatized".
Alesi’s final statement is quite bitter:
"It will be like a videogame and not a sport anymore. It will be like playing on the PlayStation console. The role of the driver will be completely nullified and there will no need to face a gamble or danger. Mansell was called “Il Leone” because of the way in which he violently tamed the cars".
According to Jean, the gap between the top teams and the midfield/bottoms teams will not increase. In fact, it could soften a little:
"Ferrari provides six engines, Honda four and then there are Mercedes, BMW and Renault. They have the right people and the right technical/financial means to develop these new electronics which several teams will also benefit from it. Sauber and us, for example, will have the same product as Schumacher and Barrichello. Thus, there will not be a further widening of the range of performances between the best teams and the others".
Eddie Irvine thinks the same:
"I have a clear opinion on this subject. For me, what is taking place could resemble a liberalization of the sport doping. I think we end up taking a lot away from the driver’s skills in a context where the car is already a predominant factor over the human aspect".
What kind of advantage would those electronic aids provide to the driving itself? Williams test driver Marc Gené knows every single detail of those systems. He explains in detail:
"Firstly, it should be clear that there will be no benefits in terms of car performance. Traction control does not mean bringing more power to the wheels and be thus faster. It is used for tyre sliding".
According to the Spanish driver, the electronics will not bring anything new to the delicate braking phase:
"This is the moment where a driver can gain or lose precious lap time. It will stay like it was before because the electronically controlled braking is still forbidden. The driver will still need to dose his force on the braking pedal".
Jarno Trulli is convinced that there will be no revolutions in terms of performance. Therefore, he has decided to give up a valuable slice of the electronic aids:
"I will probably not use the automatic starting system".
The new rules obviously bear the name of the teams’ technicians. Benetton technical director Mike Gascoyne declares:
"The electronics are integral part of the automobile modern world. Our series cars are equipped with it as standard. I thus sustain that the liberalization in Formula 1 is the right thing: we cannot stop the cars’ evolution. Furthermore, we have some doubts regarding the legality of certain solutions adopted by some teams, who seemed to have come up with something similar to traction control".
According to Williams technical director Patrick Head, the situation that will arise is the least concerning:
"On the short-term, the FIA decision was inevitable given the impossibility to adequately control the electronics of each team. In the long run, it will be necessary to find mechanisms and criteria in order to let the controls become effective. I do not believe that it will level the teams. Do not forget that Ayrton Senna won races and championship during the active suspensions/free electronics era and nobody doubted that he was the best driver at the time".
The responsible of the Ferrari engine section, Paolo Martinelli, thinks that:
"The new regulations will not change the playing field. From our side, we opposed of depriving to the driver the opportunity to excel in driving. We also fought for clear and defined rules. For this reason, we pushed to define, together with the other teams, a precise regulation of the electronics which is limited only to the engine and gearbox where it is needed".
Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore agrees with the legalization of the electronic systems:
"We should all be equal now. Those who did not have anything like that until now will certainly benefit, perhaps only a few. We, for example, were among the latter. I still think that it will not change much, the pecking order will remain the same. It is the right decision, so at least many disputes will be eliminated".
European Minardi General director Giancarlo Minardi thinks the same:
"What does it change? We will also use the electronic aids at acceptable costs, while before we were the only ones to not have them. At least now everything that was kept in the dark will finally come to light. It is clear that the strong and big teams, who already have an advantage, will always have the best material. The smallest and weakest teams will need to do the best possible job with the worst one. Thus, there will always be the horse and the donkey; or at least non-racing horses".
McLaren sport director Jo Ramirez has been in motorsport for more than 30 years. He is not happy at all:
"What is going to happen is very sad for Formula 1. This sport is the peak of motorsport and must be the showcase for the best drivers. I am convinced that the men, in the end, should be the one to control the car and not vice versa. It is a shame that it is not possible to find some ways to control the legality of the electronic systems".
Ferrari makes a quick test with Luca Badoer before leaving for Spain. He tests the third car which will be available for the Spanish weekend. It is the F2001 that Schumacher will use in the race. The Maranello team does a traditional program, without any starting simulation or tyre change. Badoer completes 8 laps. His best time is a 1'01"693. In the days leading up to the Spanish Grand Prix, Formula 1 is shaken by the tragic death of one of the most beloved drivers in the recent past: Michele Alboreto. The ex-Ferrari driver passes away in a Dresda hospital on Wednesday 25th April 2001. He was hospitalized after a terrible accident at the Lausitzring circuit. The Milan driver was testing an Audi R8, an American-Le Mans series car. His conditions appeared very serious from the beginning. The doctors could not do anything to save his life. It was supposed to be a testing session like the others. At 5:30 p.m., Michele Alboreto was testing the Audi R8 at the Lausitzring circuit, a couple of kilometres from Dresda, in preparation for the 24 hours of Le Mans. He was driving like usual, with the same speed, security and passion. Then something went wrong. All of a sudden, the car started to go crazy and Michele lost control of it. Audi explains the incident in a press release:
"Alboreto was on a straight section of the Lausitzring circuit when, for as yet unknown reasons, the vehicle went off track and rolled".
It was not a mistake and not a risky maneuver from Alboreto. The car suddenly went off track at some point without any warning. The car piece that killed Michele needs to be identified. In a press release, Head of Audi Sport Wolfgang Ulrich said that the incident was an incomprehensible tragedy. He further adds:
"We will do everything in our power to find the reason for this incident. Right now, our thought and prayers are with Michele’s wife Nadia, his two daughters and his whole family".
Alboreto was born on Sunday 23rd December 1956. He made his debut in Formula 1 at the 1981 San Marino Grand Prix, at the wheel of the Tyrrell-Ford car. The Italian driver won two races with the English team in the United States, which had brought him to international prominence. Enzo Ferrari had immediately set eyes on him. According to Ferrari, Alboreto was a guy that had the potential to become a world championship. Enzo Ferrari wanted to bring Alboreto at Maranello. Those were the years when the Italian drivers were forbidden to drive a Ferrari. His arrival brought a fresh breath of enthusiasm. His best Ferrari season was in 1985, when he was crowned vice world champion. He was only beaten by Alain Prost by the end of the season. Alboreto raced with Tyrrell, Lola, Footwork and Minardi afterwards. He did not enjoy success after the Ferrari stint. He raced 194 Formula 1 Grand Prix, obtaining five wins, two pole positions, nine 2nd and nine 3rd place finishes. Michele did not leave the motorsport world after retiring from Formula 1. In 1997, he had emerged from the inevitable, slow and unrelenting oblivion that surrounds the ex-Formula 1 drivers by resoundingly winning an historic and important race such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He will be remembered for the way he dealt with other drivers. It must be said that there are also solid sporting reasons that contributed to his good character. We cannot forget the beautiful television reports where he was giving advices on safe driving, car maintenance, how to tackle a corner and the danger of speed driving. Michele was talking about those topics in a clear and serene voice, which always infused trust. Even his radiophonic comments about Formula 1 were precise. At the time, it was rare to see a Formula 1 driver. However, you noticed things that no one noticed when watching the races on television. When his daughter was born, he was asked why he choose the name Alice. He clearly answered:
"I hope that she can live in wonderland at least".
Michele was an amazing character. At 45, his racing passion was still intact. It was a hallmark that he had ever since he was a child. He also worked as mechanic. The Milan driver was prudent and asked the others to be cautious as well. He passed away in the same way that other drivers did in the history of motorsport. One day, he confessed that he wanted to write a book after retiring from motorsport. It was a book that would have collected personal memories. In addition, it was a book that would have helped the motorsport fans to understand what goes on behind the scenes of a race.
"How a driver lives the races before, during and after".
These are sensations and emotions that are never being talked about in the journalism field, whether it is newspapers or television. They are always caught up in the immediacy that tries to cool everything down. Unfortunately, he would never write the book. His death was immediately commented with commotion by the Maranello president. Montezemolo expresses his sadness:
"Michele Alboreto played an important role as a driver in the history of Ferrari. He was intelligent and paid a great deal of attention to the technical problems involved in the development of the car. His death has been a hard blow to take and has filled me with great sadness. Michele continued to race, driven by an irrepressible passion, proving that in our sport, which is totally involving, risk is always around the corner".
Michele Alboreto’s only cousin Marisa releases a public release to ANSA:
"You can’t imagine what we are going through as a family. We are really distraught. We are all confused, to try to understand. I am here to be close to the family, to the kids. We found this evening what happened, I do not know if one of us will go to Germany to fetch him or whether we have to wait him here... Amid this great pain we are trying to sort things out".
The Formula 1 world is in shock. Alain Prost, Michele’s greatest rival in 1985, recalls the exemplary figure of Alboreto after arriving at the Montmelò circuit. The French driver recalls Alboreto as a friendly driver and a rival:
"I adored him. It touches me personally because my story with Michele goes back a long way. I first competed with him in Formula 3 and then had a really good battle with when I won my first world title in 1985. A true gentleman, a fair driver like no other. With his death goes a part of my career and of my life as a driver. There is a certain uneasiness because I cannot explain the incident. It is difficult to judge things from a distance. The incident appears to be very strange: in a long straight, where you arrive at 300 km/h and all of a sudden, the car launches into the air and rolls over various times. Similar incidents happen due to either a suspension failure, a wing failure or tyre failure... The investigations will have to establish that".
Two investigations are opened to investigate the cause of the accident. One investigation is from EKRA, on behalf of the public prosecutor's office of Cottbus, in Saxony. The other one is from Audi, the manufacturer of the car that Alboreto was testing. By order of the judiciary, an autopsy will be performed but it will take some time to know the results. It is already known that Alboreto was going to Germany. Before doing so, he confided to some of his friends that he had some aerodynamic tests scheduled. The sudden failure of the rear wing could explain the scary launch of the car, as it was the case for Elio De Angelis’ car in 1986. It summersaulted over the guard-rail, without touching it, and then landed inverted. The horrible photos of the remaining of the car are seized by the German judiciary. The roll bar and the head protection are missing; a wheel is completely delaminated while the other seems to be intact. Alboreto expressed the desire to retire from racing at the end of the season. Dindo Capello would have replaced him. The latter was supposed to conclude the testing. However, Michele asked to continue driving for a couple more laps in order to have a perfect car for Le Mans. The Italian driver was driving along the main straight when the car went off track and hit a barrier. The car summersaulted over it, after a launch of 100 meters. The two investigations will demonstrate that the crash caused Alboreto’s death. A sharp object went into the left rear tyre. There was a gradual loss of tyre pressure which caused the puncture. Audi will then declare to the investigators that the destroyed prototype had already completed thousands of tests on numerous circuits, in preparation for the 2001 season, without any problem. The investigators will suppose that neither the driver nor the circuit are responsible for the incident. The Lausitzring manager Hans-Jorg Fischer communicates that the track-stationed ambulances arrived on the scene of the incident after just two minutes. A helicopter arrived three minutes later. Meanwhile, the doctors declared that they could not do anything to save Alboreto. His body is repatriated in Italy. The funeral will be held on Saturday 28th April 2001 at Basiglio. His wife Nadia Astorri and his two daughters will be there. Several ex-motorsport drivers, as well as famous non-motorsport people such as Adriano Galliani and Mike Bongiorno, are invited to the funeral. At least 1500 people will be there. Nadia Alboreto wants her husband’s body to be cremated in the Milanese crematorium at the Lambrate cemetery. The ashes will be privately conserved. Sister Laura was the one to give the news of Michele’s incident to his brother Ermanno Alboreto. Michael Schumacher is still in shock:
"I was shocked when I heard the news. The death of Michele, caused by a tragic coincidence, is a terrible event. At this moment all my thoughts go out to his family".
Luigi Montanini is a famous paddock chef nowadays. While he was working for Ferrari, Luigi had a very close relationship with Michele. Luigi Montanini honors him:
"He was a simple guy. He remained like this even in the moments where success tends to change people. One memory stands out. In the evening, when everyone would run towards the city centers and the great hotels, Michele remained on track, dines with the mechanics and then played Scopa. It is difficult to find a driver like him nowadays".
Formula 1 is surrounded by a mourning atmosphere. However, the show must go on. It is now time for the Spanish Gran Prix, which is the fifth round of the 2001 championship. All eyes are on Ferrari. The Maranello team lost most of the advantage that they accumulated in the first two races of the season. Schumacher remarks:
"I think that the pecking order will not change. The F2001 is a really good car and I am hopeful of the results that we achieved in the electronic department".
Todt is hopeful that Ferrari will bounce back in Spain. The Barcelona-Catalunya circuit stresses the chassis, the aerodynamics and the tyres. The logic dictates that Ferrari and McLaren are the favourites. Hakkinen won the last three editions of the Spanish Grand Prix while Coulthard finished 2nd. McLaren scored a 1-2 in those occasions. The Flying Finn vocalizes his will to have a good result:
"The results so far this year have not been ideal for me. However, the championship is still a very open situation. No one is too far ahead and there are still plenty of points to be scored. I hope my championship starts here".
It is about time. The McLaren driver only picked up 4 points in the last four races compared to the 26 of his team mate Coulthard. On the other hand, Williams-BMW has lots of doubts over the application of the new rules. Both Ralf Schumacher and Montoya play down their chances to have a good result, even if Michelin did most of its testing on this circuit. The Spanish race means that the drivers’ market is in full swing. Therefore, it is worth reporting that the first rumours are circulating in the paddock. Ferrari has seemingly asked about Jenson Button’s contractual situation to his manager. The Maranello team is also starting negotiations with other drivers. The first one is Alonso. The negotiations started in the last couple of months but were interrupted by Briatore. The second is Pantano. It seems like he spoke to Todt at Maranello. The others are Heidfield and Räikkönen. It can be deduced that Ferrari is at the window, attending to decide on a renewal contract for Barrichello but also thinking of an unspecified tomorrow when Schumacher may no longer be there. Button’s contract with Benetton runs until the end of the 2002 season. Frank Williams will afterwards decide whether to renew him or to let him go. At the same time, Peter Sauber says that he will never let go of his two precious drivers, despite the fact that Ferrari could play the engine supply card. A very popular rumor is circulating in the paddock, which was also popular last year. It is about Hakkinen’s retirement at the end of the year and Jacques Villeneuve’s automatic arrival at McLaren. It could happen regardless, since McLaren cannot continue with the same drivers forever. Halfway through the season at Barcelona, Jaguar and Prost make the first two announcements. Pedro De la Rosa will become the new Jaguar driver, while Luciano Burti will take Gastòn Mazzacane’s place at Prost. The Brazilian driver will drive alongside Alesi. On Friday 27th April 2001, David Coulthard is the fastest driver in FP1. The Scott stops the clock at 1'20"107. Michael Schumacher is 2nd ahead of his brother, Hakkinen and Panis. Coulthard tops the timing sheets in FP2. On the other hand, his championship rival is much slower. Do not forget that Schumacher and Coulthard are tied at 26 points in the driver’s standings. The German Ferrari driver needs to be content with the 5th fastest time. He set a 1'20"880 lap time during the final stages of FP2. There is still some fine-tuning to be done at Ferrari. Michael continues to be optimistic:
"It was good, we mainly looked at the tyres and the electronics. It was a type which we already did for quite some time on this track. I think that we are one of the teams who is ahead in that sense. I am hopeful for this race".
The German driver is behind at the moment. Eddie Irvine (1'20"561), Rubens Barrichello (1'20"823) and Oliver Panis (1'20"826), who drive for Jordan, Ferrari and Jordan-Honda respectively, are ahead of Schumacher. Hakkinen’s McLaren is further behind. The Finn is struggling so far. Four minutes to the end, Hakkinen spins the car. The Silver Arrows is not damaged but Hakkinen is slowly bringing it back to the pits, after setting a 1'20"894. Friday’s free practice sessions are over. It is now time to ask: how did it go? The first driver to answer this question is Barrichello:
"Not bad for being the first day. I run a lot of laps. I would have done even better, had I not stayed in the garage for a long time for a necessary control on the front and rear axles. It went well. The times are also very good and it is thanks to the tyres but also in part due to the electronic systems".
A smiling Michael Schumacher promptly answers this provocation:
"We must be 22 very good monkeys in the cars now. Niki likes to say a lot of things. Maybe a monkey could drive the cars, but certainly not as fast. Let me explain: the electronic cannot do the driving by itself, we have to give the input and the monkey cannot maybe do that".
Michael continues his analysis:
"I think we are one of the few teams to have worked intensively on the system, so we are pretty sorted out, but I don't think anyone can claim to have the perfect system yet. We are still experimenting, trying to improve. We had a good test at this track about one and a half months ago, which gave us a lot of data and pointed us in the right direction. We also tried it throughout the two practice sessions. For example, as we went along the day, it was getting warmer and we did less running. I maybe should have tried to set a better lap but it does not worry me too much. The aim is to test everything under race conditions and I must say that things have worked well. The set-up might need some tweaks but it was predictable. The important thing is that the base software is good, now we are making final improvements to the car, which seems to be going the right way. The tyre issue is much more delicate: we need to fully understand it, in order to avoid making the Imola mistakes. It is going well so far. Tomorrow, in qualifying, we will find out how good traction control is. I think that there will at least one Ferrari on the front row. I am prepared to bet on pole".
Cesare Fiorio, ex-Ferrari technical director and television commentator, proposes his point of view on the electronic argument:
"It is silly to think that, with the electronic systems, all drivers will become good. With the computer, you can raise the performance limit of the car, but we have to see if the driver is able to raise his own personal driving limit. So, more or less, everything remains as before. Look at the standings: nothing changed. Drivers who are, today, in unusual positions, will be resized on Saturday. On free practice, some run with high fuel while other with far less".
The electronics should therefore be evaluated on Sunday, in order to see whether something changes. Meanwhile, someone is already given up on the electronic systems. For example, Villeneuve will not use the automatic system during the race start. Montoya appears worried:
"Many things have to be taken for. It is difficult to focus on driving".
On the other hand, Irvine seems joyful:
"I am lazy and I should be happy for those innovations. I should probably stay in my Miami villa and to get the money out of my helmet images. I have nothing more to do in the car but it is probably the death of Formula 1".
Michael Schumacher will start ahead of everyone for the 36th time in his career. The German driver dominates the entire qualifying session. In the end, though, Michael almost gets caught by Hakkinen. He comes to within 0.085s of snatching pole position from the Ferrari driver, who set his lap time at the start of the session. David Coulthard, Schumacher’s main rival for the championship, will start from the second row of the grid. The McLaren driver stops the clock at 1'18"635. It is four tenths slower than the poleman. The Scotsman will start ahead of Barrichello. Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli are on the third row. The Williams drivers had the most disappointing qualifying performance out of everyone. They struggled with tyre issues and the electronics throughout the entire qualifying session. Ralf Schumacher is able to take the 5th fastest time while Juan Pablo Montoya will start on the sixth row in 12th. His performance was very bad. Michael Schumacher expresses his post-qualifying thoughts:
"We were not in crisis as someone thought. After Imola, the press criticized us and this is the result. This pole means we are back where we want to be and makes me hopeful for the rest of the weekend".
The German driver is exhilarated for his 4th pole position of the season. Meanwhile, the other drivers are struggling with the electronics. Hakkinen grabs 2nd position after disconnecting the traction control system on his last flying lap. Coulthard admits to not understand all those options on the steering wheel. Barrichello is struggling to find the right car set-up. Montoya is nowhere. Williams is thinking of eliminating any electronic aid after breaking seven engines in only two weeks. Everything seems to suffer with those electronics in some ways. What about Michael Schumacher?
"Everything is working for me and I will not give up those aids. Things look good but they are also very tight. I am pretty confident with our technology. The top teams have worked the most and prepared them than the smaller ones in optimizing those new updates. It is true that you cannot extract the maximum from those from the first race already. Our electronic system is very reliable up until now. I like this revolution; you can prepare and fine-tune the car much more easily".
Are you not worried about the start? 14 cars tried the new electronic system but stalled on track. Many drivers do not trust those electronic systems and will do everything manually:
"There will be some nasty surprises for those who did not prepare well. I hope that it does not happen to us. So far, we did not have any issue since we have working on every eventuality. If you do a fantastic manual start you can be faster but it happens once a while. The electronic one is much more constant. Do not think that it is easier though. There is one fundamental discriminant that remains: the driver’s reaction time".
What is it like to fight Hakkinen once again?
"It does not surprise and it pleases me that he regained his speed. He won three times on this circuit and was always very fast. This time though, we are fast as well. It was surprising to see that he closed the gap on his last attempt, from four tenths to 85 thousand only. It was an impressive and sudden improvement but this is Hakkinen".
Your brother Ralf does not scare you:
"True, but for only one reason: the Bridgestone are much better than the Michelin, at Barcelona. The tyres are almost everything".
Umberto Agnelli is also watching Schumacher’s performance:
"He brought luck. I am happy that he is with us, it means that he believes in our project. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and Hope that he brings us luck tomorrow as well".
Agnelli is in Barcelona today, since he is particularly attracted by the free electronics. He gives his opinion on Saturday’s qualifying session:
"Schumacher gifted us a good afternoon even if I honestly enjoy football more. It is normal that he is on pole position, let’s hope that he can win tomorrow. We want to dedicate it to Alboreto and his family. I am curious about the new electronic systems, they talked to me about a new chapter in F1. I arrived here with great interest but I was left disappointed. It does not seem to have brought about any revolutions".
Ferrari is still ahead though. As a Tifoso, you should be happy:
"We have great strength, Ferrari is a very close-knight group, this is the ideal team to win".
Those electronics eliminated the suspects but increased the unknowns. Hakkinen’s move was significant:
"I was not satisfied of the traction control system. Thus, I unplugged everything and did that time manually".
The Finn later gives Todt a nice dig:
"They accused us to have it, when it was illegal. I then unplugged it in order to lap much faster. What kind of trick is it if it damages us?"
The question mark is mainly on the start. Some teams - Prost and Sauber - did not even install the automatic system. Montoya and Ralf Schumacher prefer to do manual starts without using the starting aid and the traction control, which are useful in the corners. Ferrari and McLaren use the electronic systems to the fullest. On Sunday 29th April 2001, the Spanish Grand Prix has not yet started but we are already seeing the first victim of the launch control system. It is David Coulthard. The Scottish driver stalls on the grid while the others are starting the formation lap. The technicians, with their laptops, have little time to sort out the software malfunction. Under the watchful eye of Ron Dennis, the issue is resolved and the McLaren driver gets a second chance. However, the regulations states that he needs to start the race from last position. At light out, both Schumacher and Hakkinen have a great getaway from the first row. Rubens Barrichello lets himself down with yet another difficult start. Ralf blasts past while Trulli is hurrying the Brazilian. It seems like the Williams and the Jordan have overtaken the Ferrari but it is not yet over. Barrichello does not let them get away with it. The Brazilian brakes much later than the duo going into turn 1 and reclaims 3rd place. Meanwhile, Frentzen is the one that causes the yellow flags at the start. Frentzen’s launch control system either did not function or was not plugged in properly. He is luckily avoided by everyone. A dangerous incident is thus avoided. In the meantime, Montoya has an awesome start from 12th and is already up to 6th position. Further back, a hasty Coulthard gains several places but is forced to come back to the pits for repairs. His front wing is broken after a contact with Bernoldi’s Arrows. Coulthard makes a 15.4 seconds pit stop, given that the mechanics need to change the front wing. The McLaren driver will start a comeback drive from last place. On lap 5, Frentzen’s race is over. The Jordan driver is involved in an incident with Pedro de La Rosa, on his first race with the Jaguar outfit. The two come together at turn 10. Frentzen was down the inside to overtake the Spaniard but run wide. This mistake was the cause of the collision. They are now into the gravel and into retirement. The present race order is: Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen, Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Trulli and Montoya. The gaps make it immediately clear how the race might unfold.
There is a second covering the race leader and Hakkinen, while the other drivers are further behind. There is no question on who will fight for the win: Ferrari and McLaren, or rather, Schumacher and Hakkinen. They are on another planet compared to the other drivers. By the end of the 8th lap, it seems like the current world champion has got the race under control. Coming up to 1/3 of the race, there is very little track action. Montoya is right behind Trulli’s gearbox and is trying to pressure the Italian into a mistake. However, as the laps tick by, the Williams-Bmw driver is unable to try any overtake manoeuvre on the Jordan driver. Montoya is definitely being held up. In the meantime, Ralf Schumacher has beached the car from 4th place. A locked rear brake caused the German to spin out of the race. Both Trulli and Montoya gain a place as a result. Trulli and Montoya dive in the pits on lap 21. The Colombian gets ahead of the Italian after the pit-stop. The Williams mechanics did a much better job than the Jordan team. On lap 23, Michael Schumacher makes the first stop of two scheduled stops. It lasts 8.7 seconds. At the end of the 27th lap, Hakkinen is in the pits to try an over-cut on Schumacher. It does not work since the pit-stop lasts 11.3 seconds. In addition, Schumacher is setting impressive lap times on his brand-new set of boots. The Ferrari driver retakes the leadership. At the end of the first round of pit stops, Jacques Villeneuve is the one who gained the most places. The BAR driver is running in 5th. On the other hand, Trulli is the one who loses out the most. The Jordan is now behind Villeneuve in 6th position. The race continues to be quite static. Schumacher continues to lead the race, with a 4-second gap over Hakkinen. Barrichello is 3rd, followed by Montoya, Villeneuve and Trulli. The second round of pit stops changes the course of the race. Schumacher pits for the second and final time on lap 42, while Hakkinen powers down the start/finish straight to assume the lead. This time out, the McLaren extends the first stint by 7 laps. All eyes are on the Finn to fully maximize his second overcut attempt. Those laps are crucial if he wants to have any hope of winning this race. Meanwhile, Barrichello is slowing down massively. The Ferrari team thinks that it is a puncture at first. The mechanics soon realize that his car has a broken rear suspension. The Brazilian is thus forced to retire. Soon after, Eddie Irvine is the latest to retire after an engine failure. The Jaguar driver is still stuck at zero points in the standings.
Montoya is now 3rd and has the chance to get his first podium in Formula 1. Whilst this is going on, we look back at Hakkinen. The Finn pits for the final time at the end of the 49th lap. With some blinding pace and a great in-lap, he takes the lead of the race. The fight for victory is not yet over though. It would be fair to expect an attempt by Schumacher to re-gain the lost ground and put pressure on Hakkinen. Instead, the Ferrari driver loses ground to the leader with each passing lap. The gap increases to 40 seconds. It seems like Schumacher has some kind of problem. It is maybe an indication of bad vibrations on his set of tyres. The aim is to manage this valuable 2nd place, which would still propel him back to the lead of the championship. In the meantime, Coulthard unlaps himself from Schumacher. The McLaren driver starts the chase to Heidfield for 6th. In a couple of laps, the Scottish driver is able to overtake the Ferrari-powered Sauber. He is now into the points. It is the last lap. Four km until the chequered flag, Hakkinen slows down massively. Montoya and other drivers un-lap themselves from the leader. What is happening to the McLaren driver? Does Hakkinen have enough of an advantage to win the race? The answer is no. It seems like he has a faulty clutch. White smoke is starting to pour out of the McLaren exhaust. Hakkinen is trying to desperately continue but the smoke continues to pour down. It means that the faulty clutch has led to a spectacular engine failure. Mika has now pulled off the track at turn 8. It is a cruel twist of events but this is motorsport. Michael Schumacher takes the lead and is waving to the crowd with a couple of corners left to go. Chequered flag! Michael Schumacher wins the Spanish Grand Prix ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve. The Colombian driver scores his first points of the season. It is also his first-ever podium in F1. It is a truly deserved result for him, after the bad luck in the first rounds of the championship. It is also an important day for Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian driver gifts BAR its first historical podium. Trulli, Coulthard and Heidfield complete the points-scoring positions. During the honorary lap, Coulthard gives a lift to his stranded teammate. Schumacher quietly cheers for this victory on Parc Ferme. He knows fully well that Hakkinen deserved the win. The two unsurprisingly meet and exchange friendly words before hugging each other. Mika seems to philosophically take defeat, even if it means that his championship is already compromised. Schumacher leads the drivers’ standings with 36 points. Coulthard is 2nd with 28 points. Hakkinen is stuck at 4. It is a massive shame that he lost the race in the last meters. The Flying Finn was already tasting the winning champagne, since he had 40-seconds lead over Schumacher:
"It would be good to get a punch bag in the motorhome right now. I need to hit it a couple of times to relax. My car was working like clockwork. The strategy was perfect, the car was very good but it suddenly shut down. It is absurd, the race was already won. As you can imagine, I am really disappointed, not just for myself but for my team also. It would have been great to win. It is a shame for the mechanics as well, who have put so much hard work in. They gave me a fantastic car. They were already exiting from the garage, ready to go to the pit-wall and celebrate. It is a real bummer".
A disappointed Ron Dennis observes:
"If you have been in this sport for a while, you cannot say that you won until the race is over".
The McLaren team principal is faced with such a huge hoax. Norbert Haug is struggling to keep instincts in check:
"What did I think when I saw Mika stop? One word which starts with per s and finishes with e" (Scheisse, Shit in English).
It is a vulgar word but how can you criticize the Mercedes-Benz boss? What a drama. Hakkinen tries to hide his emotions. He is not crying. This situation is similar to the one that occurred at the 1999 Italian Gran Prix:
"The season has just started. It is not over yet. I still believe I can win the championship. I just have to count the points all the time and then when I have no mathematical chance of winning, we will have to change to a different target. Until then I will have to push and fight as hard as I can".
His face is pale and it would take nothing to trigger the commotion. The whole Formula 1 circus gives him the stage in front of the McLaren garage. His wife Erya hugs him tight for a couple of seconds. There is silence around them. The drivers, mechanics, VIPs and intruders starts a spontaneous applause. At this point, Hakkinen’s eyes start to tear up. He is honest until the end and admits:
"I noticed that, a couple of laps until the end, the temperatures skyrocketed and I understood that there was a clutch issue. It was not working very well. I asked the pit wall on the radio to see whether there was something wrong. They responded: we see nothing on the telemetry, you can continue. Yet something was not right. With one and a half lap to go, all lights started to switch on. Did I pray? No, I cursed. In those last corners, I understand everything. I was pushing like crazy but the car gave up on me. I thought that the win was in my pocket and this is hard to swallow. The most atrocious aspect of this is that you do not even have the time to think, to reflect and to re-organize your thoughts. We must react immediately in order to forget about this disappointment. Ultimately, quite a few bad things happened to me lately. Why is destiny so hard on me?"
Coulthard did not have an easy race either. The Scot stalled on the grid during the formation lap. He crossed the line in 5th place after a difficult comeback drive through the field. Dennis talks about software issues a couple of hours after the race. Beforehand, he said this:
"An electronic issue? I do not think so. I’m afraid to say I suspect that David had a bit of brain fade on his part".
The Scotsman retorts:
"I think Ron must have suffered a bit of brain fade saying that before he had spoken to me or the engineers".
The McLaren team is disappointed. On the other hand, Schumacher is embarrassed. He won the race whilst managing 2nd place throughout the latter stages of the race. The Ferrari driver comments the victory:
"I do not feel like a winner right now. I overtook a retired car. I am shocked for what happened to Hakkinen. He did not deserve it. He was the fastest man in the most important stage of the race, he had made good use of my problems with the third set of tyres. I would have been somehow fair for him to win the race. I felt simply sorry when I saw his car by the side of the track. He’s had such a tough season, that’s what I see in the first instance. He’s done a great job, it was a great race, it was a good fight, a good battle, it’s a shame to see him like that. Luck is a spinning wheel. It happened to me before. I retired many times in the lead. I remember fully well what happened in 1993 at Monte Carlo. I was dominating the race and would have comfortably won. I then was forced to retire. Sometimes racing is hard".
However, his ending seemed really painful. Why did you lose so much time to Hakkinen?
"It was a huge vibration on the rear tyre. Since I thought that a tyre was delaminating, I slowed down a lot, especially on the straights, in case that the tyre exploded. It was strange and absurd. At that point, we realized there was nothing we could do to fix those vibrations. We thought about stopping, then decided to continue. We had enough of a gap over Montoya and needed to bring the car home in order to gain six points. It was a worry until the end".
Furthermore, Barrichello suffered a suspension failure. Ferrari does not seem to have good reliability. Schumacher claps back:
"There is no reason to be worried. Until the second stop, I was ahead of Hakkinen by four seconds. Everything worked beautifully, starting from the electronics. Everything was under control; therefore, we will need to analyse and solve one problem".
McLaren is once again very close:
"They were the only ones, together with us, who made good use of the free electronics. The advantage that we have over the others has further increased. I'm almost certain that Ferrari was just that much better, if I wouldn't have the problem in the last stint".
How does it feel to be back in the fight with Hakkinen?
"It does not surprise me at all. It was back to the old days. Mika did not come back, he never left. It was a very close fight with him. I think we were very close together. The details make the difference".
It seems like McLaren’s strategy was the best one:
"No, the strategy was perfect, it was simply when the tyres didn't work properly... When you look at the times, I was doing a high 21s, 22s. Then when I put new tyres on, I was doing 21.0s, 21.1s, and very consistent. Then again at the end of the second stint I was 21 high. Then I put on the new tyres, and I managed just a 21 high and then I fell off into the 22s, over 23s. So, I was about one second slower with this set of tyres, and the fuel level was exactly the same as I had in the stint before, so it was just down to the tyres. There's no other reason there can be, especially with the vibration".
The win still remains:
"I would like to say one thing. Everyone knows that Montezemolo has a new baby. The president asked for a present. Hopefully this is a very nice present for our present and his wife. I would like to express again my congratulations that they have a healthy child, Giulia. Hopefully I will meet them soon".
What about Alboreto?
"He was our friend. I knew him fully well, not only on track but also privately. My thoughts go to his family, his wife and children".
What did you tell Hakkinen during that hug?
"I went to see him afterwards and said I was sorry. He did such an amazing race, without any mistakes. To see him retire on the last lap, five corners from the end, is shocking, because he had done everything right".
Juan Pablo Montoya is celebrating with Schumacher on the podium. Despite a complicated race week-end, the Colombian can surprisingly celebrate his first podium in Formula 1. However, the Williams car did not perform at the same level as the previous rounds. The Colombian states:
"It is my first podium in Formula 1. It’s a great result because I really wasn’t expecting to be on the podium today because the car was difficult to drive. We were not as competitive as it was the case in other circuits. It was a very difficult weekend altogether. I never got the car the way I wanted it and it was sliding a lot in the race and making my life a bit difficult. My start was good, thanks to the launch control. One way or another I had to move up at the start because I was so low on the grid. I was quite aggressive and it paid off. I got Jarno in the first pit stop and I just had to keep pushing 100 percent. With Jacques behind me, I couldn’t afford to relax. We are behind in the electronics and have a lot to work to do. We need to catch up and then we will fight against McLaren and Ferrari".
It is a similar story for Jacques Villeneuve, who was standing on the podium for the first time in 42 races. His last podium was at the 1998 Hungarian Gran Prix back in August. Above all, this is BAR’s first podium in Formula 1:
"It’s a great feeling. I am especially happy for the guys. Everyone has worked really hard for this for years. To finally get a podium is great. It’s the boost everyone was needing. This 3rd place is a nice gift. It was a difficult and stressful period. We had huge issues in the first year. It seems like things were getting better in the second year, but we still did not collect nothing".
The turning point is that the electronics are now free:
"Hakkinen stopped a few corners from the finish. This means that the electronics alone are not enough. Without determination, you will not go anywhere".
The funny thing is that you did not notice Hakkinen’s retirement:
"I thought that I finished 4th. My engineer then told me that Hakkinen retired and that I finished 3rd. It is a big surprise to be where I am".
Trulli crossed the line in 4th. It is a very result for him and the Jaguar team. However, he wanted more:
"I am angry with the team. They made me target Montoya and did the race on him, who was much quicker. We completely forgot about Villeneuve. The result is that the podium was stolen from us".
The following day, the main talking point at Maranello is Michael's conspicuous slowdown during the third stint. It was a problem that did not cause the DNF, like it was the case for Hakkinen. Michael can consider himself lucky. Jean Todt gets angry when he reads the newspapers:
"When he wins, you journalists write that he is lucky. When he loses, you never write about his bad luck. This is racing".
On Sunday evening, Schumacher’s rear tyres are loaded on the plane flight to Bologna. Schumacher was forced to slow massively, due to the massive vibration that he had on those set of tyres. Ferrari starts a two-wheel autopsy at Maranello on Monday morning. The real problem is soon discovered. The tyres were not flat. The hubs were not the issue. The rim was not bent. Something very strange happened. It occurred other times but not in the past. In other words, the rims were spinning on the wheels. They did not stay well hooked to it. There are visible traces on the interior part of the rim. The car balance has been lost in this crazy friction, which could explain the strong vibration that Schumacher experienced during the race. Many other causes could have led to the vibration. It was perhaps the grease used to make the tyre fit properly on the rim or maybe the rush with which these wheels were fitted. Another cause could also involve the new electronics. The enormous traction experienced by the rear wheels is kept under control electronically but it could be that the tyres paid the price for sliding onto the rim. This is a new problem that the Maranello technicians and mechanics will need to resolve. At the end of the day, the cause for Barrichello’s retirement needs to be discovered. The suspension did not break. The spring that holds the suspension failed. The rear axle lowered while the front one raised, which caused the car to lose any sense of control. Ferrari will focus on resolving these issues in the upcoming weeks, in order to be ready for the Austrian Gran Prix at the Zeltweg circuit. The Maranello team does not need to worry too much about reliability for the sixth round of the 2001 World Championship. The leadership in the Drivers' Championship is consolidated but not yet secured at all, since David Coulthard is only 8 points behind Schumacher.