Mika Salo is part of the Japanese band. At the beginning of the nineties in Tokyo with him there were Irvine, Villeneuve and also some Italian drivers. All guys that, not finding an arrangement in Italy, had all to go race in the Formula 3 an F3000, among which the richest was Jacques Villeneuve who thanks to a bountiful sponsor could afford the luxury of a sumptuous flat in the giant Japanese capital city: thirty square meters. But the others stood much worse, and thus the good Jacques ended up hosting them all. In that room they slept, cooked and, especially, played. Mika’s speciality is the guitar, he has a collection of them and they say he’s very good at playing it. He went to Japan because of disagreements with the other Mika, the current World Champion, Hakkinen. They were in England and racing for a team known to have pulled up lots of champions, from whom Ayrton Senna. And it was in that Formula Ford that the first Mika won a lot of races, thirteen. But at the end of the year, the sponsor and the team renewed Hakkinen and not Salo, who emigrated to Japan to live the wild life with Eddie, Jacques and the others, tra cui the poor Ratzenberger, died in Imola the day before Senna. Cheerful boys, full of life and according to certain rules a bit reckless. Mika and Eddie met a girl who was a stewardess and model and wooed her together. But Eddie gave it up the next day as Mika fell in love with her. The previous year, returning from the Japanese Grand Prix, Salo caused a pandemonium on the Jumbo because he had started smoking in the toilet and after the hostesses' protests the commander had to intervene. Daniele Audetto, who had had him at Arrows in 1998, says:
"He is a rider from the past, one of those Regazzoni-like types, for whom life is not just about racing but about many other things. On the track, however, Mika is a tough nut to crack, has an exceptional physique, he has stamina, he is one of those capable of managing an entire race well. In qualifying a little less but it also depends on the mood in which he wakes up".
The good Japanese life ended in 1993, because the following year Mika made the big leap in Formula 1: a leap almost in the dark on the Lotus that was already in decay. From 1995, he was at Tyrrell for three years and in 1998 at Arrows with a brief spell this year at BAR to replace the injured Zonta. And finally, at the wheel of a Ferrari, in place of the injured Michael Schumacher. A choice that does not convince everyone:
"I don't understand Ferrari's choice: the confrontation between Badoer and Salo should have been won by Badoer a thousand to one. I, in all honesty, have never thought of replacing Michael at Ferrari, and I think it's bad for the fans to have lost a great driver like him. Of course, it bothered me to feel included in the list of his possible replacements, also because no one has ever asked me for anything. But the confrontation between Mika Salo and Luca Badoer should have been won by the Italian".
Words of Jean Alesi, Sauber driver and former Ferrari, who expressed his disagreement with the decision of the Maranello team to replace the injured Michael Schumacher with the thirty-three year old Finn. An opinion that also agrees with the Ferrari fans, who, during a test session at the Monza circuit in mid-July, a few days before the unfortunate British Grand Prix, displayed some banners in favor of a Ferrari driven by an Italian driver, and therefore, by Luca Badoer. Mika Salo in the meantime, after two days of intense work on the Lombard track, following a mini-test carried out in Fiorano immediately after his announcement, allows himself to journalists, offering his first impressions as a new Ferrari driver:
"Three days like this and I will know this Ferrari well. I start running in the morning, I stop when it gets dark, and then I stop on Friday evening. You know, I have a commitment on Saturday. I told the mechanics, and they: ah, you're getting married. Well, what time?"
A crazy week for the former Arrows driver, who suddenly finds himself a driver of the most prestigious team ever, and at the same time is about to get married over the weekend. Salo traces the events of the last days, a succession so rapid that it’s still difficult to believe it:
"It was last Monday, around noon. I was in dance class, in view of the wedding. The phone rings, he's my manager: you have an hour, pack your suitcase quickly, he wants a Ferrari. Come on, don't joke, I replied. And him: move. I was at the airport shortly afterwards, jeans, t-shirt and nothing else, ready to go. In short, all in a week: the wedding and the Ferrari, a great gift. But to get married was planned, not to live all this. My girlfriend understood and she is happy as well".
The first impression on the Ferrari world is good, although, obviously, his lap times are quite high for the moment:
"The car is great, and as soon as I set foot in the factory I felt at ease. I have to learn a lot these days. It will take time, but I will succeed. It’s a great honor to take Michael's place. He was very unlucky. and I hope he will recover soon. From my side, I would like to do my best and take advantage of this opportunity. I had thought of calling him today, but I think I will wait: I will do more laps and then I will ask him how this car drives".
When asked by a journalist who asks him if it’s different from the BAR Supertec, the only 1999 car he drove in three races to replace the injured Zonta, Salo widens his eyes, and with a smile that already says it all, he answers:
"I haven’t realized yet what Ferrari can be, it all happened so quickly. Well, but I think it’s different from the BAR. Ferrari is the dream of all drivers, it’s the best car, and I had never had one. More than anything else, I consider it a great opportunity. With Ferrari you can win many races, and this I would like to do, even if I cannot have World Championship goals: I will give my best for that of the team, which is in the lead. I didn't see Schumacher's accident, I was at the airport, and I knew all about it the following morning. I didn't think they could call me. Sure, I was without a car at the start of the season and I figured Michael would have to stop. But I didn't think of anything until they called me. Then I turned off my cell phone, too many calls. Friends, like Villeneuve and Coulthard, I'll look for them. I'll have to duel with Hakkinen, and I'll finally have the car to beat him. In truth, in the minor formulas I always won, he only beat me once".
Finally, an opinion on Irvine:
"Eddie, I have known him since we were racing together in Japan. I hope he gives me some good advice. I need to learn quickly, and for now I just get familiar with a lot of new things, because it’s too early to make specific adjustments. Of course I will try to facilitate it, of course, even if they haven't told me anything about this. I can sense it, then there's the on-board radio".
On the other side of the garage, Eddie Irvine broadens his shoulders and begins to speak as the new leader of the team, a role inevitably entrusted to him, but which in a sense the Northern Irish driver has also earned. Without the excellent results obtained during the first part of the season, still run as Schumacher's squire, Irvine would not be in a position to contend for the title at Hakkinen, who is only eight points away in the standings. Reason why Eddie spurs the team:
"Now stop with the mistakes: if everything goes as it has to go we will win the World Championship. This is a fantastic opportunity for me, I will try to exploit it. The next races are going to be the most important of my career".
At thirty-four years old and about to celebrate the ninetieth Grand Prix in Formula 1, in Zeltweg, on the A1 Ring, Irvine will have to show immediately that he is up to the role of number one of the team:
"It's a dream, sure, for who wouldn't it be? I have the best car I've ever driven, a great team helping me and just eight points behind Hakkinen. Unfortunately it was better that Michael got out this year: I have accumulated many more points and in the standings I am not far from the leader. This year I ran better than in the past, we can win the world championship. Schumacher? Better to recover completely rather than rush the return. We’ve made too many mistakes, we have to concentrate. But the championship is still open. I am optimistic, I have waited three years for this opportunity, I have always been ambitious. Now I have the same points in the standings as Schumacher: if everyone thought he could still win the world championship, why shouldn't it be possible for me too?"
And about Mika Salo:
"It will take some time to settle in, at least a couple of races, but I hope it surprises me positively. We need someone to take points away from Hakkinen, and soon".
During the tests in Monza, which aim to prepare the cars for the German Grand Prix, rather than the one in Austrian soil, there are some frightening accidents. The first involves Giancarlo Fisichella, who on July 12, 1999 leaves the track at about 150 km/h and collides with the barriers. His Benetton is severely damaged by the bang, but the Roman driver luckily comes out unscathed, and after a routine visit to the medical center only a slight bruise on his left knee is found. Nothing serious, so much so that Giancarlo is regularly on the track starting from the following day. That same evening a violent storm broke out in Monza and Ralf Schumacher, exiting the circuit after completing the tests, was stuck in the underpass leading to the exit gates, where the water reached a level of one and a half meters. Ralf, along with his manager Franz Tost, hurries out of his Lancia K through the window, and returns splashing through the muddy water to the Williams garage, where he asks for help as his car takes in water. A little scare fortunately without serious consequences. Another accident, in this case occurred on the track as in the case of Fisichella, involving Eddie Irvine on Wednesday, July 16, 1999, during the last day of testing, with a dynamic similar to that in which Michael Schumacher was the victim a few days earlier. Irvine sets up the Parabolica curve, but just like his teammate takes off on the tangent and ends up against the wall of tyres. The nose of the Ferrari is crumpled, a wheel comes off; Irvine, on the other hand, to Ferrari's great relief, is unharmed, without a scratch. The impact speeds, however, are very different, given that the Irvine one occurs at about 60 km/h, about 40 kilometers less than the Schumacher accident.
A rather complicated test session for the Prancing Horse, considering that the day before Irvine spun the first variant, and on yet another occasion he damaged the frame of his F399 by exaggerating the use of the curb at the Variante della Roggia. Despite the inconvenience, on the last day of work in Monza, Irvine completed fifty-two laps, concentrating on various set-ups and aerodynamics. With a time of 1'24"468, Eddie recorded the best time, followed by surprise by Luciano Burti, Stewart test driver. In view of the return of Michael Schumacher, whose date is not yet certain although we are talking about the Italian Grand Prix, scheduled for September 12, 1999, as stated by Ross Brawn to the German newspaper Die Welt, work is underway in Maranello to redesign the inside of the car, fill the passenger compartment with padding and even put the accelerator control on the steering wheel. Changes that, according to Ferrari's technical director, can be implemented without too many problems from a technical and regulatory point of view. On July 15, 1999, the British newspaper Express revealed that Alexander Forbes, an English company operating in the insurance sector, and which has had Schumacher among its customers for two years, will pay the driver salary for the entire duration of the convalescence under the terms of the agreement, an obligation from which both Ferrari and the German's numerous personal sponsors will be temporarily relieved. According to rough estimates, Schumacher earns around 30 million dollars a year, excluding merchandising proceeds; the Alexander Forbes accident prevention policy would have cost the Ferrari driver 200.000 pounds in monthly premiums alone. Logical, then, that for this too - and no longer just for the fight for the world championship or for Ferrari - attention has risen around the duration of Schumacher's recovery. But the driver's manager, Willy Weber, explains that:
"A three-month break sounds realistic. Michael needs it. Health is important, we don't want to rush times and risk jeopardizing Michael's career".
Meanwhile Schumacher is in Vufflens, Switzerland, where he will carry out the rehabilitation work in the swimming pool of his villa. In 1995, Mika Hakkinen was the victim of an accident on the Adelaide circuit that seriously jeopardized the rest of his career as a driver, even if, luckily, the reigning champion was able to return showing that he had lost nothing in terms of pure talent. The Finn, therefore, knows very well what Michael Schumacher is feeling following his injury at Silverstone, and on the eve of the race weekend in Austria, Mika talks about his rival with a mixture of compassion, admiration and tactical reflection on how to fight with a Ferrari devoid of its leader. Regarding Michael's accident, Hakkinen explains:
"At first you don’t know what is happening and only afterwards, amidst the suffering, do you look for an explanation. Every technical defect transforms you, the driver who usually controls the vehicle, into a helpless passenger, unable to do anything to avoid the worst disaster. For me it was very difficult to recover, because I was very young. Michael is already thirty years old and I hope for him it will be a little easier. In any case, I remember that after the accident I had a more precise and harder idea of my work and I started to race with more conscience, giving up taking every Grand Prix as a game".
For Hakkinen, an accelerated return must be decided by evaluating several aspects:
"It really depends on how fit you are physically and psychologically, if you are ready to drive again. You think a lot, you struggle; the situation can be very difficult. Perhaps you are more nervous getting back on board a race car. I know drivers who have not driven after an accident, others who have become slower, others who have started again as if nothing had happened and finally others, as it happened to me, who have even become faster".
There is no longer Schumacher for the title fight, but Irvine's candidacy, in the opinion of the Finn, should not be underestimated:
"He is running at his best and we are only eight points apart: he just needs to win against me in a Grand Prix and that's it for him. Of course, it's not easy to suddenly find himself as the new leader of a team, it happened to me when Senna left McLaren, but when the number one leaves the scene, the change in the psychological climate in the whole team becomes more complex".
Interviewed by the German newspaper in Cologne, the Express, Michael Schumacher excludes in advance the possibility of forging ahead with his return:
"At the moment I can say very little about the progress of my recovery, but that I can run at Hockenheim already is nonsense. Unfortunately I don't have a turbo that fixes the bones faster. My only goal is complete recovery, it doesn't matter how long it takes. And only then will we see the rest".
At the Swiss weekly Motor Sport Aktuell, on the other hand, the two-time world champion also tells the moments that preceded the impact against the barriers:
"The travel of the brake pedal became longer and longer. I kept the pedal pressed so that at least the front brakes could grip. At that point I could only try, by locking the wheels, to reduce the speed as much as possible, before the car ended up on the gravel. In the moments before the crash you try to reflect on what you can still do to slow down the car. But everything happens so quickly that you just have to accept with fatalism what is about to arrive at you".
While Michael indulges himself in numerous newspapers, before leaving for Austria, Mika Salo returns to work in Maranello after the wedding weekend, making about forty laps on the Fiorano track on July 19, 1999 with different set-ups on the F399. Once in Spielberg, on July 22, 1999 Eddie Irvine continues to talk about himself as the new number one in the Red team, sometimes quite boldly, declaring that he doesn’t want to give up that status even when Schumacher returns. Statements that leave the time they find, and if Eddie is a candidate both to win the race and to fight for the World Cup, there comes a slight tug of ears from Jean Todt:
"It would be better to talk a little, because there is not too much to say. At this point we will do our best for Irvine and he will have to do everything possible for the team. That's what we are waiting for. I don't think it's a coincidence that, nine times out of ten, Schumacher was in front of him. With Michael, we generally started with one car in the first row and one in the second. Now we can't be satisfied with having both in second. So if with Schumacher and above all in the race we had two or three tenths advantage in the lap thanks to his skill, now we will have to give this small margin to our drivers, so we will try to improve the performance of the car. Which we have always done, but at this moment we will have to produce a very special effort. When will Michael return? We don’t know, after the doctors' prognosis we have theoretical ideas, but it’s useless to venture into predictions, we would risk disappointments or excessively wrong forecasts. Let the recovery take its course. Salo will race as long as necessary. So far we have put a good car on the track. If he stands out, at thirty-three years old he will have a lot of offers. It’s his great opportunity and we all hope that he plays it at best. I was asked why we didn't take Badoer into consideration: we evaluated its use, but in the end it was thought that it would be subjected to too much pressure in such a situation".
Mika Salo approaches the weekend conscious of having a car in his hands that can at least allow him to reach the podium, and openly declares that this will be his goal, regardless of the fact that there are still many things to understand about the F399. In this respect, keeping in touch with Schumacher for his advice will be, he says, fundamental. On July 23, 1999, somewhat surprisingly, at the top of the combined standings of the two free practice sessions there is Damon Hill, who turned in 1'13"300 and put the two McLarens in line, just a few thousandths away from the former Williams driver. Eddie Irvine focuses his attention on the ideal set-up for the race, and completes a stint of twenty-seven laps all on the same set of tires. The Northern Irishman is not chasing the clock, so the ninth place at the end of the day should not be much of a concern, although Irvine himself does not seem very happy with the balance of the car. Salo continues his study phase of Ferrari, and is only sixteenth. On his first weekend as a Ferrari driver, the Finnish dedicates a thought to Schumacher:
"I thought about him in his bed of pain and then also about the big opportunity that presents itself to me. It's not easy to take over mid-season but when it comes to Schumacher, well, weight and responsibility are very strong. He and I talk every day, even today I called him twice to get him to tell me how to do some things with his car. We hear each other all the time. Driving this Ferrari is not difficult or tiring, in three days in Fiorano I did 700 kilometers and I was fresh as a rose. The problem is another. And that is to exploit it fully to go as fast as possible, and to do this you need to know how to use all the things that exist. And a little while ago I called him just to make me explain a certain thing".
Performance is lacking for now, but Salo appears satisfied:
"I did a good job and we are all happy in the team. It was the first time I was in a Ferrari with everyone else and so I had to proceed step by step. Unfortunately, at a certain moment I made a mistake and ended up out of the race track while standing still. I was distracted precisely because I wanted to try something and so I lost almost an hour of practice, but I'm satisfied".
The day after, in qualifying, Salo remains on provisional pole for the first twelve minutes of the session, which immediately afterwards becomes a McLaren Mercedes monopoly: Hakkinen and Coulthard compete for pole position to the sound of fast laps and, in the end, how already happened six times this season, it’s the Finn who has the upper hand. The only one to go under the 1'11"0 wall, Mika took the seventh pole position in the championship, two tenths of a second behind his teammate. The Ferraris watch from afar. Irvine changes tires and set-up several times, and in the end he takes it out on the brakes for the enormous gap that Hakkinen gives him. The Northern Irishman is in third position, but the distance makes even the most optimistic shiver. At the end of the day Eddie blurts out:
"My brakes worked badly and every corner was an ordeal. Sometimes those behind blocked, sometimes those in front and I never knew what to do. This defect is due to the fact that in qualifying the brakes never have a constant temperature, in the race will be fine. Obviously I was hoping for a smaller gap, but tomorrow will be different, we are going very fast and third place on the grid is excellent because the track at that point is cleaner. My tactic will be this: overtake Coulthard from the start, then attack Hakkinen and win. Yes, because I can win".
To those who ask if the braking system has been changed after the Silverstone accident, Claudio Berro, head of Ferrari's press office, replies:
"We actually changed the bleeder screws that broke on Schumacher's car, but the rest is all the same".
Mika Salo is in seventh position, behind Frentzen's Jordan and Barrichello and Herbert's Stewarts, a second and a half behind Hakkinen. In 1998, at the wheel of the modest Arrows, Salo qualified in sixth position. The 33-year-old doesn’t hide and admits the obvious difficulties he was known to encounter:
"I made two big mistakes between Friday and Saturday, and I couldn't find the right set-ups; I still don't have the necessary experience on this car. When I found the good set-up, the tests were over. After all, Irvine drives this car for three and a half years and he knows it very well, so my distance from him is not too bad. Now I'll call Schumacher to get some advice on the race".
The comment by Jean Todt is eloquent, announcing an all-defensive match, trying to limit the damage; the goal in the race is to bring both cars to the finish.
"The World Championship is over".
Niki Lauda exclaims at the end of qualifying. For the former Austrian driver, Eddie has no chance of contending the title with Mika Hakkinen, given that:
"The number one driver is always Schumacher, the fate of Ferrari continues to be tied to him. The injury is a small hitch, it is a minor accident and the German will be back in top condition. When he will be back in the car from the first lap will go to maximum. There will be no conditioning".
A petrol pump failure initially complicates Mika Hakkinen's qualifications, who has to fall back on the forklift for the rest of the session:
"You have to understand me, it’s quite annoying to stop like this. Having to leave the car on which we have worked so hard these days and leave with the T-Car; I experienced moments of great tension, just as I was focused to give my best. This is a very important Grand Prix for me”.
Nevertheless, the Finn beats Coulthard without too much difficulty, and gives a nice gift to the Mercedes racing manager, Norbert Haug, who celebrates his birthday in the best way possible. Second once again, defeated in the comparison with Mika (zero pole in the season against the seven of his teammate), David Coulthard still doesn’t want to give up his world championship goals. According to him, in fact:
"If Eddie with eight points behind is talking about victory, I, who have a much faster car, why should I feel left out?"
In McLaren, in fact, there have never been obvious team orders in favor of Hakkinen, and indeed Ron Dennis has always insisted on equal treatment among his drivers. After the Austrian Grand Prix, however, things could change. On Sunday, July 25, 1999, all the drivers on the starting grid are on soft tires, with the exception of Alex Zanardi, who will start on hard tires from the fourteenth position. A choice that considering the last position in the morning warm-up could bring little benefit to the Italian rider. When the traffic lights go out, the start to the attack that Irvine looks to be, is averted by an excellent shot of the McLarens, who reach the first corner in the lead, with Hakkinen followed by Coulthard. At the Remus corner, however, after taking advantage of his team-mate's slipstream, Coulthard misjudges the braking point and spurs Hakkinen at the corner entry, hitting the front left tire of his car against the rear right of the Finn, who loses control of the single-seater and turns, with the rear end that for a matter of centimeters doesn’t end up in the gravel, which would have led him to remain inexorably stuck. Hakkinen makes a gesture of annoyance with his hand, then leaves as fast as he can, but he is in last position. The contact between the two McLarens creates a bit of confusion just behind, as Irvine is forced to lift his foot, and is overtaken by Rubens Barrichello, who thus climbs into second position. Johnny Herbert also has to slow down, but he is hit right on the curve by Mika Salo: the rear wing of the Stewart flies away, the front wing of the Ferrari is severely damaged, which is why both are forced to return to the pits. Salo initially tries to stay on track, but is then called back after two laps; Herbert makes a four-lap stop, the time it takes to repair the rear of the car and fit a new rear wing.
The race, for the unfortunate British driver, is compromised. The initial phase of the race sees David Coulthard in first position and on the run, but with the fixed thought in his head that he has damaged the race of his teammate and leader of the championship. Rubens Barrichello is second and pressed without too much conviction by Irvine, who loses contact with Stewart as the laps go by. Fourth place for Frentzen, followed by an excellent Villeneuve, who started from eighth position, and Ralf Schumacher, to close the points zone. As soon as he hooked up the group, Hakkinen began his desperate comeback, easily overcoming Panis, Gené and Zanardi. Then it's up to the two Arrows of Takagi and De La Rosa, moving to fourteenth place, behind Hill. He resists the attack of McLaren number 1 at the first corner, but at the Remus even Damon must give way. After eight laps, Hakkinen is thirteenth, but climbs to twelfth when Ralf Schumacher goes off-track while defending himself from Pedro Diniz's attack. The German of the Williams goes sideways and ends up in the gravel, where the FW21 remains covered in sand. This causes the yellow flags at the end of the long straight and the Remus corner, the overtaking point used so far by Hakkinen, who thus spends a few too many laps behind Jarno Trulli, unable to pass Prost elsewhere on the track. Removed Williams, Hakkinen overcame Trulli without too many worries, all while Mika Salo, restarted in last position after the forced pit stop, had not yet managed to pass the other Prost of Panis. Hakkinen finds greater resistance from home driver Alexander Wurz, who at Remus protects the interior decisively, but Mika, taking advantage of better traction out of corners, flanks and overtakes the Benetton at turn 4. In tenth position, the McLaren driver finds himself attached to Jean Alesi, who in turn is engaged in a rapid climb to the top positions, facilitated by the fact that the transalpine, as well as his teammate Diniz, is on a two-stop strategy (all the others are they will only stop once), and as a result is significantly more fuel drains than the competition.
Hakkinen approaches, tries outside, but Alesi not only resists, but successfully attacks Ricardo Zonta for eighth place. The Brazilian from BAR is also ousted by Hakkinen in turn 1 on the next lap, which is the fifteenth of the seventy-one expected. Shortly after, traveling as a couple, Alesi and Hakkinen also overtake Fisichella and Villeneuve, climbing to sixth and seventh position respectively. On lap 23, Pedro Diniz leaves fifth position to make his first pit stop, imitated by Alesi's next pass. In doing so, Hakkinen climbs back to fifth position, not far from Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who was caught back by the Finn in a short time. After thirty laps, while Mika Salo continues to occupy the penultimate position in the race, behind Olivier Panis, and ahead only of Johnny Herbert, last but four laps down, after a short study phase Hakkinen begins to be rather bulky in the mirrors of Frentzen, until, thanks to a powerful braking at the first corner that catches the German unprepared, perhaps a bit compliant, Mika takes fourth place. As proof of an unapproachable race pace for everyone, after overtaking Frentzen, in just one lap Hakkinen gains a clear second over Irvine, who, however, brags about seventeen of advantage. Meanwhile Jacques Villeneuve's nightmare season continues, once again betrayed by his BAR as he managed the sixth position in a great way. Due to a drive shaft problem, the former World Champion made nine retirements in nine races. The same fate fell to Alex Zanardi, who ran out of petrol near the pit lane. For the Italian there are seven retirements in nine Grands Prix, equally depressing numbers. On lap 38, with a gap of seven seconds from Coulthard, Barrichello stops in the pits for his only stop. The Brazilian loses a lot of time, since, in addition to a pit stop of 12.5 seconds, he also has to wait for a car to pass by when he starts again. A lap later it's up to Coulthard to make the stop, completed without problems in 10.5 seconds by the mechanics.
The Scot exits the pit lane in third position, behind Irvine and Hakkinen, who still have to stop. When it’s the Finn's turn, he returns to the track seven seconds behind Barrichello, with whom he will potentially have to compete for the position on the third step of the podium. Among the leading riders now only Irvine is missing, who is nineteen seconds ahead of Coulthard, and who after an anonymous first part of the race is now pushing like a madman, recording his best lap times. At the same time, Coulthard struggles to gain pace, also slowed down by the lapped drivers. It’s the forty-third lap: after several qualifying laps, from the Ferrari garage they recall Irvine to the pits for a stop. With a duration of 8.6 seconds, the tire change and refueling take place perfectly, as Ferrari's strategy can be defined when, out of the pit lane, to everyone's surprise, Eddie Irvine is the new leader of the race. Coutlhard is sensationally behind, three seconds behind. Starting with more fuel, sacrificing the first part of the race, and then surprising the rivals with a deadly overcut implemented by Irvine, very good at taking the car to the limit at the crucial moment. An exemplary strategy. Coulthard, however, does not fit. Ramming his teammate and losing the win to a Ferrari is an eventuality that the Scotsman just cannot afford. The gap is gradually reduced, also thanks to the numerous lapped drivers encountered by both, which damage Irvine the most. Two weeks later, the Silverstone duel was repeated. The two are glued. The other fight on the track is for third position, with Mika Hakkinen getting the better of Barrichello after a strenuous defense of the Brazilian. Thanks to a deep braking in corner 4, Mika gains the third position, and is sixteen seconds behind the leading duo. Far too many, with less than twenty laps to go, to think about a recovery.
Meanwhile, Jean Alesi's race ends early, running out of petrol. An eventuality already experienced by the Frenchman during the 1997 Australian Grand Prix, when, driving Benetton, he ignored the team's orders asking him to return immediately to the pits. Alesi leaves the sixth position in the hands of his teammate Diniz, who in turn, after the second pit stop that relegates him to eighth position, gives the last available place in the points to Alex Wurz. The Austrian is threatened by Giancarlo Fisichella, who, however, goes beyond the limit and becomes the protagonist of what, numbers in hand, is his twelfth off-track excursion of the weekend. An error that allows Diniz to regain at least one position. Fisichella's race will then finish three laps from the end due to the explosion of the V10 Supertec. In the final phase of the race, Hakkinen limited himself to managing the car to the finish line, contenting himself with third place, while Rubens Barrichello was desperate, betrayed by the new Ford engine with sixteen laps to go. As the laps go by, Coulthard's pressure on Irvine steadily increases, with the latter complaining of some brake problems. A couple of braking locks almost give Coulthard an opportunity to overtake. But there are no real chances, and after the heart-pounding last laps Eddie Irvine passes under the checkered flag first, and can breathe a great sigh of relief. Once out of the car, Irvine receives the embrace of Ross Brawn, together with the Northern Irishman, the other architect of this victory, which until a few hours earlier seemed like a mirage. Second career victory for him, after the first one obtained in Australia a few months earlier, a completely different success, because if the McLaren and Schumacher exits were crucial in Melbourne, in Spielberg it’s a victory of strength, that Eddie earned with an exceptional performance, a perfect mix of handling and aggression. Coulthard is second, but he knows he has a briefing with the team that is anything but pleasant. Hakkinen completes the podium, but sees his leadership in the championship less stable. In fact, with 42 points, Irvine is only two points behind the Finn, and as soon as he gets out of the car he lets himself go to a discouraged comment:
"Incredible, I didn't expect such a blow from my teammate".
And he adds, bruised:
"Maybe David has decided to make this world championship more uncertain".
Hakkinen's anger will manifest itself in a broken smile, in many compliments to Irvine, even a couple of hugs, and not even a glance at Coulthard, on the other step of the podium. Completing the points are Frentzen, a revived Wurz, and Pedro Diniz, on his third finish in the points in four races. In Maranello, this time the bells of Don Alberto Bernardoni, the parish priest of Ferrari, ring for Eddie Irvine, to start the party for the unexpected victory of the Red. Numerous fans invade the streets and squares of the town, after following the Grand Prix in the Ferrari auditorium and at the Ferrari Club headquarters. Shortly afterwards, a procession of cars also starts celebrating in front of the headquarters of the Ferrari racing department. At the press conference, Irvine is not so surprised by this success:
"It is undoubtedly surprising to have beaten both McLaren drivers, but, although yesterday we were a second away, we knew that things would be better in the race, and with the right strategy we would be able to win. I can already imagine it: after the start many must have thought... look how slow it goes, other than winning. And in fact I was going slow. I was overloaded with petrol, even on the grid they had refilled to the last available centimeter. It was all calculated. Because that was the strategy we had studied: make only one stop but do it later than the others. Why? Because when the others stop, you can continue going very fast because you are exhausted. And this is what we did, the keystone is there. and I continued for six laps pushing like a madman. And it was in those six laps that I accumulated a consistent advantage to be able to take the lead".
When asked if he was giving his all during those laps or had a target to stick to, Eddie never misses an opportunity to joke:
"No, I was going as slow as I could, far from reaching the limit of the car".
Then, again, on the smoke that came out of the brakes in the final race he says:
"Maybe it came out of my brain. It was overloaded, between the brakes to manage and the understeer that plagued the car. With the second set of tires I was struggling to be fast, then things got better as the laps went by, but I still had problems with the brakes and then David got closer, and at that point I couldn't think about the brakes. I had to push to keep my position. On Friday, after the results in free practice I didn't sleep a wink. Saturday was another disaster, because it’s true that third place wasn’t bad but a second behind I was already thinking about what the Italian press, always ready to massacre me, would write. I slept very badly that night. After all, it has always been like this in my life as a driver. When I started as a boy an English journalist said to me: oh my God, that's a bit of a strong sentence, can I say it? hole in the ass you will not become a racing driver. As if to say: never. Instead, here I am. Only now I really understand what Schumacher was feeling: everyone expects you to always be the fastest, the best, because Ferrari is the team everyone wants to see winning. You don't have to be overwhelmed by these situations. You have to stay cold and think. Before, with Schumacher, everything was easier for me: all eyes were on Michael and no one was looking at me, if I was fine no one noticed it, if I was bad down with terrible criticisms, but who cares, many were wrong about mine I realize that I don't mind it anymore”.
Dark-faced for different reasons, Coulthard and Hakkinen have obviously different moods than Irvine. The Scotsman begins by saying:
"This is a nightmare scenario for me: ramming my teammate on the first lap and being second at the end of the race, beaten by a Ferrari. I'm sorry for Mika and the team, I missed the braking point in that corner, it was my mistake. Then we also missed the timing of the stops, so Irvine passed in front and every attempt was useless. Furthermore, as soon as I got back on track I found Zanardi in front of me who created some problems".
Perhaps a little upset by the mistake and the imminent washing of the team boss, Coulthard takes it out on the wrong person, given that, as Zanardi himself explains:
"He made a mistake: he made the pit stop on the thirty-ninth lap, while I stopped without petrol at the end of the thirty-sixth. Coulthard should be a little more careful about what he does and what he says".
When it’s Hakkinen's turn, he immediately suggests that he doesn’t want to comment on the incident at the start of the race:
"Don't expect me to tell you about my comeback, it would take too long! In the end it's an acceptable result. As I said before the race, it was crucial to come here to Austria and earn points, and that's what we did. Whatever happened on the first lap, it doesn't matter now. Racing against the other drivers and overtaking them was still fun".
And as the media attempts to return to the subject, he interrupts the question by insisting that it makes no sense to talk about it further. Woking team principal Ron Dennis comments diplomatically on the episode that probably cost Hakkinen the victory:
"I hope Bernie Ecclestone appreciates our contribution to keeping this championship exciting. The blow we took today will strengthen the team is the price you pay when you have two drivers and two competitive cars in the race. David wants to win like Mika. Of course this does not mean that he intentionally damaged his teammate. It was an unpleasant accident, but I think it could all end with Coulthard's apology. I can't even think that he did it on purpose. David is a fair driver, who has been sacrificed many times for the team".
A little less diplomatic and understanding is Keke Rosberg, manager of Hakkinen, who according to reports from Autosprint would have asked for Coulthard's dismissal. Returning to Ferrari, the disappointing performance of Mika Salo clashes and not a little with the victory of Irvine. Salo sadly closes the race in ninth position, and to the microphones of the journalists he’s hard on himself:
"If I had to do the report cards I would give myself a two. A bad performance. At the start everything went well, I just tried not to mess up the first corner because that's always where you can touch and compromise a race. But at the second corner in the confusion created by the collision between the two of McLaren I touched with Herbert and I ruined everything. But I have already learned many things and I hope to do better in Germany”.
Although absent from the Austrian Grand Prix, president Montezemolo exalts both the team's and Irvine's performances, and avoids any probable tension in view of Schumacher's return to the track:
"Great team, great Irvine. The unexpected things are the most beautiful ones. As regards the management of the drivers, I can say that in four years we have never had the slightest problem. What interests us is the victory of Ferrari: it was the victory of a whole team that did nothing wrong, no one excluded, and not of a single driver who in any case was very good, I certainly do not want to underestimate it. Today's victory in fact demonstrates that this team is not Schumacher-dependent, as many people wanted to make believe. The team gave its best regardless of who the drivers were in the race. The reaction force in such a difficult moment was admirable. Last week, I met all the employees of the sports management: we must believe it, despite everything. And so it was: the team is Ferrari, not Schumacher".
So what role will the German play once he returns? Montezemolo doesn’t expose himself that much:
"Let's see when he’ll come back, and what situation we will find ourselves in. Today I can't say. I think it will still be long. We have to wait until August 10-15 for the doctors to tell us where the bone calcification is".
Following the qualifications, pessimism had also pervaded the mind of the president:
"Let's say that the tests hadn’t gone very well, and there was a bit of depression. Normally McLaren is better than us in the tests and the gap worried us a bit, but we were able to take advantage of a favorable opportunity to the end. I talked to Irvine first. I asked him: Are you happy? And he repeated: magnum, magnum. Happiness is not enough. Then I called Schumacher to comment: he seemed in a good mood and with a great desire to come back. episodes that explain well the atmosphere inside the team. Personally I am happy, but I am also very tired: I have been coming for a very difficult fortnight, which would have killed a bull. Schumacher's accident, the replacement, having to keep all our men in good spirits, then rushing to the United States to present the last Ferrari, the 360 Modena, bringing 400 real horses to a stadium in New Jersey. As for the race, this was a very delicate step for me, I saw an excessive pessimism around us. Today was wonderful, but the world championship is still long, and the opponents are very strong".
Meanwhile, from Geneva, Michael Schumacher's compliments arrive on time at Irvine's address. Immobilized in bed with his broken leg, the German uses honeyed words for his teammate:
"He was able to run in the best possible way, like a great professional, and he managed to keep his nerve even in the last phase of the race, when Coulthard tried to make him nervous by tightening the chase. Obviously I was sorry not to have been able to participate in this Grand Prix. For me too it would have been an important race for the final victory in the world championship".
And as for the final outcome of the championship, especially after such a show of strength, the games are more open than ever:
"Mika is always first, but now he's just two points ahead and only one thing is clear to us: McLaren-Mercedes is the car to beat. When I get back we'll see what the situation will be, but I'm ready to do what Ferrari says. It's difficult to see the future, I don't know what will happen but in any case, if necessary, I'm ready to help Eddie who had a wonderful race in Austria".
There is a spot on this day to be framed for Irvine and Ferrari. Not a few insiders, in fact, notice that Jean Todt doesn’t get on the podium, him who was scrambled by Schumacher, drenched in champagne, and kissed on the head at every opportunity. But the French manager has an answer to this:
"I had decided in Monte-Carlo that I would send another one to the next victory, all those from Ferrari in turn. I always went to get glory and applause, this time it was right to send Brawn. I wanted to celebrate with the boys, the mechanics".
However, off the podium, Irvine talks and smiles to the press, while Todt stands impaled next to him. And when everyone thinks the two want to hug each other live, Eddie moves to the right and Todt to the left. Subsequently, Irvine's team lined up for photographers, with the Northern Irish driver and the great cup won at Zeltweg: from Ferrari they let it be known that the same thing was done in Imola with Schumacher, but the Austrian photo gives the idea of to be the revenge of a team that perhaps had always felt a little hidden by the bombastic exploits of the German driver.
"Eddie is paid to win".
Jean Todt declares in no uncertain terms, who doesn’t hide the fact that he doesn’t have the same feeling with Irvine as he has with Schumacher. Also for this reason, with the Austrian Grand Prix filed away, rumors increase that Eddie Irvine is at the wheel of the Ford, ready to make its debut as a manufacturer with the Jaguar brand. An offer that, according to Bild am Sonntag, Ford would also have presented to Schumacher, after trying to take Hakkinen by offering a salary of fifty million dollars. For now there are only far-fetched rumors, in the meantime Ferrari does not have the time to metabolize the Irvine victory that it is necessary to pack up immediately to move to Hockenheim, in Germany, to play the tenth round of a very open championship, and which has in Eddie Irvine the new challenger to the world crown of Mika Hakkinen.