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A review of the year

IT was a perfectly imperfect season for Formula 1. When, in a few years from now, we wander through the record books it may seem that 1999 was simply a continuation of Mika Hakkinen's domination with the powerful McLaren-Mercedes team. This was not the case at all. Hakkinen and McLaren did not win the 1999 World Championship. They failed to lose it - and narrowly at that. There is little doubt that the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/14 was the fastest car of the year but thanks to a series of mistakes and mishaps Mika and McLaren almost handed the World Championship to second-string Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine. They were fortunate that the real danger - Michael Schumacher - put himself out of action when he crashed at Silverstone and broke his leg.

If Michael had been around, opportunities would not have been squandered as they were and Ferrari would have completed the quest to win the Drivers' World Championship for the first time since 1979. There was some consolation that Ferrari won the Constructors' title.

On occasion Mika Hakkinen shows flashes of being a truly great F1 star but at other times he seems to lose the plot completely. He suffered badly from team errors in 1999 but he also made his own mistakes. His team mate David Coulthard was allowed to make life difficult for him and the Scotsman's victory at Spa was a bitter pill for the quiet Finn. He felt betrayed by McLaren. When he let himself down a few days later at Monza it was all too much. Mika broke down and had a good cry. People in F1 like to ridicule such things but it showed a side of Mika that few had ever seen before. The Ice Man was not made of ice. An image was smashed.

And what is wrong with that? Hakkinen is not good at being a front man of the kind required today. He has trouble expressing himself. Actions have always spoken louder than words will ever do and when the chips were down, he won the World Championship with a superb drive. He came through the fire. The story had all the right elements for a Tom Cruise movie: man faces crisis, man comes through with flying colors (marries girl on the way). Stirring music, roll the credits...

In the finest tradition, however, fact was a lot more bizarre than fiction. The 1999 season was better than any film script could ever be because it was so wonderfully unpredictable. If you put it all into a movie no-one would take it seriously. Things like that just don't happen. But they did...

The championship began with a surprise in Melbourne when Eddie Irvine won the Australian GP. Irvine had spent the three previous seasons looking like a real number two driver alongside Michael Schumacher. He never crumbled away but neither did he seem to improve much. He always talked a good game but the performance on the track was never quite as good as when he had a microphone in front of him. Irvine will never be a great star in the Formula 1 galaxy - unless the F1 script writer goes really bananas - but when Fate handed him his 15 minutes of fame, he grabbed them. Australia was a fluke but a win is a win. With Schumacher on crutches, Eddie became the Ferrari number one - he told everyone very loudly that this was the case. He won in Austria (aided by the fact that McLaren's drivers collided). He won in Germany where Mika Salo - Schumacher's stand-in - was gentlemanly enough to move over and give him the victory. Irvine won again at the Malaysian Grand Prix but on that occasion it was thanks to a really remarkable drive from Schumacher, who arranged everything for Irvine. All he had to do was hold on to the trophy at the end.

You can dismiss each victory if you wish but the fact is that by the end of the season Irvine was in a fight with Hakkinen for the World Championship. And yet on Sunday morning in Suzuka it was clear that Eddie was not going to win. His body language that day was so obvious that up in the press room his forthcoming defeat was noted and discussed. And in the afternoon Irvine's performance was lackluster. Lady Luck had stayed home in Irvine's bed...

The fact that he finished second in the World Championship was largely the result of Ferrari team orders but one got the distinct impression that most of the people at Maranello did not think Irvine capable of winning the title. They gave him every chance they could but the fact he was still in the running at Suzuka was more down to McLaren's high jinks than to any brilliant moves on his part.

An important underlying theme of 1999 was the difference in approach between Ferrari and McLaren. The Italian team carries all its eggs in the same basket and when that basket was dropped at Silverstone the Italian team ended up with egg all over its face. McLaren operates on the principle that the two drivers are racing until it is mathematically-impossible for one to win the World Championship. There are obviously conditions attached to this. The battle is on in qualifying and up to the first corner but after that there appears to be an arrangement by which the drivers agree to hold station. This is the only way one can explain Hakkinen's poor performance at Spa where he did not try to challenge David Coulthard after the Scotsman had got ahead at the first corner. As if to show what he could have done, Hakkinen at one point threw in a really quick lap - and then lapsed back into chugging around.

The difference in philosophies was also shown in the use of blocking tactics in races. Some people in F1 think that these are perfectly acceptable, others think they are at best questionable. Blocking - as we saw with Michael Schumacher in Malaysia and Mika Salo in Belgium - was not punished by the FIA and so we must assume that it is allowable. Michael Schumacher would have been right to complain about the lapped David Coulthard holding him up in Suzuka if it had been the case but it was not the case at all and his petulant outburst after losing at Suzuka was another indication of the flawed genius of Schumacher. The computer print-outs in Japan showed that Michael was talking a load of hogwash - so why was he talking at all? It looked as though he was simply throwing some soot into the air to tarnish McLaren's victory. It was really rather sad.

The saddest thing about Michael is that this truly remarkable talent has created a situation in which everything he does is questioned. Whenever he turns in a startling performance all the cynical folk in the paddock begin to mutter and mumble about secret systems on the Ferrari which the FIA turns a blind eye to because Ferrari needs to win the World Championship. It may not be right, it may not be fair but it is the reality that Michael and the people around him (the same people who were with him at Benetton in the controversial summer of 1994) are not trusted by the F1 community.

How can that be changed? It seems to me that the only way Schumacher can smash that image is to leave his people behind him and go to McLaren and show his doubters that he can win in dominant fashion without any question marks. Then everyone would know for certain...

Before moving on from Ferrari one should really comment on Mika Salo's splendid season as replacement for Ricardo Zonta and then for Schumacher. The other Mika gave BAR its first finishes but he received no credit for it. He then turned up at Ferrari and played the number two role for Irvine, although he showed the Ulsterman up dramatically on a couple of occasions, notably in Germany. It was a solid season which has been rewarded with a permanent drive at Sauber.

Having a number one driver and an acolyte is a philosophy which McLaren has never adopted but having two number one drivers is not always an easy path to follow. Inevitably there will be a mental tussle between the two and one will emerge faster than the other. Usually the second driver will then fall apart as there are not many who are tough enough to take the psychological hammering. Senna and Alain Prost could never agree on who was slower and a rock met a hard place. Senna pummelled Gerhard Berger but the Austrian was a tough cookie and held together and went on to use Senna as a yardstick and learn. Michael Andretti on the other hand caved in under the extreme pressure from Senna. For the last few years David Coulthard has had the role of being hammered. He is not a number two by nature and so he is frustrated with his career. Hakkinen is a split second faster in qualifying. Coulthard made mistakes in 1999 - silly mistakes - and he was not helped by the fact that his car was constantly breaking down. It was a tough year but it will only make him stronger in the future - so do not write him off.

It is a shame that one cannot say the same for Damon Hill. The 1996 World Champion had a promising year with Jordan in 1998 but this year was an unmitigated disaster. It was not the fault of the car. Damon was handling badly... Hill has always been a fairly complicated character but in the old days he was tough enough to take pressure and come back and trade blows with team mates. He used to say that after being team mate to Alain Prost and then Ayrton Senna, he did not care who was alongside him but in 1999 he proved that this was not the case. He seemed to lose himself once it became clear that Heinz-Harald Frentzen was quicker and hungrier. Damon scored points on only four occasions. Heinz-Harald finished 12 of the 16 races in the points - and he won twice.

Damon did not enjoy himself. He should have quit. Knowing when to quit is easy when you are journalist being judgmental but there are very few performers in any activity who have gone out at the right moment. Damon was not one of them. His last few races were simply sad to watch but one can hope that they will fade away and Damon will be remembered for his grit and integrity in the mid-1990s.

Psychological strength is of such importance in F1 these days that one can only judge drivers from one season to the next. At the end of last year Frentzen was being written off as Coulthard is now. Heinz-Harald was dropped by Williams and sought refuge with Jordan Grand Prix. This time the chemistry was right and Frentzen came through the ordeal with flying colors. He blew Hill into the weeds. His victory in France was brilliant not only because the team worked the strategy well but also because he drove the car with a full fuel load in terrible conditions - and unlike some others who tried to same trick he stayed on the road and won. Frentzen's win at Monza came because of Hakkinen's error but the high jinks of his rivals meant that for a brief period in the autumn it looked as though HH was actually going to be in the running for the World Championship. This was further motivation and he was on his way to victory at the European Grand Prix when his car failed him. That was the end of that. Nonetheless, he emerged from the season as the number one performer in many of the post-season "Top 10" assessments - and deservedly so.

It was a similar story with Ralf Schumacher - but in reverse. Ralf wanted to move on from Jordan and so he swapped drives with Frentzen. The Williams team demands success from its drivers and does not believe in baby sitting them. You either deliver or you find yourself sitting on the pavement outside the factory. Ralf flourished and the result was 11 points finishes, including second place at the Italian Grand Prix. He would have won at the Nurburgring but for a puncture.

Ralf is still only 24. His brother may be the big star of F1 but Ralf is developing well...

Alessandro Zanardi was a great disappointment - and that is an understatement. The double CART Champion arrived with a reputation of being a fighting driver (just what Williams loves) but there was little evidence of it as the year went on. You can blame the tires and you can blame the car or the engineering , you can blame the way Williams handles its drivers, but at the end of the day Alex just did not seem to want to be in Formula 1. He will not be back next year. There won't be as many good jokes in the Williams pit - Alex was never short of them - but the team may score more points.

Having said that, the future is somewhat precarious as the engine-builders in Munich seem to have underestimated the opposition. There is a tendency in German engineering circles to have superior thoughts about the capability of rivals to perform. Let us hope that arrogance will not leave the men from BMW looking like the Porsche engineers back in 1990 when they built a V12 for Footwork...

Zanardi's future is clouded but a year ago we were saying much the same about his pal Johnny Herbert. For most of the year Johnny was struggling. The Stewart-Ford team has worked with Rubens Barrichello since its inception and the Brazilian was comfortable. Johnny chipped away but Rubens stayed ahead. Things were not helped by the fact that Herbert's car kept breaking down. This began to get to him and he started to over-drive and make mistakes. And then - with a little help from his friends - he calmed himself down and edged closer and closer to Barrichello. And then it was the Brazilian who began to crack. Herbert's victory at the Nurburgring was a lucky one but he was there at the end and that is all that matters. After that Johnny's confidence grew and he outran Barrichello. A change of team was probably a good idea for Rubens but going to Ferrari may prove to be his downfall if he lets Schumacher's speed get to him. Some say he is tough enough to take the pressure - a lot of people are not so sure.

The Nurburgring result lifted the Stewart Ford team above Williams in the Constructors Championship which was a pretty good achievement for a team in only its third year of Grand Prix racing - even if it did have the massive power of the Ford Motor Company behind it. Jackie and Paul Stewart have their own idiosyncratic ways of doing things (those trousers really are horrible) but they have done it - and good on them. They are a lot of people in Formula 1 who think that if they had massive backing they will deliver the goods but over the years not all of them have managed to do it.

Which brings us neatly to the Benetton team. And a season which is best glossed over quickly. The B199 was not much good. Sometimes it worked, usually it handled like a donkey on ice. Giancarlo Fisichella is a very fast driver but he perhaps lacks some of the technical skills needed to develop a difficult car. He is also a Latin, as he proved when he dropped the ball when en route to victory at the Nurburgring. In F1 one cannot afford to give away such chances - people notice. He did the same a few years ago when under pressure from Gerhard Berger at Hockenheim...

Alexander Wurz was slower than Fisichella, but he is supposed to be a technical driver with engineering qualifications. He could not figure out the B199. In the end the team did the logical thing which was to get rid of the boy genius designer Nick Wirth. Right now Nick's stock in F1 circles is not worth much but let us not forget that Adrian Newey went through a similar phase in his career after being dumped by Leyton House. Strong guidance might turn Nick into a big star. Perhaps there is a case for Patrick Head to take him in hand...

The trouble with Benetton was more than a question of engineering. The team just seemed to be ambling along - going nowhere in no great hurry. The Supertec engines generated more money than horsepower. But the biggest problem at Benetton was the lack of leadership. Rocco Benetton seems to be a perfectly amiable individual but this has never been a good qualification to make it in Formula 1 racing - and things are not going to change. Rocco may be better off merchant banking in New York.

There were times in 1999 when Alain Prost must have wished he had chosen a different career path. The Prost-Peugeot AP02 was not a bad car but there was only so much that can be done when you are using a big, old, heavy engine. When there were no corners the Prost-Peugeots were quick but unfortunately this is not drag-racing. In qualifying F1 teams need ballast to be shifted around in the car and with a big engine this is just not possible. That meant that the Prost drivers rarely qualified well and so spent most of their time stuck in traffic. Once in a while they would break free and record quick laps but the results were hard to come by.

After five years in the game Peugeot does not seemed to have learned much about Formula 1 and are making all the same mistakes that Renault Sport used to make in the early 1980s. They do not seem to understand that in F1 one cannot work nine to five and have long French summer holidays. One cannot help but feel that the outcome will be the same in the end. The program will be dropped because it has become embarrassing to the company.

The fact that the Prost team ended the year in seventh place in the Constructors title was mainly due to the extraordinary European Grand Prix where Jarno Trulli used his own instincts and disobeyed the team's order to pit. He was right and he finished second. In many ways it was a disappointing year for Jarno although everyone in the paddock recognizes that there is a talent waiting to happen when Jarno gets into a good car - which he will next year with Jordan. The only slightly worrying thing is that Trulli had rather too many accidents while pushing his car along.

Generally, Trulli had the edge over Olivier Panis but one must not underestimate the Frenchman. He struggled in 1998 with confidence after his leg-breaking crash in 1997. This year the confidence was returning but Panis always knew deep down that Alain Prost did not really have much confidence in him and that did have an effect. After Olivier had been given the bullet he seemed to become a much stronger driver. This was largely due to the fact that he came under the wing of Hakkinen's manager - former World Champion Keke Rosberg. Such is his confidence now that he has just turned down a Williams drive in 2000 and will test for McLaren instead. F1 may not have heard the last of Olly P.

The Sauber package was unimpressive from start to finish although on occasion Jean Alesi made the car go faster than it should have done. Pedro Diniz scored more points than Jean which proves conclusively that you cannot trust statistics. The problem with Sauber, however, was not about drivers. The team is a halfway house. It does not have works engines and until it does there is not going to be any success - secondhand Ferrari engines will bring the occasional podium but that it all that can be hoped for. And so the team does not get the best engineers nor the best drivers.

The other problem for Sauber is that even if the team does manage to get an engine deal there is still a general unwillingness in F1 for top engineers to work at Hinwil. They prefer England but will go to Ferrari because Ferrari is special. One or two will go to Prost because Alain can be very persuasive and Paris is nice but otherwise they have no desire to uproot lives and families to work in Switzerland. Sauber's partner Fritz Kaiser realized that if you want to win in F1 you have to either be as big as Ferrari or you have to set up shop in Britain, so as to attract the right people. In the end he and Peter Sauber disagreed on where the team was heading. They have now gone their separate ways. Sauber won that particular battle - but Kaiser was probably right...

Teams which are split by internal politics rarely work - this is the next lesson that British American Racing will have to learn - and so it was no surprise to see Arrows floundering around like a pile of wet fish this year. At the start of the year there was a grand announcement about an unknown Prince from Nigeria and Morgan Grenfell Private Equity Ltd., a venture capitalist company. There was precious little money and the team used last year's cars and Brian Hart's engines - without Brian Hart. The team adopted the sensible policy of going for points at the start of the year and achieved that aim in Melbourne with Pedro de la Rosa doing a fine job to finish sixth on his Grand Prix debut. Once that had been achieved the team drifted along. Prince Malik talked a lot, gave a thousand interviews about how he, Craig Pollock and Rocco Benetton were the future of Formula 1, and then - when the deadline for payment arrived - he was drop-kicked out of the door by burly old Tom Walkinshaw who insisted that running his TWR empire left him plenty of time for F1 - and rugby, and this and that... And if you challenged him on the subject you would get the old Walkinshaw laser beam eyes.

The fact is that the team needs a leader and Tom does not have the time. Morgan Grenfell Private Equity has now insisted on a new management structure and everyone is hoping that things will be better with Supertec engines. For years we have been saying that Walkinshaw will make it work in the end but he still has to learn that having one "interim year" after another does not make you Ferrari. People are beginning to wonder if he ever will understand how to make it in F1...

Arrows spent most of the year battling with the Minardi team and given the budget of the little Italian team this was a pretty good effort. The car was OK, the engines were OK. Newcomer Marc Gene showed Luca Badoer that the Italian's career in F1 is really rather a waste of time. Badoer almost saved the day at the Nurburgring by running fourth but the car broke down and so too did poor Luca. The tears were not just for the race but for his career as well... Now the team has been sold and we will have to see what happens next. No-one seems to know at the moment.

And so to the bottom of the pile - British American Racing. Here was an object lesson in how NOT to enter Formula 1 racing. Having decided on the "hair dryer" approach to public relations (people with neat hairdos pumping out a lot of hot air) the new team spent piles of money buying advertising space in racing magazines to tell the world about the team's "tradition of excellence". Some publishers are happy to publish nice things about teams if they are paid enough money to do so and so everyone drifted along into the season being told that all would be fine and dandy in a world full of candy. Team boss Craig Pollock demolished his credibility by trying to take on Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone. The Leviathan squashed the annoying little mosquito with a flick of his wrist. And the cold winds of reality came as a short, sharp shock in the fluffy cotton wool world of BAR. Everyone started to blame everyone else for what had gone wrong. Adrian Reynard missed most of the races and when Jacques Villeneuve complained loudly about it Reynard said that his family was more important. What a nice man, we thought. Why is he in F1?

BAR may have more money than the Bank of England but the team is going nowhere until it sorts out who is going to be the boss. The current status quo is a waste of time. Pollock is backed by BAT, Reynard is backed by Honda. Perhaps the best thing would be to find someone else to run the team - because right now it looks like a hand grenade with the pin hanging out...

Villeneuve had a miserable season - which was not a surprise for anyone other than Villeneuve himself. He drove his heart out but when the frustration started getting to him he made some silly mistakes and had some big crashes as a result. The slightly worrying thing about Jacques is that he likes having crashes.

Ricardo Zonta gave a good account of himself in very trying circumstances, keeping out of trouble and looking like a promising talent for the future.

Promising talents for the future are what Formula 1 needs right now. Since the death of Ayrton Senna, Schumacher was towered above his own generation of drivers. It is no coincidence that his salary is around double that of his nearest rival. If Ferrari produces a car which is equal to a McLaren-Mercedes then the World Championship is going to go to him. The Italian team has now had four seasons with Michael and soon he will start to get bored - because the clock is ticking and he's getting older.

It is hard to imagine that McLaren will make it as easy for him as they did for Irvine this year.

But when all things are considered the result was the right one: McLaren won the Drivers' title and Ferrari the Constructors'. It was the perfect end to a perfectly imperfect year...

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Stories: DECEMBER 27, 1999
A REVIEW OF THE YEAR