Ten thousand fans are ready to welcome Michael Schumacher and Ferrari during the three days of testing at the Monza circuit from 18 to August 20, 1998. The support of the Ferrari fans increases in direct proportion to the importance of the moment. In fact, there are only four races left in the championship. Mika Hakkinen leads the classification by seven points ahead of the German driver. Moreover, a few weeks separate the fans from the long-awaited Italian Grand Prix, to be held in Monza as always. The enthusiasm around Schumacher is sky-high, especially after the extraordinary victory obtained in Budapest, where both Hakkinen and Coulthard fell under the blows of the F300 driven by the two-times world champion and of the pit wall directed by Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, who with an ingenious three-stop strategy confused the McLaren engineers. On Tuesday 18 August, the morning rain forced the teams to postpone the work planned for the afternoon, when the sun returned to the circuit. Ferrari studies the behaviour of the long-wheelbase car, whose introduction was not successful in Hockenheim. At the end of the day, it was David Coulthard who set the best time, ahead of Schumacher, Irvine and of the Jordan driven by Pedro de la Rosa. Maranello's top driver admits that compared to past tests, the stretched F300 gave him very good impressions. After the next two days of testing, Michael announced that the stretched F300 would be used at Spa-Francorchamps, the setting for the thirteenth round of the World Championship. Ferrari is confident, but it is Schumacher himself who says that the McLaren will probably be about half a second behind on a fast track like the Belgian one. And the time of 1'42"263 recorded by Coulthard during the second day of practice, a second and a half faster than Schumacher's best time, provides further evidence to support the pessimistic thesis of the driver from Kerpen. However, Ferrari spokesman Claudio Berro tells the press:
"These times have relative value; we are here to work not on speed, but on aerodynamics; the important thing is that the drivers are satisfied with the behaviour of the car".
Moreover, during the first day of tests, Irvine is forced to stop at the height of the variant of the Roggia after only twenty-six laps, because of a malfunction of the transmission, while in the afternoon of 19 August 1998, on Schumacher’s car the right rear suspension breaks, causing an exit from the track. Michael, after the tests, comments:
"In Spa we are the underdogs, but here we are playing for the world championship. The long-wheelbase car debuts at the next Belgian Grand Prix, but we are behind. If we change the Goodyears? There will be developments".
Meanwhile, ahead of two potentially tough races for Ferrari, even president Luca di Montezemolo is not so optimistic:
"We have two very, very difficult races ahead of us. I'm not saying this to be superstitious: especially here at Monza it will be very tough, and I hope it will be the toughest test of those still to come. But I had a great satisfaction: to see the team reacting so well, to see a Ferrari that has won five races, already has one hundred and two points, as many as in 1997 at the end of the championship. I am proud because we have the best team and the best driver. We still have to make progress with the car, but we are still in the fight for the World Championship. Predictions? It's the last thing in the world I want to do. I said after Germany to stay calm, that we would fight until the end. Ferrari has shown it knows how to react in the last two seasons; after Montecarlo, it was said that if we hadn't won in Canada the World Championship could already be considered over. We won. In Budapest, there was talk for the umpteenth time of last resort, and we came first. We say that, and we win".
Speaking of the rival team in the title fight, Montezemolo jokingly asserts:
"I wish it would stop all the next races. No, I'm joking. I've always had great respect for this team. It's a great car, I find Hakkinen very fast, a great guy, coming from difficult times. He deserves it. So we are happy when we can beat them. If I had to steal something from them, I'd like some aerodynamic improvements, see their suspension, pick up a few details here and there".
With the tests at Monza now over, Ferrari continues its work at the Fiorano circuit, a few days before heading to Belgium. Both the two regular drivers and test driver Luca Badoer have their hands full: Schumacher concentrates on perfecting the starts, Irvine tests new Goodyear tyres, while Badoer tests the third long-wheelbase F300 that will act as a mule at Spa.
"We have to try to increase the top speed of our single-seaters, and lengthening the wheelbase is one of the ways to go".
This is what Jean Todt says before packing his bags and leaving for Belgium, where rain is forecast for Saturday and Sunday. An eventuality that would not displease Michael Schumacher, who without a shadow of a doubt is the driver who feels most at ease on a wet track. And let's not forget that Spa-Francorchamps is a track where he is particularly at home, regardless of track conditions. As well as being the circuit where the young Michael made his debut at the wheel of the Jordan, surprising everyone with an extraordinary seventh place in qualifying, Spa is also a land of conquest for the Ferrari driver, who has won five times out of seven participations. However, he was denied one of these in 1994 due to excessive wear on the Benetton's tyres, which justified itself by claiming the cause was an off-track excursion by Schumacher. The FIA did not give credence to this defence and disqualified the German, handing victory to Damon Hill. To tell the truth, the rain had been raining on Spa since Thursday, together with an unbearable cold, especially if compared to the sultry heat of Budapest two weeks earlier. Perhaps it is the bad weather that gives Schumacher optimism, who in the press conference declares:
"Honestly I'm confident. This is a circuit that all the drivers like. Me in particular, and we have what it takes to win. For sure it will be a difficult race, hard, but I don't see any reason why we can't get important results. The track is beautiful, and challenging and has always treated me well. I've had some fantastic races here and sometimes I've even been lucky. The whole thing gives me the necessary charge, and I feel good. Here in Belgium, we can do a great result. It will be tough, but we are well prepared. I don't see any difficulties at Monza. You all write that it is our black track, but I can tell you that it is no longer like that. We've done so many kilometres at Monza, improving all the time, that I can safely say I don't see the difficulties we had before".
Afterwards, pressed by journalists in the press room on the question of Ferrari's 600th Grand Prix, Schumacher replied:
"Ferrari's 600th Grand Prix? What are you talking about, this event will be celebrated in Monza".
In an instant there was panic in the hall, and the terrified journalists began to think they had made a big mistake. But it was Schumacher who was wrong:
"But I thought, I don't know, I was told...well, yes, it means that a victory here will be my gift to the president, who will be 51 on Monday".
Michael is also asked about the return of the long-wheelbase Ferrari:
"Yes, we have tried it, although not enough. In some aspects it's better than the normal one, so we're using it. At Hockenheim it wasn't ready, there were reliability problems, and we didn't want to take any risks. Now we are more relaxed. After the race in Germany and the tests at Monza, we understood and learned. We have made progress. Now I am less worried about the Italian Grand Prix".
There are four races left in the World Championship, and one wonders on which track Ferrari will be able to show its muscles, and on which it will have to choose to run defensively. According to Schumacher:
"We will have to be competitive here, we have prepared enough to play for first place. At Monza we won't be in as much trouble as I thought, and the Nurburgring is suitable for our car. At Suzuka, on the other hand, anything can happen".
The strategy was crucial in Hungary, and the German driver took the opportunity to praise his team once again:
"Strategies are crucial today, and I can only congratulate my team, they are the best. This year we have won a lot thanks to the timely decisions of our technicians and Ross Brawn in particular. They are very good, they are the ones who decide. I just go faster when they ask me to. There is enormous trust between me and the team, and that helps. This is also a team sport, the most beautiful victories of the season have come because of the work we have all done together".
In conclusion, it is pointed out that if Spa can be defined as his fiefdom, on this track Hakkinen can only boast of a second place, obtained in 1994. Michael replies by saying:
"I believe that Hakkinen is experienced enough not to be overwhelmed by emotions, and I don't think that ours will be a war of nerves, rather the winner will be the one who has the best car and will know how to exploit it to the maximum".
Concerning the question of the title, also Jacques Villeneuve, the reigning champion, expresses himself, back from two third places that seem to have given him the right motivation in view of a final season in which Williams plays for the third place in the constructors' championship with Benetton, and during which the Canadian driver hopes to taste again the taste of victory, that he has been missing for almost a year (the last victory dates back to 28 September 1997, in the Grand Prix of Luxembourg). Speaking about the title fight, Jacques states:
“I am convinced that McLaren remains the favourite for the title, even if Schumacher is undoubtedly a rival to keep an eye on. However, I won't make a difference: my intention is to win at least one race before the end of the season. And the Spa circuit is the right place to hope".
Remaining in the Williams house, it seems to be Ralf Schumacher the suspect number one to replace Villeneuve, the newly-announced BAR driver starting from the '99 season. The road leading to the youngest of the Schumacher brothers, however, is an impervious one, since, according to what was reported by the German newspaper Bild Zeitung, Eddie Jordan demands a conspicuous compensation to give up his driver, or rather, not to make use of a clause in Ralf's contract, which gives the team manager the right to extend the German driver's stay with Jordan, in exchange for a salary increase of up to three million pounds. Nevertheless, Ralf Schumacher welcomes the chance to drive for Frank Williams' historic team:
"I would be happy to race for Williams. I hope we can solve the current problems".
Ralf's choice also has the approval of his older brother, according to whom:
"Williams would be the best thing for him. The team will do everything to get back to the top. Jordan, on the other hand, is famous for thinking only of money, while a completely new team - the reference is to the newborn Bar - would not be optimal for Ralf".
Curiously, the opening headline of the Belgian newspaper Le Jour indicates that a fax signed by a self-styled Islamic movement arrived at its editorial office in Vervier (between Liège and Spa), asking it to let the organisers of the Belgian Grand Prix know that if Ecclestone did not immediately pay the sum of ten million francs (about 250.000 euros) to the Doctors Without Borders movement in Sudan, the Grand Prix would not start. Handed over to the police, the message caused alarm because it turned out to be only the latest in a series received by various bodies in Belgium in the days leading up to the Grand Prix. Among these messages was one from South America, according to which threats were made to sabotage Schumacher's car and American interests, which in the case of Ferrari were those of Philip Morris, the Prancing Horse's main sponsor. The whole affair was reported to the deputy public prosecutor of Verviers, Robert André, who immediately opened an investigation. Even though the Ferrari pits and hotels were discreetly manned, Schumacher declared:
"I didn't know anything, in fact I understood that the threats concerned McLaren. In any case, I'm not worried. I have to say it's not the first time it's happened to us, and I know these situations have to be watched. I'm not afraid, but let me say that the more we talk about these things the worse it is because you never know what ideas might come to the reader".
Free practice for the Belgian Grand Prix already offered the first surprise of the weekend. For the second time this season (the first was in Australia, but on a wet track), Michael Schumacher is ahead of everyone at the end of the day. A result that partially satisfies, since it is at the end of the day on Saturday that it counts to be first in the ranking, a feat never before achieved by the Prancing Horse in this season. Hakkinen was second, eleven thousandths of a second down, but he was the culprit in the morning when he went off the track at Stavelot corner at a speed of 240km/h. This caused damage to the front suspension, the nose and the bottom of the Mp4/13 of the world leader. More spectacular was Jacques Villeneuve's accident, who lost control of his car at Eau Rouge and crashed into the guardrail, destroying his Williams.
"It was the most beautiful accident of my career".
The Canadian declared ironically, before explaining the dynamics of the accident:
"That's a very difficult part of the track, where you can't see the next corner. I ended up in a dirty area and lost control. It was fine: I was at 290km/h, I just bruised my knee slightly. These cars are very strong".
The first time in free practice, however, turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors for Schumacher, Ferrari and their fans, as the next day, for the ninth time this season, the McLarens monopolised the front row. Hakkinen beat Coulthard by a tenth and a half and celebrated his tenth pole position in his career. In the third position, there is not Schumacher, but an exceptional Damon Hill at the wheel of a Jordan that continues to show clear signs of growth race after race. Schumacher is only fourth, one second and three seconds behind Hakkinen. It would have been one second and one-tenth if it wasn't for the fact that his best lap was cancelled because it was carried out under yellow flags, waved because of the Benetton of Wurz that was stationary along the track. In any case, it was a more than disappointing result for the Ferrari driver, who hoped to fight with the Silver Arrows for the first row and instead was beaten even by a Jordan, a dangerous obstacle in view of the race. It was a difficult day for Michael, who was never able to complete a lap without making any mistake, and who didn't even make a great impression outside the cockpit, given that in front of journalists he justified the abysmal gap from McLarens by saying that he had to slow down during his best attempt because of yellow flags. It's a pity that, just over thirty minutes later, the race commissioners' communiqué comes out, underlining how the Ferrari number three 'did not slow down at the moment when Wurz's car was being removed, despite the yellow flags being waved. Ed achieved his best time of the session, 1'49"797, and his best intermediate time in the third sector, 29"697, as he passed the scene of the accident. Schumacher stated about it:
"When I saw the yellow flags I slowed down, but how can I prove it if even though I did that, that was still my best time? In any case, it wouldn't have changed anything on the grid; there's no point in complaining. The real problem is that I couldn't set an even better time afterwards".
All made even more bitter by the fact that the new 800-horsepower super-engine, specially fitted for qualifying (forty more horsepower than the standard one used in the race), did not bear the desired fruit. Not surprisingly, Schumacher seems rather disappointed:
"I had no illusions about pole, I knew that the front row was difficult but possible, but I really didn't expect fourth. It's a bad blow that makes everything more difficult. I'm happy for Damon, but for me, it's like having three McLarens in front of me. None of them will do anything to favour me, on the contrary: they will make life difficult for me. All I have to do is try to get a good start".
Schumacher has done a lot of testing, he has the long-wheelbase car, the new engine, and he is on a track that is favourable to him, so journalists are asking the German what it is that hasn't worked well:
"Can I ask that question? And if you do, are you ready to give me an answer? Because I don't have one. There is no precise explanation. We realised that something didn't work well, but we don't know what it was: now we'll try to understand and remedy it. The fact is that I wasn't able to exploit my full potential, but there is no clear explanation at the moment. We have a one-second gap, which is not normal, and I don't know what we can do on the night to reduce it, although we do have some ideas. In summary I have to try to get a good start, stay on the McLarens to stop them getting away from us, then make a good strategy of pit stops and that's it. Experience is useful when you're fighting on equal terms. When you're so far behind it doesn't help much. The new engine is very good, you can really feel the difference, with the old one maybe I wouldn't even be fourth. Let's say that for now it's a step forward, small but very useful. We will develop it to make better use of it, but the problem is more complex. You develop the engine and you have to develop everything else. It's a chain that never ends. The fact remains that the two McLarens are much faster than we expected".
Irvine's other Ferrari is immediately behind his team leader, but without Riccardo Rosset's traffic at the Bus Stop the Northern Irishman would probably have even managed to oust him from the second row, a testament to the drab day experienced by the German driver. This without forgetting the extraordinary performance of the McLarens, able to take back one second from the direct pursuers. Hakkinen mocks Coulthard at the last attempt and takes his fifth pole in six races, confirming himself as a real hound also in qualifying. At the moment, the worst placement on the grid of the Finnish driver is the third place obtained in Argentina and Austria. Moreover, on thirteen qualifying sessions only three times Coulthard got the better of him. Jacques Villeneuve, on the other hand, was only sixth, although he showed that he had managed to put the terrible accident of the previous day behind him:
"The adrenaline was too strong and allowed me to get into the car without fear. I wasn't conditioned, I pushed as hard as I could, even at Eau Rouge, which I rode without lifting my foot from the accelerator. There are other problems: the car isn't working and sixth place is disappointing. We made some changes to the setup, which we could not do on Friday as we lost forty minutes due to my accident, but unfortunately it did not work".
With a very competitive McLaren, his box-mate covering his back, and the surprise Hill in the way, a lonely flight to victory looms for Hakkinen.
"This McLaren never ceases to amaze me. In my last attempt, with some changes on the balance, it was a great car, I felt like I was flying. Frankly, in these conditions, I'm not surprised to have taken more than a second off Schumacher. It's an incredible gap, but it's the exact size of our potential. Mistakes in the race keep the door open, but even those are bound to end soon. Hungary served us well, we examined conscience, here in Belgium we will not make a wrong strategy. We came here to win and to give Ferrari the knockout blow. Our goal is a one-two finish: if we succeed, we'll have everything in hand. I'll take the drivers' title, the team the constructors' title. Hill was very strong, he will repeat himself in the race, he is my friend and he will not betray me. I asked him to take points from Schumacher, he'll do his best. With Coulthard the pacts are clear. In practice our fight was exciting, he went very fast, at one point I was convinced I couldn't beat him. But the race is something else: if I start in the lead, he'll have my back".
Coulthard himself admits:
"Ferrari always invents something in the race and we have to be able to defend ourselves. I'll help Mika, it wouldn't make sense otherwise. It's frustrating, I just can't beat him: here too he's beaten me by a tenth and a half, but I went like a rocket. Maybe I missed the chance at the chicane when I jumped on the kerbs. But it was a small thing. I thought I was going to finish on pole but... There is one fact, however, that gives Schumacher hope: in all the races he has won at Spa, Michael has never started from pole position. A peculiarity that may be an end in itself, but that perhaps acquires value at a time when on Sunday 30 August 1998 a violent storm can easily upset the values on the field. With the certainty that the favourite in wet conditions becomes him. Perhaps now, celebrating Ferrari's 600 Grands Prix is no longer a utopia".
In 1997 the decision to fit intermediate tyres instead of full-wets before starting the race behind the Safety-Car, due to the amount of water on the track, proved to be the winning strategy that allowed Schumacher to go on to win the race undisturbed, consolidating his lead in the championship. Mindful of that move, Ferrari tried again: while McLaren and Hill mounted extreme wet weather tyres, Schumacher opted for Goodyear intermediates. They set off. Hakkinen has a feline sprint, unlike Coulthard and Hill, who are lagging behind. The best start is certainly Jacques Villeneuve's, who started sixth and was even second coming out of the Source. Then, total chaos. A cloud of water rose just as the race was approaching the short straight that led to Eau Rouge, so that it was only possible to catch a glimpse of Coulthard's McLaren that spun off and crashed against the wall of the old pit, bounced back onto the track and was hit by Irvine, triggering a terrible carom involving more than thirteen cars.
"The worst start to a race I've ever seen in my life".
At that precise moment the historic commentator Murray Walker said, as astonished as everyone else by observing this incredible accident. Single-seater cars were destroyed here and there with debris scattered everywhere, left there by the drivers who were hurrying to the pits to get into the forklift, given that the race direction had logically interrupted the race, waving red flags. Irvine, albeit limping, hurriedly makes his way to the pits, wondering whether the team will prefer to preserve the forklift for Schumacher in case there should be another accident at the second start, or put it at his disposal for the restart; Rubens Barrichello holds his arm in pain, but nervously shouts because he still wants to take part in the race; Trulli and Panis walk side by side, aware that only one of the two - the Italian - will be able to return to the track on the only forklift available. Same for Arrows and Tyrrell, with Diniz and Takagi to benefit from the reserve car to the detriment of Salo and Rosset. A weekend to forget for Mika Salo, already protagonist during Saturday morning free practice of a fearful accident at Eau Rouge, from which he fortunately came out unharmed if we exclude some bruises and a big headache, which didn't prevent him from taking part in a race that lasted however few seconds for him, as it ended with another crash, fortunately also without serious consequences. In total, the accident will cost the teams involved an impressive $ 30.000.000. In the meantime, the few surviving cars have repositioned themselves on the grid, waiting for the stewards to clean up the track. This is obviously a lengthy operation considering the many cars involved. To remove the debris left on the track as quickly as possible, hydrants are even used. Once the track has been cleared, all the drivers are already lined up on the main straight, except for Panis, Salo, Rosset and Barrichello, whose complaints prove useless as he is declared injured and unable to race.
Things didn't go any better for the only surviving McLaren, Coulthard, who was racing in the reserve car and ended up in the gravel at Malmédy together with Alex Wurz, following contact between the two. Wurz had to retire, while Coulthard could restart, but from the last position. Behind race leader Hill, Schumacher immediately got rid of Irvine at the end of the Kemmel straight, again during an eventful first lap, which ended with the entry of the Safety-Car, necessary to remove Hakkinen's car from the trajectory. At the end of the first passage, the classification order saw Damon Hill in first position, Schumacher and Irvine in second and third, followed by an excellent Alesi, who started from the tenth box, and the Williams of Villeneuve and Frentzen to close the points zone. After two laps under Safety-Car the race can start again for the third time. At the Source Villeneuve easily overtakes Alesi, who, despite the excellent start, is a bit in crisis in the comparison with the first ones. In the next lap also Frentzen gets the position from the French driver. Hill and Schumacher immediately show that they have a clearly superior race pace since after five laps Irvine pays a gap of six seconds from the leading duo. Despite the great speed, the impression was that Schumacher was taking the measures of the Jordan, to overtake and take the lead of the race without taking too many risks. On the other hand Hakkinen is out of the games, and the overtaking in question, besides the potential ten points, is also worth the provisional overtaking in the drivers' classification. The two drivers run at 2'05", almost three seconds a lap faster than the others; Coulthard, only fourteenth and in obvious difficulty with the Bridgestone intermediate tyres, is even six seconds slower. On the eighth lap Schumacher decided to act: the Ferrari driver came out very strong from Blanchimont, took advantage of all Jordan's wake and put him beside the Bus Stop.
For Hill there was no possibility to reply, the British driver timidly tried to close the trajectory, but it was too late, Schumacher was ahead of him. Schumacher overtook the British driver cleanly and decisively, demonstrating his superiority on the next lap when he set a fast lap of 2'03"766, three seconds faster than Hill. As already happened on previous occasions, Schumacher seemed to be the only one not affected by the wet asphalt and the pitfalls it brought. This was not the case for the rest of the drivers in the race, including Villeneuve, who ran long at the Bus Stop and had to give up two positions to the advantage of Frentzen and Alesi, and then Eddie Irvine, who while gradually approaching Hill made a mistake at Les Combes and damaged his front wing, which was stuck under the car. Eddie struggled to cover the entire lap in precarious conditions, arrived at the pits, where the mechanics removed the damaged wing and fitted a new nose and full-wet tyres in place of the intermediate ones, as the rain had started to fall heavily on the track again, and restarted after 17.8 seconds, returning to the track in eleventh position. Coulthard also came back in, hoping to get a better feeling for the track after an unhappy stint with the intermediates, which proved to be a disaster for all the Bridgestone drivers, and Ralf Schumacher, who was in seventh position. After fifteen laps out of the forty-four foreseen, Michael Schumacher set the pace with eighteen seconds' lead over Hill, while Jean Alesi climbed to third position, taking advantage of Frentzen's mistake at the Rivage bend. During the next passage, the first four drivers stop at the pits to switch to full-wet tyres. Villeneuve didn't stop, neither at this nor at the next round: the Canadian paid for the extra lap made on intermediate tyres, spun off and finished his race against a wall. Whether he runs on intermediate or full-wet tyres makes little difference to Michael Schumacher, who, in his out-lap, takes three seconds off his direct pursuers in just one sector. A disarming superiority to say the least.
His brother Ralf could also smile: thanks to an early pit-stop compared to his rivals, he moved up to third position, behind Hill and ahead of Alesi, Frentzen and Irvine, who had already entered the points zone on lap 20. The number two of the Ferrari was not satisfied and put Frentzen, visibly slower than him, in his sights. Apart from the mistake, it was certainly a good performance by the Northern Irishman, considering that he was driving the mule set up according to Schumacher's instructions. However, the track was more and more flooded with water, and visibility was reduced to a minimum, as Schumacher's big risk in lapping Diniz at Rivage showed, where the Brazilian of Arrows realised only at the last moment the presence of the Ferrari and narrowly avoided closing his trajectory. It was lap 25, and the next lapping to be carried out for the race leader was David Coulthard. Given the difficult conditions of the circuit and the poor visibility, Jean Todt went to the McLaren pit wall so that Ron Dennis could inform his driver of Schumacher's arrival. The warning, however, seems to be of little use. On the way to the Rivage Schumacher, slightly annoyed, raises one arm, having already been stuck behind the McLaren for a lap and a half. Then, on the short straight that leads to Pouhon, Coulthard lifts his foot to give way to Schumacher, but he remains on the ideal trajectory. Schumacher, hit by the cloud of water raised by the McLaren, didn't notice the Scottish driver's slowdown until he was a few metres from the rear of his car; the German driver tried desperately to dodge it, but without succeeding. The Ferrari then hits Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes. Michael finds himself running on three wheels, Coulthard without a rear wing. However, they both managed to return to the pits, and Schumacher, having just parked his car inside the garage, hastily got out of the cockpit and rushed to the McLaren box, while Stefano Domenicali tried to stop him with little success. At the entrance to the McLaren box, Schumacher is blocked by the mechanics, with Coulthard a few metres away, still wearing his helmet. Michael is furious, blaming everything on Coulthard for the accident, and in the frustration of the moment goes so far as to ask him if he intended to try to kill him.
Coulthard replies to him.
"You did it on purpose".
The German driver retorts. After that, Jean Todt finally manages to drag his driver towards the Ferrari pit lane to try to calm him down. McLaren immediately exonerated Coulthard, stating that he had been told to slow down to let Schumacher pass, an order that was then promptly carried out by the Scottish driver. Ferrari thought differently, as both Schumacher and Jean Todt. With the sensational withdrawal of the Ferrari driver, Damon Hill returned to the head of the race, ahead of his teammate Ralf Schumacher. All of a sudden in Jordan's house they can hope for an incredible one-two. But the race is still long, above all in such conditions, on a track by now at the limits of practicability. Or perhaps already beyond that limit. In fact, one lap after Schumacher's exit from the scene, Ferrari had also to reckon with Irvine's retirement, who grazed a kerb at the entrance of Pouhon and finished his race buried a few metres from the barriers. Hill himself risked a lot by running long at the Bus Stop, but what forced the race direction to let the Safety-Car enter the track was the accident involving Fisichella and Nakano. Fisichella and Nakano's crash was similar to the one between Schumacher and Coulthard. Fisichella arrived at the Bus Stop unaware of the Japanese driver's Minardi. Just as Schumacher had done a few minutes earlier, the Roman crashed into Nakano, destroying the right side of his Benetton and causing a fire. Obviously the race ended there for Fisichella and Nakano as well.
"It was terrible. I was very scared. Not during the collision, because I didn't realise anything at first, I didn't see Nakano's Minardi, I was coming out of a corner, I hit it without realising. The shivers came later: I grazed the guard rail, everything was broken, the wheels blew off, the car caught fire, I didn't understand anything. I was a mess when I got out. Nakano was going much slower than me, about eighty kilometres an hour less, but he was not responsible. In normal conditions I would have avoided him, the problem is that with all this water you couldn't see anything, I could barely make out my visor. It's absurd to race in situations like that, you risk your life, you need more common sense, you can't put the safety of the drivers at risk like that. Already during the first start, the carelessness of the marshals was unforgivable: we should have started with the Safety-Car, as happened last year. I managed to avoid Coulthard, one of his tyres went over my head and I managed to get away from the mess, but thirteen cars were involved and this should make us think. It could have been a massacre. And I would have used the Safety-Car on the second start as well when I went wrong and lost a position. That made my race difficult".
Benetton boss David Richards will also be hard on the FIA:
"This race has to ask some very clear questions about safety. Almost all the accidents were pile-ups caused by the fact that the cars were not visible in the spray. The stewards should have been more present, the race was extremely dangerous. And we can really be thankful that nobody was hurt. No show can deserve such risks".
As the remains of the two crashed cars had to be removed, Charlie Whiting decided to bring the Safety-Car back onto the track. On lap 30, the classification saw Hill first, Ralf Schumacher second, Alesi third, Frentzen fourth, Diniz fifth, and Trulli sixth: all the other drivers were out of the race. Shortly afterwards, both Coulthard and Nakano return to the track with repaired cars, since, with so few cars left in the race, despite the five laps delay there is still a chance to score points even if you just stay on the track. After five laps under Safety-Car the race restarts with a big question mark: how will the Jordan team manage the rest of the race? Will they freeze the positions preventing Ralf Schumacher, who seemed much faster than Hill in the laps before the entry of the safety car, from attacking his teammate? And if he decides to do so, will the impulsive young Ralf, given for departure to Williams, obey or will he try to take advantage of his first chance to win a Formula 1 race? After a few laps, Hill seemed in total control of the situation, with Ralf Schumacher following the 1996 World Champion without hinting at any attack. Behind the two Jordan cars, however, Jean Alesi was looming: the French driver, at ten laps from the end, was the only one who seemed able to spoil Eddie's party who, framed several times by the direction, represented the portrait of tension. Behind him there was an amused Ron Dennis, who joined his friend Eddie to support him and make fun of him in the final phase of what could be the first win in Formula One for Jordan, a regular presence in the circus since 1991. On lap 38 Alesi finished long and was overtaken by the lapped Coulthard. It was the mistake that made Eddie Jordan breathe a sigh of relief, given that Alesi lifted his foot, and was content with the four points that were pure gold for the small Sauber. The sigh of relief turns into a liberating scream at the end of the forty-fourth and last lap of a daring Belgian Grand Prix. Six hundred and eighty-six days after his last victory in Japan in 1996, Damon Hill returns to victory with one of the best races of his career. For the British driver it is the twenty-second triumph, while this result represents the first historical success for Jordan, making the day memorable thanks also to the second place of Ralf Schumacher. Alesi completes a podium that is, to say the least, unprecedented, ahead of Frentzen, Diniz and Jarno Trulli, also good at bringing the first rainbow point to the Prost team. At the press conference the winner of the day began by saying:
"I am overjoyed. Today is a great day for Jordan, the one-two is an exceptional result. It was an incredible race, and to be honest I'm so excited that I don't know what to say. I have no words. Although I got off to a good start in the second race, we set the car up hoping the track would dry out. Instead, it never stopped raining, which complicated my race. After Michael's crash, I didn't notice that he was running on three wheels or having any problems whatsoever; all I could think about was keeping my cool, and managing the first position that I had just regained. In the final part of the race, I knew that Ralf would press me to the end, also because Jean was very close, so we had to push hard".
Ralf Schumacher is also happy for the result achieved by the team, even if in his heart he knows that probably the victory could have been his:
"Obviously I am happy above all for the team. We had a very difficult start to the season, but now, thanks to a bit of luck, we can celebrate a double win. During the first part of the race I struggled a bit, but as the laps went by I got more and more confident with the track. After the exit of the Safety-Car we have frozen the positions, Damon first and I second, but we had to continue to push because Jean behind us was dangerous".
Alesi himself, however, confesses that attempting an attack on the Jordans was, in his opinion, impossible:
"It is certainly an unexpected podium. Usually there are not so many retirements, the other teams are very competitive, and we often had some problems to score points. In these conditions there was a chance to get points and a podium, and luckily we were able to capitalise on it. To be honest I don't think I could have attempted an attack on Ralf, the visibility was minimal, in fact I was surprised to see the Safety-Car return to the pits. The situation was on the limit, and especially on the straights there were many cars parked on the sides of the track. With the aquaplaning that has caused so many accidents, this was very dangerous".
The after-race of the Belgian Grand Prix, however, focused above all on the controversial incident between Schumacher and Coulthard, as well as on the disproportionate reaction of the German, who without the intervention of the mechanics is not known what he would have done. McLaren defended itself by providing the race commissioners with telemetry data showing that Coulthard had in no way slowed down suddenly to be intentionally rear-ended by the Ferrari. This hypothesis was rejected by most of the experts, who were reluctant to accuse a historically correct driver like Coulthard, or a driver in general, of risking his own safety at two hundred and twenty kilometres per hour to favour his team-mate in the fight for the title. Ron Dennis states that Coulthard's engineer correctly warned his driver to get lapped, a request that was complied with by the latter, who would have kept to the right to facilitate the overtaking move. For Dennis, therefore, the responsibility for the accident lies entirely with Schumacher. The Scottish driver defended himself decisively in front of the journalists:
"They warned me on the radio at turn 11 that Schumacher was coming. I would have let him pass. But when I saw him, I heard the bang at the same time. I can't drive with my mirrors on, he has to watch out for those in front of him. The lap before, the team had already told me to slow down and I did, but Schumacher didn't pass me. Why did he hesitate then? And then, five seconds before the accident, the message from my pits was very clear: step aside, they said. It's all recorded. If Schumacher doesn't believe it, we're ready to give him the recording. I saw the blue flag, I thought he was going to pass me on the left, but he just ran into me".
What doesn't sit well with the McLaren driver, however, is Schumacher's reaction:
"It was a normal racing accident, what I can't accept is that he came like an animal into my pit, insulting me, trying to attack me. He said unrepeatable things to me, which I am ashamed to make public. His attitude is ridiculous, his arguments disgusting. He says that I tried to kill him, that I braked on purpose, to be rear-ended. No driver goes on the track intending to create an accident, anyone who would do such a thing is a fool. That is absolutely out of the question and Schumacher should think before giving vent to his instincts. He behaved like a beast. I am very angry. I don't accept his apology, even if there is one, I don't want to talk to him about this anymore. In fact, it is better if we avoid each other for a while. He can't control his emotions, his behaviour has disappointed me terribly. I'm not nervous, I'm calm, he needs to calm down. I don't think the World Championship can take a bad turn, it can end badly, but everyone needs to control their reactions, their nerves, starting with Schumacher".
Mario Ilien, founder of Ilmor Engineering, which provides technical support to Mercedes, shows telemetry showing how Coulthard was accelerating at the time of the accident: a non-trivial factor, because it would help to completely exonerate the Scot. However, it is not clear whether this document was also provided to the FIA for investigation, but what is clear is the fact that it will no longer be shown publicly. Coulthard also dwells briefly on the macroscopic incident at the start, triggered by his contact with Irvine:
"I was hit by a Ferrari, Irvine's Ferrari. What a record: thrown out of the race twice in one day by two drivers from the same team".
On the opposite side, Michael Schumacher does not withdraw the accusations he made against Coulthard immediately after his retirement, reinforcing his theory that the McLaren driver's manoeuvre was premeditated:
"He tried to kill me. That's what I wanted to tell him when I rushed to his pit: that he tried to kill me. I can't say that he did it on purpose, but the fact that I was leading the world championship at the time allows me to think anything. In the meantime, there is a precise fact: for two or three laps I had been trying to overtake him and he never let me pass. He was setting times five or six seconds slower than mine and he wouldn't let me by. He has to explain why he kept slowing down. He slowed down even more as soon as I was in his slipstream and he saw my silhouette in the mirrors. Why did he do that? He has to explain; I'm sure he slowed down considerably just as I was about to overtake him. I can't understand how someone of his experience could do such a thing. In the meantime, the bitter conclusion is this: I was leading the world championship by three points, and I find myself second, seven points behind. What am I to think? There were blue flags, and since he was lapped he should have let me pass. Instead, he slowed down again when he overtook me. As for the contact with Hakkinen, I was forced to overtake him on the outside in that corner, and he went wide to put me against the guard rail. When I realised this I had to accelerate hard to get out of that dead-end, and I passed. Then, what happened to him, I don't know".
After the race, the stewards summoned both Schumacher and Coulthard to hear their respective explanations, but during the hearing Jean Todt, as head of Scuderia Ferrari, was also heard. At this stage, the Scottish driver tries to ask the German driver if he had ever done anything wrong during his life, but Schumacher's answer is eloquent:
"Not that I remember".
At the end of the interview with the race stewards, Ferrari's team principal Jean Todt states:
"I pointed out an anomalous and worrying situation. While Schumacher was lapping at a pace of 2'10", Coulthard was lapping slower and slower, dropping to 2'16" on the lap before the collision. We want the technical reasons why he did this to be checked. It may be that he was in trouble, but that's why we've asked the judges to look at the McLaren telemetry: from that you can see very clearly whether he slowed down or not and whether he slowed down even more noticeably at the moment of the collision overtaking. In any case, Coulthard was obliged to give way to Schumacher, because the blue flags were on display and he didn't do so; so much so that I went to Ron Dennis at McLaren to point out the situation. He said yes, that he would radio his driver. But as I was returning to my pit the accident happened. Now we're waiting for the judges' decision and then we'll see if we can make a complaint. Schumacher is talking about attempted murder because the situation was one of the most dangerous ever seen: he was going 220km/h in the wet, and he slows down or brakes? It's a very bad episode".
It's impossible to get an opinion from the man who actually benefited from the collision and retained his championship lead. Mika Hakkinen, in fact, left the circuit well in advance, limiting himself to talking about the incident that put him out of the race before leaving:
"At the second start I struggled a little bit to get traction, at the same time I touched with Michael in the big confusion of the first corner. I spun and became a vulnerable target for all those following. And in the end Herbert couldn't avoid me, thus putting me out of the race".
If Hakkinen is lucky enough not to have to comment on the matter, public opinion is almost unanimously against Michael Schumacher, especially for his reaction as soon as he gets out of the car. Clay Regazzoni, among others, vehemently attacked the Ferrari driver and the International Federation:
"The FIA is subservient to Ecclestone's business and Schumacher thinks he is God, but he can't even control his nerves. But where are his nerves if he reacts like that? And against a driver still in the race. When it should have been Coulthard, possibly, who went after him: it was he who was rear-ended. I'm concerned to know that someone like Schumacher can drive a car on the road, maybe on the same road as me. Great champions, and he is one because he won two World Championships, have a different attitude. Schumacher is someone who thinks he is God, he drives with total arrogance and arrogance. He doesn't respect anyone. Anyone who gets in his way just has to disappear. And Ferrari, with its behaviour at Spa, is an accomplice to this behaviour, it exploits the illicit: everyone in the team depends on the driver. Only what he wants is good enough".
Regazzoni comments harshly on Charlie Whiting's handling of the Grand Prix:
"They replaced Bruynseraede with someone who is much worse than him. He is terrible. At Spa nine times out of ten there is an accident at the first corner. What and who is waiting to move the start line? And why didn't the person in charge use the Safety-Car with all that water on the track? It's all right: Bernie Ecclestone must be laughing. It's going to be a full house at Monza. And the FIA will do nothing because it is a loyal subject, a sporting authority that hasn't existed for a long time. This is a problem that the drivers have to ask themselves: they can no longer continue to risk like this".
FIA president Max Mosley also exonerates David Coulthard, since in those conditions it was impossible for him to see the German driver's position through the mirrors, but at the same time he does not accuse Schumacher, shedding light on the dynamics of the accident and on the commissioners' decision:
"One thing is clear: Coulthard could not see what was behind him, just as Schumacher could not clearly see what was in front of his car. Coulthard was accelerating at the moment of impact, but he was not at full throttle as he was on the lap before, at the same point. That is, compared to the previous lap he was slower, he slowed down. But by a little bit, a fraction. David was still going very fast. Both the telemetry of Coulthard's car and that of Schumacher's car were analysed. And it's from that that we understood that it was a normal accident, caused by poor visibility. Coulthard wanted to make it easier for Schumacher to overtake, but the cloud of pulverised water raised by the McLaren misled him. I repeat: it's a racing accident".
Mosley, moreover, makes it known that no action will be taken regarding the gesture of Schumacher, who hurled himself into the McLaren box to attack Coulthard, and dryly denies the accusations that want a Federation that is sometimes too lenient with the German:
"I don't think so. He was very angry, he thought he had suffered an injustice. I'm sure he realised shortly afterwards that he was wrong. The FIA is lenient with Michael? We took away a win at Spa, he was disqualified from two races, and he was deprived of a second place in the last World Championship".
In such a hot climate, the circus moved immediately to Monza for a test session, where Coulthard and Schumacher preferred to ignore each other. The confrontation will come two weeks later, again at Monza, for the Italian Grand Prix. In the meantime Schumacher had to try to get over as soon as possible the disappointment and the frustration for having lost the victory of the Grand Prix, that would have allowed him to conquer the first position in the World Championship. The German remains firm at 70 points, always at -7 from the leader Hakkinen. The situation is unchanged also in the constructors' championship, with McLaren in the lead thanks to the 125 points scored after thirteen rounds, 23 more than Ferrari, while the games open again for the third position, now occupied by Williams, who rises to 33 points and ousts Benetton, stopped at 32. Obviously, Jordan is also approaching, making an important leap forward, rising to 26 points. The support of the fans at Monza, starting from the tests, will surely be a panacea for Schumacher, to start again with the right energy in this hard fight for the title.