Columns - Big Al

Who takes over the F1 baton?


If Ferrari finally wins the 2000 World Championships and takes both the Drivers' and Constructors' crowns together back to Maranello for the first time since 1979, one is bound to wonder whether this will represent a sea change in F1 trends - or merely a blip on a canvass which has in the past, and will in the future, be dominated by the McLaren-Mercedes brigade.

As in most walks of life, we take our lessons from history. Only once in Ferrari's 50 year history has the team consistently strung together a lengthy winning streak. Ironically, that was back in the mid-1970s when one of the key elements in the equation was the current Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo, albeit then occupying a relatively modest liaison role between the team in the field and Enzo Ferrari back in his Maranello fortress.

The catalyst which helped that era gel into a period of sustained success was Niki Lauda. In many ways, Michael Schumacher has injected the same sense of purpose and motivation into the team during his tenure with Ferrari. But what happens if they don't, in fact, pull it off?

Will they bounce back optimistically for a fourth (year) of challenging seriously for the title crown? Or will the sheer emotional stress of being pipped at the post every season since 1997 just prove too much and bring the whole management edifice collapsing in on itself?

In truth, everything hangs on the outcome of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on October 8th. It could be the day on which Schumacher moves from mere humanity to deity as far as the massed ranks of the tifosi are concerned.

It could be the day where the Indianapolis and Monza trend continues just enough to keep things running in Ferrari's favour long enough for them to get things wrapped up in Malaysia. Or it could be the day that Hakkinen and McLaren bounce so decisively that Ferrari is sent reeling.

For the past two years the McLaren-Mercedes team have won the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka - but on both occasions, Michael Schumacher's Ferrari has beaten Mika Hakkinen to pole position.

That stark reality will be close to the surface of both men's minds as they go into Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix, a race which Ferrari Technical Director Ross Brawn believes is absolutely crucial.

"Whoever is strongest in Suzuka will probably win the championship," said Brawn. "McLaren were good there last year but we can do a great job and I am sure we can beat them. We beat them at Monza in a straight fight and that was a track on which they had previously looked invincible."

In reality, the performance differential between the McLaren MP4/15 and Ferrari F1-2000 has been difficult to pinpoint, let alone quantify, at many races so far this year. However, it is clear that the balance of performance shifted in Ferrari's direction quite dramatically at Monza and that momentum was sustained at Indianapolis where Hakkinen was struck down with an engine failure while chasing the Ferrari.

Hungary and Spa-Francorchamps were bad races for Maranello with Schumacher unable to work out a decent handling balance, particularly on the latter high speed circuit. In fact Ferrari's Belgian GP performance deficit may have had more to do with the fact that the team used a new front wing on Friday and Saturday, failed to check it out in back-to-back testing with the previous version during the course of the weekend and then threw the car out of balance by reverting to the old wing on race morning.

However, there are certainly other issues to consider. Straight line speed figures this year suggest that Ferrari's latest V10 has overhauled its Mercedes rival, if not in pure top-end power certainly in a more manageable and progressive torque curve. The Ferrari F1-2000 chassis seems incredibly efficient when it comes to conserving its rear tires, as demonstrated by the fact that Schumacher was able to stay out so long at Indianapolis on a dry track without his wet tires blistering unduly.

It is also suspected that McLaren was handicapped by having to change its differential specification for the Belgian race where Schumacher's problems still saw Hakkinen emerge with a performance edge. But at Monza, where Ferrari had minor aerodynamic and suspension revisions, the advantage swung back in Schumacher's favour.

Truth be told, Indianapolis was an inconclusive race from the standpoint of establishing who had the technical upper hand. Yet at Suzuka, McLaren will be pinning its hopes on excellent aerodynamics, handling agility and Hakkinen's proven resilience under pressure to prolong the title battle to Malaysia a fortnight later.

Taking the season as a whole, Hakkinen and Schumacher have both lost 26 points, Mika with engine failures in Australia, Brazil and Indianapolis and Michael with one engine failure in France and two largely self-induced first corner accidents in Austria and Germany.

One thing is certain. Both drivers' team-mates are expected to play a key tactical role in helping to shape the outcome of the championship. At Ferrari, sporting director Jean Todt is setting great store by German GP winner Rubens Barrichello.

"It's difficult being Michael's team-mate and Rubens is probably the strongest team-mate Michael's ever had," said Todt.

In the McLaren camp, David Coulthard remains nonplussed by Schumacher's critical comments following Indianapolis. He intends to do his job as a good team man and give Hakkinen all the support he possibly can.

Yet the truth is that the balance is now very much in Schumacher's favour. Even if he takes the easy route and follows Hakkinen home in both the remaining races, he will dead heat on points with the Finn and take the Championship on the basis of having score seven wins to Mika's six.

Yet Schumacher is made of sterner stuff. "I will be going to Suzuka to win and to try and tie up the title before the final race," he said this week. "We have seen in the past what can happen in the final races of the year. Suzuka will be like any other race. We cannot afford to relax and start thinking the Championship is won until it is a reality."

In my view, Michael would be wiser to settle for the easy option. Why climb up the vertical rock face when you can stroll easily up the path behind? Best not to risk anything, I would have thought, if you really do want to nail down that elusive Ferrari Championship.