After McLaren's crushing victory at Imola, Formula One moves on to Barcelona for a classic three-day test session at the Montmelò circuit, where the following week the fifth round of the 1998 season also will take place. Although the superiority of the Mp4/13 has been evident so far, Ferrari is approaching the Catalan tests with optimism, because according to engineer Paolo Martinelli, head of the Maranello team's engine department:
"From the engine point of view, the result on Sunday is very good. No problems throughout the race, no drop in performance, absolute reliability. Now the two engines used will be examined, first on the dyno to check their exact performance, then disassembled for measurements of all internal parts. All important data to continue on the road to the necessary improvements, which will strengthen an engine that has arrived at its first evolution, the so-called D, after only one race, winning the Argentine Grand Prix on its racing debut".
During the test session there will also be a lot of focus on the new periscope exhausts, an innovation on which Ferrari is spending a lot of energy, in order to use it in the race. On this issue the engineer states:
"It's true that the engine will benefit, but not enormously: configuration, diameter and length all come into play in the performance of an exhaust system. It is clear that with this innovation, we engine builders have also tried to achieve something, and we have succeeded. But nothing substantial".
Martinelli concludes with a revelation that gives the fans hope:
"Towards the middle of the championship, and certainly for the German Grand Prix, the 047/D will have a further injection of horsepower. A small increase in power without losing anything in terms of reliability, which remains the main objective for the Grand Prix".
Satisfied, but not too much, President Luca di Montezemolo, who still had to witness the rival team's one-two on Ferrari's home circuit:
"I am very satisfied with the result in the San Marino Grand Prix, but not thrilled. In the last two races we achieved one success, and we went both times with our drivers on the podium. But I am still missing something. To win the world title you need victories. The other positive notes are the reliability of the cars and the full recovery of Irvine. Eddie has started to bring precious points to the team, as he did when he was ahead of Villeneuve. In short, the progress is there, I am proud of the team, the behaviour of the mechanics, technicians and managers. In the pits and on the track everything is working perfectly. We know that McLaren remains the favourite, which is why I have asked our men to continue working as they have done so far. We will leave no stone unturned to make progress. Tyres, electronics, aerodynamics, engine, high exhaust, everything is taken into account. Little by little, the cars have to reach one hundred percent of their actual potential. The tyres remain our worry, Michael and Eddie told me that they are still not consistent in their performance. After a few laps, they struggle to get on the gas coming out of corners, and that's something we have to fix. Obviously I've spoken to the Goodyear people and asked for their full commitment. We'll see in the next few days on the track in Barcelona".
The poor performance of the US tyres has contributed to increasing tension between Ferrari and Goodyear, which will most likely leave the circus at the end of the season. There are even rumours of an early divorce, with Bridgestone ready to sign an agreement with Ferrari if it wasn't for the usual economic issues getting in the way. Yes, because Goodyear not only offers Ferrari tyres free of charge, but also pays a hefty sum for sponsorship to the Scuderia. Thinking of ending the relationship sooner than expected therefore seems complicated. At the end of the first day of testing on 30 April 1998, there are no surprises in the times set: Hakkinen and Coulthard are ahead of everyone, despite some reliability problems on both cars. Hakkinen's V10 engine failure and a leak in Coulthard's hydraulic system cause the day's two red flags. Ron Dennis' team, however, do not despair, as these are components that had already been tested at length in previous sessions and were therefore close to breaking. Giancarlo Fisichella's ordeal continues as he is unable to turn his season around. Only one point scored in Brazil and an avoidable crash at Imola while he was competing for top positions; the Roman driver is visibly struggling in the confrontation with his teammate Wurz. The first day of testing does not start well for him either. After just one completed lap, while he is at high-speed going into turn 1, something brakes on his Benetton. Fisichella crashes violently into the barriers; he gets out of the wrecked car, limps to the barriers and leans against them while waiting for the ambulance to take him to the medical centre. Nothing serious for him, but the physiotherapist advises him to rest for at least a day.
"I was travelling at around 300 km/h and something must have broken on the car because when I started to brake the rear of my Benetton suddenly lost grip and I couldn't control it anymore. At first I thought the rear suspension had broken down, but instead a tyre may have slackened off".
It is a light day for Ferrari, who limits themselves to working with test driver Luca Badoer on set-ups, engine mappings and new brakes, before a sudden downpour on the circuit brings a premature end to the day's testing. From the second day onwards it will be the turn of the two factory drivers. For half of the first day of tests, Tyrrell insists on mounting the by now forbidden candelabra on the car, to then remove them in the afternoon. The designer of the historic British team, Mike Gascoyne, is not at all happy with the decision taken by the FIA, explaining:
"We designed our car with these wings and it won't be easy to remove them even if we do without them tomorrow. We have already complained to the FIA. If it's true that they are dangerous, can't the same be said of Formula 1 cameras?"
Over the next two days of testing, McLaren's monopoly continues, although Ferrari doesn't seem to be far behind. Schumacher completes an entire race simulation without a hitch, with the F300 fitted with high exhausts, the 047/D engine, and a new lowered rear wing, running ninety-two laps, while Irvine works on the set-up and tyres of the second Ferrari. In terms of lap times, the Red is four tenths away, but it is difficult to assume that these are the real distances between the two teams, having to consider the many variables such as the tyres used, the fuel loads and how hard the drivers pushed on the accelerator. David Coulthard, however, considers Ferrari a threat in the upcoming Spanish race, stating:
"I was impressed by Michael's times, we will have to be careful".
In contrast, the man himself is quick to put his hands up, despite a consistent race pace, and lightly worn tyre sets:
"The car has improved, but it is still not at the level of the McLaren: it will be hard to fight for the triumph. It would take a gift from heaven. I think that if everything is normal, realistically, we can fight for third position. Strange things would have to happen to turn the situation around. Obviously we will do our best to get the best possible result, but the chances of winning are slim. It's true that we are progressing, but the others are not standing still. Anyway, I was afraid that the Barcelona circuit could become a big problem for Ferrari, but that fear has now subsided. I am no longer so far away from the drivers leading the world championship. Especially in Barcelona, where the corners are wide, the tyres will make a big difference".
During the third and last day, some small controversy develops after Damon Hill spins right in the middle of Schumacher's race simulation. The red light in the pit lane comes on, but the session is not interrupted according to an agreement between the circuit and Ferrari. This causes several teams to rise up, precisely McLaren, Benetton, Stewart and Tyrrell, specifically attacking the German driver, someone who has been fighting for safety for years and who, according to the protesters, should have been the first to stop. The owners of the circuit immediately defended themselves, saying that - in the case of race simulations in progress - this has been the practice for three years, while Schumacher, who claims to have lifted his foot during the accident, dismissed the case by saying:
"There is a big difference between a red flag and a red light. With a red light you can turn".
A small diatribe that ends without a trace. Once the tests are over, the drivers have a few days' rest before returning to Barcelona, ready to start the fifth round of the World Championship. On Thursday May 7th, in a press conference, David Coulthard is determined to follow in the footsteps of Imola, where he scored his first win of the season:
"To win a World Championship, you have to try to score in every Grand Prix. My first place at Imola already seems far away. Here the track changes every day and even if you try a lot, as we did, you can never say you know it well enough. If you're lucky, all it takes is a little set-up adjustment to go fast".
During testing, McLaren tested a new rear chute that could also debut as early as Sunday, but for the moment, as sporting director Jo Ramirez also confirms:
"We have this novelty in the box, but initially we will stay with the chute already used. If we have time, we'll test the differences in performance, which we already know are very small. The fact is that this MP4/13 is very good, homogenous: its winning character is the result of the project as a whole. Making improvements - even modifying an important part - isn't easy, but we are working on it".
Williams is in a state of total despair, which is also evident from the way Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who sits alongside Coulthard at the same conference, speaks:
"Theoretically, we at Williams can still win this world championship, but with each passing race the possibility becomes more and more remote. Improvements? Not before the Canadian Grand Prix, maybe we'll already have something in Monte Carlo, but here we start with the same material with which we finished the San Marino Grand Prix. A new Mecachrome engine? Maybe, I'm waiting for it. But without Renault, everything on that front is slowing down”.
Almost as a sign of solidarity with Tyrrell, who the week before had expressed his discontent for the compulsory abolition of the side wings, Prost appears at the technical checks equipped with the same devices. Cesare Fiorio, sporting director of the French team, clarifies what happened:
"We did not want to proclaim any holy war, but only to draw attention to the fact that these solutions are the result of long and costly experimentation. Moreover, the FIA, in order to change the technical regulations, must have the unanimous agreement of all the teams, or else give us advance notice. It can only do without it for safety reasons. For us, in this case, that is questionable. Alesi indeed hit a gun with a side wing, but he could also have done it with a tyre".
Small objections that, unfortunately for Tyrrell and Prost, not forgetting the other teams that had bet on the stanchions, will have no positive outcome. They will remain illegal and the two teams, in a clear crisis of results, will have to find other solutions to avoid the mediocre results at the beginning of the season, above all unexpected for Prost, who hoped to make a big step forward by replacing Mugen-Honda engines used in 1997 with Peugeot ones. The next day they are back on the track for the first two free practice sessions, and what is surprising is certainly not Hakkinen and Coulthard in front of everyone, nor the Finn, who distances his teammate by eight tenths, but rather the second and three tenths advantage over Schumacher, only fifth. In third position, surprisingly, is Johnny Herbert, who scores a qualifying simulation lap in the final stages. Once again, it seems to be the Bridgestone tyres that made the difference, as shown by the excellent performance of Rubens Barrichello's Stewart, placed seventh, ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, who pays two seconds from Hakkinen's best time.
"Here the car is unbalanced, there is something wrong, we have to see, understand, fix it".
Admits Michael Schumacher, who then goes on to say:
"Too much oversteer in the fast corners, too much understeer in the slow corners, and then the brakes giving me a lot of problems. I had to change my driving style completely. I was expecting this. Already last week in the tests we did on this circuit we realised we were not going well and now things are the same, nothing has changed. Such a big gap is certainly due to the tyres. We expected that too, we have had tyre problems since the first race. But let's say it's also a tyre problem, not just a tyre problem. Mclaren has another brand and the gap is there. Wanting to quantify it, let's say that fifty per cent of that advantage is certainly due to the tyres. But there is also the car, and ours has something wrong with it. There are also problems with the wind, at least here today in these conditions. In some corners it unbalances the car, in others not. We have to pray that it changes direction because then things could be better. If everything goes well, I can be third. But, I repeat: if everything goes well, if there are no problems. The fact is that we can't get any closer".
In the meantime, his manager Willi Weber, talking busily under the Mercedes marquee, and to a German newspaper declares:
"We want to respect the contract with Ferrari, but if Ferrari were to slip into a state of mediocrity, then it would be hard to consider staying there any longer. However, a defeat for Michael in this world championship would not necessarily mean that he would leave Maranello".
On Saturday 9 May 1998, with a time of 1'20"262, Mika Hakkinen outdistances all his rivals, including David Coulthard, who is seven tenths down on his team-mate, even though the two have the exact same car. Michael Schumacher gets the most out of his qualifying and is third, a second and a half off the pole, followed by the two Benettons of Fisichella and Wurz, with the Italian finally beating his teammate in qualifying after losing the last three confrontations. Irvine is sixth, while Williams have to reckon with the worst qualifying of the last nine years: Villeneuve is tenth after crashing, Frentzen is thirteenth. Riccardo Rosset also has a colourless performance: at the wheel of the Tyrrell he does not even manage to reach 107% of the useful time to qualify, remaining excluded from the race. The twenty-nine years old driver from Helsinki seems to have reached the perfect alchemy with his McLaren, and speaks of an impeccable car, without faults, but he preaches calmness and never to lose concentration; Coulthard promises a battle since the first lines, but it is clear that here he is not able to keep up with him. Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, thanks to the new high exhausts:
"Without them I would not have achieved the third fastest time. Last week, I did a good race simulation on this track: I hope I can repeat it. It's not pleasant to be so far behind the McLarens, but I hope the situation will improve over the next few races".
Also Schumacher, however, has very little chance to contend the victory to Hakkinen. The Bridgestone tyres give the two Silver Arrows an advantage that is difficult to close:
"We have to work hard to catch up, but I was expecting all this, I just have to try to contain the damage, pick up a few points, keep in close contact with my rivals, work hard because we absolutely have to make progress. They have tyres that perform very consistently in the race and we have to see how ours perform. We did some endurance testing last week, but the conditions were different: only at the end of the Grand Prix will we be able to make an exact evaluation. During the morning's free practice, I had a silly electrical fault and was left standing on the track. I took the opportunity to watch the other cars go by, and when I saw those with Bridgestone tyres I was always impressed by how well they were doing. I'll say it again: it's not all the fault of the tyres, but we have to take a step forward. And in any case, you have to take into account another reality: we are still the best Goodyear-tyred team".
The only faint hope remains rain, the chances of which are slim, but still enough to hope for something to slow the McLarens' race. Even the reigning World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve, complains about his car, after a less than exciting qualifying session:
"What can I do? All I can do is wait for better times. The fact is that we work, we work hard but we don't see any results".
On the other hand, Giancarlo Fisichella is confident about the race:
"This time I will finish ahead of Schumacher. The car is perfect, fast, with the new suspension it doesn't run away on the rear under acceleration anymore: aiming for the podium is the minimum. I had a bad time, outside Imola, I even crashed in the street, but now it's all behind me. I like this circuit, last year I did the fastest lap in the race".
Sunday May 10, 1998, at 2:00 p.m. there are only a few harmless clouds scattered across the blue sky of Catalunya; rain is already a distant thought in Schumacher's mind, who two years earlier, on the same circuit flooded by torrential rain, was the protagonist of one of his most memorable victories. Since it is an abrasive track, all the drivers, except for Johnny Herbert, decide to mount the hardest tyres, and this is true for both Bridgestone and Goodyear tyres. In terms of strategy, it seems unlikely that more than two stops will be made. At the start of the reconnaissance lap, Pedro Paolo Diniz remains stationary on his pit lane, so once the problem on his Arrows has been resolved, he will take part in the race starting from the pit lane. The lights go out, and as already happened on the two previous occasions when he started from pole, Mika Hakkinen has an impeccable sprint and gives Coulthard no chance to attack him. Bad start for Schumacher, overtaken by Fisichella and Irvine even before approaching the first bend, where he at least manages to keep Alex Wurz behind. The German finds himself in fifth position. Disaster for Frentzen, who started from thirteenth position and is involved in an accident with Jean Alesi coming out of the Seat bend. The two drivers come out with damaged cars and are therefore forced to return to the pits to repair the cars. For the German driver, scoring points becomes even more of a pipe dream. After just one lap, Hakkinen is already four seconds ahead of Eddie Irvine. Coulthard is less disruptive, but in any case the flight of the Silver Arrows has just begun, and as it is easy to foresee, the only battle to be seen for the podium is between Benetton and Ferrari.
Fisichella keeps in Irvine's wake, Schumacher does the same with the Benetton driver, but the three drivers remain in single file, without ever giving any sign of battle: overtaking is impossible, therefore the conquest of the third place is determined by the pit-stops. Around lap 20 the first series of pit-stops start and at the same time the race of the two Arrows driven by Diniz and Salo ends, who with a timing at the limit of perfection brake the engine at the same time, while they are both running on the main straight. The British team has decided to use the new engine only in qualifying, and then mount the old ones for the race. A choice that did not pay off. On lap 25 Irvine and Fisichella stop at the same time: pit-stop without any hitch for both Ferrari and Benetton, then the drivers restart exactly in the same order as before, with Irvine in front and Fisichella very close. Schumacher's overcut on the two has the desired effect, because after the stop the German driver re-enters ahead of his teammate, and thus regains the third position lost at the start. Having had to give up his position perhaps made Fisichella lose his lucidity, and on the next passage, thanks to Irvine's imprecision in the last sector, he takes advantage of all the slipstream offered by the Ferrari and moves alongside him on the braking of turn 1, attempting a courageous overtaking move on the outside. Irvine doesn't stop his race, Fisichella closes the trajectory convinced that his rival did: the cars cross each other and end up in the gravel. The two drivers get out of the cockpit, inexorably retired. Giancarlo is furious, and rails against Irvine: the Roman driver blocks his way, wants explanations, shouts and gesticulates, while the Northern Irishman does not even glance at him and tries to make his way.
"I let him pass twice, at the start and also a lap before the accident, just after Schumacher came out of the pits. I was also on the inside, he was on the outside, but further ahead, and I lifted my foot, to avoid collisions. In the same situation, he behaved in the opposite way. That's what I told him on the sand, he didn't even dignify me with an answer, he just spread his arms. He ruined my work, my team's work. And he doesn't care".
Fisichella thunders on after the race, while Irvine is much calmer in his comments on the incident:
"The mistake was his, I'm not guilty of anything. I was on the inside, he tried an impossible overtake. I braked, but it wasn't enough, the rear of the car escaped, I lost control, we touched. But he cut me off. Find me a driver who lets himself be overtaken without a fight. And on the outside, too. Is he angry? He's young, exuberant, he'll calm down".
The stewards will agree with Irvine, and punish Fisichella with a $7.500 fine. David Richards, team principal of Benetton, announces that he will not appeal, but says:
"I am very surprised. The authorities must be respected, but I can say that this decision is incredible. I understand that Ferrari is more powerful than Benetton, but my opinion on the accident is completely different from that of the stewards".
The double retirement upsets the first six positions: the McLarens continue to make the pace totally forgotten by the international television direction, Schumacher is third with an advantage of eight seconds on Wurz, now fourth. In fifth position stands Rubens Barrichello, who can now seriously think of giving his team their first points of the season. Bridgestone tyres, a new Ford engine and the Brazilian's talent are making the difference, not forgetting the kindness of Fisichella and Irvine. Sixth is Jacques Villeneuve, who for the whole race has to defend himself from Johnny Herbert's attacks. The situation remains stable until the unexpected event, which takes place on lap 39: Michael Schumacher is punished with a 10-second Stop&Go for exceeding the speed limit in the pit lane, during his first stop: 126 km/h instead of the 120 foreseen. After the penalty, the third place goes to Alexander Wurz, but Schumacher does not give up and as soon as he is back on track he pushes like a madman to get closer to the only Benetton left in the race. After forty laps, the drivers start to return to the pits for the second pit-stop, and while the McLarens continue to stroll, with Hakkinen who allows himself the luxury of being able to stop more than ten seconds in order not to take any risk, crucial moments are outlined to define the remaining positions in the points zone. Villeneuve delays his pit-stop to try to overtake Barrichello, but as already happened in Imola while he was fighting with Irvine, his stop lasts too long, and Stewart keeps the fifth position.
Schumacher undertakes the same tactic that had previously allowed him to climb up the classification, re-entering two laps after Wurz. Due to the traffic encountered by the young Austrian driver, this time too Schumacher regains his position, without exceeding speed in the pit lane. The final phase of the race is made lively by the Williams, with Villeneuve who runs in defence to keep the sixth place on Johnny Herbert, succeeding in keeping calm also in the delicate moments, as when he has to leave the way to the McLarens, and with Frentzen who overtakes Magnussen, Ralf Schumacher, Alesi and Trulli, and thanks to Alesi's retirement in the final part of the race, he finishes in eighth position. An excellent comeback for the German driver, waiting for the arrival in Monte Carlo of numerous innovations that will hopefully propel the FW20 back into the top positions. It is the last lap when finally Hakkinen is framed by the international television networks, practically for the fourth time in the whole race; the other three occasions were the start and the two pit stops. Mika wins for the third time this season, giving a heavy driving lesson to Coulthard, while Schumacher is third, forty-five seconds behind, and Wurz, fourth, is the last of the drivers with full laps; an exceptional Barrichello and Villeneuve complete the top six, made up of four sixths of cars fitted with Bridgestone tyres. In Spain, even more than in the previous races, the Japanese tyres were incredibly more performing than the Goodyears. The double win allows McLaren to make a considerable leap forward in the constructors' standings, where it flies to 65 points, 30 more than Ferrari. In the drivers' championship, Hakkinen rises to 36 points, enjoying a seven-point lead over Coulthard and twelve over Schumacher. McLaren's sporting director, Jo Ramirez, admits at the end of the race:
"You ask me if we have the World Championship in our hands? It seems so. Maybe not finished, but almost. And it's not just a question of the tyres. Here they count and they were decisive. But if all the teams had Bridgestones, we would still be ahead because we have the best car. Everything is running perfectly and it makes no sense to get ahead of ourselves. Coulthard wasn't happy today, he couldn't push as hard as he could, he never managed to trouble Hakkinen. And yet, with all his problems, he still managed to beat Schumacher by 38 seconds. We knew that in Barcelona there was no history, now we are waiting for Montecarlo and Canada, less favourable circuits".
The Finnish driver has bordered on perfection, and he knows it. The risk, in these cases, is to think that it was an easy victory, but he wants to clarify that it was not so:
"Fantastic. A victory like this might seem easy, but it never is. You always have to stay focused, pay attention to the backmarkers, which often cause problems, although today I can say that I almost enjoyed overtaking them. In the first few laps I pushed hard, without stressing the tyres too much because if you overdo it at the start you run the risk of destroying them. After each pit stop, David got closer, but it has to be said that during my stops we always tried not to take any kind of risk. Maybe we were too cautious".
Coulthard, who swears he had a lot of trouble choosing his set-up, can only admit defeat:
"Mika was too fast for me today. As the laps went by I got more and more confident with the car, but he was too fast, I can only congratulate him. I did what I could, I kept pushing to try and be ready for anything, but it didn't help".
The two teammates sportingly shake hands before Schumacher takes the floor.
"At the start I lost two positions, which fortunately I was able to recover with the first pit stop. At the same time, however, I exceeded the speed limit in the pit lane, I don't know why but the limiter didn't work. Fortunately, the strategy was perfect, and I regained third position. If I had been back on track behind Wurz after the second stop, I don't think I could have passed him; today would have been difficult even in a Minardi. In the first part of the race I was behind Fisichella but I didn't have the slightest chance of trying to overtake him".
Regarding the penalty incurred during the race, the German driver admits:
"When one enters the lane, one is very careful about the speed: and I, in fact, immediately realised that I was too fast. I don't know why; the automatic limiter didn't work. So I immediately slowed down a lot, but this way you don't gain anything, it's a penalising manoeuvre. It's a penalising manoeuvre. The best thing to do, and I made a mistake here, is to maintain a constant speed in the whole lane, at the limit of the permitted threshold".
And on the championship situation:
"We are not at all happy with this result, but more we could not expect. The McLarens' advantage is certainly due to the tyres, but not only to them. We need to work harder, our technical partners but also us. We have to work a lot on the chassis, on aerodynamics, on the engine, on the brakes. Everything. We have to work. They are twelve points behind Mika, in Monaco I would like them to be at least six, we'll see if we have a chance".
So the hope is to win the race, and to have someone, in the most realistic of possibilities Coulthard, to get ahead of Hakkinen and relegate him to third place. Difficult, but not impossible, because as Schumacher explains:
"The worst for us should be over. Here, in Barcelona, McLaren was unbeatable. I can't know in advance what the chronometric gap will be between us and them in Monte Carlo, but it will certainly be smaller unless they have a hidden second in their pocket. But we can and must continue to grow, mechanically and in terms of the engine".
In the late afternoon, when he is approached by a Spanish journalist, he is asked if the World Championship could already be considered over. Schumacher merely glares at him, but when the journalist insists, he replies with a mixture of annoyance and irony:
"Yes, it's over, I'm going on holiday".
No, the championship is not over, there are still many races to run, but the McLaren, week after week, seems to be getting stronger and stronger. The next tests at Magny-Cours, however, are an unmissable opportunity for Ferrari, which must try in every way to reverse the trend.
Davide Scotto di Vetta