In view of the Grand Prix of the Republic of San Marino, the third round of the 1999 World Championship, on April the 15th, 1999, Ferrari worked at Fiorano to test the wet Bridgestone tyres, taking advantage of the rain that fell during the day, with the F300, the car from last season. The next day, on a track artificially wet by a dozen tankers, Michael Schumacher completed the work covering 134 laps, to make a comparative analysis with the data collected in 1998, when Goodyear tyres were used. The German recorded a time of 1'07"115 on wet asphalt, and 1'05"995 in wet conditions. A week later, the teams met in Jerez for one of the numerous test sessions held during the year, and it was the Maranello team that brought the most important innovations on the technical level: in fact, aluminium and beryllium were inserted in the 048's liners, while previously this material was only used for the valve seats. This experimentation led to calculated risks, which materialised in the engine failure of Schumacher's car after he had completed 39 laps. Curiously enough, on 22 April 1999, a rev counter repeater was installed under the visor of the Kerpen driver's helmet, or rather a series of luminous LEDs that lit up in rapid sequence according to the car's acceleration. This is a new device designed to make the most of engines made from metals such as aluminium and beryllium, which require great precision in gear changes. In this way, the driver can continue to keep his eyes on the track, without looking away to concentrate on the steering wheel. At McLaren, they certainly were not sitting on their hands: under the technical direction of Adrian Newey, the Woking-based team continued to churn out novelty after novelty on the fast, but so far fragile, Mp4/14, both during private tests in Barcelona and at Jerez. This fragility also manifested itself in Andalusia, with Coulthard being stopped by a gearbox failure that cost him an hour's work. At the end of tests, the fastest time was set by Ralf Schumacher, in 1'24"276, for a Williams that, despite the third and fourth place of the young German driver in the first two rounds of the season, was aware of being very far not only from the first two teams leading the championship but also from small teams in constant growth like Jordan and Stewart. Meantime, in the days approaching the San Marino Grand Prix, on the Imola circuit, there were increasing rumours that Eddie Irvine would leave Ferrari at the end of the season, to join Jordan in place of Damon Hill, who was about to hang up his boots. When asked on 28 April 1999 whether he intended to stay at Maranello or change teams, the Northern Irishman replied:
"It doesn't depend on me. My manager is looking around, it's his job, and there are good opportunities on the Formula One market, but I don't know. If it were up to me, I would stay at Ferrari, I'm comfortable with people who know how to work, nice people, intelligent people, but it doesn't depend on me. For now we haven't spoken yet, I think they want to see what I can do, if I win again, of course, everything would be different".
If he stays another year, his role will certainly remain that of the second driver. Concerning this hierarchy, the question arises as to whether the two riders have the same material at their disposal:
"On average, yes. On the other hand, Michael is the boss, the number one, I knew that beforehand, there's no question about it, and then, Michael is something incredible: the way he drives, the ease with which he does certain things, there's only one thing to learn from him".
However, the talent of the two-time world champion was not enough to bring the title back to Maranello. Irvine has an interesting theory:
"It's true, but it's not Ferrari's fault. It pays a high price for being in Maranello, Italy, rather than England. There, in England, there is a magic triangle around London, the golden triangle of Formula One, of racing, of mechanics. There are not just racing teams there, there's everything. There are ideas, inventions, intuitions circulating. Everyone who works in Formula One meets at the bar, at the restaurant, and even if they don't talk, if they don't act as spies, and they don't, anyone who understands it can smell something, to understand in which direction one team is moving rather than another. In short, you always smell what's in the air. Not in Maranello: you can't smell anything, because Ferrari is alone. And if it were in Milan it would be the same thing. The real island is Italy, not Great Britain. And so, for four years now, we've all been living with this nightmare: who will be ahead of us this year? Because one year it's Williams, one year McLaren, let's hope that Jordan or Stewart won't be in front".
While Irvine wonders about his future and the 'territorial' advantage of the British teams, Ferrari, following hours of work in the wind tunnel, under the guidance of Rory Byrne, tested a new front wing on the Fiorano circuit, more curved in the side sections and with small external flaps. The aim is to have less incidence and therefore less aerodynamic drag, but more load to balance the car. Michael Schumacher made comparative tests with the old wing, and the results were more than comforting: with the front wing used in the first races, the German lapped in 1'03"2; with the new one he lowered his lap time by about six tenths, recording a promising 1'02"6. The test was passed with flying colours and the new wing was immediately available to Schumacher from free practice at Imola. Irvine, on the other hand, will have to wait until Saturday's qualifying.
"We are not one hundred percent sure that it will bring the hoped-for improvements, but in the wind tunnel it works, and at Fiorano it works. The Imola circuit, however, is something else".
Says Jean Todt, once at Imola. The French team manager also makes it known that the new engine will be brought into qualifying:
"It will not have beryllium. We will perhaps use this material next year. It's just a more driveable engine, which together with the new wing and other things should allow us to make up a penny here, a penny there".
Reigning World Champion and winner of the race in Brazil, Mika Hakkinen, is not intimidated by the changes announced by Ferrari for his home Grand Prix, because in his opinion, the Mercedes engine remains by far the best. And if in Jerez the Red car seemed quicker than the Silver Arrows, it is only because the Finn did not look for a fast lap:
"I'm very confident. It may be that here at Imola the challenge is tougher, but so far we have dominated qualifying and are overall the fastest. We have worked hard on the development of the car. Many small details to improve in every sector, engine, chassis, aerodynamics. I am also confident about reliability. Of course, in Formula One you can never be sure, but I'm living a magical moment. For years I've fought without getting results, but I used to say to myself: you're fast, you can win races, you can win the world championship. I waited a long time and I succeeded. Now I feel strong, resistant. The opposite happened to Schumacher: he had everything right away and maybe now, after several disappointments, he is a bit tense. But these are just impressions".
According to Hakkinen, moreover, Ferrari's German driver is not the only one who can contend for the championship crown:
"There is also Coulthard. David had some technical problems, but he's going well, and above all, he drives the same car as me. Then watch out for Barrichello and Irvine, but he has the handicap of having to give way to Schumacher".
Friday 30 April 1999, Hakkinen substitutes actions for words, taking, as usual, the first position in the time classification after the two free practice sessions. David Coulthard, still without any points in this season due to the technical problems that afflicted his McLaren, has never hidden that he particularly liked this track, where, among other things, he won his only championship race in 1998. The Scotsman, for now, is second at 138 thousandths. Irvine is third at half a second, followed by Hill and Michael Schumacher, fifth, and one second behind Hakkinen. In memory of Senna, on May 1st, 1999, the qualifying session for the San Marino Grand Prix was held. McLaren's hegemony continues unchallenged, as does Hakkinen's superiority over Coulthard on one of the Scot's favourite tracks. Mika took pole position, the third out of three qualifying sessions, with a time of 1'26"362. Coulthard tries to make a comeback in the final but stops 22 thousandths behind his box mate. Ferrari joined the Silver Arrows, with Schumacher third and Irvine fourth, but there was reason to be satisfied: if in Australia and Brazil the gap to Hakkinen was over a second, this time Schumacher was 176 thousandths down on the Finn. An enormous step forward. Irvine used soft tyres, unlike the McLarens and Schumacher, who choose the harder compound with the race in mind, but despite this the number two of the Red team, as well as the World Championship leader, is 6 tenths of a second behind the pole man. Despite taking pole, Hakkinen does not seem so happy with the car's handling:
"This is not an easy track: it is very difficult to find the ideal trajectories, and I had a lot of difficulty in some corners, where I don't have the right confidence, and therefore I can't be as aggressive as I should be on this kind of track".
The driver of the day was undoubtedly Jacques Villeneuve, who at the wheel of the uncompetitive BAR (which in the meantime began negotiations with Honda for the supply of engines in 2000) placed fifth, ahead of Rubens Barrichello who by now, together with his Stewart, was no longer a surprise. The ex-Jordan driver only has to hope that the fragility of the Ford-powered SF3 is not fatal to him yet. Alex Zanardi made a slight recovery and finished in tenth, just a few tenths behind his teammate Ralf Schumacher, who qualified ninth. Disaster, instead, for Benetton: Giancarlo Fisichella, who had just become a father, and Alexander Wurz ended up in sixteenth and seventeenth position. Only ahead of Arrows, Minardi (the returning Badoer, injured before the Brazilian Grand Prix, was last), and the BAR of Mika Salo, who replaced the injured Ricardo Zonta. The ex-Arrows Finn is nineteenth. On the 2nd of May 1999, on a circuit like Imola, where overtaking is by no means easy, strategies will probably make the difference. Some will go for one stop while others will opt for two. From the way the race starts, it seems clear that Mika Hakkinen has chosen the second option. When the lights go out, due to a gearbox problem, a very unlucky Jacques Villeneuve is left standing on the grid, being passed by all the other drivers without being miraculously hit. For the Canadian, however, the bitterness remains of not having been able to take advantage of a very promising starting position. The McLarens make no mistake, maintaining their positions without a fight, as do the Ferraris. The first lap is characterized by another retirement, besides Villeneuve's one: after an off-track coming out of the second chicane, Jarno Trulli has to leave his Prost unattended on the grass. After the end of the first lap, the two McLarens, the two Ferraris, Rubens Barrichello and Heinz-Harald Frentzen make up the points zone. Hakkinen pushes hard right from the start, setting a race pace unreachable by Coulthard and Schumacher.
The Finn lowers his times lap after lap, each time setting the fastest time of the race. The first part of the race, which is rather monotonous in the first positions, is enlivened by the actions of the drivers in the middle of the group: Mika Salo, after an excellent sprint that had allows him to climb to fourteenth position, is overtaken first by Olivier Panis and then by Toranosuke Takagi, while on lap five, at Tosa, Alex Wurz and Pedro de la Rosa come into contact: The Austrian of the Benetton ens up against the barriers, losing a tyre that briefly ends up on the track, while de la Rosa spins, but in his clumsy attempt to restart in a hurry he causes the car to stall. It is an inevitable retirement for both. A few laps later, the only Prost remaining in the race, the one driven by Panis, spins while trying to find a gap to overtake Giancarlo Fisichella, for the moment far from the positions valid for the points. Hakkinen's sumptuous race pace shows that the reigning champion probably has less fuel in his tank than his rivals, as Coulthard is never able to match his teammate's times. On lap 16 there is the first stop of the race, and it is Jean Alesi in a Sauber. With a time of 10.4 seconds, the Frenchman is clearly on a two-stop strategy. On the next lap, however, there is the first real twist of the San Marino Grand Prix: coming out of the chicane that leads to the finish line, Mika Hakkinen is overconfident on the outside kerb and uses it too much to the point of losing grip. The McLaren slides and ends up against the wall. The damage is terminal. Hakkinen can only get out of the cockpit and despair for a silly mistake for a World Champion, who throws away a victory that seemed certain. In a race where reliability continues to be a question mark not to be underestimated for the Woking team, it is a major error of the top driver that ends up in retirement. When reached by journalists in the pits, Mika does not hide and admits his mistake:
"Usually we drivers blame the car when we make mistakes, but this time I have to be honest and say it's all my fault, I made a mistake. I was pushing to the limit, I ended up on the kerb coming out of the corner, I lost grip and spun. I had no chance to control the car, so I went into the wall".
On the subject of strategy, or whether he and Coulthard were on different plans, Hakkinen shrugs and replies:
"I'll tell you tomorrow".
An answer to be interpreted, but which gives further confirmation that he was on two stops, while Coulthard will stop, barring unforeseen circumstances, just once. Hakkinen's retirement inflames the public in the stands, and also the track marshals, who vehemently shake their fists at Schumacher's passage to Tosa to give the Ferrari driver a push, now in second position, just three seconds behind the new leader Coulthard. Now, for Schumacher, victory is no longer a mirage. Nor is it for Coulthard, who is aiming for a win to revitalise his season. The public's supoort perhaps helps, because Schumacher begins to gradually reduce the gap to Coulthard. This is also because the time for the pit stop is approaching, and to contend for first place with the Scotsman, Michael needs to stay as close to him as possible. While the other leading drivers stop (first Barrichello and Frentzen, then Irvine, with the Northern Irishman maintaining third place), Schumacher reduces the gap from 3.8 seconds to 3.3, after which it drops to two seconds, until it is reduced to a measly one second on lap 30, after Coulthard takes too long to overtake Pedro Diniz's Sauber. The crucial moment is lap 31: the Ferrari box calls Schumacher back for a stop and therefore makes an attempt to undercut Coulthard. The mechanics are perfect, taking just 6.9 seconds to change tyres and refuel, a time perhaps even shorter than expected. But it's all going according to plan. Everything goes as planned by the genius mind of Ross Brawn. Coulthard stays out, loses more precious time in lapping Marc Gené, but regardless of this he does not run extraordinary times, just when he should be recording his best split times. This is what Michael Schumacher does instead, demolishing the fastest race lap of last season, lowering it by half a second, driving in 1'28"853. Michael is flying. Four laps pass before Coulthard pits for his first and only stop, which lasts 9.2 seconds. Three seconds slower than Schumacher's, who is on the main straight and at the exit of the pit lane well ahead of Coulthard's McLaren. On lap 37, a Ferrari leads the San Marino Grand Prix.
Coulthard is knocked unconscious as he is stuck several laps behind the backmarkers of Fisichella and Panis, and only after Ron Dennis becomes enraged with Alain Prost does the French driver step aside. Coulthard, however, ends up with two wheels on the grass at Rivazza, and promptly Panis is back in front of him. With his adversary in total confusion, Schumacher certainly does not let his guard down, and indeed continues to lap as if he were in qualifying. Michael further lowers his time limit, lapping in 1'28"552. On the fortieth lap, Coulthard is twenty seconds shy from the leader. At this point the Ferrari mechanics prepare for a second pit-stop. The less petrol taken on at the first stop allowed Schumacher to get back in front of Coulthard, and then push to create a gap that would allow him a second pit stop to take on the petrol needed to finish the race. A perfect strategy. After the second pit-stop, Schumacher retains the race lead, with a margin of four seconds over Coulthard. Everything seems to be going well at Ferrari, with Schumacher in the lead and Irvine in third place. A result that would put the two drivers in first place in the drivers' standings, on equal points. On lap 46, however, the Ferrari engine of the Northern Irishman's car explodes, forcing the former World Championship leader to retire for the first time this season. The oil left on the track by the F399 also affects Frentzen, who slips and spins. The German has to give up his fourth position, leaving it in the hands of his teammate Hill. With Irvine's retirement, Rubens Barrichello virtually climbs onto the podium, who, rather than worrying about Hill's pressure, has to hope that the Ford engine does not give out in these final stages. Between stops and retirements, the other Stewart driven by Johnny Herbert and the Benetton driven by Giancarlo Fisichella climb up to the fifth and sixth position, who, despite a car that is far from competitive, has a serious chance to bring home heavy points. Behind him, however, looms Alex Zanardi, rejuvenated by the possibility of scoring his first points on his return to Formula 1.
Jackie Stewart os already savouring the joy of scoring points with both cars, but with four laps to go, one of the two Ford engines, as feared, fails. It was not Barrichello's, but Johnny Herbert's, whose performance has been outstanding, having started from twelfth position. His retirement allows Zanardi to enter the points zone only for a few moments, but as it happened to Frentzen a little before, the Italian driver also slipps on the oil stain left on the asphalt by Herbert's Stewart, ending up in a spin at the second chicane named after Gilles Villeneuve. With Ralf Schumacher also retiring halfway through the race due to a problem with the throttle, Williams leaves Imola with a double zero. The massacre of drivers ended with the retirements of Herbert and Zanardi, for a total of thirteen retirements. At the end of the sixty-two laps foreseen, Michael Schumacher crosses the finishing line first, four seconds ahead of Coulthard and one lap more on all the others. An exceptional Rubens Barrichello arrives third and precedes Damon Hill, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jean Alesi. Mika Salo is seventh with BAR, while Luca Badoer comes in eighth with the Ford-powered Minardi: a good result for the team of Faenza, that could not ask more from its drivers. For Schumacher this is the first victory in the championship, the second at Imola, the 34th in his career. Ferrari's drought in the Grand Prix of the Republic of San Marino comes to an end, as the last success went back to 1983 with Patrick Tambay. On the podium, Michael seems almost moved, as he is aware of the importance of this success, which came in front of his fans who were anxiously awaiting it after that unfortunate weekend at Suzuka in the grand finale of last season, and the first two races of this season which saw him succumb first to bad luck and then to the superiority of McLaren. While the Italian anthem is being played, Michael, full of joy, also improvises as a conductor. Disappointment can be seen on the face of David Coulthard, who wins the first six points in the championship, but when called upon to take charge of the situation after Hakkinen's retirement, he was unable to react and was soundly defeated. Carrying the Brazilian flag is Rubens Barrichello, who makes a special dedication at the press conference:
"First of all I want to dedicate this podium to my friend Ayrton Senna. After everything that has happened, this is the place I most wanted to finish on the podium, so I wanted to dedicate this result to him, wherever he is. It was a great performance from the team, we have a competitive car, not at the level of McLarens and Ferraris but still fast enough to be better than the others. To get a podium here, a track where I've had some bad times, is undoubtedly a great emotion for me. It is the first time I drive a competitive car, as I said before we are not at the level of the best but we are progressing. I was also lucky today because without the retirements of Hakkinen and Irvine I would certainly not have finished third, but sometimes luck is necessary to play this sport".
On the opposite, Coulthard lost a huge chance, and he knows it:
"I had to win, second place doesn't make me happy. Getting the first points of the season is certainly a good result, although I had the pace to win the race today, which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. For some parts of the race, it was quite complicated to overtake; it is always very difficult to overtake here. It has to be said that some of them didn't cooperate when I arrived behind them, so I lost many seconds, which turned out to be crucial for Schumacher to pass me during the pit stop".
The Scotsman then goes on to address his colleagues:
"All of us drivers have to understand that although everyone is running their own race and is reluctant to give way, if you find yourself a lap down you have to lift your foot even if it means losing half a second or more if necessary. One day they might be leading a race and complaining about this kind of behaviour".
If Coulthard takes a few jabs, Ron Dennis is literally furious, as he is not happy about losing a race, in his view, due to lapping:
"A race decided by the stewards. Only Coulthard was not told that there was oil on the track, so he skidded and lost several seconds. Then, when he had to lap someone there were never any blue flags, while for Schumacher they put them out a lap earlier. If we have to race against the flags too, they'll tell us. Overtaking at the pit stop? It happens, you can miscalculate. Just as there can be a mistake by Hakkinen. On the other hand, I don't accept that Panis, already lapped, remains seven laps ahead of Coulthard".
At Ferrari, on the other hand, there is a celebration. Michael Schumacher is full of happiness:
"It's an extraordinary day, a fantastic race, I really enjoyed this victory. To arrive first here, in front of this formidable public, is a wonderful feeling. These people have been waiting for a triumph like this for too many years, I'm happy to have taken it. In the end, on the lap of honour, I went very slowly because I wanted to enjoy the emotion to the full. I was trying to watch the faces of the crowd, I didn't want to miss even a glance, even the slightest gesture of euphoria".
The two-stop strategy, Schumacher reveals, was decided in the process:
"On this circuit you can't overtake, if we had made just one stop we would have finished second. We had to take risks, put in a little petrol, take advantage of the new tyres, overtake Coulthard in the pits and then stretch, gain at least twenty seconds, to allow us a second refuelling. It could have been a dangerous choice, but there was no other. And we were rewarded. Ross Brawn confirmed himself as a wizard of tactics. We consulted each other by radio. I told him: you decide. He was right".
Hakkinen's retirement undoubtedly facilitated the task, but as the German says:
"In races you also need luck, but this weekend we have grown a lot in performance. We're still not as fast as the McLarens, which remains our goal, but we're very close to them in qualifying, even closer in the race, and this probably puts them in a difficult position, causing them to make mistakes. In the first two Grands Prix we got off to a terrible start, if we wanted to win the world championship we had to change course, and we did. This is a triumph for the team, strategy, the car, the work of the mechanics: hopefully this is just the beginning. In the beginning, when Hakkinen was running away, I imagined that he had a strategy with two pit stops and therefore had to push to the limit. I just worried about not getting too much of a gap to Coulthard, so I could overtake him in the pits. Hakkinen got out of the way and everything went smoothly".
As well as being victory number 34 in his career, this is also his fifteenth at the wheel of a Ferrari, like Niki Lauda:
"I'm pleased to have achieved it, but I'm only thinking about the world championship. We're in the lead, it's too early to declare victory, but we have the means to resist and ample room for improvement. One thing is certain: we can grow slowly, work better, while this time last year we were twenty points behind. Of course we have to keep pushing, without relaxing, because McLaren is still a dangerous customer".
Team manager Jean Todt, on the other hand, is happy but at the same time concerned about Irvine's engine failure:
"That breakage is something we have to pay a lot of attention to. We've already looked at it and, although I'm not one hundred per cent certain, I'd say this is what happened: we found dirt in the crankcase which then blocked a duct, and it all went off. It can happen, but it shouldn't happen. We had fitted a new crankcase and maybe we didn't clean it properly. The whole mechanism has to be reviewed, to make sure that all new parts are put through a more thorough procedure. Reliability is about everything, and at the moment we are making progress in every area to improve our performance. In part we've already achieved that, in part that's what we're going to do for the next few Grands Prix, all the ones that remain. So we have to work on two fronts: being faster but maintaining reliability. Do you know how many points we have lost for reliability in these three races? Twelve, so we have to be careful".
Regardless of the points lost, however, Michael Schumacher leads the Drivers' standings with 16 points, ahead of Irvine who has 12. As a result, the Prancing Horse also leads the constructors' championship with 28 points, compared to McLaren's 16. Can this situation last? Todt replies:
"In the meantime, we are there and we have overturned the situation of a year ago after the first three races. We want to stay there, we are working for that, but let's not forget that we have very strong opponents. We know how strong they are in all areas, engine, electronics, team, and we know that they will also make progress, we must now try to anticipate them on all fronts. It's possible, even if it's not easy".
Ahead of Monte Carlo, the team will continue to work in test sessions:
"Four days of testing with Irvine first, Schumacher later, and also Badoer. We will try a specific wing for that circuit, which is different from all the others. A wing with a very high load and then the usual little things we do for each Grand Prix because there's no magic wand that can solve everything in one go. Instead there are these little improvements that eventually build up and make you win, like the new wing at Imola: that wasn't what made us win, but it contributed like so many other things that the press don't talk about. For us that wing represents the success of work done in the tunnel, and in a very tight timeframe, which can be repeated on many other things. And at Monte Carlo we have a chance to win, it's up to us to make the most of what we have and the situations that can be created on the spot, but the possibility is there and it's concrete".
Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo is also over the moon, saying that he has been rejuvenated by ten years thanks to this victory:
"Remember last year's Japanese Grand Prix? They wrote that I was ten years older, now I've gained at least ten years".
Drenched in champagne by Schumacher, and with a clean shirt painstakingly earned, Montezemolo goes on to say:
"This is a team that has done nothing wrong, that has once again worked hard and well after Brazil. Today's victory is mainly thanks to them. I'm only sorry for Irvine's engine, I would have preferred two Ferraris on the podium, but you have to be content. This is a victory that has many meanings. First, it comes after sixteen years of waiting. Second, it's a demonstration of strength and great tactical ability. Thirdly, we are leading the world championship, just think where we were a year ago or even earlier. Fourth, I'm happy for all the families of our people for whom we had prepared a stand so that they could see their loved ones at work in such delicate moments. Great credit for this victory goes to a united and compact team both on and off the track, to those who are here today and those who stayed at home".
And on Schumacher:
"Look at what he has done to me, I would sign my name to be reduced like this at every Grand Prix. He is a very strong driver, focused, precise and determined. We already knew it, everyone knows it, but today he was great".
Finally, as he is giving the interview, Jurgen Hubert, head of the Mercedes car division, arrives and shakes Montezemolo's hand, vigorously. Perhaps, after years of suffering, this is an unexpected and no less beautiful satisfaction. At the top of both classifications, and able to react to a complicated start to the season, during which McLaren-Mercedes appeared like a spaceship that was still imperfect, but already unreachable. At Imola, on the other hand, an astonishing show of strength, both on the part of the team, which was never discouraged and continued to work hard to solve the car's problems, and on the part of Michael Schumacher, who was called upon to give one of his proverbial gigantic performances to make things clear: Ferrari is there, and it intends to play it out to the end.