Tuesday 2nd October 2001. At the Fiorano track, Luca Badoer starts the last testing session before the end of the season. The Treviso test driver uses two specifications of the F2001, for a total of 120 laps and with three start simulations. His best lap is a 59’’312. The next day, Michael Schumacher joins the action together with Badoer. The current world champion has to deny rumours about his imminent retirement. The speculations arise when Mika Hakkinen said to the Auto Motor und Sport magazine:
"I see certain signs that lead me to doubt whether he will continue driving for a long time. He has been racing for a long time. He has children. He has had his success. He has had his accidents. And after every accident you start doing more thinking. You know at some point you will not get away without damage. It does not matter how much you love the sport - Michael too will ask himself sooner or later: how long is this to go on for?"
Unlike the Flying Finn, who will leave Formula 1 at the end of the season to enjoy a sabbatical year, Michael has no intention to hang up the helmet. Meanwhile, at Fiorano, the Ferrari driver completes 64 laps in total, carrying out tyre testing. His fastest time is a 59’’144, having done four start simulations. Badoer’s best time, in a 31 laps-stint, is a 59"949.
The last Grand Prix of the season, on Sunday 14th October 2001 at Suzuka, will also be the last one for Jean Alesi as well. The French driver, together with Eddie Jordan, the team owner of the Jordan team for which Alesi races at the moment, announce this decision through a press release.
"For the moment, it is not completely clear also what I am going to do. For sure I will not drive Formula 1 any more".
Declares Alesi. Jordan offered him a testing role for the 2002 season but he refused. The news of the retirement of the ex-Ferrari drivers is not a big surprise. A couple of days before, the drivers-line up for the 2002 season was already announced, with Giancarlo Fisichella and the rookie Takuma Sato. The Japanese is a Honda driver. Honda already supplies the engine to Jordan. However, from next year onwards, the Japanese will have an even bigger impact on the management of the team. Until now, the results did not live up to the expectations of a car manufacturer who lived immense success in Formula 1 with Senna and Prost.
Alesi debuted in Formula 1 in 1989 with Tyrrell. He stayed with the English team for two years, during which he made himself widely known and appreciated for his driving skills but also for his decisive and spontaneous character that would always distinguish him. His dream, as a son of emigrants (his Sicilian father emigrated to Avignone where he made a fortune and now manages a repair car shop) was to drive at the wheel of a Ferrari car. Alesi was able to achieve this dream in 1990, at the end of a grotesque season for Ferrari with the Prost-Mansell line-up. At the start of the Ferrari stint, Alesi was alongside Alain Prost, one of the biggest idols in France. When Prost was booted out of the Maranello team, he was with Ivan Capelli and then with Gerhard Berger. Alesi and Berger became one of Ferrari’s most loved line-ups. To this day, many Italians fondly remember that line-up.
However, those were not happy tears for Ferrari. The light at the end of the tunnel, for the Maranello team was found much more later than Montezemolo expected, after becoming the president in 1991. Alesi’s highest result was the 1995 Canadian victory, when he was almost at the end of one of the longest Ferrari stint that a driver ever had. That result was also a kind of straw that broke the camel's back. He was in fact convinced that Jean Todt favoured Berger. At the end of the season, Alesi told the French manager to fuck off in front of microphones and cameras. He and Berger then joined Benetton whilst Schumacher and a substantial team of engineers and technicians joined Ferrari. This was the start of Ferrari’s revival. Alesi probably came to Maranello in the wrong period of time. Furthermore, the Benetton stint was a disaster. The English team, during that period of time, was on a downwards spiral. Then he went to Sauber, Prost and to Jordan, until the end of the year.
Regarding the future, the young Fernando Alonso, who had an anonymous first season in Formula 1 with an uncompetitive Minardi, is hired as Renault test driver. The hope is that he gets promoted to main driver for the 2003 season. Instead, Sauber signs the Brazilian Felipe Massa, to replace the departing Kimi Raikkonen. With the two world titles already won by the Maranello team, some teams bring some experimental upgrades in view of next year cars’ development. Ferrari, after testing a new titanium gearbox at Fiorano (Minardi also uses it, which allows for lighter, stiffer and faster gear changes). The Italian team also brings to Japan a new spec chassis that will be given to Michael Schumacher. It is 5 kg lighter in weight compared to the one used until now. Williams once again uses the high exhaust whilst McLaren does not introduce particular upgrades. In their home Grand Prix, Honda will supply to Jordan and BAR a new qualifying engine.
Friday 12th October 2001, it is time for the first two free practice session. The race weekend start with Michael Schumacher’s domination in FP1. The German whirls around the Suzuka track in 1’37"443, three tenths ahead of Mika Hakkinen. Montoya is 3rd fastest ahead of Barrichello and Alesi, who will then make an impression later on. In FP2, the veteran Jordan driver sets a blistering time of 1’35"454, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya in the Williams (1’35"977). The two Ferrari driver appear to be slightly struggling: Michael Schumacher finishes the session in 8th place (1’36"727) whilst Rubens Barrichello is only 10th fastest (1’36"994). The finishing position does not seem to worry Schumacher too much:
"I think that most teams did run with less fuel, which is something that a team like Ferrari never does on a Friday. If Alesi did that blistering time with a normal fuel load, then someone will soon start to think that the Jordan team made a big mistake in pushing him into retirement".
The reigning world champion is convinced that Sunday will be a very interesting race for the competition between Bridgestone and Michelin:
"I was surprised by Montoya’s time today. I suspect that the enormous gap between him and my brother Ralf is not a second. The competition between Bridgestone and the other brand of tyre seems very close, so it will be interesting to see who is on top tomorrow afternoon".
You really like the Suzuka track:
"I like this circuit very much as it has several really good corners. The modifications which have been made to some parts of the track seem good as we now have more run-off area in some sections. The combination of high and slow-speed corners is a challenge for us drivers. On Sunday, it will be really fun to drive, without having the nightmare of scoring a good result at all costs. It will be a pleasure".
Schumacher says that it has been one of his most wonderful seasons of his career, excluding the tragedy of the terroristic attacks in the United States. He is also convinced that a generation change has been taking place in Formula 1 for quite some time now, starting from Raikkonen and Heidfeld’s debut:
"I am looking to the future. I will continue racing in Formula One because it still gives me great pleasure. I, at 32, do not feel old at all. Let’s say that I am in the middle generation. Prost, Mansell and Berger raced until 40. I thus have eight years left. I am not thinking about retirement at the moment".
Friday is characterized by Nick Heidfeld’s heavy incident. The German driver is miraculously unharmed after a scary shunt which breaks the Sauber car in half. On Saturday, with only three qualifying runs, Schumacher sets a quick lap time of 1'32"484. It is a time that no one is able to match. Whilst the others are trying to improve, with a couple of minutes to go, Michael’s mechanics are already packing the car tools. In the end, Michael Schumacher grabs pole position in dominant fashion. For the 11th time this season, he will start ahead of everyone. For the record, this is also 40th career pole position.
The two Williams are almost a second slower than Schumacher. Montoya (1’33"184) will start alongside the Ferrari driver Ralf Schumacher (1’33"297) is 3rd ahead of Rubens Barrichello (1’33"323). David Coulthard is only 7th fastest (1’33"916). In the battle for 2nd place in the drivers’ standings, Rubens needs a victory in order to overtake the Scott. The third row of the grid is occupied by Hakkinen (1’33"662) and Giancarlo Fisichella (1’33"830). At the end of the session, Schumacher declares:
"It was the perfect lap, certainly. To be so far in front of the next car means you are maximising your opportunities. I am surprised by the size of the margin, I must admit. Rubens’ situation is more important. It is pretty obvious our aim is to get Rubens second in the championship".
Off-track, there is a pleasant behind-the-scenes moment. Schumacher and Montoya cleared the air after months of mutual impatience. There were close fights on track that were mostly disliked by the German driver. After another dominating performance from Michael, Jean Todt does not hide his satisfaction and, does not have too much trouble talking about a memorable season:
"The results speak for themselves: eleven poles in the year is a record for Ferrari and for Michael Schumacher. We are aware that it will be very tough, given the strength of our opponents. Once again, our team has shown it has the determination and motivation which has led us to the World Championship titles. The 2001 car was exceptional".
At the point that it seems difficult to build a better car:
"There are margins to build an improved car. The performance can be enhanced and we exactly know how. We already tested a lighter chassis here. The gearbox and the engine will also be lighter. For months, we have been working in the wind tunnel and the test-bench to have a good car. On paper, we are already making progress".
Hakkinen says that McLaren is very far behind in the 2002 car. He also says that there is very much work and very little time. Will Ferrari only need to be aware of Williams for 2002?
"We will only know in Australia. How can I make predictions if I do know each rival’s chassis, engine and tyres? The tyres are decisive. Williams has Michelin but what about McLaren? It is a very good group of people, never underestimate them".
Ferrari has Schumacher:
"He is a driver that speaks with his heart and becomes stronger each passing year. He needs a great car, as all driver do, but there is no doubt that he is champion. His qualifying session was exceptional, there was no need to judge him. I should have not waited until Monza, when he spoke with all drivers on the grid, to understand his personality. Aging is good for him: he never makes a mistake now".
Is it only a joke that he will race until the age of 40?
"He has the physical and mental means to do this. If he stays motivated like now, I am ready to bet on this. The contract can always be lengthened. We wanted to consolidate this group for yet another three years, by renewing Michael and Rubens. Brawn, Byrne and I also extended our contract for this purpose. It is a deadline, not a terminus".
Which drivers did impress you the most?
"Ralf, sometimes Montoya, Heidfeld, Trulli, Fisichella and of course my drivers".
There is talks that in 2003, Massa will take Rubens’ place:
"In the same way that we should have replaced him with Raikkonen... We are happy like this. Sauber did a great job with our engines; it was the surprise of the season. Most teams cry for the sponsors that cut the budgets due to the war. No one abandons us because we win. Why should we change?"
Barrichello, after a disappointing qualifying session, point out that he wants to do the best race of his life to try overtake Coulthard:
"It will be tough. I need to win whilst he needs to finish in 5th position or below. I will give my best shot. We will see".
You approach the last race in Formula 1. Your goal is to bid farewell with a victory, surely:
"In the hope that there will not be a Schumacher to bother me".
Sunday 14th October 2001. It is time for the final race of the 2001 season on the Suzuka track. At lights out, Michael Schumacher gets a good start and cuts across to the right to defend against Montoya, who needs to same with his teammate. Giancarlo Fisichella, from 6th place, utilizes the Benetton launch control to overtake Hakkinen and get alongside Barrichello to threaten his 4th place. The Brazilian shrugs off the attention from the Italian and sets his sight on Ralf Schumacher.
During the course of the first lap, Rubens is running a light fuel load and is able to springboard past Ralf Schumacher, at 130R, for 3rd place. Soon after, he is right behind Montoya’s wheel tracks. The Brazilian brakes as late as he dares into the chicane. At turn 1, the battle rumbles on as Montoya powers down the inside of Barrichello to re-take 2nd place. The grid order is as follows: Michael Schumacher leads by 8 seconds over Montoya, Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Fisichella and Hakkinen. Coulthard and Trulli are just outside the top-scoring positions.
Fisichella’s flying start is thwarted by a mistake of his own doing. The Roma driver gets out of shape at the exit of turn 8 and loses the rear of the Benetton. This leads him to half spin. Luckily, he is able to continue on but loses a couple of places as a consequence. On lap 5, at the Dunlop curve, Kimi Raikkonen suffers a suspension failure and Jean Alesi, immediately behind, collects the Finn. The rookie and the veteran have a lucky escape after the ugly incident without any consequences. Alesi’s Formula 1 long-standing career ends in a sad retirement.
At the start of the 15th lap, Barrichello enters the pits for the first of the three scheduled stops. (all the other drivers opt for a two-stop strategy) and re-joins the track in 8th place, just behind Trulli and Fisichella. Schumacher is the first to pit, out of the top driver who are on a two-stop strategy. On lap 18, the pit stop lasts 8.8 seconds and exits in a McLaren sandwich, in between Hakkinen and Coulthard. Michael temporally gives the lead to Montoya. While the Colombian sets a series of quick lap times, Schumacher is fighting with Hakkinen for 3rd place. The Flying Finn defends the last step of the podium with a knife between its teeth and is able to keep the Ferrari driver behind. This is the last duel between the two historic rivals.
On lap 21, the Williams mechanics get ready to service Montoya. The pit-stop lasts 8.8 seconds: the Colombian re-joins in 5th place, behind Coulthard. On the 23rd lap, Ralf Schumacher also makes the first pit-stop and re-joins the track in 5th, behind Barrichello. Hakkinen is the fourth different race leader but it does not last long. As Hakkinen makes his fist pit-stop, with 29 laps to go, the world champion re-takes the la leadership of the race. On lap 28, Ralf is sentenced with a 10 seconds Stop&Go penalty for repeatedly cutting the final chicane. The German serves the penalty at the same time as Barrichello dives into the pits for the second pit-stop. The Brazilian’s pit stop is much longer than expected and it lasts 12.6 seconds. This gives the opportunity for the younger Schumacher to overtake the Ferrari.
At the exit of the pit lane, the young Williams driver nails Barrichello for 5th on lap 29. Looking at the replay, the Brazilian had a momentary glitch with the pit-lane limiter; however, Ralf overtook him by crossing the white line, which is not allowed by the regulations. This move is under investigation but the stewards decide to not penalize Ralf. With 21 laps to go, Barrichello channels his frustration and tries to overtake the Williams driver at the final chicane. The two are side by side but Ralf is cuts across the chicane once again. In order to avoid any further investigations by the stewards, the German allows Rubens through around the outside of turn 1.
At the end of the 38th lap, the top drivers have all made their second pit-stops and there are no major changes in the classification. The German ace has enough of a gap to lift off the gas in the final stages of the race. Montoya has a sudden resurgence and closes the gap to Michael to three seconds. In the end, the Colombian's attempts to win the race are in vain. Meanwhile, Hakkinen’s team playing instincts come into force, letting Coulthard pass for 3rd. Michael wins the Japanese Grand Prix for the second year in succession, signing off this season in great style. This is ninth career victory, his fourth in the Sol Levante country and his 53rd career one.
Moreover, with 10 further points, he reaches the total if 801, beating Prost’s record tally of 798.5. A couple of weeks, Schumacher had also beaten Il Professore’s record of 51 wins. Montoya crosses the line in 2nd place ahead of David Coulthard. Mika finishes his last Formula 1 in 4th place, ahead of a disappointed Barrichello. The Brazilian’s strategy did not work at all and finishes ahead of a disgruntled Ralf Schumacher.
Coulthard thus is able to take 2nd place in the drivers’ championship with 65 points, 9 more than Barrichello. The Ferrari driver finishes the season in 3rd place and with no wins to his name. It is a little bit jarring in comparison to Schumacher’s 9 wins and 123 points in total. His outstanding work as a n.2 driver is only a meagre consolation. Ferrari dominates the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren and Williams. Sauber finishes in 4th place. With 21 points, the Swiss team beats the Jordan team, stuck at 19. 6th place for BAR, despite finishing on the podium twice with Jacques Villeneuve. Benetton concludes the final season in Formula 1 with a disappointing 7th place. According to Flavio Briatore, this season was a transitional year. From now on, the team will be managed in all respects by Renault.
End of the road for Prost as well. It was a troubled season for the French team due to the multiple drivers’ changes. The team has only scored 4 points. They finish 9th in the constructors’ championship, behind the Jaguar team who scored 9. The only team to not score point is Minardi. Arrows was able to overtake the Faenza-based team thanks to Jos Verstappen’s 6th place in Austria.
It is the aftermath of the race and it is time to emotionally say goodbye to Hakkinen and Alesi. Meanwhile, Barrichello is disappointed and sad for being unable to overtake Coulthard in the drivers’ championship. The Brazilian is angry with Ralf Schumacher for the fierce track battles with Ralf. Furthermore, he does not like the nonchalant way with whom the German first mocked him in the pits and then forced him to do somersaults during an overtake:
"It is much nicer to fight against Montoya than Ralf. I think Ralf went a bit over the top in our fight together. The Colombian is honest and fair whilst Ralf is not. Then I lost more time during my final stop, when the engine cut out. I was then faster than Ralf, he should have let me go. I was already much more in front by the time he turned in. By the time that he saw he couldn't turn, he came off the brakes and went straight. And that is where I thought it was a bit unfair. In the end, I finished 5th, which is not the greatest thing in the world".
You do not agree with Barrichello’s accusations:
"After the first pit stop it seemed the speed limiter on Rubens’ Ferrari got stuck so this is why I had to swerve at the end of the pit lane to avoid hitting him. Regarding our battle, I behaved in a sporting manner, in the spirit of this sport. It was hard but fair. For me, those are normal racing sparks. I do not know what Barrichello wants from me".
As said before, Coulthard is on the podium, courtesy of Hakkinen. Can you explain the Finn’s gesture?
"I think Mika let me past towards the end of the race as a goodwill gesture and I will thank him later. I need to thank him for helping me throughout my career".
On the day of his goodbye to the sport, the first victory in Jerez ’97 comes to mind. Coulthard let him by in the last laps of the race, enabling him to finally win. The Flying Finn also remembers fondly the Melbourne and Hockenheim ‘98 races, both gifted by Coulthard. He is not one that does not forget. Granting Coulthard a podium was his thank you note. Besides, Mika will never forget the battles with Schumacher:
"He is the greatest driver of his generation; I had the misfortunes of finding ahead of me for so many years. Without him, I would have won more races and championships. It was fun to battle with him. It has always been clean racing with him. That has always been my style anyway, I have always been trying to race a very clean race, and Michael has been exactly the same".
The winning momentum never seem to hit Barrichello. In order to finish 2nd in the drivers’ championship, the Brazilian driver should have won the race, with Coulthard only finishing in 5th place or below. Schumacher would have helped if the race turned off differently for Rubens. Despite this, he does not have any regret:
"Let’s put it this way. Even if I had not won in Indianapolis, which I think I could have, if I had finished second there, I would have been level with David. And then today I would start normal on the safe side to finish in front of him. And on two-stops I would have finished in front of him, no problem. But the fact is that I had to win the race to finish in front. As Ross put it to me, are we here to fight, are we here to win, or are we here just to see who's going to drop off in front of me? No. Then I lost more time during my final stop, when the engine cut out. That meant I was no longer in with a chance of even getting on the podium".
The fact is that Barrichello closes the championship with less point than in the 2000 one (56 against 62). He is also the only one, out of top-6 driver, failing to score either one victory or one pole-position, nor the fastest time in all 17 races. Instead, an insatiable Schumacher closes the 2001 championship in a dominating fashion. Having overtaken Prost with 53 wins, the German champion only need to beat another record: beating Senna’s record of 65 pole positions. At 32, he said that he wants to race until the age of 40 and can easily be able to hit that target as well. How will you celebrate this new triumph?
"With a cigar and a nice glass of wine. It is marvellous to finish the season exactly the way I wanted. The Suzuka result is a dignifying end of a perfect and fantastic season in all respects. We won nine race and I was already the world champion as early as mid-August, our rivals often had to give up. Dominating is a term that I do not like. As for the season as a whole, we were dominant for the first two races in Australia and Malaysia. If the entire championship had played out that way, I would have then spoken about domination. After that, it was very tight and we had to fight hard. A season like this one is pretty tiring and stressful".
You scored 123 points in a year. A driver, in the history of Formula 1, has never done this. Your rival, Coulthard, who finished 2nd in the standing, is 58 points behind:
"We were helped in winning the championships early by the fact that David had some reliability problems. It is true that I had a superlative car. Out of 17 races, I only had technical issues in Imola and Hockenheim, I am happy the season is over, even if it was without a doubt, the best of my career".
It seems like Montoya is a threat for the future:
"I will never underestimate Williams/McLaren and their drivers. At the start of the season, I thought that I would fight with Hakkinen. Instead my rival was Coulthard. How can you say that the threat for the championship will be Montoya? What about my brother Ralf?"
Talking about Hakkinen, you fought with him halfway through the race:
"It was a nice battle. I enjoyed myself like old time. I am sorry that he retires, he will be missed".
Alesi will also say goodbye:
"I tried all weekend to convince him to stay. Jean, reconsider your decision. The winter break is long, I hope that he will think about not retiring just yet and that he does not go America, where the races are always dangerous. I am sad, I am losing a great friend".
Montoya is not your friend:
"I do not know outside the track. I do not have any relationship with him. The only thing I know about him is that he drives the Williams car very well".
You do not like to talk about his records but you are continuing to collect them:
"Forget about records. They are satisfying but I will think about them at the end of my career. I wanted to win here for another reason. Monza and Indianapolis were difficult. I lived through a period when my morale took a knock. People forget very easily and were already asking if I was thinking about retirement... In Japan, we were back to what we used to be a month and a half prior. This was a great end to a great season and it is wonderful for the team. Winning on my own terms means we can go into the winter break in a positive frame of mind".
You were always leading the race from the start: have you ever fear that you were never going to make it to the chequered flag?
"As for the race, we had an advantage in the first few laps, which came from our tires, which then remained very consistent after that. I was surprised at the gap I built up in the early laps, but at that point we were not sure if Williams were on a one or a two-stop strategy. When I realized that both Ralf and Montoya were also doing a two-stops strategy, I realized that the race was mine to take".
You promised that you were going to help Barrichello.
"I feel sorry for Rubens, who was unlucky today. We did have a plan for me to help him. He would try and pass the Williams and then I would let him pass to win. But when he was unable to get by, there was no point in me sacrificing my race".
What was your best victory this year?
"There is no one victory better than the others. All season was superlative. It was the perfect year and this victory is the perfect end to it".
What about the future?
"For now, I am only thinking about going on holiday. I will be at the Ferrari Day, on the Monza circuit. I want to celebrate with our Tifosi".
These are your plans for the foreseeable future but what about 2002?
"We will fight and continue to win. We already tested new parts of the 2002 cars. We tested the chassis here in Japan and the new gearbox at Fiorano. I am sure that we will again be competitive. What I can definitely say is that I am sure we will have two rival teams, one silver and one blue and white. Let’s see who comes out on top next year".
Michael, in short, already has clear ideas for the next championship. It was mentioned Senna’s record of 64 pole positions which he might beat. Yet, there is another record, the most prestigious of all, that he has in mind: equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s 5 world championship. Having such a dominant Ferrari car at disposal, it will difficult to stop the German.