From June 16th to 18th, 1999, Formula One carries out a test session at the Magny Cours circuit, located in France, exactly where the championship’s seventh round will be run. Its new leader happens to be Mika Hakkinen, following the victory conquered by the latter in Canada. A success facilitated by Michael Schumacher’s glaring error, who crashed into the wall while leading the race, thus remaining stationary at 30 points, just four points behind the Finn. At Magny Cours Ferrari puts all its efforts on the new 048B engine, which seems to bear the so-coveted fruits during the first day of testing, in which Schumacher set the third best time behind Coulthard and Barrichello. In the meanwhile, FIA vice president Bernie Ecclestone underwent a successful heart surgery, which was held at London's Chest Hospital. Ecclestone had several coronary bypasses applied. By day 2 out of 3 in the works, in the midst of a race pace simulation, Ferrari's V10 explodes: after forty laps a large white cast of smoke comes out from the rear end of the car, and a streak of oil is left on the track. Following the mishap, Schumacher confirms that the Ferrari powertrain upgrade will be used only in qualifying, as it is not ready for the race yet. No problems, however, for Eddie Irvine, who runs eighty-two laps testing different set-ups on the F399, with the old engine on. He ends up just 0.017 seconds away from Mika Hakkinen’s best overall performance - 1'17"263.
The Northern Irishman takes the stage on the third and final day of testing, lapping in 1'15"981, more than a second ahead of Coulthard and Schumacher. The latter still has to deal with a lightened and boosted 048B engine, unfortunately still unreliable. Indeed the German’s engine breaks down for the second time in two days. With the tests being over, both Ferrari's drivers get a few days off and then dive back into the thick of the season. And so, before heading off to Burgundy, Schumacher tests the Ferrari car chassis #193, completing seven laps on the Fiorano circuit. Eventually, Schumacher carries out practice starts aboard car chassis no. 190 and accomplishes two more untimed laps. Back in France, on June 24th, 1999, Ferrari shows up with the rear end of the F399 completely redone, after working 16 hours a day for six days a week: lower hood in order to suit both the new and the old engine, redesigned rear sides, new flow diverters, modified air intakes and outlets. All these innovations from the Maranello team's development program, studied by Nicholas Tombazis from Greece, will be brought to the track after achieving promising results in the wind tunnel. Jean Todt explains that the set goal is to improve the aerodynamics of the F399, and says he is confident that the team has succeeded in doing so:
"The new winglets serve to divert air flows; for instance, they allow hot air to come out more efficiently from the radiators. This will likewise allow us to reduce all those lateral and upper openings we used in some Grands Prix, which indeed facilitated the exit of hot air".
Regarding the 048B engine, Todt states:
"The problem occurred during testing was caused by the cylinder head. We are already working to solve the problem, since we know the origin of the fault. It is clear that we will use the new engine during the race only when all the necessary guarantees will be there. For now it will only be used on Saturday, both in free practice and qualifying. As for the new extra soft tires, tested out by Irvine, they will not be available for the current race".
The French Grand Prix promises to be very balanced, due to the now-ordinary ongoing battle with McLaren:
"I think we will always be close to the McLarens, still we have to gather proof that we have done a good job. As I do always restate, Formula 1 is a very challenging sport. Things have improved a lot compared to the past, but it's not enough: in Montreal we were leading the race, we had basically taken the win in the bag, still you know what happened. You stand there at the pitwall expecting to see your car to cross the finish line first but in the blink of an eye the dream shatters just in front of you. It was a racing incident, unfortunately it can happen".
Eddie Irvine currently occupies the third spot in the championship, not so far behind Schumacher. However, as clearly stated in his contract, his role remains that of second driver. The relationship between the two, according to Todt, has not changed at all from the previous years:
"They have been together for four years now and there are no problems between the two of them so far. Both Schumacher and ourselves can only be happy if Eddie is going strong and doing his job well. They have the same car. Eddie tries to get the most out of his. He feels satisfied and drives with pleasure".
Schumacher himself stands by his team manager's words, declaring himself confident about the upcoming new battle with McLaren and Hakkinen. The latter, meanwhile, spends the Thursday before the free practice session participating in a bike race on the same circuit. On the title fight, which sees him in first place for the first time, Mika said:
"This is an important race. Having regained the lead in the drivers' standings doesn't mean much, but after the win taken in Canada we have more confidence, and the team is continuing to develop the car. At the beginning we were struggling with reliability problems, but they have now been solved. The engineers have clear ideas, we are on the right track".
The next day, Friday, June 25th, 1999, the palpable optimism at Ferrari receives the long-awaited confirmation that Todt was looking for right on track: Michael Schumacher occupies the first position at the end of the afternoon session, proving to be the only driver to go under the 1'18 reference. Eddie Irvine follows him close behind and is ahead of both the McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard, with the Finn nearly four tenths off Schumacher's time. Interestingly enough, both Ferrari cars do not take part in the morning session, since, as the Maranello team's lead driver explains:
"Last week we did a lot of tests in Magny Cours. It was impossible to gather new useful information for this Grand Prix".
In addition to that, Michael urges everyone to be cautious about judging too quickly the new features brought by Ferrari, due to the fact that the day is marked by a strong wind - An-absolutely not to be underestimated-factor recurring with the very sensitive and modern Formula 1 cars. Eddie Irvine, in fact, states:
"It felt like I was testing here for the first time, the car was completely different from a week ago. I had no understeer prior to that, whereas as of now I have experienced it, consequently so the driving style needed to be adapted anew. Overall, though, the new car is good. Let's say we are on par with McLaren, not yet superior. We can have a good race, although the tire choice will not be an easy task".
The first tests are also marked by other episodes: first, the bad accident that occurred to Jean Alesi, who at a speed of more than 200 km/h loses control of his Sauber. The race car flipped and got destroyed, fortunately leaving the home driver unharmed. Then, an unexpected doping test imposed by the International Federation, at the request of Max Mosley takes place. Mosley himself draws the drivers who must undergo the test, namely: Zanardi, Irvine, Hill, Fisichella, Wurz and Herbert, with Ralf Schumacher drawn as a reserve. From those involved in the test, an urine sample is required. While there are those like Fisichella, who manage to take it right away, there are also those, like Alex Zanardi, who just can't loosen up. Afterwards, Fisichella jokes about this circumstance, stating:
"I entered the bathroom and noticed that a French doctor was watching me. Since I couldn’t hold it anymore I took it right away - 70 centiliters. Then I had to pour it all myself into two test tubes. It seems right to me that these checks have to be carried out. What should I be afraid of? I’m not even a coffee consumer".
And Zanardi also recounts, laughing:
"I tried every way, even by stomping my feet on the ground like children usually do. I finally made it, but what a struggle. I had to delay all the appointments and keep so many people waiting for me. In my opinion, however, FIA is rightfully entitled to conduct these unplanned tests. Formula 1 has to show that it has nothing to hide. I don't think anyone involved in our environment takes illegal substances. Undergoing the checks allows us to show some transparency and to stand in solidarity with those who are fighting against doping at a time when so many other athletes are being checked repeatedly, and still face constant suspicion".
No problems, but a few complaints coming from Eddie Irvine’s side, who points out that over the years he has already been selected to take part in the tests several times, unlike his pit neighbor Schumacher, who has never underwent a single test. On Saturday, Ferrari's dominance, accomplished during free practice, is challenged by a even more decisive variable than wind can be: rain. To be more precise, a real storm hit Magny Cours a few minutes after the qualifying session had started. In the very early stages of the session, in fact, only a light drizzle wets the tarmac. The first to come out are Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi, who both manage to carry out their lap time and take the lead. Perfect timing, in defiance of the top teams’ strategists and the ultimately not-so-accurate weather forecast - it looked like the rain was going to stop indeed - but soon afterwards a storm breaks out and floods the track. Barely a quarter of an hour to go before the end of the session and the rain has slightly subsided, yet the track is flooded. Michael Schumacher comes out of the pits, wanting to try out an unlikely assault on that pole, that, for the moment, belongs to Rubens Barrichello. The Ferrarista ends up spinning, after being a victim to aquaplaning, and eventually has to settle for sixth place on the grid.
Not too bad for him, since it’s even worse for his competitors: teammate Eddie Irvine, who after free practice said he could even aim for pole position, goes down in seventeenth position, ahead of Damon Hill and six seconds behind poleman Barrichello. The World Championship leader, Mika Hakkinen, is only fourteenth, also causing a couple of spins on the wet tarmac, which has never particularly enhanced his skills. David Coulthard partially saves the day for McLaren's sake. He finishes fourth, setting an excellent time in the final minutes. By the time qualifying was over, Damon Hill, the Minardis of Badoer and Gené, and the Arrows of De La Rosa and Takagi remain out of the 107% rule of the time set by Barrichello. According to the regulations, they all should be excluded from the race. Considering the special conditions of the racetrack, however, the stewards eventually decide to allow the drivers to participate in Sunday's race. A race that will see an all new front row, composed of Rubens Barrichello - at his second career pole position, after the one taken in Spa back in 1994 at the wheel of the Jordan - and Jean Alesi. The Brazilian, however, does not want to set limits to himself, by starting on pole. This time he is seriously aiming for victory:
"On this circuit you can't overtake. If I can start in the lead, it will be hard to come and get me".
A pole position that offers him not only the chance to win his first race in Formula 1, but also some other benefits:
"Stewart and I had bet on a Rolex, if I started from pole position: now he has to give one to me".
Beyond the bets won, the Brazilian is increasingly at the center of the drivers’ market rumors that approach him to Ferrari as a replacement for Irvine. Rubens, however, is only thinking about the race for the moment:
"Thought I only had one chance in a hundred to win a race in my life. Now I have at least two of them. It's the biggest percentage since I've been racing. Also because the car is competitive and already in the morning, on a drier tarmac, I had been the best overall. That set time was not a bluff. Ferrari and McLaren had run on new tires already, that's when I exactly knew I could scare them".
By exiting the pits before everyone else, however, he’s not only scared the top teams but also managed to beat them:
"A voice from above told me to go on. I followed my instincts and Gary Andersson’s advice, my technical director. He was also with me in 1994, at Spa, during the Jordan days. We fooled everybody again".
Enthusiasm also skyrockets, of course, for Jackie Stewart, thanks to his first pole position conquered as a team owner. The former Scottish World Champion can't resist and throws a dig at Ferrari and McLaren for their choice to take to the track guiltily late:
"I don't understand how Ferrari and McLaren could commit such nonsense. Going out right away was the only thing to do: you set a time and then you see how it goes. But as of now the drivers man-mark themselves too much and lose sight of reality".
On his home track, a return to the front row would logically be even more appreciated by driver Jean Alesi, who begins his round of interviews with a joke:
"I hope that in the race the stewards don't wave the blue flags when Ferrari and McLaren both slot behind us, because this time we won’t be lapped".
Then the former Ferrari driver focuses on the strategies adopted by him and his colleagues:
"I was amazed by the tactics my colleagues decided to go for. They have eyes like I do, and there were only black clouds roaming the sky. What were they hoping for? Leaving the garage right away was the only thing to do. This rain is a proper bless to me, starting second in France is a dream. The whole crowd is cheering for me, even though it's hard to fathom that without a competitive car you can't do anything much. Commitment is not enough. I was finally able to give the French people a joy. And I hope I can make it into the points. I have so many Grand Prix behind me - ten years of struggles, satisfactions and also disappointments - but when you see a thunderstorm breaking out at the beginning of qualifying and dark skies taking over all the way to the horizon, you can't just wait for the sun to come out. I went out immediately, first of all to check if the car set-up was okay, and when I saw that there were horrible puddles on the track, I told myself that it was better to keep lapping around the circuit in order to set a time right away, so to protect myself from any possible unwelcomed surprise. This is the tenth French Grand Prix I am participating in and I am proud to start on the front row. I know the circuit well and, believe me, it will not be easy to overtake regardless of the weather conditions. If it rains, I think it would be wise for the marshals to send the safety car out on track at the right time to avoid unnecessary accidents: this one is a race that could prove to be dangerous. I am very confident. My mechanics did a real miracle and managed to put back together in less than fifteen hours the same car I almost destroyed in Friday's accident. The fans here want so much to see me on the podium, and I will do the impossible not to disappoint them".
Good news are far from over for the French home crowd, as a fantastic Olivier Panis behind the wheel of the Prost, qualified in third - an all-French pairing that was making waves in '97, before Panis' nasty crash in Canada. Then a colorless comeback in the second half of that championship came and also a difficult '98 season because of a single-seater that was anything but competitive. Things have improved slightly this season, but Panis had not very much impressed in the confrontation with teammate Jarno Trulli. This time the Frenchman showed off all his skills in the wet, and finished on the second row by a handful of thousandths, ahead of David Coulthard. The Scotsman, in fact, considering the car he drives and the drivers ahead of him, can consider himself the frontrunner to win the race, only if he is able to make a good start and get rid of slower drivers just before Schumacher and Hakkinen come around. In the meantime, however, Coulthard warns the race direction that if conditions happen to be the same during the race, it will have to be stopped:
"This way you can't race at all. I will talk to Wurz and the drivers' safety committee. You want to be in the position to fight during the race. To do so, there have to be safe conditions ongoing. I really don't want to be in a race where I find myself continuously going in and out of the gravel run-off areas".
Only fourteenth on the grid, Mika Hakkinen faces a difficult challenge in order to finish into the points and has to deal with his title rival especially, who will start much further ahead:
"When I entered the track I was aiming for fourth or fifth place, but I realized that it was not possible to do so. I tried to be on the limit but then I thought about the championship. I was risking going off the track and maybe causing my car to flip around… It would have been enough to fracture my little finger and would have stayed out for two or three Grand Prix. Everyone else would have called me stupid. The race will be a different matter, as always anything can happen. Wrong strategy? I don't know, we had decided to go out right away then we changed our mind, even the Ferrari crew did the same. The smaller teams took risks and were rewarded. I hope during the race this won’t be happening all over again. I don't want to think about a Grand Prix taking place in these conditions".
Meanwhile, his team manager, Ron Dennis, at the end of qualifying looks at the almost blue sky reigning over Magny Cours, exhibiting a mocking gaze:
"Look, the track is drying out. In this part of Europe, an hour of continuous, violent rain had never been registered. Experience tells us to wait. But by the time we realized we had made a mistake, it was too late. The aquaplaning was tremendous, not only on the tires. It was also caused by the bottom of the car, which was very low and pretty much aerodynamically loaded. Still, we had to send the cars out, there is a regulation we need to observe and yet we had to qualify. It was quite risky, of course, but racing is indeed dangerous. We take comfort only in the fact that the other big teams made the same mistake we did".
Both McLaren and Ferrari admit their errors of judgment. When it comes to the Maranello team, Jean Todt takes full responsibility:
"Well, if you need someone at fault, it's me. Go ahead and report that. We were firmly convinced that the little rain there was at the beginning would be over, that the other cars would dry out the track by lapping around the circuit, and that in the final part of practice we could set times much faster than Barrichello and Alesi did. Instead, it didn't go that way. I am the one to blame for that. However, we are positioned better than our direct opponent, we are racing for the World Championship. You'll see, it’s going to be a great race. You won’t find yourself in the position to complain anymore. You’ll see lots of overtaking. It will be a good race, we can also win".
Even Michael Schumacher, still sixth behind Frentzen's Jordan, does not hide behind the mistake made by his team:
"In the middle of this chaos, only two people got it right: Barrichello and Alesi. The others were all wrong. It's easy to say now, in hindsight. Back then we didn't realize how much the situation was evolving. It got worse eventually. Tomorrow, if it rains, I will have a proper wall of water in front of me at the start, total invisibility. Anything can happen. All it takes is one to proceed slower, or one to spin right in front of you… you end up crashing on him without even realizing it, without being able to do anything in order to avoid it. I really hope the conditions will change, otherwise it’s too dangerous this way. If it were up to me, it would be better not to race on such a flooded track, you lose control of the car so easily, even in the straights, let alone in a corner. Too many puddles, too little visibility, too many risks".
On Sunday, June 27th, 1999, as Schumacher and other colleagues of his wished for, the Magny Cours track dries out just a few minutes before the start of the race. The warm-up was held in the morning on a damp track. David Coulthard leads the classification and is ahead of both Ferraris. The Scottish driver has had an unfortunate season so far, made up of three retirements due to technical problems and only two podium finishes. The dream of being world champion seemed almost vanished, but by taking the win, adding up to a misstep from Hakkinen, who starts from the back of the pack, Coulthard could still get back into the fight. Rubens Barrichello happens to be in the middle of his path, however. This season Barrichello has already had the occasion to lead a race, to be precise in Brazil, in front of his fans, where for twenty-seven laps he coolly maintained the lead. The Stewart is a fast car, especially on the straights, where the Ford engine is at its best. Alesi and Panis should not be a problem for Coulthard, but overtaking will have to be done quickly, as the winner of four of the last five editions of the French Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher, starts from sixth position. When the lights go out, gray clouds laden with rain loom over the track. However, for the time being, the race is declared to be evidently dry. From the front row both Barrichello and Alesi start off well, respectively keeping first and second position. Less responsive is Oliver Panis, overtaken at the first corner by Coulthard, on the straight by Frentzen and finally by Michael Schumacher at the Adelaide corner. The Ferrarista also tries to surprise Frentzen, who’s alert and leaves no space. Mika Hakkinen makes room for himself in the middle of the pack, within half a lap he has already moved up to tenth position. On the first pass over the line Barrichello is leading the race, ahead of Alesi, who is already beginning to slow down the group of rivals consisting of Coulthard, Frentzen and Schumacher. The McLaren driver wastes no time and at the end of the long straight brakes late and overtakes the 35-year-old Frenchman.
In the meanwhile, Hakkinen climbs back up the slope quickly, passing Giancarlo Fisichella for eighth position. Irvine struggles to do the same thing as Coulthard and is eighteenth at the end of the first lap, behind Damon Hill. The very first phase of the race sees Coulthard attacking Barrichello's Stewart, but failing to make himself a threat for the latter, while Schumacher, on a car equipped with a wet set-up, remains stuck behind Alesi and Frentzen. Hakkinen, on the other hand, is unstoppable and even overtakes the Prost cars of Trulli and Panis. In a short amount of time reaches Schumacher, who occupies the sixth position. Within a few laps, the defending champion had passed eight cars. Meanwhile, Coulthard, after a few laps spent studying his opponent, attacks Barrichello at the Adelaide corner. However he breaks too hard and ends up wide off. Rubens attempts to get him from the inside, but, coming out of the hairpin, the acceleration of the McLaren Mercedes makes the difference. Coulthard takes the lead and immediately shows he has a remarkable race pace, lapping in 1'19"227, one and a half seconds faster than Barrichello, who, in turn, manages a gap of four seconds on the group of drivers led by a stoic Alesi, who keeps everyone behind aboard a modest Sauber. Hakkinen is clearly the one with the most pace out of all the drivers. He proves it by attempting an overtaking maneuver on Schumacher at the Adelaide corner. Mika attempts to intersect the trajectories, but Schumacher holds the apex well and averts the overtake. By the next lap, however, the Ferrarista can do nothing: Hakkinen this time positions himself in the inside, brakes late and leaves him no chance. A forceful overtaking that now puts him in fifth position, after just nine laps run. The same amount of laps that a very unfortunate David Coulthard manages to complete before, but for the umpteenth time, an electronic problem on his McLaren ousts him from the race again. David sadly parks the car in the grass, sees his breakaway attempt, which was succeeding to perfection, cut short, and has to despair because bad luck seems to have turned against him.
"Usual disaster. I am very sad, it seems I can never finish a race. The setup was great, everything was working right. All of a sudden I lost the car. It's a cursed year".
States a desperate Coulthard at the end of the race. Thus, Rubens Barrichello takes back the lead in his hands, five seconds ahead of Alesi. Behind, however, Hakkinen's unmitigated comeback continues unabated. On lap 15, the Finn tries to pass Frentzen with the same maneuver that had enabled him to get the better of Schumacher, but ends up slightly wide. Coming out of the hairpin the two are paired, but at the entrance to the Nurburgring corner Mika takes the position, and is now third behind Alesi. Next on is the former Ferrari driver’s turn, who tries to defend himself with a killer braking move at the end of the straight. Both end up off the line, risking to concede space to Frentzen, who, however, is not close enough to take advantage. In any case, even Alesi has to give way to Hakkinen, who is now second, all while Schumacher watches him from a distance, slyly, in fifth. In the middle of the pack, Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher battle for eighth position, with the German aboard the Williams gaining it himself. Eddie Irvine has gathered a bit of pace and climbed up to tenth, just behind the pair formed by the Roman driver and young Ralf. Just over twenty laps later, the turning point of the race is behind the corner. Heavy rain begins to fall on the circuit, which then turns into an incessant downpour that forces the drivers to get off their feet and return to the pits as soon as possible, in order to put the wet tires on. The first to do so is Irvine, whose timing could favor him by far for the rest of the race. Except that the mechanics are not ready for him in the pits. Eddie remains stationary on the pad while the mechanics go to get his tires and manage to complete the refueling process. The stop takes 42.9 seconds. Absolute disaster. In the general confusion caused by the drivers' pit exodus, Damon Hill and Toranosuke Takagi make contact: the front wing of the Arrows goes against Hill's left rear tire; he has to deal with a puncture at the exit of the pitlane.
After everyone has mounted wet tires, the situation at the front remains virtually unchanged - Rubens Barrichello maintains first position ahead of Hakkinen, Alesi, Frentzen, Schumacher and Panis. The virtues on the field, however, have switched up, to the point that Jean Alesi now concedes himself the luxury of trying to chase Hakkinen down for second position. The Frenchman perhaps gets a little too carried away by the idea, because on the Estoril corner he loses control of his car, ending his race in the gravel. Alesi repeatedly bangs his fists on his steering wheel, and continues to despair once he gets out of the cockpit. The chances to get points, or even a podium finish, were high, and Jean is aware of this. Alesi's mistake can be justified by the fact that the track is becoming impassable due to torrential rain. The race direction is well aware of the situation, therefore neutralizes the race by sending the Safety Car in on track, waiting for the rain to diminish in intensity. Although the safety car is on the track, there is no shortage of retirements even at this stage. Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Wurz and Marc Gené, in fact, as they are about to rejoin the group, remain sanded in several spots of the track, proving how treacherous it is. Damon Hill's race also ends, due to electrical issues on his Jordan. Hill's season, if put in comparison with Frentzen's, is to be considered disastrous: five retirements in seven races and only two points gained thanks to the fourth place obtained in Imola. Already in the preceding weeks, the 1996 World Champion had announced his retirement at the end of the season, but then, joined by journalists in the pits, he did not rule out the possibility of leaving the seat vacant as early as the next round held at Silverstone. After seven laps spent with the cars lined up behind the Safety Car, race direction gave the go-ahead to restart the race on lap thirty-five, the rain having practically ceased.
With a wet set-up, Schumacher seems much more on the ball than he was in the first phase of the race. He immediately begins to attack Frentzen for third position. Hakkinen does the same with Barrichello. By lap thirty-six he sees a glimmer of hope at the Adelaide corner and, by braking, he managed to position himself on the inside. Mika, however, touches lightly the kerb and by accelerating the car spins out. A trivial mistake, which makes in vain part of the fantastic comeback accomplished earlier, as the reigning champion restarts in seventh position, behind Ralf Schumacher and ahead of Irvine. Hakkinen's momentary exit from the scene suddenly woke Michael Schumacher, being on a charge. He passes Frentzen at the only overtaking spot on track - the hairpin bend. On lap 42, Michael is in Barrichello's exhaust. Still at the end of the long straight leading to Adelaide and despite the distance gap from the 27-year-old Brazilian was guaranteed, he pulls a formidable braking move and flanks the race leader, who keeps the cool, widens his trajectory and crosses it in a masterful manner. A perfect defense. Two more laps go by, Schumacher retries and breakes hard. This time he does not allow Barrichello to cross the trajectory. He exploited the wet set-up to perfection and acquired the race lead. Mika Hakkinen’s spin perhaps costed him a loss of confidence, not at all at ease at this stage of the race, as shown by the overtaking he had suffered from Irvine. The Ferrari number two driver also got the better of Jarno Trulli and thus entered the points zone, not far behind Ralf Schumacher, slotting fifth. With the exception of Schumacher who speeds away after overtaking Barrichello, the Brazilian driver, Frentzen, Panis, Ralf Schumacher and Irvine, all bunched within a few seconds, are fighting for positions that are worth points.
On lap 50, Ferrari mechanics welcome Irvine for the second scheduled stop. In addition to the refueling process, they fit wet tires on the Northern Irishman's F399, although track conditions are improving lap after lap. This helps Hakkinen, who also gathers speed as the track dries out. The Finn overtakes first Trulli and then Panis, and thanks to Irvine's stop, he climbs to fifth. A race that does not even allow a little breather, not taking into consideration the laps behind the Safety Car. It now offers a new twist with about twenty laps to go. The TV director frames Michael Schumacher, up to this point leading the race with an eight-second advantage over Barrichello, chased right by the Brazilian’s Stewart, who in a single lap has closed the gap to zero. Something is wrong with the German's Ferrari. This is confirmed by the fact that another steering wheel is ready for him in the pits. It will be replaced when the second pit stop takes place, a few laps later. Every procedure goes smoothly, both refueling and tire/steering wheel replacement. Schumacher, however, manages to leave the pit only after a few too many seconds of waiting. His stop, in fact, lasts a full 13 seconds. Michael returns to the track sixth, waiting for those in front of him to conduct a pit stop. Hakkinen's crazy race meanwhile continues. The reigning champion still has the right confidence with the track and attacks indeed Frentzen. The Jordan driver tries to resist but ends up wide. Hakkinen slots second once more and is now chasing Barrichello. On the fifty-ninth of the scheduled seventy-two laps, they get close once more. Hakkinen comes alongside him on the long straight, but Barrichello resists and drives him back with another lavish defensive maneuver, which, however, he fails to replicate on the next pass. Hakkinen comes out of Estoril better and makes the lead his own even before he reaches the braking point. Starting fourteenth, he recovers up to second place, spins out and finishes seventh, but climbs the slope back again and takes the race lead.
Hakkinen's roller-coaster race, however, is not over yet. With ten laps to go, the only ones who have not gotten back for the second stop are the same ones who occupy the podium positions. In order Hakkinen, Barrichello and Frentzen. The latter experiences a few seconds of fright when, as he is about to lap De La Rosa's Arrows, he can no longer switch gears. Only a small scare, however, which lasts a few moments. Frentzen resumes his race in third undisturbed. Michael Schumacher is fourth, waiting for the top three to stop, but he is running on very slow times, which at one point are as much as four seconds higher than Hakkinen's. The problem at the Ferrari has not been solved with the steering wheel replacement yet. Rather than thinking about who is in front of him, Michael has to look in the mirrors, because his brother Ralf and teammate Irvine are approaching. Eight laps to go, the final twist in a fantastic race is on: Hakkinen and Barrichello come back into the pits for their second pit stop, returning to the track behind Frentzen. The latter, according to rumors coming from the pitlane, has taken on enough fuel during the first pit stop in order to make it to the checkered flag without any additional stopping. The German aboard the Jordan manages for a few seconds to stay ahead of Hakkinen, just as Barrichello holds by the skin of his teeth the position over Schumacher. At the box, Eddie Jordan can begin to hope for his team's second victory. Frentzen, in turn, sees his second career victory approaching. Hakkinen laps on very similar times to him, but then the Finn sets higher times, deciding to settle for second place. Given the conditions, it’s as good as a win. Michael Schumacher, meanwhile, hopes that Irvine will be able to pass his brother Ralf, so as to protect his fourth position. Eddie actually tries at the last corner, a somewhat garibaldian maneuver that is unsuccessful.
A few corners later, Ralf easily passes his older brother at the hairpin, taking fourth position. On the seventy-second and final lap, Heinz-Harald Frentzen crosses the finish line and wins the French Grand Prix. He thus celebrates his second career success thanks to a solid performance and masterful driving. Especially when he had to manage a car that was so heavy with so much fuel on board. He, the one who almost risked not taking part in the race weekend, following the bad accident he had in Canada. Frentzen took his first win in Imola, on a Williams, back in 1997. Hakkinen and Barrichello completed the podium, who both happened to be the absolute protagonists of this race. One for the many overtakes he successfully carried out, the other for the coolness with which he managed the lead for so long, without being intimidated by the attacks of Hakkinen first and Schumacher later. Speaking of Schumachers, Ralf finished fourth, while Michael finished fifth. He is escorted to the finish line by his teammate Irvine, who ends up sixth, ahead of the two Prost cars of Trulli and Panis and closing the points’ zone. In the parc fermé, Frentzen is so excited that he hurriedly gets out of the cockpit, forgetting to reposition the steering wheel. Eddie Jordan takes care of it instead, although with trembling hands he struggles a bit to get it in. Hakkinen, in turn, rejoices as if he had won the race, happy with the comeback and the points gained over Schumacher. His lead in the standings over the German, in fact, rises up to 8 points. 40 pts. for Mika vs 32 for Schumi. Third position always occupied by Irvine, with 26 points, but chased now by Frentzen, who with this victory flies to 23 points. Crowded by journalists at the end of the race, Eddie Jordan, also recalling Hill's success in the rain at Spa, excitedly states:
"Well, we really seem to like racing in the wet. What can I say, Heinz-Harald was fantastic, after the accident occurred to him last week... The strategy was perfect, but he was even more so. No mistakes all weekend, phenomenal driving".
Before approaching the winner, the team manager also talks about Hill and his likely early retirement:
"The decision is his, Damon is a professional and one of the best people I have ever met. Whatever his decision will be, I will respect it".
At the press conference, Frentzen begins by talking about the final laps, when he found himself leading the race:
"When I saw Hakkinen and Barrichello coming into the pits, I couldn't believe my eyes. I was first, with seven laps to go, with enough fuel to make it to the end. I didn't think about taking the victory, I felt scared just by imagining it. I was there, though, in the lead, and I started pushing like crazy. When did I start to believe in the miracle? Only after the last corner. The final straight is so short... It wasn't me who decided to go for one pit stop only, I didn't even realize that they had put so much fuel in my car. During the pit stop we lost a lot of time refueling the car and I didn't understand. In fact, as soon as I got back to the track, I was upset: it was pouring rain and my car was so heavy, I couldn't drive it. I was in so much pain and a given victim to aquaplaning. So I radioed the pits and asked them what the heck had they done! Go easy, they replied, and told me the Safety Car was about to come in. I was full on fuel and I didn't have to stop again. It was a terrible moment. At the second corner the car got out of my control. I was shouting on the radio to send in the damn Safety Car, but the marshals waited for Alesi's accident. However, that was not the only moment of panic. At one point, when I was third and couldn't lap De La Rosa, I needed to slow down and found myself in neutral. More chills started going down my spine, I started mashing all the buttons on the steering wheel. Fortunately, I got going again".
A trio filled with satisfaction attends the press conference. It is now Hakkinen's turn to air his feelings, after a race made up of ups and downs but that ended with a crucial second place as far as the championship is concerned. The mid-race spin while battling with Barrichello, however, may have costed him the win:
"There, maybe, I lost the opportunity of taking victory. After a such-like comeback, crying would be stupid. I don't like complimenting myself too much, but this time my own performance was just great. I lost count of how many overtakes I managed to achieve, I took a lot of risks, but it was necessary. I gained four more points from Schumacher".
Mika's overtakes totaled fourteen, but as he claims:
"It was not easy to overtake so many drivers. I never felt feelings like these before. I was afraid of the rain in qualifying, indeed, I held back by settling for the seventh row. I thought I had to limit the damage, race defensively, instead it's Ferrari that is the desperate one. Of course, eight points are few, with nine races still to go, but Ferrari has wasted two big chances, both in Canada and here in France, at circuits where their car was favored. This second place in Magny Cours, from the confidence side, can count more than my victories, because it was not easy to react, coming from a fourteenth place in qualifying, used as we are to start on the front row. We could have gone into a tailspin, but instead we responded great, with a spot-on strategy, with perfect radio communications, with great teamwork. I always hear people magnify the Ferrari team, the skill of their pit mechanics, the speed of their pit stops. Well, McLaren is not inferior. We had some reliability problems at the beginning of the season, but we managed to sort them out. We have a good chance to repeat last year's triumph".
With a hefty 26-point partial to 6 in the confrontation with Michael Schumacher in the last three races, Hakkinen has decisively taken the lead in the World Championship, reacting to the Ferrarista's two victories at Imola and Monte Carlo. Increasingly capable of making a difference, cool and calculating in difficult moments and good at making the most of his Mp4/14. Jo Ramirez, McLaren’s coordinator, dispenses praise for the Finnish champion:
"Mika is getting stronger than Schumacher, he never panics. When he spun, in the duel with Barrichello, he restarted without any problems. If he makes a mistake, he forgets about it. And if he pushes, nobody can hold a torch to him".
Another MVP of the day is undoubtedly Rubens Barrichello, for large stretches he was leading the race, but ended up being 'only' third, earning his and his Stewart’s second podium finish of the season:
"Mixed feelings from my side. I can't say I'm disappointed because I get to be on the podium again. Obviously, having been leading the race for so many laps, I had a feeling it could be our day. When it started to pour down though, I suffered quite a bit of aquaplaning, although fortunately I didn't end up spinning. Driving in those conditions was very difficult, I had a lot of oversteer and I was not very fast compared to the McLarens, Ferraris or even Frentzen's Jordan. So, I would say that in the end a third position is a more than acceptable result. It was a lot of fun to battle with Mika and Michael, I tried to be as fair as possible. I hope I can be there with them more and more often. I was ten kilos short, three laps short. If I hadn't had to go to the pits, I would be the one cheering now".
Disappointment peeps into the Ferrari pit box at the end of the race, and it pairs with a large dose of regret, considering that before the electronic problem that plagued Schumacher's F399, he was comfortably leading the race. To reporters' microphones, the 30-year-old from Kerpen recounts the trouble that compromised his race:
"That was the moment when I was in the lead, about ten seconds off Barrichello, and all of a sudden I saw him pounce on me. In just over a lap I lost all the lead. The problems had started earlier, when the radio had stopped working and I had to try to communicate with the pit wall by gesturing with my hands; and later I couldn’t switch gears, the gearbox did what it wanted, at one point I only had first and second working properly. No wonder my times were higher and Barrichello was pouncing on me. After the pit stop and the steering wheel replacement, the gears started working again, but the overall situation did not improve at all. The car had a strange behavior, it was difficult to drive. Maybe the new set of tires wasn't working well or maybe the pressure wasn't right, who knows. The front tires wore out quickly, I couldn’t properly turn the car, the situation was pretty chaotic. What could I do in those conditions? Even Ralf passed me".
Without these problems would the third win of the season have come? According to Michael:
"I don't think I would have won. Frentzen only stopped once and had a fantastic race. Maybe I could have finished ahead of Hakkinen, though. And I want to give a lot of kudos to Heinz-Harald, he was great and prohibited Mika from picking up four more points, I thank him for that. At the beginning the car was a little slow because there was a lot of fuel in it and we had the wet setup on, knowing that it was going to rain at some point. The Safety Car, by the way, came out at the right time and stayed on the track for a long time as was necessary. On Saturday I was worried because I feared a wet start after the chaos in qualifying. The start was instead very smooth, as was the whole race".
Now it’s fundamental to put the disappointing result behind and work hard in order to get back on top at Silverstone, where Ferrari will be engaged in a test session just after leaving France:
"Now let's focus on Silverstone, there, we will be right at McLaren's home, but we should not be scared, the fight is more open than ever".
Eddie Irvine talks about a bad day for him, in which everything that could have possibly happened, made its course. He didn't get off to a great start:
"My car went into neutral and I had to re-engage first gear, delaying my start. I deliberately went a little cautious, so as not to wear out the tires and not to make mistakes, knowing well enough that the rain would come".
When it came, however, the forty-interminable-seconds-long pit stop occurred:
"With the team we had agreed 'you just go in as soon as it starts to rain,' and that's what I did... Over the radio I shouted ‘pit, pit, pit’ right away and dove in; I knew they might not have been one hundred percent ready but it was worth a try to get ahead of everyone. I don't know what happened, it was a very slow stop, too slow, it never ended. But it can happen and it's useless now to bring up the ifs and buts. A very odd thing, it is really a strong demand of ours not to make mistakes. Of course, by getting ahead of the others, I could have made a big leap forward on that lap that preceded the entry of the Safety Car. Maybe I could have even finished third and the situation would have changed. But then it was my turn to make an incredible mistake, a lame one".
In fact, Eddie explains that he ended up spinning under Safety Car conditions:
"I was zigzagging to warm up the tires, and at one point I risked touching whoever was in front of me, braked and spun. Big fool that I am. I lost three to four positions, but then I soon made them up, the car was going great and I felt faster than everyone I was battling with. Yes, I did a lot of overtaking, some even were very good ones, at least I think so. I realized that I could easily catch up with Michael as well, which I did".
Without the rain pouring down, according to Irvine, Ferrari could have easily scored a one-two:
"Because we had set up the car very well; we were definitely faster here than the McLarens. It could have been fine even with these weather conditions, but there were mistakes and mishaps and so we missed a very very big opportunity".
While the interview is in progress, behind Irvine Eddie Jordan passes by, who hugs his former driver and exclaims:
"Here he is, the first of the defeated. But don't worry, Eddie, I'll take you back next year".
A cute little skit that ends with both of them laughing and patting each other on the back. There is little fun, however, in the meeting that takes place on Monday in Maranello to analyze the race. In this case, to discuss everything that did not work as it should have. First, it’s urgent to figure out what was the source of the problems on Schumacher's car. Ferrari explains:
"We thought that Michael had spun and that the tv directors had not caught him on frame in that flooded madness. We didn't know anything. Watching telemetry was useless. Only mysterious hieroglyphics appeared on the monitors: the data transmission from the on-board control unit was not working. If we could have followed the telemetry, we would have noticed sooner that something was not working. Instead, complete darkness. After replacing the steering wheel, the gearbox was working again, the rest was not. Normally rain and humidity do not create problems with the steering wheel; we did these tests several times. In Melbourne we found out that it was a switch that was the cause of the shifter not working on the steering wheel. Now it could be a plug, the one that connects the steering wheel computer to the other on-board computers. The problem is that in rain and heat conditions hot vapors generate. The humidity near the engine is up to 130 percent. If a contact sends the computer haywire or if a sensor no longer sends its data, what happens is that, like all computers, it goes into recovery mode on its own. The computer continues working, but since it no longer has the parameters previously entered, it goes to look for other parameters on its own to get a reference, and after a while it starts working again but in a different way. This could explain the slowness of Michael's car in the latter phase of the race".
Second topic to be addressed is, the mix-up during Irvine's pit stop:
"Unfortunately, everything happened so suddenly that we panicked. We didn't make a wrong strategy, we knew very well that the rain was coming, we were prepared for every eventuality. The thing is, we had planned Schumacher's stop to happen first and then Irvine's. Instead, when Eddie saw the rain approaching, three hundred meters away from the pit lane, called us to say he was coming back in. We were happy because that would allow him to gain then many positions. Except that the ones to be ready, were Michael's tires and not his. Some confusion took over. Finally someone shouted loudly 'we need the other ones, for Jupiter’s sake!' and so the other set was put in hand. Of course these things should not happen, but unfortunately they did".
With so many recriminations on a weekend that ended far from the podium positions, when the free practice performances suggested otherwise, Ferrari is immediately looking to get back on track by focusing hard on the Silverstone Grand Prix. There it will be necessary to react to McLaren and Hakkinen’s grind, who in turn, approach the home Grand Prix for the Woking stable confident of being able to increase the lead in the drivers' standings. They aim for shortening the gap in the constructors' standings, where the Red cars are still in the lead with only 6 points to manage over its rivals. The Silverstone Grand Prix, much more than the French Grand Prix, will be the crucial turning point of this season. And unfortunately for the Maranello team, not in Michael Schumacher's favor.