On Thursday, August 19, 1999, in Ginevra, Michael Schumacher does another medical check with the attempt to have the go-ahead to come back behind the wheel of his F399 on the Mugello’s track, where Ferrari is having a test session with the two drivers, now regulars, Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo. Well, with the great joy of the Ferrari’s fans and of the team itself, the doctors give the ok to the two times world champion,who after a wait of almost 40 days can finally drive a Formula 1 car. Michael doesn’t want to waste time, to the point that the day after, on Friday August 20, 1999, is already in Mugello to win back hid place. Indeed, as the statement of the Maranello’s team declares:
"From the check is emerged that his physical condition makes him suitable to make few laps on the Mugello’s track driving his F399. The test is being held tomorrow".
The Jean Todt’s team manager, even if visibly happy for the come back of his top driver, stays cautious regarding the presence of Michael at the Belgian Grand Prix, scheduled at the end of August:
"Meanwhile let’s see how these first few laps go. Should his body respond well, he could also drive on Saturday".
At 9:50 a.m. on Sunday, Schumacher arrives with a helicopter in Mugello, comes down carefully and delivers his crutches to the massage Indian therapist Valbir Singh, who saw them taken away from him by Eddie Irvine,who, in a joking mood as is his wont, uses them to talk up to his pitmate and yell sneeringly:
"Help me, help me".
When he gets to the pit limping but smiling, is welcomed with a resounding applause from the mechanics. Thirty minutes pass between chats, laughs and Michael calmly puts on his suit. In the end, a quick private meeting with the top of the team, before getting in the cockpit steering wheel. There is nobody welcoming him on the stands, because, as expressly requested by the German, the test has to be held strictly behind close doors (before, while he was on the helicopter, he noticed thousands of people in front of the entries of the track and he got scared thinking that they were about to enter); the only compromise is to seat television (including the famous German RTL, which has a contract with him) and the press on the grandstand in front of the pits, from where they could have seen something with binoculars. At 10:20 am Michael took to the track, completed one lap and then returned to the pits. About thirty minutes later, the invitation addressed to his engineer Ignazio Lunetta:
"Come on Ignazio, now let me spin more".
Michael is pleased, contemplating numerous stint made of few laps each. One made of 3, another of 5, and then 7. The rhythm constantly gets better, and the driver of Ferrari gets to complete a run of no less than 20 laps, to get to a total of 65, of which the best is also faster than the one made by Irvine the day before. At 6:30 p.m. the test ends. Schumacher doesn’t talk to any journalists, but refers his first impressions to the press trough a Ferrari’s worker who acts as a link: despite an inevitable pain that manifests itself in the most uneven parts of the track, the performances did not suffer; in addition the feeling with the car was found from the very beginning, without any particular problems, beyond the usual adjustment involving the set-up. Michael Schumacher leaves the racetrack of Mugello at 7:00 p.m. after being for 8 hours on track with a hellish heat. It is just to decide, Michael lets known, whether his official comeback will be in Monza, or even in Belgium. Perhaps excessive optimism from his side, because the recovery program planned by the doctors includes a return, not so discounted by the way, for the Italian Grand Prix, and there is no reason to speed things up.
For more, there will be the obstacle of the tests held by FIA with the recovering drivers,which have to be peremptorily exceeded in order to run. The first test is about getting out of the car, removing and placing again the wheel, in five seconds time; then, as second test, is necessary to jump from a cube of about one meter in height on the injured leg. And in the end, another test at the discretion of the Federation, which consists of making five consecutive jumps on the same leg. Meanwhile, Ferrari’s technical director, Ross Brawn, says he is thrilled of Schumacher’s performance:
"When in the first laps he did 1'28" and up, I crinkled my eyes, I was thinking I had read it wrong, that it was 1'38" and up. We all kind of looked at each other in amazement. Honestly nobody was expecting him to drive for so long. I have been knowing him for years, yet he amazed me. How was his legs in the end? I think fine, he said everything was fine and we left happy. Whether he will run in Spa? That I do not know, nobody can know it yet and I can not speculate".
Who hopes that Schumacher’s return can still be postponed is obviously Mika Salo, actually driver of Ferrari but with an agreement with Sauber to run in the season 2000 replacing Jean Alesi, who after a disappointing championship and the rant against the team, guilt of leaving him with fuel in Hungary, signs with the Prost, ready, in turn, to say goodbye to its titular drivers of the last two seasons, Jarno Trulli, on his way to Jordan replacing the retired Damon Hill, and Oliver Panis, still without a seat but in talks with the Arrows. So Salo although he has a secured future in Formula 1 ahead of him, at least for the next season also because of the opportunity offered by Ferrari, he does not want to give his seat to Schumacher without redeeming the painful performance in Budapest, where he plenty got out of the points. The Finnish so is skeptical about Michael’s return, or he just hopes to be right:
"I don’t understand all this mystery of Ferrari on the return of Schumacher. I don’t believe that he is going to be ready for Spa because a day of test is not enough. By the way the car is his and I’m ready to give it back in any moment".
On Sunday 21 of August, Salo tests the 3 cars that were meant to be used at the Spa Grand Prix. A short and grunt work, during which Mika tests the shell number 191 of Irvine, the number 195, that will be up to him or Schumacher, and the 196, which will work as a forklift. 13 total laps for the Finnish, with the best crono of 1'04"683, settled using his car. In the week of approach to the twelfth race of the Championship, Ferrari surprises everyone by enrolling Michael Schumacher in the Belgium Grand Prix trough a request delivered from the FIA,presenting the request of being able to enter - apart from Irvine and Salo – also the German driver. The presence of number one driver of Ferrari is not to be excluded, everything happening while he is training with the bike in the streets of Saint Tropez, in company of Jean Todt and the manager Willi Weber, who hosts both of them in his house in the Azure Coast. But on the 25 of August, 1999, the open door left by Ferrari definitely closes. The right ankle hurts, the pain has relapsed to the point of preventing Schumacher from physical activity, perhaps making up for the exaggerated efforts of 65 laps completed at Mugello a few days too late. After a phone consultation with his trusted orthopaedist, Gerard Saillant, it is decided not to take any risks and to postpone the long awaited return, even because the Spa’s track is one of that circuits that stresses the drivers’ bodies. For Michael, so, it will be talked about again after the Belgium Grand Prix, when he hopes to be present at the tests on the track of Monza. Arrived in Belgium, and sure to be, for all the intents and purposes, still number one driver of the team also for this weekend of race, Eddie Irvine presents himself smiling and happy, in company of his girlfriend Anouk. Behaviour that lets it transpire everything apart from nervousness, as he declares:
"Nervous? Sometimes it can happen of being nervous but in the last races I have never felt that way. Because one does what he is capable of, if you manage to win you win, otherwise no. Everyone define this race as tremendously important. But for me all the races in which there are points at stake are important. What matters is leading after the last race, I can achieve zero points here but the important thing is having more points than everyone after Suzuka. By the way here we surely have excellent possibilities: in the tests in Mugello some thing have been improved, small, but ones that will help us. It will be tough because McLaren will be very fast. But our car in the race always goes pretty well. Only in Hungary we had some problems and it was a pity because we did a good qualifying".
Eddie explains also because he didn’t reveal the problems to the differential that caused his withdrawal in Hungary, that allowed Coulthard to snatch the second position from him, limiting in that occasion to talk about a human mistake:
"I’m not allowed to clarify the problems of the car, until I talked to Jean Todt".
Then he talks about how he came to know of the no return of Schumacher:
"Todt called me last morning. It has been a Michael’s decision, you can not force someone to race, he has to know when he will be capable of driving. It’s a pity because here he would have been an excellent ally. I’m aiming to the champion and Ferrari wants to win this title. In the beginning of the season all the hopes were in Michael’s hands and logically the team worked for him. But after his accident I brought home 30 points in 4 races, so now I’m the one to have the best chances. But the decisions are not up to me but they are up to Todt. I do what I am told to do. They told me to try and beat McLaren: and it is not that compared to before the goal is changed".
"I read on the Italian newspaper, actually my manager Zanarini read them to me, that president Montezemolo has declared that Michael will race as a help for me when he comes back. I don’t know if this is a journalistic license of if it is really like this. I didn’t ask anything, it is not up to me to make these questions. I work for the team and Michael has to think about healing. Naturally I hope that he helps me, but as I said the decision will be up to Todt".
In Spa his score is worrying, not having never scored any points in five races, but Irvine is not worried not even by this statistic:
"Also in Hockenheim and in Hungary I was at zero points and then something took on, no? Here anything happened to me, even that my car caught fire in the box. Almost all of the drivers likes Spa but I reckon that only the Eau Rouge is a turn really spectacular, something special; for the rest there are no exceptional points. Rather, if it rains here the difficulties grow and the problems don’t miss. Among others the wet tyres that we tested are not exactly the ideal".
On his future he closes like a hedgehog:
"I can not say anything about me. I know that Alesi goes to Prost, Trulli goes to Jordan, Salo goes to Sauber".
In the end some words on the short trip to Rome, spent with his girlfriend:
"Beh, girlfriend is a big word, surely it is not for me. Or best, it counts if it is intended in the Italian way. In the sense that Anouk is my girl. The meaning we give to the English word instead is a serious thing and it is not for me, I absolutely do not have any ideas on getting married".
To a funny question of the journalists who ask him what a girl has to do to seduce him, he answers in his way before leaving:
"Very simple: take off the clothes".
In the afternoon of Friday August 27, 1999, the Championship leader, with two points ahead on Mika Hakkinen, has few reasons to smile. After the two sessions of free practice Eddie is only ninth, behind his teammate Salo, at a second and a half from the two McLaren of Hakkinen and Coulthard that virtually monopolize the first row, manifesting a disarming superiority.
"The car goes really well in all the turns, even in the Eau Rouge one that is super fast and also downhill. Never any problem, a stable and fast car. However I was surprised to see who behind Ferrari is, it is not possible that the real detachment is like this even if we made big improvements. I think that on Saturday afternoon we will be a lot more close".
What worries Irvine is the fact that between him and the two Silver Arrows there are Fisichella, the two Jordan of Frentzen and Hill, Ralf Schumacher and Johnny Herbert. Understeer,oversteer, continuous blockages with every break, at the front and rear. Irvine is not that happy of his car’s behaviour, that in the whole day didn’t make any progress. The free practice are categorized by the Jack Villeneuve’s accident, who shortly before the beginning of the session makes a bet with his teammate, Ricardo Zonta:
"Ricardo, I offer a challenge to you: let’s see who manages to do the Eau Rouge-Radillon without lifting the foot".
But in this first circumstance, the Canadian has to deal with a sudden front right suspension failure while driving at a speed of 320 km/h. The ex World Champion ends in the the straight escape route of Kemmel, only getting a bad scare. Jacque, however, does not know that Saturday reserves for him other bad surprises. During qualifying, while doing the Eau Rouge-Rdillon, Villeneuve loses control of the back end of his BAR, unloaded on the rear wing and with little grip to try to achieve high speeds on the Belgian track’s long straights, and he violently crashes into the guardrail,fortunately without impacting head-on. Despite the scary crash, Villeneuve does not lose his spirit, he quickly goes back to the box, has a quick medical check, changes the helmet left damaged and gets back on track with the forklift. After only 24 minutes, Ricardo Zonta is victim of the same accident occurred to his teammate: lost rear end and off into the barriers at almost 300km/h. Even in the case of the Brazilian driver there are no serious consequences, so that Zonta shortly after goes back to the box on his feet without a scratch. Without any doubts a great demonstration of the level of safety achieved by the Formula 1 cars. The team’s manager, as well as owner of the team, Craig Pollock, avoids alarmisms:
"I can tell you that after what we saw is better to smile. This is all about two coincidences. The cars are ok despite the big troubles had until now and despite the two accidents happened in the same dynamic. There have been no technical problems and there is not any investigation of FIA. The drivers maybe pushed a bit over the limit: the bottom touched the tarmac, the cars lost adherence and turned around. Our drivers will be there at the start: Jacques will start with the forklift and Ricardo will use one of his cars that were already on the way for the tests in Monza and that we diverted to Spa".
The two involved in the accidents confirm the respective driving mistakes. Villeneuve:
"I was going to the maximum, the car was almost perfect compared to Friday and I wanted at all costs to qualify at least in third row. I am not mad at anyone and I more more than confident because the team is doing everything to cancel all the flaws of our cars. If I had to go back I would make the same choice and maybe I would have the temptation to face the Eau Rouge at best. Fear? No, but I have lived for the first time the emotion of being upside down and believe me it is not good".
"I had a big hit, but I did not have time to be scared. Getting out of the car I checked my legs. I couldn’t believe I was all in one piece".
At the end of qualifying, the eleventh place of the Canadian and the fourteenth of the Brasilian, considering the events, can be considered excellent results. While the two BAR’s drivers risk their life at the Eau Rouge, the two Silver Arrows build at the same time, in that section, much of the gap of a net second towards the first direct chaser, Frentzen. In the internal duel between Hakkinen and Coulthard, for the tenth time in the season is the defending champion to have the best on the number two of the team, gaining pole position for only 155 thousandths. In second row, the Jordan motorized Mugen-Honda, with Frentzen ahead of Hill, who a year before on the same track was giving Eddie Jordan his first historical success of his scuderia, winning under the rain and ahead of the teammate of the time Ralf Schumacher, who completed like that an historical one-two. To see a Ferrari, we even need to go to the third road. Irvine is only sixth, behind the Williams of the young Schumacher, driving an improving Williams. Eddie pays a second from his rival, a worrying gap that derives from a clearly superior Mercedes engine, but not only, because also talking about the level of chassis and aerodynamics, the F399 pays duty. The comparison with the Mp 4/14 in the exit of Radillon is merciless: no less than twelve kilometers of difference between Hakkinen and Irvine. The Nord-Irish, with his maccheronic Italian, admits that to fight the McLaren, but as it seems also Jordan and Williams:
"We could use some rain and some mess on track. We did not make a lot of progress. We keep doing tests but we can not find anything to improve the car. And this starts to be seen, because the others make progress, but we don’t. We have to stay attached to the ones who progress, and we do not have to loose ground. Unfortunately we can not count on something more. I thought I could fight at least with Jordan during qualifying. And instead there was not even the chance to fight with them. There are fast tracks on the way, if we do not improve it is finished".
Mika Salo improves compared to Budapest, where he qualified eighteenth, but the ninth place at a second and seven from Hakkinen and behind also Barrichello and Zanardi, it is not obviously the result he hoped for. The Finnish confirms the difficulties by his teammate in finding the right balance of the car, lacking in traction and with other few defects that if added together create a big problem. Saw the premises, for Irvine and Salo the McLaren’s omnipotence seems an impossible task. Even because, the classic destabilizing element between the Ardenne, rain of course, on Sunday August 29,1999, leaves room to a blue sky dominated by the sun. During the morning warm-up Hakkinen confirms the first place, ahead of Michael Schumacher, who shows of having an excellent race pace. Irvine is sixth, confirming the doubts involving the performance of the previous days. The tyres choice is the same for all the drivers, who opt for the extra-soft tyre brought by Bridgestone, preferring it over the medium soft, the most hard. Reason because it is legitimate to expect for most of the strategies two pit-stop. At 2:00 pm, the race begins. Within moments of lights going out, Hakkinen has a little indecision, he slightly releases the clutch and his McLaren has a gasp. As a consequence, when the lights go off, McLaren’s number one starts with a slight delay, unlike Coulthard who immediately flanks him. At first turn, the two McLaren are close to each other, with Hakkinen on the inside and Coulthard on the outside;the two are so close that they get to the contact. In the exit at Source, the Scottish has a better traction and takes the lead, thanks to a determined move that confirms Ron Dennis’s declarations of the previous days: in McLaren there won’t be any team orders in favour of Hakkinen.
Behind the two Silver Arrows, Damon Hill has a bad start, passed by Irvine, author instead of an excellent snap that allows him to gain two positions and take the fourth place behind Frentzen. Hill,, instead, at the end of the first lap is only seventh, also behind Ralf Schumacher and Alex Zanardi, who for the first time in the season is in the points. At the back of the line-up, Zonta and Takagi remain planted on the grid: the first manages to restart the car with the mechanics’ help, the second one has to withdraw. For that small movement at the start, Hakkinen is put under investigation by the stewards, who won’t impose any penalty to the Finnish driver, not having gained any advantage from that small gasp, that indeed costed him the first position. Mika, in every way, is not able to keep the pace of his teammate, who in few laps creates a gap of several seconds between himself and his direct chaser. Frentzen, pointed out by Ron Dennis as the only driver able to put a spoke in the wheels of his, in turn he does not have the speed to keep up with the McLaren, but he controls without any problem Irvine’s Ferrari, far 3 seconds from the native of Moenchengladbach. The two Ferrari conspicuously struggle. Eddie is hunted down by Ralf Schumacher, Salo, in eight position, keeps behind with some difficulties a large group of drivers. With the going on of the laps of the first part of the race lacking of emotions, Irvine lowers his times and shakes the Williams of Schumacher off, an important thing in order to avoid being overtaken by the imminent waltz of the pitstop. During lap 17 of the 49 scheduled, Damon Hill is the first driver of high rank to stop; the British is imitated in the next lap by Frentzen and Salo, after it’s Hakkinen’s turn and then Irvine, his pit-stop of 6.9 seconds ends up being the fastest of all.
The only ones to go longer with their stint are the Williams of Schumacher and Zanardi, who against all the predictions are aiming to a strategy with one pitstop. Exited from the pit-lane, Hakkinen is just behind Ralf, but he avoids loosing time and overtakes him in fluency going through the Kemmel. The only scuffle present on track is the one that sees involved in the middle of the group Alesi, Barrichiello and Wurz, with the transalpine next driver of Prost who has the best outcome on the other two. When also the two Williams’s drivers enter in the box, during lap 23 the situation is the following one: Coulthard keeps his pace with an comfortable advantage of 7 seconds on Hakkinen, who during the second stint looks to have a better confidence with the car, so to register the fastest time in 1'53"953; Frentzen handles in total loneliness the third position, Irvin is fourth ahead of Hill and Mika. Salo, while Ralf Schumacher and Zanardi are temporarily out of the points, but sure to enter as soon as the others go back in the box. Pit-stop that happen approaching the thirtieth lap, when Johnny Herbert’s race ends, who goes into oversteer and loses the control of the Stewart, and he ends kissing the barriers. It’s the seventh withdraw of the season for him. Before entering the pits, Mika Salvo is reached by Ralf Schumacher, who seen the situation is a serious candidate for the fourth position of Irvine. Salo does his job as wingman, and keeping the German behind, he makes sure that Irvine, after his pit-stop, keeps his position. The non-Irish exits the pit-lane attached to his teammate, almost not realizing his presence there, but indeed ahead of the Williams. Then, after half of a lap, Salo steps aside and allows Irvine to rise to fourth position.
The teamwork disliked by Williams, that after the race will accuse Ferrari of playing dirty. Alex Zanardi could have easily been in sixth position after the pit-stop of the other drivers, but because of a glaring mistake made by his team that doesn’t put in enough fuel during the pit-stop, 25 liters less, he must forcibly stop for and adding pit-stop, and so he sees himself relegated to eight position. This benefits Damon Hill, who rises in sixth position ahead of Salo. The last ten laps go harmless, without any jerk, confirming the flat trend of the whole race. The only doubt that grips the spectators and the insiders involves the decisions in McLaren home: the victory will stay in Coulthard’s hands or a sudden order of the team will allow Hankkinen to win? Well, during lap 41 the answer arrives. Under the checkered flag is David Coulthard to celebrate, who precedes Hakkinen by ten seconds and takes the second victory of his season, that allows him to get back in the game in the Championship because he arises to 46 points, 14 less than Hakkinen, new leader of the Championship with only a point of advantage on Irvine, fourth on the finish line behind Frentzen. Ralf Schumacher, fifth, and Damon Hill, sixth, complete the points. In the parc ferme the two McLaren’s drivers do not exchange loving gestures of any type, and do not manifest that joy that is logical to expect for a one-two just conquered. Taken the helmet off, the cold face and visibly displeased of Hakinnen says more than any act or word. With a team order and following victory, indeed, the advantage points on Irvine would be five, and not only one. On the podium, arrived the moment of celebrating with champagne, Hakkinen moves away, gives the bottle to Adrian Newey, exchanges a few words with him while waiting that Coulthard and Frentzen are finished, and he goes away for the duties with the mass media. During the press conference, a smiley Coulthard begins by talking about the start, the crucial juncture that allowed him to get the lead:
"Before the lights went off, Mika slightly moved, and I almost did the same. After, when lights really went off, I got a better start than him and we were attached in the first turn: at that point I widened the trajectory, but there was still the contact. Luckily the car did not show any damage. Yes, we touched, but nothing serious. In the first stint I did not expect to gain so much time on Mika, I do not know if he had some problems after the contact or something like that, in every case it was easy to go away and to maintain the gap for all the race. This has always been my favourite track, it is amazing to win here finally".
Next to him, Hakkinen does not flinch, he says he has nothing to add on his start apart from what Coulthard explained, and that all in all the second position is not bad considering what could have happened at the start. But during the evening, with the journalists of Helsinki, he vents his frustration for the team order that he was expecting, deeply:
"I am not the type of person who asks for gifts, but today it is so difficult to take points in Formula 1 that it would be easier to change your mind. It has been four races without Schumacher, the championship could have been already closed and instead I find myself with only a point ahead on Irvin. I have made just one mistake, in Imola, its is incredible to think about how many points they made me throw away".
And on the contact with Coulthard at Source, he declares:
"There is not the necessity to battle this hard, when we are teammates. What happened at the first turn had destroyed my trust, I felt the world collapsing on me. A driver should look in the mirrors: I do not understand why Coulthard changes his trajectory that often. There were two possible choices: I slow down, he cuts me of. Now, with this win, he will be back believing in the title, but I’m not scared. If I win in Monza, he will be forced to give up".
With a gap of 14 points from the top, at four races for the end, the Scottish driver can believe again in the Championship, so much so as to affirm with swagger:
"Of course I believe in the Championship. On the other hand in the team the pacts are clear: who arrives first in the first turn, had the right to win. And in the next Gran Prix would be enough for me to gain as many poles, to play my chances".
Heinz-Harald Frentzen, on his fifth podium of the season, strengthens Jordan's fourth place in the drivers' standings and third in the constructors' standings. A lonely race, lived hoping for a penalty given to Hakkinen for the early movement at the start:
"I hoped and waited for them to inform me of Hakkinen's stop, too bad. The race? Quiet, as usual: the usual two McLarens in front and behind the platoon in single file. The car was not perfect and so I could not push it to the limit. It was not balanced and so I preferred to stay in my place, secure the third useful place in the world championship and not risk it. The McLarens are going very strong. I would say that all in all this weekend is to be considered extremely positive, also because snatching a place on the podium on a circuit like this is a great result for me".
Damon Hill, sixth at the finish, also says he is satisfied, with that one point bringing his career total to 360. Incidentally, the one between the Ardennes will be the last point won in the 1996 World Champion's career with Williams.
"I was hoping to do more, much more, but at high speed my car became unrideable. I added another point to my and Jordan's scorecard. Over the past few months the team has worked hard to provide us with effective and competitive cars against the McLarens and Ferraris. The goal of becoming the third force in the world championship has been achieved".
At Ferrari, despite a disappointing Sunday to say the least considering the performance gap with the McLarens, Eddie Irvine does not lose his usual smile in front of journalists' microphones:
"On the eve of the race I had also talked about a podium finish, but if Hakkinen had won and I had finished third it would have been worse: Mika would have gained six points and instead this way it's just three. I think fourth place was the best, because we weren't really there. So it's not a bad result, far from it. If the car goes like this, it's bad enough to be able to limit the damage and still pick up points. Now Hakkinen has just one more than me, if someone had told me after Silverstone that I would arrive at Monza in this situation I would have called him crazy. No, I really don't think anyone could have imagined that, and so I can be happy".
On McLaren's decision to leave the victory to Coulthard, he comments wryly:
"A nice gift. McLaren sometimes likes to give gifts. The best thing about the day is really that David won. After all, Ron Dennis has always said that he wants to manage his team that way until Coulthard has the arithmetic impossibility of winning the championship; he proved it again this time and so he gave me an extra chance. They want to manage the team that way, we do it differently; McLaren is as happy with his decision as Ferrari is with theirs".
At Monza, Schumacher's presence is still in doubt, as according to the latest rumors from Norway, where the German is undergoing rehabilitation exercises, Michael's right ankle has swollen again, causing such pain that the driver is forced to reuse crutches; even his press officer Buchinger reveals that after all, Michael is not so well. Should he return to competition, however, the question remains as to how he will fare on the track in terms of team hierarchies. A question that Irvine himself does not seem to know how to answer:
"I don't know, the team will decide. I do know, however, that with Michael McLaren will be more afraid, there is no one who can sow panic among its drivers better than Michael. However, we will definitely have to make the car stronger: in the long straights of Monza it will not be easy if it is not improved. Here we had big problems in the high-speed corners, we were too slow. If it depended on the speed of the car here, not a single point would have been collected. For the whole race we were struggling to make good times. And it's getting tougher and tougher because it's not only McLaren that is faster than us, but also Jordan and Williams, who have progressed a lot in recent times".
As in Coulthard's case, for Irvine, the start was crucial:
"Knowing that I couldn't go very fast in the race, I thought it definitely took a big burst. I felt very happy when I immediately passed Damon and Ralf. The three in front got away immediately, I was too slow: it only took me one lap to realize I was nowhere to be found. Then also a very good strategy helped me to beat Michael's brother, otherwise there would not have been a chance. So we gained some points that maybe we didn't deserve".
On Hakkinen's controversial start instead:
"He had done it the same in Canada and nothing had happened there either. In truth, he didn't take advantage of that little advance and that's why they didn't punish him; if they had given him the penalty maybe I would have stayed ahead in the World Championship. But maybe it would not have been enough. Honestly, the McLarens were going too fast".
Coming out of the pit lane after the second pit stop, he almost risked a disaster by colliding with Salo:
"Over the radio I was told to watch out for Ralf Schumacher, who was on my tail. So I looked in the mirrors and immediately saw him, but I didn't realize Salo was there until I found him right next to me. Luckily I moved out of the way in time, it would have been the last straw to collide with each other".
In connection with this very struggle, Williams technical director Patrick Head reacts furiously to what he considered a deliberate slowdown by Salo in order to protect Irvine from Ralf Schumacher. Head goes in the middle of the race to the Ferrari pit wall, telling Jean Todt all kinds of things:
"I made it clear to him that certain things are unacceptable, and that he should re-read the definition of the words sports and fair-play. This is not the first time this has happened. Since 1996 Ferrari has decided to race with one car and use the second car for its team games. And it did it again, on the very day McLaren gave up giving team orders to favor Hakkinen, better placed in the world championship, in the race. From 1'56"2 Salo was all of a sudden lapping in 1'58"4. He was zig-zagging, looking mostly at the rear-view mirror to prevent Irvine from losing his position coming out of the pit lane after refueling. It amazes me that Mika bowed to such a decision. McLaren has a different philosophy and deserves to win the world championship. I hope very much that he does".
After the race, Mika Salo goes to Head to offer an apology, but the latter refuses to accept it. Ralf Schumacher, too, is sure that without Finn's slowdown the fourth position would have been his, while Alex Zanardi recriminates about his mechanics' mistake in the pits, which cost him his first point in the championship. Dejected, the Italian tells:
"They all happen to me. We had decided on only one stop, but instead I had to make two, because on the first one the fuel filler didn't open. I preferred to start with the forklift prepared for Ralf, but that was running better than my single-seater. However, the car is improving week by week, but to win points maybe I really have to go to Lourdes".
Alex at least finished a race, something rarely achieved in this championship because of the constant reliability problems that happened on his Williams. The same can be said for Jacques Villeneuve, who up to this point has never passed under the checkered flag, but who curiously enough, precisely in a weekend that saw him protagonist of two frightening accidents, manages to reach the finish line, albeit in an anonymous fifteenth position. A result that is in any case a mere satisfaction for a World Champion:
"With eight laps to go, they told me from the pit wall to slow down. I didn't have any technical problem. Instead, I think they decided it was better to stay in that position and get to the end of the race. Fifteenth place? That's not a good placing. If they asked me to choose between this result and an attacking race with a finish on the wall, retired, I would choose the second option: it would mean that I have a car that allows me to do the race my way, always giving my best and fighting with the best. We made one stop, making a mistake. I started with a full tank and the first set of tires reacted badly. The balance? I would say that I consider the two days of practice more positive than the race. A driver must be able to give his best and be able to push his car to the limit. Otherwise, he might as well change his profession".
Returning to the Ferrari-Williams diatribe, Jean Todt confirms the accusations made by Head during the race:
"Yes, it's true. Head came to tell me that Salo was hindering Ralf and not allowing him to express his full potential, but his words can be attributed to the pressure of the race. I remember in Barcelona, Michael Schumacher and Irvine were behind Villeneuve for twenty-five laps who was going much more slowly than Salo".
The fourth and seventh places of the two Rossa drivers are certainly not acceptable results for the Maranello team, which sees its title chase becoming more complicated. Todt can only agree:
"The result does not satisfy us. The balance is more or less the same as in Budapest, indeed this time with one point less. Our direct opponents in two races collected 32 points and us just 7. Previously it had gone well for us, looking overall the balance of five races is positive, but that of the last two is definitely bad. We have never been able to optimize the car to be closer to the McLarens; in Hungary we had succeeded in qualifying, here neither situation. Agreed, Irvine in the standings is second just one point behind Hakkinen, but in the constructors' standings now the disadvantage is nine lengths; and it's worth noting that now Coulthard also enters the race".
Before the Italian Grand Prix, a test session will be held at the very Monza circuit, where, Todt confirms, there will be special innovations, with engine and aerodynamic tests. The Belgian one may have been the last Grand Prix of the season for Mika Salo, who was noted for team play that favored Irvine but failed to get into the points zone. The next Sauber driver says he tried his best, but overtaking Hill was next to impossible. At Monza, where along with Irvine should be Schumacher testing the F399s, Salo will still be there:
"I will be in Monza on Thursday, at Ferrari's disposal. Schumacher will start testing on Wednesday, and if he has any problems I could fill in for him to carry on the work program. Of course I was hoping to drive a Ferrari at Monza; it will remain a dream".
Or maybe not...