#625 1998 German Grand Prix

2021-04-16 00:00

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#1998, Fulvio Conti, Davide Scotto di Vetta,

#625 1998 German Grand Prix

A winner on the track, but a loser in court. That's how you can sum up the hot days of late July 1998 for McLaren. A landslide victory by Mika Hakkine


A winner on the track, but a loser in court. That's how you can sum up the hot days of late July 1998 for McLaren. A landslide victory by Mika Hakkinen at Spielberg on 26 July, with the Finn returning to success after three races without a win, during which Michael Schumacher had gone on the rampage, and the appeal rejected by the International Court of Appeal on 28 July, concerning the controversial Silverstone Grand Prix finale. The judges upheld the decision taken a few weeks earlier, namely not to impose any penalty on Schumacher, thus confirming the finishing order. The Stop&Go for the German had been communicated late, to be precise six minutes after the deadline, which is why it was then decided to cancel it. The FIA statement reads:


"After hearing the representatives of all parties involved, the International Court of Appeal has confirmed the decision of the stewards. The results of the British Grand Prix are therefore final".


An outcome that had appeared to be a foregone conclusion from the outset, and which the parties involved, McLaren and Ferrari, logically welcome in different ways. The Woking team chose not to comment on the ruling, while Ferrari expressed all the satisfaction of the case:


"We are satisfied that the result of the race has been confirmed. But we do not want to say any more".


Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, says he has never had any doubts about the behavior of himself and his team:


"I didn't expect any other verdict, nor did I think that points would be taken away from Ferrari, who did nothing wrong at Silverstone. I am happy that the matter was resolved before the Hockenheim race".


The Court of Appeal did not finish its work here, because two days later three stewards are in the dock, guilty of having communicated the penalty late. Nazri Hoosein from India, Roger Peart from Canada and Howard Lapsley from Great Britain admitted their mistake and at the end of the hearing handed back their super licences to the FIA. Federation president Max Mosley clarifies, explaining in detail the mistakes made by the three:


"Firstly, they treated a piece of information from the race director as a report, which was not the case. Then they didn't take into account the time and lap of the offence. Finally, they did not communicate their decision, once made, to the race director. Only Ferrari was informed".


Mosley also exonerates Ferrari for the team order given to Irvine during the Austrian Grand Prix, cleverly concealed behind an alleged brake problem:


"Team orders are not forbidden when they are in function of winning the World Championship. They are not allowed, however, when they interfere with the results of the race, when it is an act prejudicial to the interests of the competition".


Leaving aside the legal issues, the Cavallino continues to work at Fiorano to improve the performance of the F300 ahead of the German Grand Prix, at the Hockenheim circuit, to be held back-to-back after the disappointing Austrian trip. The most important development is undoubtedly the introduction of the much talked about long wheelbase, a novelty that should have made its debut in Austria, but was postponed by a week due to reliability issues. Although the Fiorano track has completely different characteristics to the German one, the long-wheelbase F300 offers positive signs in terms of cornering, but also some concerns about excessive oversteer in some fast corners. According to the technicians, this can be resolved by working on the setup. On the circuit adjacent to Ferrari's sports section, therefore, components are being assembled and disassembled because, as Todt says:


"You always have to check everything and replace parts. It's a normal thing and so we take the opportunity to put in that block of carbon that lengthens the wheelbase by no less than twelve and no more than fifteen centimeters. By lengthening the wheelbase we distribute the weight better, so the car is more balanced. Then we can load the ailerons less, and this is the point that could allow us to gain speed, because what often holds us back is the ailerons that are too loaded, aerodynamically speaking. On the Hockenheim circuit we have never tested and we have to see how it goes: on Friday we go on track with a long wheelbase car and a short wheelbase car, and we see the results. If they're good, we'll take Irvine's car apart and put it back together with the long wheelbase, so on Saturday and Sunday they can both go on track with the long wheelbase. Of course, it's not all that simple. There are a lot of other parts to change, but we have everything we need because they were parts and components already planned, already built and already tested".


The long-wheelbase car is already ready for Schumacher for Hockenheim, starting with free practice, while Irvine will have the standard version at his disposal. In the days leading up to the eleventh round of the World Championship, Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, gives a brief account of the race in Austria, won by McLaren with Hakkinen ahead of Coulthard. A superiority on the part of the two Mp4-13s that Brawn did not expect:


"We didn't expect the McLarens to be so strong, but we had found an unusual amount of grip, which gave us hope for the race. Our strategy was clear: we had to take the lead immediately. Unfortunately for us, Hakkinen drove really well and managed to contain Schumacher's attacks. Then Michael went off the track, and our race was over".


The German was not exempt from a few inaccuracies that were unusual for him, but Brawn defends his star driver to the hilt:


"True, he often put his bottom in the sand. But if you look at the whole weekend, most drivers have made mistakes like that. I don't think he was under too much pressure. It can happen, and we're not angry with him for that".


In any case, we need to put Austria behind us and focus all our energies on the next Grand Prix, where Ferrari will bring a new feature to the track that could also prove crucial in terms of the championship:


"It is certain that we will use the long-wheelbase car on the first day of free practice. And after analyzing the results, we'll see if it's appropriate to use it in the following two days. We haven't had much experience on this type of track. We will do our best to be strong there as well. There will also be other new areas. For example, we have to improve the efficiency of the brakes, as the last Grand Prix showed; we'll have a new wing and a whole aerodynamic package for tracks that require low downforce. In short, we are making a big effort to improve the car, and I am convinced that in the end we will succeed".


The British engineer is optimistic about the final championship:


"I am convinced that we have a great chance of winning the world championship, but it will be very tough. The only thing we can do is give it our all and see what happens. In this environment you can never be too optimistic because things change quickly. Sometimes races go well, and sometimes they don't. We've had three fantastic Grands Prix, but Sunday wasn't so good. But we only need to have a couple of more great races to keep our championship chances intact".


Another important piece of news concerns Eddie Irvine, who after a few months of bargaining decided to renew the contract linking him to Maranello for 1999 as well, for a fee of four and a half million dollars.


"Four and a half million? My manager takes care of the contracts, I don't even look at them; the only thing I know is that he gives me an allowance of a thousand dollars every week. I've always been good at spending it, less good at earning it, maybe I've only managed to do it now".


According to rumors, the Northern Irish driver had more than a few teams interested in benefiting from his performance, but they were all fighting in the midfield. Irvine was therefore faced with a dilemma: to be the first of a mid-table team, or to stay in a top team like Ferrari but as a squire? In the end he opted for the second hypothesis:


"Many people wanted to kick me out of Ferrari, but I'm staying here: I won. Of course, it's not easy to stay ahead of Michael. I've only been there a few times and I've enjoyed it. To those who criticize me I say: many drivers would like to be in my place. Just ask Todt how many went to knock on his door. I don't consider myself inferior to the others".
In his third year in Ferrari, although he has won several podiums, he has yet to win a race:


"There is not only Schumacher to beat. Today three drivers can get to the front: Michael, Hakkinen and Coulthard. To cross the finish line ahead of them, something strange has to happen".


And on the race to be held at Hockenheim, he declares:


"It's the first race of the season on such a fast circuit, so it's difficult to make predictions. We have to wait to test the car with the long wheelbase, and then we'll see. One thing is certain, we'll give it our all".


On the McLaren front, after a period of dullness between June and July, in conjunction with the increasing competitiveness of Ferrari, Mika Hakkinen returned to lay down the law, imposing himself on everyone for the fifth time this season. Mika's performance was an important one, from which he drew inspiration to beat Ferrari again, but above all Schumacher, his only obstacle to winning his first world title. Before arriving at Hockenheim, together with his team-mate Coulthard, Hakkinen paid a visit to the Mercedes factory in Bad Cannstad, on the outskirts of Stuttgart, where about 1.200 people worked, welcoming the two drivers with applause, slogans of incitement and incessant requests for autographs. When approached by journalists, Hakkinen is in favor of this type of initiative:


"They are very pleasant, but I have to say that compared to when I came for the first time in 1995, there is much more confidence around me now. The employees know that our cars are very competitive and they are happy about that".


The 29-year-old Finn also returns to the Silverstone diatribe, but then his attention immediately turns to Hockenheim:


"This is the decision of the international federation and we comply, but in every sport there has to be justice and honesty at all levels: both as far as the organizers are concerned and as far as the drivers and teams are concerned. And that's what we all expect. On the other hand, when you believe you are right you have to act accordingly. At Monza, on a track that is just as fast, we had a very good test. And this is the home race for Mercedes. To say we will do great things is a bit premature, but I think we will do very well. We've made a lot of progress, and we're ahead of Ferrari again. Goodyear had done a good job, and in some races provided them with better tyres. Of course, we don't have the advantage we had in Australia, about a second, but our car is still the best".


Now the team's de facto number two, David Coulthard admits that his championship situation is all but compromised:


"The arithmetic doesn't condemn me, but I really have little chance of winning the title. There are no team orders, but if Mika was in the lead and I was behind him, I wouldn't have to stand in his way. That doesn't mean that I can't win if I start on pole. My future? I think I will stay at McLaren as the team is happy with my work. This year I lacked a bit of luck".


Confidence for the Scotsman that, after all, was not so deep, since, as it will transpire a few days after the weekend in Germany, Ron Dennis had insistently tried to sign Jacques Villeneuve, even going so far as to storm the reigning champion with calls. Dennis aimed to form a dream team with Hakkinen, thus excluding Coulthard, who would have had to find another job. Then Villeneuve resoundingly refused the offer, preferring to marry the ambitious BAR project rather than join the team with the most competitive car on the lot. Ferrari's high hopes for the new F300 with the long-wheelbase turned into a bitter disappointment on Friday 31 July, after the first two free practice sessions: Michael Schumacher rejected his Ferrari in no uncertain terms. After setting the fifth fastest time in the total time count, eight tenths down on Hakkinen, the fastest of them all, in agreement with the team Schumacher decides to return immediately to the standard version, the one used by Irvine, who in any case finished sixth, behind his team leader. According to the data in the technicians' possession, on Hockenheim's long straights the long-wheelbase F300 is on a par with the standard version, while in the Stadium, the most driven sector, the single-seater driven by Irvine is more agile and faster. As Schumacher himself declared, it is therefore pointless to go on.


"More or less the performance is the same, so it's not worth risking our reliability. Maybe by testing it for longer, by simulating Grands Prix to put all the new parts we have to use to the test, maybe. We'll see. We'll talk about it later. On the other hand, the aerodynamic package designed for this circuit, namely the two wings and other small things, worked very well. A front row is possible because we also have a good qualifying engine".


Jean Todt, however, makes it clear that this is not a definitive rejection:


"It is not the case to compromise in such an important race the reliability of the cars with radical changes. The long-wheelbase also means different vibrations and stresses. We are putting the solution on the back burner for now, but it is clear that we will continue to study it in depth for other tracks".


With the Ferraris in difficulty, following closely the two McLarens there are the Jordan of Damon Hill and the Sauber of Alesi. Delayed instead the Benetton, that in 1997 on this track gained its last victory in Formula One with Gerhard Berger. The Austrian veteran's success was to be remembered, as he had just come back after three months' stop, and, despite that, he managed to beat everybody. Fisichella and Wurz are now navigating in the middle-low zones of the classification, results that also confirm a slight difficulty of the Bridgestone tyres, except for McLaren. Excluding the McLarens, in fact, the first Bridgestone driver was Jarno Trulli, eleventh. The next day, pole position became a matter for three drivers: Hakkinen, Coulthard and Jacques Villeneuve. Yes, after months of suffering and a lot of work to find an optimal set-up in an ungovernable Williams, finally the reigning champion is able to play for important positions. However, once again, for the seventh time in the season, Mika Hakkinen got the better of the situation; with a lap of 1'41"838, the world leader was half a second ahead of Coulthard, second, and Villeneuve, a few thousandths behind the Scot. Jacques equals the third place obtained at Silverstone, up to now his best qualifying. Villeneuve comments satisfied:


"I have never driven a Williams so good, with a low aerodynamic load. It's a sign that the new ailerons and the various modifications made to the car work wonderfully. For the race I feel in good shape, I think I can give the McLarens some trouble. If the track is dry you will see a spectacular fight".


Jordan also confirms the remarkable developments, occupying the fourth position with Ralf Schumacher and the fifth with Damon Hill. And the Ferraris? Irvine is sixth, at one second and four seconds from Hakkinen; Michael Schumacher runs into one of his worst days since he races for the Maranello team. Beaten not only by his teammate (for the third time in three years) but also by the two Benettons, Schumacher is only ninth, very far from his direct opponent. It is a troubled day to say the least for Schumacher, who lost the entire morning's free practice between an off-track and an engine failure, unable to fine-tune his standard version F300. And considering the time he lost on Friday experimenting with the long wheelbase, it can be deduced that the Ferrari driver went into qualifying with very little work done on the set-up. Add to that the fact that the F300 doesn't seem to be very well suited to this type of circuit, and the German champion's poor result is explained:


"This is the wrong time of the season to start on the fifth row, so far back. Unfortunately, I had a terrible day. First I made a mistake by going off the track. My tyres were cold and I ended up on the dirty asphalt. I lost control of the car and I let the engine die. Then I only did a few laps as I was held up by a mechanical failure. The fact that I didn't run that many laps certainly didn't help. But there are other problems too. Irvine, who has completed his work program, is far from the best. And if I had done well, maybe I could have passed Eddie by a couple of tenths. There shouldn't be such a gap between us and McLaren. We need to understand why this is happening and keep working. We also can't blame the bad placings on the fact that we lost time with the long-wheelbase car. That in my opinion has nothing to do with it, things would have been bad anyway. Lost race? No, even though the rain this time would be a godsend for us. I admit that on Friday I was a bit too optimistic. I thought I had a positive day, but the current reality is negative. I am also sorry for the fans".


Ferrari can only hope for rain, otherwise the risk of having to watch helplessly another McLaren one-two is very high. Unfortunately for Schumacher, on Sunday 26 July 1998, despite a 60% probability of rain, the Hockenheim circuit will remain dry for all three hundred and seven kilometers, for a total of forty-five laps. The minimum objective for Schumacher, in a race in which he can only hope to limit the damage, is the points zone. The race begins and Hakkinen and Coulthard start well, without disturbing each other; the only driver potentially able to bother them, Jacques Villeneuve, is the author of a not unforgettable sprint and has to give up his position to the two Jordans. At the braking of the first chicane, however, the driver of the Williams succeeds at least to recover a position to the damages of Hill and re-takes the fourth position. Michael Schumacher's race starts with a long shiver running down the home idol's spine: in front of him Alex Wurz remains planted, and only thanks to his excellent reflexes Michael manages to avoid the Benetton. Then, during the first lap, the Ferrari driver got rid of Fisichella at turn Ost, so that he reached seventh position, close to the points zone just behind Irvine. Compared to other occasions in which he had immediately made the gap, this time Hakkinen was unable to overtake Coulthard, and surprisingly also Ralf Schumacher. On the third lap, the youngest of the Schumacher brothers even set the best time from the start of the race, a clear sign that he started with less fuel than the others. For him therefore a two-stop strategy, while the rest of the drivers seem to be oriented towards one. On the fourth lap Irvine mistimed the Clark chicane, allowing Michael Schumacher to overtake and enter the points zone. Michael was not far behind Hill, but he managed to be consistently faster than the Ferrari driver, trailing him by two tenths per lap. This is even though Schumacher is on the limit, as shown by a couple of tailbacks and his aggressive entries on the kerbs. The fact that Irvine could easily keep up with him was further proof of his poor feeling with the car. In the meantime his brother Ralf was unrestrained: from the pits they told him to go on pushing, given that the first stop arrived on lap 14, and when he came back to the track he was ninth.


In 1997 Gerhard Berger won by making two stops, but the Austrian driver's pace was clearly superior to the competition; certainly the same cannot be said for Ralf, unable to get rid of even Frentzen once back in the race. The two McLarens remained alone in the lead, with Coulthard always one second behind Hakkinen. The Scotsman had more speed, but to risk an overtaking manoeuvre on his teammate and leader of the world championship would compromise the team's interests. The only chance to snatch the victory from Hakkinen, without jeopardizing the result of both, is during the pit stops. Starting from lap 20, all the drivers gradually make their pit stop, and to benefit from it are Jacques Villeneuve, back on track ahead of Ralf Schumacher, and Giancarlo Fisichella, who overtakes Irvine. The Roman remains however out of the points zone, in seventh position, but ready to exploit eventual retirements in his favor. The McLaren drivers are the last to stop. Hakkinen first, and Coulthard later. Here's the chance for David, who has to give everything during his comeback lap. Hakkinen's stop lasts 9.9 seconds; Coulthard is not so lucky, as he encounters some lapping on the way. His chances of victory vanish for good when, on re-entering the pit lane, he runs long on his lay-by. This forced the mechanics to move over to make a tyre change and refueling, which they did impeccably, completing in 9.8 seconds. Of course, without that mistake it would have been even less. On leaving the pit lane, albeit by a few hundred meters, Hakkinen regains the first position.  On lap 30 Ralf Schumacher pitted for his second stop, dropping to sixth position, behind his brother. With fifteen laps to go the McLarens were in the lead, Villeneuve was third with a five second gap, after which Damon Hill managed without too much difficulty his fourth position keeping the gap on Michael Schumacher, unable to get closer. Nothing seemed to be able to call into question the Silver Arrows' one-two until some agitation started to be noticed at the McLaren box: Mika Hakkinen felt a lack of power. Ron Dennis consults with some telemetry technicians, while a mechanic checks that there is no problem with the petrol station, after which the team tells the Finnish driver to change the engine mapping to manage the fuel, in case he doesn't have enough petrol to go all the way. It was only at the end of the race that it turned out to be a small oil leak, due to an engine problem.


Even though Hakkinen raised his lap times, Coulthard did not seem to want to take advantage of it to take the first position, while Jacques Villeneuve was warned and started to push, taking two and a half seconds from the McLaren duo. The Canadian's dreams of glory, however, were extinguished five laps before the chequered flag, when the Williams-Mecachrome also had a small problem with the differential, which fortunately did not force him to retire. Villeneuve, however, decides that it is better to manage the car; the first podium of the season is now near. The same can be said for Damon Hill's first world points, who in the end is slightly threatened by Schumacher who tries in vain to recover a position. The only emotions in the last laps were offered by Irvine, who went a bit everywhere, even allowing himself a slight exit from the track in the attempt to overtake Fisichella. For the sixth time this season, Mika Hakkinen crossed the finish line as the winner, accompanied to the end by Coulthard, to complete the Woking team's fifth double in the championship. Williams celebrated its second podium thanks to Jacques Villeneuve, reinvigorated by an FW20 that was finally up to scratch. Not much for a team used to dominate in previous years, but the hope is that this podium can be a starting point to return to the top. Jordan also acquired solidity, for the third race in a row in the points with Ralf Schumacher, sixth. Starting from this fourth place in Germany, Damon Hill will become one of the main protagonists of the season finale. Sandwiched between Eddie Jordan's cars was Michael Schumacher, absolutely anonymous, never in the race to fight for the podium, the minimum result for a driver fighting for the title. With 76 points, Hakkinen lengthened considerably on Schumacher: from only two points of advantage after Silverstone, he passed to sixteen. The biggest blow for the Prancing Horse was in the Constructors' Championship, where another recovery seemed utopian. The score of 36 points to 9 between Austria and Germany allows McLaren to run away, with a 26-point lead. Two double wins within seven days to leave behind a moment of crisis: the McLaren-Mercedes battleship responds with force to the Ferrari comeback. As Hakkinen also explained in the press conference, however, the end of the race for him was anything but calm:


"In the final part of the race I noticed that there was some problem with the car, I couldn't go as fast as before. Up until that point everything had gone perfectly, everything had even been too easy. At the start there was no problem, then I could control it without having to take too many risks. Although I have to say that during the pit-stop I was worried that David might overtake me, but luckily he didn't. Then I started to worry: I was worried that David might overtake me. Then I started to worry: my top speed dropped and I felt a drop in power. Then I had to drive as carefully as possible and with my heart in my throat until I crossed the finish line".


The classification is smiling on him again more than it has recently, but the Finnish driver doesn't want to let his guard down:


"I would like to have illusions, but I don't want to think about it at all. The championship is still long".


The first venomous question asked of David Coulthard was why he didn't try to get past an obviously struggling Hakkinen. David answers with a smile on his face:


"Actually his car was leaking a dusting of oil in the last few laps. My visor was smeared and I couldn't see anything. Trying to overtake in those conditions would have been crazy, and above all risky for the championship, both mine and Mika's. I tried to do it when he came back in. I tried when he came into the pits, but just when I was pushing hard I encountered a couple of lapped cars in my way and they slowed me down".


His last podium was at Jerez, in 1997, when he became World Champion. At that time Villeneuve could not even remotely imagine that it would be ten months before he managed to place among the top three again. Despite his car's lack of competitiveness, the reigning champion never lost heart, and as he himself declared on several occasions, it was during this difficult period that he managed to bring out the best in himself, collecting points even when it seemed impossible. The podium at Hockenheim is more than deserved for him, but the declared objective remains to return to success:


"I had a lot of fun. From here to the end of the championship I will look for personal satisfaction, I will not give up. I could have even reached Hakkinen and Coulthard if I hadn't had a problem with the differential a few laps from the end. But the attack is only postponed, our car should adapt well to the characteristics of the car, especially Suzuka".


Sunday's poor performance came as no surprise to Michael Schumacher, who was sure he was in for a tough race after a disappointing qualifying session. The F300 turns out to be absolutely inefficient on fast circuits like Hockenheim, plus it has to reckon with the progress of Williams and Jordan, clearly improved but not able to worry the McLaren, which on the contrary has only benefited from the improvements of these teams, as they have taken points away from the Maranello team. Clearly disappointed, Schumacher admits that only a miracle could have helped him grab the podium:


"But those rarely come. In fact, the fact that I started from ninth and finished fifth should already be a source of personal satisfaction. But I can't be happy, because this result, in conjunction with Hakkinen's win and Coulthard's second place, is extremely negative".


The Ferrari's driver sums up his race, which was eventful at the start, but then continued in total solitude:


"At the start, in front of me, Wurz's Benetton hardly moved. I had to pull off the inside suddenly, taking a few risks. However, I was able to overtake Fisichella almost immediately. So I got behind Irvine. In the situation we were in, and with all the unknowns still open for the race, Eddie was pulling hard, as I was. He made a mistake at the entrance to the chicane, and I passed him. In the end, it wasn't me who gained, but the others who lost something. I was perhaps closing in on Hill, and even if I had managed to overtake him, the two McLarens and Villeneuve were unapproachable for me. In any case, by the time I came to see Damon my tyres were too worn. I had to give up and slow down my pace".


The situation in the World Championship is critical, but it is forbidden to throw in the towel:


"We will continue to fight as we have done so far. If Hakkinen, however, says that five races are still a lot, I think it's not enough. If we had a winning car, it might be a different story, but we don't. We lacked traction here in Germany, and that's why we're still in the race. Here in Germany we lacked traction, the balance was not good and the set-up left something to be desired. Maybe it's also a bit my fault, but I did everything I could. In the Stadium, the most torturous part of the circuit, it was almost torturing to drive, I was always struggling. And when you slip, the tyres always suffer. Unfortunately, in just two races, we lost a lot of what we had worked so hard to gain in the middle part of the season. I hope that our car will be better suited to the next circuit in Budapest".


Jean Todt was also aware that it would be a difficult race, stating:


"Honestly, in a race where overtaking was done at the start and in the pit stops, we couldn't expect more than we did. We never found a good set-up for the cars this weekend".


Then, about Schumacher:


"In my opinion he is always very motivated. In the last two races he made a couple of mistakes, but they didn't cost us much. It would have taken a stroke of luck. For the first time I dreamed of seeing Villeneuve win. I felt strange because last year at night it was the other way round, the McLarens were the first to cross the line".


Todt even allows himself a little joke, but at Maranello there is little to joke about: there are only two weeks left to perfect the long-wheelbase car, and to understand what went wrong at Hockenheim.


"We have to work to improve, so we can't stay like this because not all of the five remaining circuits are in our favor. In Hungary I would say we should do well, we certainly won't have the gaps we had here. The next Grand Prix in Belgium is very challenging but we have already fought well there. Monza will be another difficult circuit. At the Nurburgring at the end of September we shouldn't do too badly and then we close in Japan where... I don't know. It's useless to make predictions, things change for us and for the others, that's why I say that we have to work, work, work".


Schumacher admits, before leaving Hockenheim. The winding Budapest circuit has very different characteristics from the German track, but then it will be necessary to go to other fast tracks like Spa and Monza, where Ferrari will have the obligation to excel, to keep the championship open.


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