After the sensational European Grand Prix, held on the Nurburgring circuit and won by surprise by Johnny Herbert on Stewart, McLaren goes to the track at Monza at the end of September to test some solutions in view of the 2000 season. The work is carried out behind closed doors by the future Prost driver, Nick Heidfeld, who runs around thirty laps at the wheel of an Mp4/14 laboratory car. At the same time, on 27 September 1999, Luca Badoer completes eighty-three laps at the Fiorano circuit in Maranello. Ferrari had to put behind them the mistake made in the pits on German soil, where first Salo's pit-stop, and then above all Irvine's, compromised the race for both drivers, with the Northern Irishman coming close to the points but being mocked in the final laps by his title rival Hakkinen. President Montezemolo expressed himself on the defeat, saying that the mistakes made at the Nurburgring must not be repeated and are not acceptable for a team like Ferrari, but this does not detract from the fact that the value of what has been done up to this point in the season by the technicians and drivers is not to be questioned, on the contrary, one must be proud of it. Words aimed at keeping, as far as possible, morale high two races from the end of a season that sees Irvine chasing Hakkinen in the drivers' championship two points behind, and Ferrari eight points behind McLaren in the constructors' championship. Meanwhile, on 1 October 1999 Ferrari returned to the track for two days of testing, and Irvine returned to talk about the Nurburgring and the world title:
"No one is to blame for what happened on Sunday in the pits. There was just a moment of confusion. Everything is still possible, and from the way the team is working they believe in the title. In Malaysia I want to finish at least fourth and then play for everything in Japan, hoping that McLaren will have problems in the meantime".
As for Schumacher, Irvine states:
"I hope he comes back in the last two races. Of course, it would be curious to see him as my number two".
A prospect that, in view of the new Malaysian Grand Prix, is officially averted by the German driver through his spokesman Heiner Buchinger, who informs the German press that it is to be ruled out that Michael could return to racing this season. A decision that was apparently taken by the driver himself following medical checks in Paris. According to rumours, the long convalescence was caused by an inflammation in his right knee, which is causing pain and thus making it impossible for him to carry out a muscular rehabilitation programme. An inflammation that, according to Buchinger's statement, could have been caused by the nail inserted into the knee during the surgery he underwent in England, or even by another, older meniscus operation dating back to 1992. The last of the many theories speaks of an impatient Schumacher, who recklessly accelerated his recovery, leading to complications that even delayed it. Ferrari, through an official statement, let it be known that:
'This visit has shown that bone consolidation allows normal activity".
A somewhat generic statement, perhaps too much so, suggesting that it was the driver who decided not to return this season despite the doctors' positive opinion. A little detective story that thickens when Michael decides to join the team to test the F399 at Mugello. On 4 October 1999, the two-time World Champion returns to the track for the third time after his injury, but around 11:15 a.m., the spectre of the Silverstone accident looms large again: with a spin at the Scarperia corner, one of the tightest at Mugello, Schumacher ends up against a guard-rail. The test session was inevitably interrupted for him, who had to walk back to the pits, slightly limping in the two hundred metres of track he had run. Apart from the accident, sixty-nine laps were completed, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:40 p.m., with the chronometer stopping at 1'27"287. At the end of the day, reached by journalists, Michael clarified the situation, denying those rumours that he did not want to race despite being given the green light by the doctors:
"There was a big misunderstanding here, caused by what Ferrari communicated yesterday. The doctors gave me the OK for a normal daily life, not for racing. If I were a baker, I could easily go back to making bread. But my condition is not so good to face a Grand Prix of sixty or eighty laps. I know how I felt before and I can make the comparison, I can only do that and the decision is therefore mine, and it's a responsible decision. What would be the point of coming back into the race feeling bad and going slow? It wouldn't make sense".
In fact, the muscular re-education of his right leg is only 60 per cent complete, but some people are under the impression that the German has abandoned Ferrari:
"I know, but that's not the case. Unfortunately, the press puts a lot of pressure on Ferrari and this creates misinterpretations. I'm not abandoning Ferrari, so much so that I'm here".
Hence the logical question: why do the tests anyway?
"I didn't ask for it, Ferrari asked me to. To help the team develop the car, this work will be needed for the Malaysian Grand Prix, to help Irvine. But I also accepted because it pleased me. I wanted to try driving again, I have to make comparisons otherwise I don't know where I am. And now I can say that I felt much better than on 20 August on this same track. No pain in my leg, just some discomfort in my back and neck, but overall I went well, I didn't suffer".
The relationship with Ferrari seems to have soured slightly, but he flatly denies these theories:
"Wrong impression. In these eighty-six days, Jean Todt called me every day and I spoke not only with him, but also with Ignazio - Lunetta, his chief engineer - and with Montezemolo. Perhaps many will be disappointed, but I feel I can say that my relationship with Ferrari is even more intense".
The lack of progress in absolute performance on the part of the F399 has suggested a halt in development, but here again Schumacher claims the opposite:
"No, it hasn't stopped at all, and today I can say that in Malaysia the Ferrari is in good shape. Progress in engine and aerodynamics I have seen live, as I went faster today than on 20 August".
Finally, on the accident:
"It wasn't a good experience, it's one of those things that doesn't help you recover. Before it didn't happen to me, now I found out that you think about it and you are afraid. And it's not nice".
Having finished his work at Mugello, Schumacher goes to Rome on 6 October 1999 for an audience with Pope John Paul II, together with Giancarlo Fisichella, Jean Alesi and Riccardo Patrese. Michael arrives at St. Peter's without a tie (which is lent to him) at around 9:30 a.m.; at 10:00 a.m. the audience begins, and just before noon the Ferrari driver is presented to the Pope. Afterwards, Michael would describe the event, describing John Paul II as a great person, and the day he had just experienced as one of the most beautiful of his life. The next day, 7 October 1999, on Shell Day, Michael climbs back into the F399 equipped with the 193 chassis, driving fifty-eight laps totalling around 150 kilometres. Several types of Bridgestone tyres tested, and a new circuit record of 1'01"1, seven tenths faster than Irvine, who had previously tested the cars destined for the Malaysian Grand Prix, scheduled for 17 October 1999. It may have been the encouraging performance, the fans who had risen up with offensive banners against him after his withdrawal, the pressure of the press or that of Montezemolo, the fact is that on 8 October 1999, Schumacher took a step back and announced his presence at the Kuala Lumpur Grand Prix. All this after another morning full of work, during which the German further lowered his lap time (1'00"941, almost two tenths faster than two days earlier). Then, more tests with wet Bridgestone tyres, an important test since in Malaysia rain is a variant not to be excluded. After that, the fateful announcement
"I want to be honest, I want to explain the decisions I have made over the last few days. Many people will be surprised by what I will say. But I have my good reasons. I will race in the last two Grand Prix in Malaysia and Japan. The reason and the story for this rethink is due to two factors. Before today I had two bad experiences, at Mugello and Monza. In particular at Monza I was very, very depressed: I expected so much from that test and instead after a few laps I was destroyed. Really destroyed. Last Sunday I had my last medical check-up, after which a communiqué was distributed with incorrect information. Because, from my point of view as a man and as a professional, saying that I can lead a normal life also means that I can drive a Formula 1 car. This is my life, it doesn't mean that I can go for a walk with Gina Maria. When I said I wouldn't race I meant to protect myself from other bad experiences like the ones I've already had at Mugello and Monza".
But what happened next? Michael explains that:
"The team, after this visit, asked me to test, to take some tests. That could serve both to help them with the evolution of the car and to help myself resolve the doubts I had. On Monday, after the tests at Mugello, I thought that Sunday's decision, not to race, was the right one. Now it is no longer, I have changed my mind and I hope to be understood. We are all human beings and it can happen that we change our opinion. I feel good now. I think I will have problems in the race over the distance. I know it and I imagine it. But it is particularly important for the team that I am there. I hope I can help Eddie and Ferrari, but without promising miracles on Friday or Saturday. The evening of Mugello I should have waited to say: I'll stop. But if I had wavered and if I had let something slip you would have understood, and you would have already asked me if I was going to race again. Sometimes it's better to change your mind than to stay in the wrong position. I prefer to change my mind, even if someone will come along and ask: what is this guy up to now? What is he doing? What is he saying? Will he come back?"
The Ferrari number two - because that will be his role in the last two races of the season - emphasises that public opinion has not influenced his choice in the slightest:
"My decision is mine alone. It did not influence what people think, because I am someone who does not read the newspapers. I was more interested in what the team thought and felt. And I felt their enthusiasm as early as Mugello. Contagious, that is".
Different story regarding Montezemolo:
"Certainly the president asked me to reconsider, but that was not the main reason why I changed my mind. It was the enthusiasm of the team that got me most involved".
Reactions to Schumacher's official return are varied: from Dubai, Irvine says he is ecstatic, convinced that the Ferraris will be strong at Sepang. Willi Weber, on the other hand, as Schumacher's manager, tells the German newspaper Die Welt that he is not convinced that this is the right thing to do:
"Schumacher has allowed himself to be convinced too easily. His return entails enormous risks for him: what would happen if Michael had another accident? If Schumacher got hurt again, there would be serious repercussions for the next season".
A cautious point of view, justifiable by the fact that Schumacher is not in contention for the drivers' title. Ferrari, however, needs him to keep the games open in the Constructors' Championship, as the German is certainly a greater guarantee than Mika Salo, who in any case managed to win two podiums in six races at the wheel of a car he had never driven before. According to the German newspaper, the decisive push towards Schumacher's comeback came from Bernie Ecclestone, who in a private conversation with Michael insisted on seeing him on the track in the last two races of the season, as his withdrawal would have even jeopardised Jean Todt's stay in Maranello. His brother Ralf also commented on Michael's choice, assuring everyone that the Ferrarista would never have taken this risk if he still felt pain in his leg. According to the Williams driver, Michael can safely return to winning ways right away, Ferrari's competitiveness permitting. A brief comment finally arrives on the championship fight, where Ralf sees in Mika Hakkinen the absolute favourite, above all because he has the best car in this last phase of the championship. On 14 October 1999, at the unknown Malaysian circuit, inaugurated a few months earlier with the MotoGP, the next Ferrari driver, Rubens Barrichello, talks about his future team-mate:
"I too am anxious to know if Michael is really able to go as fast as he did before the Silverstone accident. For example, on occasions similar to this one, when Formula 1 lands on an unfamiliar track, Schumacher has usually been the quickest to adapt, lapping faster than the rest of us: will it happen this time too? Let's be clear: you don't forget how to drive well after an accident. Michael will always be strong, although maybe in particular situations, for example with a slippery track, he will think more about how to deal with it".
At McLaren, Jo Ramirez comments briefly on Michael's return:
"He will undoubtedly be a dangerous opponent, because even if he does not prove to be Irvine's valuable ally, it is not certain that this will work in our favour. Fast as he is, Michael will get in the way and annoy us and could lose us precious points. But, who knows, maybe he might think that all this humidity will rust the nail in his right leg and, in the end, he might even decide not to race!".
World Championship leader Hakkinen avoids comment and stays away from the press, while David Coulthard, now cut out of the title fight following his retirement at the Nurburgring, where he went off the track while leading the race, has to admit that at this point his only duty is to help Hakkinen and McLaren win the two titles at stake:
"Although there is a small gap still open, by now the title chase is over for me. So, if nothing strange happens, I will work this weekend at Mika's service. The worst thing right now would be for the two of us to fight each other, thus favouring Irvine or Frentzen. That is the thing we have to avoid and, consequently, I will do what the team wants".
Also because, according to the Scot, the championship is unlikely to end on Sunday:
"Ferrari, in my opinion, will remain in contention until Suzuka. It will be quite a challenge for us to get Michael back, but we are confident and we are not frightened even in the face of the possibility that the weather will get worse, because our McLaren has proved to be strong both in the dry and in the wet".
Schumacher, on the other hand, while confirming that he will support Irvine as much as possible, points out:
"I make it clear that, first of all, I am not very interested in Irvine, unless I start at the front and he is at the back, because in that case I would obviously give him the way. But if not, it will be up to him to help himself. For me it's important to score points, together, for the constructors' championship, which Ferrari cares a lot about. If I am leading and Eddie is second I let him pass. He comes first, I come second and Hakkinen at worst comes third. That way Eddie gets ten points and Mika only four. This would be a dream scenario".
How would Michael react to an Irvine victory in such a dynamic?
"Great. If Eddie won the world championship I'd get a lot of credit too, because we worked together for three and a half years for that and everyone would know why he won the championship and not me. Then it would mean so much for the team to win it, they have all worked so hard and I lost the title in '97 with a mistake at Jerez. My first objective is to make Ferrari win the constructors' championship, the second is that if I can help Eddie, I help him".
The question on everyone's mind, not just Barrichello's, is how competitive the German will manage to be. He has no doubts:
"I feel I can win the race. I have a chance to win and contribute to the titles Ferrari cares about. Besides, what I am doing to train physically is more than what some drivers do".
Returning to the Fiorano tests, which proved decisive for him to decide to return, he explains:
"It was important for me to drive in order to have certain data to exploit in 2000, before the obligatory break in November. I had to show Ferrari what the true potential of the car is, what it was not possible to show in the last races. Driving to the limit, I realised how much I needed".
Indeed, the progress Ferrari made in the last tests was the most significant of the entire season, as a confident Irvine admitted. Schumacher, in conclusion, says he is not nervous about the comparison with the other drivers, just as he is not worried about the physical fitness test he will have to undergo with Dr Sid Watkins. The examination takes place on Thursday afternoon at around 4:30 p.m.
"I don't know what kind of tests Dr Watkins will do to me but I don't care, I've decided to race and I will race".
Schumacher is received by Watkins and Jacques Isserman, who after a general examination, with particular attention to his right leg, subject him to the famous physical efficiency tests: the driver has to prove that he can get out of the car and reset the steering wheel in just five seconds; a test that he passes easily twice. After that, he has to cover a distance of ten metres by jumping on his sore leg, and this test is also passed with flying colours. Schumacher leaves the medical department smiling, having been given a pass to race. On 14 October 1999 Mika Hakkinen is interviewed by the international press, and when asked about Schumacher's return to the track, he replies:
"With Schumacher or without, for me it's the same, everything is normal, like before. My commitment is the same, with Irvine as with Michael. I'm not nervous at all. If anything, the real challenge is the track, which is new, no one has ever raced there and this is the same for everyone. As for Schumacher, it's not the first time I've raced against him, and then between us everything has always been very fair and loyal, never anything to complain about either from me or him, and that's how it will be again. What should I be afraid of? In the last tests McLaren has still improved".
But these goodies don't please the media who always want some cue to stir up dissension or make headlines. And since everyone insists on this, here is where the nice Hakkinen makes the winning move: he turns to Schumacher, affectionately puts his hand on his shoulder and looking at him with a smile says:
"Of course, it would have been better for you to stay at home, get more treatment, enjoy the family".
Finally, Schumacher, usually a bit sour in these circumstances, also smiles. General applause, and off we go. Friday 15 October 1999, the Formula 1 cars take to the track on the new Sepang circuit for the first free practice sessions. The track is initially wet due to the early morning rain, and it is the returning Schumacher who takes the lead until the track begins to dry. Even when the conditions improved, there was no shortage of spins by the drivers, who were struggling on an asphalt that was first damp and then simply had little grip. At the end of the first morning session, Coulthard was the fastest, ahead of Irvine and Schumacher, with Hakkinen fourth. The German, for obvious reasons the special observed, completes thirty-seven laps, showing off an excellent physical condition. In the split hours separating the drivers from the second session, Michael describes the sensations he felt on his official return to a race weekend:
"So many emotions, especially when I arrived in the morning. Seeing so many friends again, the same environment, the same work. Then I got back into my usual role and I felt like I had never left. I feel good, better every day".
Some note that he continues to be limp, however:
"It's more psychological than physical. I got used to limping, instead I should try to walk normally; but no pain at all".
The new Sepang circuit pleases the Ferrarista:
"It's beautiful, and also difficult. Strange corners, all different but remarkably interesting. The first thing was to discover it by driving, to study these corners well; then slowly I started to gain confidence and push. But it's not easy to find a good set-up because the problem here is the weather. The heat doesn't even seem excessive. It's just that it rains, it doesn't rain, it rains again. The asphalt gets wet, it dries, it pours again. It's a constant changing of tyres, settings, driving. Yet we knew that this is the rainy season. But we are here now and we must try to do things well. It seems to me that we are close to our rivals, I think we will fight it out".
Finally, an opinion on the rivals and Sunday's race:
"I saw Hakkinen a bit cautious, not driving with his usual aggressiveness. Maybe it's because he's had several mishaps this year, but he didn't seem the same as before. He's in more trouble than Eddie, so I think Irvine should take advantage of this situation. But he has to do it, in this I can't help him. I also took a slip after I put a wheel on a kerb. Yes, there and then I don't say you get scared but in your head you inevitably think back to another accident, you ask yourself questions about safety. But it doesn't last long, because as you drive you concentrate and don't think about it anymore. It's hard to say what kind of race it will be. With the rain coming and going there can be accidents, Safety Cars, mistakes, everything becomes unpredictable. The McLarens are doing well, but after so long I expected to see them further ahead, with more noticeable progress. Instead I didn't get that impression and so we can easily fight with them".
At the end of a day that surprisingly saw Jacques Villeneuve ahead of everyone, Mika Hakkinen, only eighth, actually seemed rather conservative, thinking about not pushing his McLaren over the limit and avoiding accidents on a very treacherous track. His goal, as he himself explains, is only one:
"To finish ahead of Irvine. It is he who has to attack, to try everything; I can manage the situation calmly, learning well this absolutely new track, fun but difficult, with very low kerbs, where it is easy to get out. I don't have to look for a sensation time, but just administer it. Psychologically this is a huge advantage, provided I don't make any mistakes. Which in the race, at this point of the championship, are no longer allowed".
Eighth place in free practice, therefore, does not worry him, unlike the rain, a factor he would gladly do without on Sunday:
"It's been my nightmare ever since I arrived in Malaysia. The track is very slippery, a race under water would be a massacre. Also, inside the car feels like being in a Finnish sauna. You're already dripping with your shirt on, just think with overalls, helmet and gloves. It would do me good if I were to lose weight, who knows how many kilos I will lose on Sunday".
In his opinion, Schumacher's return may even be an advantage:
"With Michael, life is easier for me. Because the world championship returns to normal, the hierarchies are re-established. McLaren is now afraid and will not spare the team orders. And Ferrari will have Schumacher more than Irvine. Yes, Michael says he'll get him through, but I don't believe it, it's not in his nature. And it's difficult from the pits to command someone like him".
Statements that Mika will have to take back on Sunday afternoon. McLaren sporting director Jo Ramirez, on the other hand, will do so on Saturday. He does not trust the great speed shown by Ferrari, and especially Schumacher, on Friday:
"Schumacher was asked to push hard from the start, because he has to impress, scare us. Maybe he will do it in qualifying, but then on Sunday he will feel pain in his leg and everything will be back to normal".
In the chorus of sceptics there is also Jacques Villeneuve, who, a bit like Hakkinen, claims that Michael did not anticipate his return to help Irvine and the team, but to safeguard his image. The only one who seems to be really worried about the German's performance is Ron Dennis, according to whom the two-time world champion could be decisive in the fight for the constructors' title, as well as taking important points away from Hakkinen. The Woking team principal, incidentally, even spends some praise on Irvine:
"If he wins the title he will have deserved it. Because this is not a one-day championship, it lasts sixteen stages and he took advantage of Ferrari's reliability, he always brought home points. We, on the other hand, have made a lot of mistakes".
On Saturday 16 October 1999, sceptics and critics of all stripes are decisively, almost overbearingly, silenced. Schumacher responds as best he can to everything that has happened to him in the ninety-seven days since the Silverstone accident until his return to the track in Kuala Lumpur: the operations, the complications, the polemics with the press, the alleged friction with Irvine and Ferrari, the fear of not being able to return to his usual, extraordinary standards, and finally the heated criticism he has suffered following his temporary decision to wait until 2000 to return to race weekends. With a time of 1'39"688, Michael Schumacher took his second pole position of the season, beating his team-mate Irvine by an enormous margin: 947 thousandths. Practically a second. The Northern Irishman was in turn the author of a performance that could be considered exceptional, as Eddie was second and finished ahead of the two McLarens driven by Coulthard and Hakkinen, but the whole thing was inevitably diminished by Michael's alien performance, which humiliated both him and the two McLarens, also beating them by a second and a tenth.
"A guy like that you can't beat with the same car, if he doesn't have any problems".
Declared Irvine at the end of qualifying, and then continued with his usual unfailing joke that did not make the driving lesson he had just suffered any less bitter, but at least brought a smile to his face:
'You saw, he rested for three months and we were sweating like desperate men. Now he's going like a splinter".
Three weeks before, Ferrari seemed to be in disarray, between the technical gap with McLaren (and also Jordan and Williams, who had proved faster at the Nurburgring), and clamorous errors in the pits during the stops. This time, during qualifying, the men from Maranello are impeccable in every movement, no doubt a consequence of the reprimand they received from the top management of the team, but, if you like, also of the return of the fulcrum of this team, which, having rediscovered the crucial figure of Schumacher, has regained compactness and above all competitiveness. McLaren now trembles, because with this Ferrari, and this Schumacher, defending the leadership in the two world championship classifications will be a far from simple undertaking. On Sunday 17th October 1999, 60.000 spectators welcomed the circus to watch the Malaysian Grand Prix, in a tense atmosphere for the rainbow games, but incredibly sultry due to the 30 °C of the air and the 43 °C of the asphalt. The last doubt concerning Schumacher is his physical endurance for the long distance in such a physically demanding race; however, the German has shown and said several times that he feels in great shape. Hakkinen, who in this race has at his disposal his first championship-point (the World Championship would be his in the case of a victory in conjunction with a fifth place or worse than Irvine), needs a high level performance, similar to the one shown at the Nurburgring in 1998, when in a similar situation (he started behind the Ferraris, from the second row, and played the World Championship point by point), through a great strategy and a consistent race pace he went on to win, beating Schumacher in a decisive race for the purposes of winning the World Championship.
Mika needs that kind of performance, and he will attempt it by fitting his car with soft tyres, the hardest compound of the day, as everyone else opts for the super-soft tyre. Jarno Trulli was not able to take part in the first Malaysian Grand Prix, who had to deal with the smoking rear end of his Prost during the reconnaissance lap. The French cars suffered from the hot temperatures starting on Friday, but it is difficult to say whether the heat was the cause. The fact is that the Peugeot engine of Jarno's car broke down after a few hundred metres. With twenty-one drivers remaining on the grid, the race begins. The two Ferraris get off to a good start, followed closely by the two McLarens and the two Stewart's of Barrichello and Herbert, with the Brazilian overtaking the winner of the Grand Prix run on the Nurburgring circuit at the first corner. At the back of the field Damon Hill was hit by Fisichella in the middle of Turn 2; the Briton spun and was unable to restart. His penultimate race in Formula 1 ends after just half a straight and two corners. Fisichella continues, but the car is damaged to the point of forcing the Roman into the pits. The team seemed to want to retire the Italian driver, but after four laps spent repairing the Benetton, Fisichella returned to the track, although his race was now compromised. In the fight for the top positions, David Coulthard pursued Irvine, while Schumacher immediately made a gap, gaining several seconds on the quartet made up of Eddie, the two McLaren Mercedes and Rubens Barrichello. The Northern Irishman seemed to struggle to keep up with the onrushing Coulthard, using wider trajectories and sliding a lot coming out of slow corners. To his rescue comes Michael Schumacher, who, in the first two laps gains three seconds, then lifts his foot, lets the others get closer, and in turn 9 gives way to Irvine, who becomes the new leader of the race.
Thus the ideal situation for Ferrari materialised: the two Ferraris in the lead, with Irvine first, and Hakkinen even fourth, for the moment forced to chase his team-mate. Coulthard, in fact, had other things to think about, he did not want to let Irvine get away, as Schumacher seemed not to be pushing hard enough to favour his box-mate's escape. In doing so, however, the Ferrarista is surprised at the first corner by an aggressive Coulthard, who pulls a powerful braking move, complete with a nasty braking action against Schumacher, who drops to third place. Hakkinen tries to take advantage of the moment to get alongside the Ferrari, but does not succeed. In Coulthard's very decisive manoeuvre there is the correctness of Schumacher, who if he had closed the trajectory would have caused an accident from which only Hakkinen would have benefited. Warned of Coulthard's arrival, Irvine set the fastest lap of the race, although the time in question was promptly improved by the McLaren driver by a good seven tenths. After about ten laps, the race sees Irvine and Coulthard travelling in pairs, followed a few seconds apart by Schumacher and Hakkinen, who are also remarkably close. On the other hand, Rubens Barrichello lost contact, solo fifth ahead of Herbert, who closed the points zone. Starting from a disappointing fourteenth position, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, third in the world championship and mathematically still in the running for the title, climbed to tenth, but having taken on a large amount of fuel he had to watch out for a threatening Pedro Diniz, in a Sauber. In the meantime, first Ricardo Zonta, with engine problems, and then Ralf Schumacher, who went off the track at Turn 7, abandoned the race. On lap 15, we have a second shake-up in the lead positions: a fuel pressure problem sensationally takes David Coulthard out of the race.
The Scot turns slowly down the track, then sadly parks his McLaren to the side. His retirement is a blow to McLaren's chances in the Constructors' Championship, especially considering the potential one-two that Ferrari is heading for. It is a different story for the drivers' championship, as Hakkinen moves up to third. Alex Wurz enters the points zone, chased however by Jean Alesi, in a good fight for the last available point. The Frenchman, after a study phase, attacks and gets the better of the Benetton driver. Michael Schumacher, meanwhile, is determined to favour Irvine's escape, and he does so by dizzyingly raising his lap times, then blocking Hakkinen, who exasperates himself to look for a gap in which to slip. The slowdown is such that it favours the rejoining of Barrichello, who, sniffing the opportunity for an undercut, goes to the pits on lap 19 for the first stop of the two scheduled. Rubens, however, as soon as he returned to the track was never able to find a good race pace. At this point, Michael decides to push on the accelerator again, to the point of setting the fastest lap of the race, one and three seconds faster than Irvine, a full second quicker than Hakkinen. On lap 25, Irvine went to the pits for his first stop, with tyre change and refuelling performed flawlessly by the mechanics in 7.2 seconds. On the same lap, Schumacher set another fast lap, proving that when he wants to push, there is none for anyone. Eddie came out of the pit lane finding himself fourth, behind Johnny Herbert, who still had to stop. Two laps later it was Hakkinen's turn to make the stop: so it was Schumacher, Herbert and Frentzen, who climbed to sixth, who did not stop. All three go for a one-stop strategy. When these three also make their respective pit-stops, close to lap 30, the situation in the points zone is almost unchanged.
Irvine is in the lead with a six-second advantage over Schumacher, second and closely followed by Hakkinen; Barrichello is fourth, Herbert fifth, and Jean Alesi occupies sixth position. As before, Schumacher raises his tempo to brake Hakkinen, who sees the disaster unfold before his eyes. Michael offers no real chance of overtaking, even when he juggles the back markers to perfection, meanwhile Irvine runs away undisturbed to victory and the championship lead. In the mind of the Finn and the entire McLaren box, the many wasted opportunities during the season cannot but resurface. Schumacher is a second a lap slower than Irvine, sometimes even more, and even this time the two Stewarts reduce the gap, glimpsing a chance to enter the fight for the podium. On lap 40, Barrichello inaugurated the second series of pit stops, imitated on the next lap by the lead driver Irvine. Eddie returned to the track just behind the duo of Schumacher and Hakkinen. The pressure from the Finn, meanwhile, became less suffocating for Schumacher, in any case, with about fifteen laps to go, the question that arises concerns the strategy adopted by Hakkinen. Will he have to stop again or will he continue to the end? In Ferrari they are convinced that the Finn must return for a second pit-stop; if not, the decision to anticipate Irvine's stop by a few laps without ensuring that he had the necessary gap to remain in front would prove to be a resounding error. The doubts of the moment are dispelled on lap forty-six. Hakkinen re-enters for a second pit-stop and leaves second position to Irvine. The strategic masterpiece, for some revisable in terms of sportsmanship but nevertheless extremely effective, reached its climax when the only McLaren left in the race found itself in fourth position, behind even Johnny Herbert, whose one-stop strategy had evidently paid off. The Briton is third, dreaming of a second consecutive podium after that crazy victory in Germany.
A very uncomfortable situation for Hakkinen, caused by Schumacher's stoppage, and which now forces him to take risks to at least limit the damage, regaining third place. To do so, he has to overtake his former team-mate from his Lotus days, a client who is anything but easy to deal with, especially considering the high-top speeds of the Ford engine. With four laps to go, Michael Schumacher is leading the Malaysian Grand Prix. A superlative race that of the German: just think that he has spent a good part of the race slowing down Hakkinen in order to favour Irvine, and yet he is still in first position, seven seconds ahead of the Northern Irishman, who with four laps to go sees Michael lift his foot to make way for him, and hand him a very precious first position. There were two laps to go before the chequered flag when Hakkinen finally broke the hold by attacking Herbert at the first corner. The overtaking attempt is successful, and Hakkinen moves up to third. This is the last thrill of the first Malaysian Grand Prix, which is won by Eddie Irvine, courtesy of Michael Schumacher, who accompanies his team-mate across the finish line, thus sanctioning an extraordinary one-two for Ferrari. Hakkinen finished third, Herbert fourth ahead of Barrichello, while it was Frentzen, thanks to an excellent race pace and good strategy, who managed to take sixth position, easily getting the better of Jean Alesi. Thanks to the fourth win of the season, as well as of his career, Irvine gains ten points in the general classification, going up to seventy points; Hakkinen, with the only four points that third place offers, is now second in the ranking, with sixty-six points. In the constructors' championship, Ferrari's redemption after the debacle in Germany, in conjunction with McLaren's difficult day, which had to reckon with Coulthard's retirement, caused a change at the top even in this classification: now it is Ferrari who leads with 118 points, ahead of McLaren Mercedes, which has 114. Stewart's double points finish moves the future Jaguar team up to fourth place, three points ahead of Williams. With the race just over, a disgruntled Ron Dennis attacks his rivals:
"We certainly did not witness a race of sportsmanship from Ferrari. In any case, we aim to win with Hakkinen in Japan. However, I have to say that Ferrari's tyres were really performing. Let's see what happens".
Ross Brawn immediately replies to the McLaren team principal:
"Formula 1 is a team sport. Michael came back to help us, and that's what he did, in a fantastic way by the way".
At the press conference, a beaming Irvine lavished praise on Schumacher:
"Michael is not only the best number one, but also the best number two".
If at Hockenheim he had given the winner's trophy to Salo, this time Eddie has no intention of repeating the gesture for two simple reasons: one, when the roles were reversed Michael never did so; two, the German has many trophies at home, Eddie on the other hand has only three. Schumacher was also visibly satisfied with his performance, which was made even more extraordinary by the fact that he had not held a full race since June, at Magny-Cours:
"Today I felt like I was living a dream. It was me again, a very fast driver, after three months of watching. I want to thank Todt in particular, he has always been close to me over these months. Before, we were friends, now something more".
His return has enabled Ferrari to take important steps towards the World Championship title that has been missing for two decades:
"It would have been stupid to think about my personal glory, something that makes no sense. It is clear that a driver prefers to win the race, but I no longer have a chance for the title, it was logical to let Irvine pass. I did what people expected of me. Physically I am very well, in the car I never had any problems, at the end there were many drivers who were more tired than me. When I think about Japan, I am extremely excited. I can't wait for it".
A good mood also underlined by a few jokes:
"But do you really think I let Irvine through? What if he was faster than me? Besides, I had only planned one stop, I had to save my tyres".
He tries to be more serious when it comes to his behaviour, described as unsportsmanlike by Ron Dennis, in his duel with Hakkinen, as he repeatedly raised his lap times, favouring Irvine's escape. Michael disagrees with this version of events:
"I never obstructed Hakkinen, my behaviour observed the rules. It is clear that I helped my team, but I cannot be blamed for that. You know how many times they tried to break me; I think of Frentzen in '97 at Jerez, of Villeneuve on several occasions. If he wanted to, he could overtake me. Why didn't he try?"
For his part, Hakkinen talks about the toughest and most frustrating race of his life:
"I understood I could go faster, Michael was slowing me down, but there is no point swearing if you are not able to overtake, if you don't know how to change a strategy in the race, if you don't have the elasticity to go from two stops to one. The two stops depended on my speed. Since Schumacher was slowing me down, it would have been logical to change. I asked Dennis over the radio, but then I didn't have enough fuel to make it to the end, and the tyres wouldn't hold either. Then I realised it was over and I almost started crying. At decisive moments you can't give your opponent’s gifts like that. My state of mind is like a Finnish candy. Which, mind you, is not sweet: it is bitter. However, I must not give up, just win in Japan".
Or perhaps, rather than winning at Suzuka, just waiting for the late Malaysian afternoon. As the drivers make their way up the stairs to the TV interview room, at around 1:55 p.m. in a hidden corner of the circuit the cars of the top three are closed in for technical checks. The Ferraris pass the first check but are then called back for a second check. No one takes any notice. It is just after 5:00 p.m., the Ferrari mechanics are sorting out all the material to be sent to Japan, when, like a bolt from the blue, comes the news of a complaint against Ferrari. One wonders if it is from McLaren, based on the threatening statements of Ron Dennis. But no, the Anglo-German team denies it. In the press room, at the same time, the following sensational statement is posted:
'After the race, cars 3 and 4 underwent a body conformity check. The side deflectors (art. 3.12.1) did not fit into the gauge that should contain them. It is my opinion that they are oversized by ten millimetres".
Signed Jo Bauer, FIA technical delegate. Ross Brawn and Stefano Domenicali are immediately summoned by the commissioners, who take a look at the drawings of these famous deflectors. Shortly afterwards, while Jean Todt remains locked in his bunker and keeps in touch with Montezemolo, the spokesman for the Rossa, Claudo Berro, clarifies:
"Those deflectors have been on the cars for three days and have passed all the technical checks. We already had them at the Nurburgring and no one had any objections. We have about ten of them because they are mass-produced. We can't understand, even if we wanted to on the computer we couldn't have made a mistake because the limit measurements are already set in the programme and an excess would be rejected. This could be a manufacturing error. But if the technical delegate didn't realise this, there must be someone who pointed it out to him, and it must be someone with a very experienced eye".
At 6:45 p.m., the verdict is sent to Todt. The decision is the one the team manager never wanted to read: Ferrari disqualified; Irvine and Schumacher ousted. Hakkinen wins the race ahead of the Stewarts of Herbert and Barrichello, and is World Champion, having twelve points ahead of Irvine. Ferrari decides to acknowledge before the judges the irregularity of the deflectors, but announces it will appeal to the FIA tribunal in Paris. After admitting fault, but not malice - a critical point on which the Maranello team's defence will focus - Jean Todt admits to the press:
"The baffle is not in order. We were convinced that it fully matched the design work done on the computer. It was perhaps a manual error during manufacture. And nobody noticed it. None of us, not even the FIA technical delegate who has known about these deflectors for three weeks, since we had also used them in the last race at the Nurburgring. He saw them for all three days of that Grand Prix and for all three of this one. Every night he checked them. But he only realised it at the end, when the race was over. How come? I have reason to believe that someone pointed it out to him after the race, someone who was there when the cars came in, saw it and went and reported it. And it must be someone with a very, very experienced eye, because we didn't notice this mistake either, not even Ross Brawn who is a trained technician. It's all very strange".
Todt categorically rules out the hypothesis of internal team sabotage but makes no comment when asked about possible indications from other teams. The deflectors, in any case, in his opinion do not bring such a large advantage as to decisively influence the outcome of the race:
"No advantage, not even half or at most a tenth. Nothing at all. But have you seen the piece? It's a plastic bulkhead with a kind of ear towards the end and an angled edge. Well: if you run a metre along that edge at a certain point you discover that there are, in fact, those ten millimetres. And what advantage do you want them to give?"
What are the chances of winning on appeal?
"I don't know, but it is very difficult. For us this is a blow we didn't need, on a day like this. But have you seen Schumacher what a phenomenon? And did you see Irvine, never a mistake. Perfect, great, and now they give us this blow. We are destroyed by disappointment, by bitterness. However, until we are proved wrong on appeal, the World Championship is not over".
Eddie Irvine is about to board the plane that will take him to Macao for a short holiday, when, just before turning off the phone, he receives a call from Todt, warning him of the latest events. So, in the blink of an eye, that dreamy afternoon turns into a nightmare: Eddie suddenly finds himself deprived of victory and the chance to fight for the World Championship, because he is defeated by the decision of some judges. He refused to make any statements to the media, limiting himself to saying that he would have to wait for the outcome of the appeal. Even the two-time World Champion - obviously waiting for the outcome of the appeal in Paris - prefers not to say anything to journalists. Hakkinen, in fact, remains in his office until 8:56 p.m., then disappears in a metallic grey Mercedes E280. It is his wife Erja, immediately after reading the Ferrari disqualification announcement, who says:
"It's one of the best pieces of news I've ever had, my heart is turned upside down".
Someone eventually manages to wrest a few words from Mika, who declares in passing:
"I don't want to get into the merits of what happened, I just know that if there was something irregular, then it's right that it ended like that. All I'm left to think is that if indeed the irregularity affected the outcome of the race, under normal conditions I would have won".
In the meantime, the fans who, in great numbers, had watched the Grand Prix at the Maranello auditorium and in the Ferrari Club headquarters, only discovered the implications of the disqualification after the celebrations, at home, at lunchtime, in front of the television. And on Maranello, on its streets still celebrating, suddenly a chill descends, silence. Don Alberto, the priest of Maranello, had not even bothered when he saw the church almost empty at 8.30am mass. He had understood, the Ferraristi had stayed at home to watch the grand prix on television. He had absolved them, and then, after the victory, he had rung the bells, and in the village there had been a big party, with processions of fans, carousels of cars and motorbikes, flags, horns, cowbells and frogs:
"I am disappointed, disappointed, and to think that that gesture, Schumacher ceding first place to Irvine, would have gone down in history like the water bottle passed from Bartali to Coppi".
Even the mayor of Maranello, Giancarlo Bertacchini, is sceptical:
"But is it possible that Ferrari went into the race knowing that it was not in order? The cars had already been checked, right? Everything had to be in order".
On 19 October 1999, Ferrari sent its appeal against the disqualification to the Paris court, basing its request on three fundamental points: the deflector did not bring any aerodynamic advantage to Irvine and Schumacher's cars; the penalty was absolutely disproportionate considering the offence committed; and the absence of malice. The hope is that the judges can at least reinstate the drivers in the final classification of the race, return points to Schumacher and especially Irvine, and penalise only the team in the constructors' championship. Awaiting the trial scheduled for 22 October, President Montezemolo vents his anger claiming:
"To lose a world championship by eight millimetres after having waited twenty years is a tragedy. To say that I feel bad is putting it mildly".
Michael Schumacher, who in fact has little interest in the drivers' championship but has nevertheless seen his monstrous race performance thwarted, defends the team, which he says has been unfairly criminalised. On holiday in Bali with his wife Corinna, he states:
"I am very sorry for what happened. I feel sorry for the team, for Eddie, because all the work done has not paid off. Unfortunately I can't do anything about it. My relationship with the team is not changing, it's just a mistake, an oversight, things that can happen, it's not right to criminalise Ferrari".
Jean Todt's hot reaction is to tender his resignation during the meeting with Montezemolo, who does not reject it, but freezes it pending events. Todt feels he bears the main responsibility for the whole affair, as he is in charge of sports management. Montezemolo, however, replies to the French manager's decision by saying that he is concentrating on Japan. On 18 October 1999, it is Todt who recounts what happened:
"I would have preferred to meet the press in a more pleasant situation. Instead what happened is what you know, and the fault is totally mine: I am responsible for sports management. As soon as I returned, I went to the president and made myself completely available for any of his decisions. From the sporting point of view, we had an absolutely unquestionable success, with total domination of our cars. After the race came the disqualification for a non-compliance of the deflector. We admitted our fault. There was negligence in the control. Something done without intention and which gives absolutely no advantage. We will prove this with facts in any forum. We have filed the appeal and have total confidence. The penalty is disproportionate. I have spoken to our drivers: they are deeply sorry but confident. Irvine drove a race without mistakes. Schumacher was the driver of the day: he did what we asked him to do to help Ferrari and Irvine. Immediately after the Grand Prix, Ecclestone said he hadn't seen a race like that for a long time. And he called me after the disqualification to say he was very sorry. Things like this have happened before. Each problem has been managed differently depending on the case. Even those that concerned McLaren. We took it for granted that there were no problems, but a new eye can always notice something. Some time ago we also saw something strange in the competition but we pointed it out before practice, not at the end of the race. We could have fixed it even before the Nurburgring if it had been pointed out right away. We finished seventh with that baffle and nothing happened. Nobody in Formula 1 shows the aerodynamics, it's tradition. We know very well that the cars are visible at the start, when they leave the track and at scrutineering. Despite our desire to protect our heritage, we didn't succeed".
Who, at the age of thirty-four, finds himself deprived of what is in all probability the only chance in his career to win a World Championship, is however Eddie Irvine. The Northern Irishman can only hope for a successful appeal, and, as Schumacher and many other insiders have said, he describes the penalty as extremely severe:
"When I heard about it I got a shock. I can't believe that I could lose a world championship like that. The penalty is too harsh compared to the crime. Now I'm in the hands of Ferrari, I trust in their strength, in their legal ability too. As a driver I can't appeal to anything, I can only think about driving and swear that the car was exactly the same as at the Nurburgring. Everyone in Formula One knows that those things there, the deflectors, give little or no advantage. In Germany we struggled, in Malaysia we were great, but certainly not because of the deflectors. They were like that, shorter, even at the Nurburgring. So it's just an oversight in clear good faith, not an attempt to cheat. And for a simple oversight there cannot be such a big penalty. No, I am convinced that the court in Paris will give me the points back. It is not possible to end a world championship like that".
On the side of those who believe that the disqualification inflicted on the Maranello team is exaggerated, there is Patrick Head, designer of Williams and historical enemy of Ferrari, who considers the disciplinary measure adopted in Malaysia excessive and out of place, and the patron of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone, until now a silent figure in this mess. For Bernie, the whole affair is meaningless, and a paltry mistake made in the factory by any technician cannot blow up a championship finale that promises to be breathtaking and that, obviously, would bring in more revenue from sponsors and television rights. Ecclestone also sinks the blow on the regulations:
"I have been complaining about too long that the regulations in Formula 1 are too rigid. What is happening is not good for the sport nor for the public, who want to see a grand finale at Suzuka. I would have liked this not to happen. Now I ask myself: how will they come out of this? The appeals court is as independent as any court on the face of the earth, and Ferrari has to prove that that deflector did not benefit them and was the result of a manufacturing error, and then they have to defer to the leniency of the court. But I repeat: it would be a penalty if it ended like that".
'If Ferrari had really wanted to cheat, they would have removed those baffles on Saturday, after Schumacher had taken pole position: that's when the controls are most stringent. Then, both at the Nurburgring and in Malaysia, no tests found any irregularities on the Ferrari, until the last minute. Bizarre, isn't it?"
On the subject of who tipped off the stewards about the deflectors mounted on the F399, Joachim Bauer, thirty-eight years old, engineer and for the past three years FIA technical-commissioner, dispels all doubts in an interview with the Bavarian newspaper Abendzeitung. Bauer reveals that, as first Todt and then Ecclestone implied, there had been a leak. Moreover, Ferrari's counter-intelligence, if you can call it that, discovered that at the Nurburgring the F399 was photographed by a McLaren emissary, who then studied the car on the computer and at the right moment sent the information to Jo Bauer, who triggered the check now known as the Sepang ambush. To the German newspaper, Bauer points out:
"At Ferrari there has always been a race to cover the cars as quickly as possible or to store things in the garage. It is the best-kept secret in all of Formula 1. So I thought: sooner or later you have to take care of it too. But there have also been insinuations about it from other quarters".
Hence the confirmation of the tip:
"That's how it is in Formula 1: everyone controls the other. They don't tell you about it directly, but if one wanders into the pits, then you collect observations and later reflect on them. That's why we also checked McLaren-Mercedes sometimes; because they always cover their engines quickly".
Ferrari, however, also used the deflectors at the European Grand Prix, and there was no intervention there. Why?
'The cars are not chosen a priori, but at random. A normal driver is certainly not caught every time he goes through a red light. In qualifying the Ferraris had already been taken away when we wanted to do the checks. On Sunday we found out precisely: ten millimetres too much for the deflectors, on both sides. However, I cannot believe the intentionality. It was really only a small thing".
At Maranello, meanwhile, they are also preparing for the hearing with wind-tunnel tests, aimed at demonstrating that the incriminated baffles did not bring any major benefits.
"We carried out a series of thorough wind tunnel tests, in the presence of outside experts, which confirmed that the flow deflectors used in Malaysia made no difference to the performance of the single-seaters. The sporting result achieved by the drivers and the cars in the race was not even the slightest bit affected by the facts that led to the exclusion, so Ferrari is confident that it will be able to prove this comprehensively on Friday in front of the Court of Appeal, in which it has the utmost faith".
In this regard, Max Mosley drops one of the points on which Ferrari was relying to assert its defence. The FIA president brings up Article 58 of the sporting regulations, which states that if a car is found to be non-compliant with the technical regulations, the absence of performance advantages will never be considered a defence. At Ferrari, therefore, they have to find something else to have the disqualification lifted, something concrete that cannot be denied by the regulations. In fact, in the few days leading up to the appeal, Ross Brawn has found what he needs, but he will be careful not to leak it until the day of judgement. Unaware of this, even Flavio Briatore is not among those in favour of those who would like the world championship reopened:
"Article 58 is unequivocal, to accept the excuse that the baffle did not affect it would be a disgrace. Rules are rules, good or bad, good or bad, they must be respected. It's like me making a ball-shaped car and then saying: it didn't give me any advantage. But what does that mean? If it is forbidden it is forbidden".
Briatore then also shows how certain things go in the racing world:
"When I was disqualified by Schumacher in 1994, for a piece of wood that had worn off by just one millimetre, do you know what they did the next day? Another rule to say that titanium should be used instead of wood, so a specious quarrel like that would never happen again. That's how things go".
In Germany, Bild confirms that the tip-off did indeed come from McLaren, and it also publishes a photo showing Hakkinen rummaging around inside Irvine's car. The newspaper indirectly asks Norbert Haug, head of the Mercedes racing department, whether such a thing is to be considered correct. Mercedes lets it be known that it does not like the word 'spy' appended to its name, but no reply of any kind comes from Haug. 22 October 1999 is the fateful day. At 9.30 a.m. the five international judges selected to decide the fate of this World Championship meet. The names remain secret; all that is known is that they are not from Italy, Ireland, Finland, Great Britain or Germany, to avoid any kind of favouritism. Ferrari presents itself in Paris with Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Aldo Costa and Rory Byrne, representing Ferrari along with lawyers Henry Peter and Jean Pierre Martel, who have been following the Maranello team for years. McLaren and Stewart are also present, asking to be heard, wanting to assert their own interests (on the one hand the World Championship victory, on the other the double podium by Herbert and Barrichello). Arriving at the Place de la Concorde at 9:15 a.m., Todt takes a look around the large, beautiful square. There is also Irvine, who in the chaos of journalists surrounding him gets a camera in his face. Rory Byrne goes unnoticed in the crush, while Aldo Costa skilfully dribbles past everyone. It is 2:30 p.m.; the hearing has already closed. Instead, the stampede begins; no one feels like making a statement. Jackie Stewart grabs a taxi and asks to 'be taken away from this place immediately'. The Ferrari men do the same, not saying a word, but leaving the onus to the lawyer Henry Peter, who begins by saying that the verdict will be announced the next day, at 11am, by Max Mosley himself. A trial lasting around four hours during which Ferrari presented a rich 106-page text, photographs and various drawings. And apparently, the Italian team managed to overturn the result. According to post-trial rumours, the Maranelo engineers have retracted their initial statement admitting the irregularity of the deflectors, claiming that on the contrary everything was designed within the norms and that the deflector, in Malaysia, was measured incorrectly. Seven millimetres, not ten: that was the missing carbon on each of the four incriminated baffles. Therefore, Jo Bauer's measurement was wrong, as those seven millimetres less do not exceed the tolerance threshold stipulated by the rules in such cases. For the time being, Henry Peter confines himself to saying that:
"It was a peaceful and satisfying hearing, as you can understand we cannot say anything out of respect for the judges who we want to be able to work in peace and serenity. We would have preferred a longer session, but in any case it was conducted by the judges effectively and concisely. Everyone had the opportunity to express their reasons. It was a real hearing with many parties, because apart from us there were two other teams and the FIA was also there. It was a real adversarial process in respect of the legal rules. We are satisfied with the way the court did its job. From a technical-legal point of view everyone had the opportunity to put forward their arguments".
Someone asked why Irvine was present:
"In agreement with president Montezemolo we felt it was a form of respect for the court to also bring the driver instead of letting it be known that he was on holiday somewhere far away".
Eddie was also questioned:
"He was able to express himself, and he gave the testimony we expected".
The first to speak on behalf of Ferrari was Ross Brawn, who, according to Peter, was instrumental:
"There were many articles to discuss, their interpretation. For example that Article 3.12 invoked in Malaysia is anything but easy. But the technical aspect was also important. Brawn was able to present it properly".
Is there cause for optimism? Peter glides with a no comment, limiting himself to saying that he has done an excellent job in synergy with Ferrari. The next day, at 11:00 a.m., in the conference room of the Automobil club of France is Max Mosley, who, in front of a line-up of journalists, clears his throat and begins by saying:
"The rules must always be respected".
With that bit of suspense worthy of a Hollywood film. Then, the verdict that everyone was waiting for with bated breath:
"And Ferrari respected them".
Mosley let the murmur in the hall grow and take its course, only to continue once silence fell again:
"The baffle was regular; the appeal tribunal judges accepted the demonstration made by Ferrari that the measurement of that part performed at Sepang was not appropriate. The FIA has been criticised for using inappropriate measuring equipment and this will force us to get new equipment, but it is good for the sport that a completely independent tribunal was able to overturn the first ruling. There were two problems: the piece itself, and its projection, which is the shadow that this piece casts on the ground. Look at my hand, please. The measurements in Malaysia were done roughly and poorly, but the shadow was also measured badly because it also depends on how that baffle is attached to the car. And this is precisely what Ross Brawn of Ferrari was able to demonstrate in the courtroom before the judges, comparing the deflector he had specially brought with the one that had been seized at Sepang and was in the possession of the judges. The court also asked Mr Bauer to show how he had performed his measurements after the Grand Prix. In essence, the more accurate measurement was better than the one taken in Malaysia and, moreover, another rule in the regulations, which provides for a tolerance, had not been taken into account there. This in this case is five millimetres and so the Ferrari's deflector was in order. At Maranello they realised the mistake as soon as they got back from Malaysia and by redoing the measurements, they realised that they had to start all over again and they proved that the mistake was made then".
Ferrari therefore exonerated, free to play for the World Championship title until the end. After a few days of agony, Eddie Irvine returned to the top of the Drivers' standings with a 4-point lead over Hakkinen, just as Ferrari regained the lead in the Constructors' Championship. In Malaysia it was Jean Todt who warned Eddie of the disqualification, and again it was the French team manager who gave the good news to the driver, who in the meantime had already landed in Japan. Eddie has been in Tokyo for four hours, anxiously awaiting the verdict. Then comes the call from Todt. All the anxiety and worry turn into screams of joy, which Eddie does not want to contain. Manager Enrico Zanarini keeps repeating it is fantastic, while the world championship leader joyfully declares:
"A great triumph for the whole team, but the most important thing is that Ferrari has been totally exonerated from a technical point of view. What happened in Paris was not a political decision, it was not reduced to business, as some feared. I didn't want it to end like that, the suspicions would have remained, the image tarnished. Instead, we are only talking about technical matters, the error was really insignificant, to the point of being within a margin of tolerance, our car has always been fully legal. And we will be able to take it, as it is, to Japan. That's the most exciting news, the judges have recognised that Ferrari respects the rules".
Eddie had never hidden his trust in his team, even before leaving Malaysia:
"I never thought, not even for a moment, that Ferrari might have built something illegal. Just as I never stopped believing in the title. That doesn't mean I wasn't a little worried, because you never know, a ruling can always have margins of unpredictability. But now the nightmare is over and with the most beautiful result, for me, for Ferrari, for the sport of Formula 1. Now we will go to Suzuka, and it will be a weekend of fire, on my favourite track. I will relax for a couple of days and then go on the attack. It's a big relief. We got back a victory that was well deserved on the field. And now we cannot make a mistake: we have to bring the two titles, drivers and constructors, to Maranello".
From his home in Switzerland, Michael Schumacher commented with satisfaction on the result of the appeal, who is aiming to play a fundamental role in the rainbow games at Suzuka, just as he did at Sepang:
"I am very happy with the decision taken in Paris. For Ferrari it is fantastic, we now have a great chance of winning both titles. I am happy that it ended like this, it is good for Formula 1. A World Champion not decided by the track, but voted by a jury in a courtroom, would have been bad for the image of our sport. In Japan I will help Irvine and the team. I will do my best to repeat the Sepang result. We can do it".
A logically opposite mood at home in McLaren, which approaches the last race of the World Championship as an underdog. In its official communiqué, the Woking-based team shows its disagreement with the decision taken by the judges:
"We were convinced that an infringement of the technical regulations had been pointed out in writing and orally. In cases of irregularities during a race, penalties are consistently applied and one of these was imposed in Malaysia, that of exclusion. In these circumstances we felt that the decision of the stewards was correct and consistent with what had happened previously. We therefore only expected the rules to be applied as they had been in the past for similar circumstances. We were surprised when the day before the hearing we learned that Ferrari had decided to argue, contrary to what it had admitted after the race, that it had not broken the technical regulations. And it argued its defence, denouncing the inadequacy of the FIA's procedures and technical equipment and thus giving an interpretation of the technical regulations that conflicted with what had been accepted before".
Ron Dennis added, addressing some newspapers, that:
"This was unfair and bad for the sport, this is a very bad day for Formula 1. But now we have to roll up our sleeves and go to Suzuka knowing that we can still win the world championship, and if we lose it, we won't be able to hang on to the Malaysian Grand Prix: that's a closed story".
The team principal also emphasises that he had already taken into account beforehand the possible decision to remove the disqualification imposed on the Ferraris, mainly for reasons he said were commercial. Everyone wanted to see a grand finale at Suzuka, and a choice that ran counter to this possibility was not acceptable. Finally, on holiday in Indonesia with his wife Erja, Hakkinen learned that he had to at least postpone his celebrations for his second world title. The reigning champion does not hide that he is surprised, however:
"This ruling does not change anything for me: next Sunday we will race again and as always I will come to the start of the Grand Prix with the aim of winning. The events of last week, the troubles at Sepang are behind me and I am already focused on the next race, as always. I am confident for the Japanese Grand Prix and I will do my best to win the race and the title".
The only thing missing from the Redhead's roll of honour was a victory in the Grand Prix.
"That's also won".
They howl at the Nello bar in Piazza della Libertà in Maranello, when Max Mosley announces in mondovision the full acquittal of the Prancing Horse. Whether it's a victory earned with lawyers rather than horses, it doesn't matter: the volley of cheers in front of the cameras of half a dozen German television networks already lurking since the morning is identical to that of a triumph at Monza. Nello Rossi, Maranello's most famous Ferrarista innkeeper, pulls out for the occasion the unprecedented Spumante Schumacher, the one for great occasions, packaged in strict Ferrari red by an imaginative Teutonic firm. Meanwhile, someone pulls Don Alberto Bernardoni's cassock while at the altar he is uniting Davide and Elisa in marriage. The couple is not in time to say 'yes' that the bells are already ringing: for the bride and groom and for Ferrari, on a euphoric morning spent in Maranello under torrential, liberating rain. And in the early afternoon, all the Ferraristi gather in Via Villeneuve at the Club, a sort of terraced house full of memorabilia from which the roars of the Fiorano track can be heard.
"Today is a rainy day, but for me the sun has come out".
Explains former racing team mechanic Enzo Macchi. As club president Alberto Beccari arrives, he answers a flurry of phone calls, poses for the cameras and welcomes the Ferraristi who have come to celebrate. A coach from Massa Carrara, a patrol from Bologna and one from Caprino bergamasco.
"They gave us back the ill-gotten gains".
Commented Beccari before the procession led by a dozen Ferraris. The mayor, meanwhile, prepares for the last Grand Prix. This year there will be three big screens: in the square, at the auditorium and at the Ferrari club.
"We are expecting thousands of people to arrive here as early as Saturday".
Ferrari prevailed in court, ensuring itself the chance to bring back to Maranello those world titles that have been missing for too long, and allowing Formula 1 to stage another grand finale, the third in a row after those in 1997 and 1998, when first Villeneuve and then Hakkinen got the better of Schumacher. Again, this year Ferrari is there to play for it, but not with the German phenomenon, but with the number two by contract, who will leave the team at the end of the year. Perhaps as World Champion. Suzuka is ready for the last duel of the season, which will be staged on 31 October 1999. Eddie Irvine versus Mika Hakkinen, Ferrari versus McLaren.