Columns - Big Al

In Praise of Paris


When Michael Schumacher climbed the steps of the rostrum after being roundly beaten into second place by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren in Sunday's Belgian grand prix, for the first time the Ferrari driver wore the expression of a man who knew that the game was up.

Gone was the jaunty walk and dazzling smile of the man who won four of the season's first five races in the seemingly dominant Ferrari F1-2000 as McLaren battled to surmount mechanical unreliability and a car performance deficit.

In its place German driver's expression seemed taut and preoccupied, almost as if he was finally beginning to think the unthinkable, namely that Ferrari's world championship ambitions could be floundering for the fourth successive year.

"Mika made an outstanding move," said Schumacher. "If he had not passed me there, he would have done it later." It was almost exactly the same observation that he had made two weeks earlier when Hakkinen had beaten him in the Hungarian grand prix.

Yet what really worried Schumacher was the fact that he had now been beaten in a straight fight on two totally different types of circuit. His Ferrari F1-2000 had proved no more capable of outrunning the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15 on the tight and twisting Hungaroring than it was on the 175mph swerves of Spa-Francorchamps.

Ironically, Ferrari has been relegated to second place in the formula one pecking order not because it has done anything specifically wrong, more than McLaren has applied more engineering firepower to get back on terms with the Italian marque after dropping off the pace early in the season.

Ferrari struggled to get to grips with a high speed handling imbalance throughout the Belgian grand prix weekend. In the end, they tried to improve things by putting an earlier specification front wing on the cars during the half-hour race morning warm-up. It helped, but it was not enough.

McLaren's cause has also been immeasurably assisted by having a full-time test driver, Olivier Panis, winner of the 1996 Monaco grand prix. Last year he was dropped by the Prost team after a succession of disappointing results and decided to join McLaren in order to rebuild his reputation. The strategy worked and he has been signed to partner Jacques Villeneuve next season at British American Racing.

"Olivier's contribution has been more than outstanding," said Ron Dennis, the McLaren chairman. "He is an extremely nice human being and a very good technical driver. But I like to think our relationship has been a two-way street and we have contributed to the restoration of his confidence."

In the past F1 teams have tended to recruit rising stars to fulfil the role of test and development driver. This offers the obvious benefit of assessing young talent in a controlled environment, away from the pressures of a race weekend, but this year McLaren needed something different.

Such has been the intensity of their development program that they really wanted somebody who didn't have to learn the ropes, but a driver who could contribute from the word go. He is in a different class to Ferrari's test driver Luca Badoer who is employed more for simply running in the cars rather than serious development work.

Panis has achieved his objective of enabling McLaren to process more technical information, try out more modifications and improve the car's performance quicker than was previously possible. In many ways, the McLaren-versus-Ferrari equation has been three drivers against two.

Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt summed up the Belgian grand prix weekend perfectly from Schumacher's viewpoint. "We lost to a very strong and very lucky driver," he said. Yet the secret of Hakkinen's success with McLaren is that they work tirelessly to make their own good luck.

Schumacher and Ferrari have steadily improved a very good car throughout the course of the season so far. It is their bad luck that their key rivals have managed to improve theirs even more.