Features - News Feature

DECEMBER 7, 1999

Seasonal survey of 1999


A perfectly imperfect year. When, in a few years from now, we wander through the record books it will seem that the 1999 season was one which was won by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes.

When, in a few years from now, we wander through the record books it will seem that the 1999 season was one which was won by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes. That is not the case at all.

Hakkinen and McLaren did not win the World Championship, they failed to lose it - and narrowly at that!

The McLaren-Mercedes MP4-14 was the fastest car of the year but a series of mistakes and mishaps meant that McLaren almost handed the title to second-string Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine. If Michael Schumacher had not crashed and broken his leg at Silverstone he would probably have won the title.

Occasionally Hakkinen shows flashes of being a truly great F1 star but at other times he seems to lose the plot completely. He made mistakes and suffered from team errors. His team mate David Coulthard was allowed to make life difficult for Mika and the Scotsman's victory at Spa was a bitter pill for the quiet Finn. When he screwed up at Monza it was all too much. People in F1 like to ridicule such things but it showed a side of Hakkinen that few had ever seen. He is not good at being a front man. But, when the chips were down, he won the World Championship with a superb drive in Suzuka. It had all the right emotions for a great movie: man does well, man faces crisis, man comes through with flying colours. Stirring music, roll the credits...

The 1999 season was better than any movie script simply - because it was not in the least bit predictable.

It 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. He always talked a good game but the performance on the track was always lacking. He will never be a great star in the F1 galaxy but when Fate handed him his 15 minutes of fame, Irvine grabbed them. He won again in Austria aided by the fact that McLaren's drivers collided. He added another win in Germany where Mika Salo moved. Eddie won again in Malaysia but that was thanks to Michael Schumacher arranging everything for him.

You can dismiss each victory if you wish but the fact is that a win is a win and by the end of the season Irvine was in a fight for the World title. And yet on Sunday morning in Suzuka it was clear that Irvine was not going to win. In the press room that morning we noticed the body language and discussed it. The people from Ireland - whether from the north or the south - are famously lucky but Irvine has already had his share of good fortune.

Irvine's position was largely the result of Ferrari team orders and there is an important point to be made here about the different approaches adopted by McLaren and Ferrari. The British team 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 lackluster performance at Spa where he did not try to challenge David Coulthard after the Scotsman had got ahead at the first corner.

Ferrari throws all its eggs in one basket and when that basket is dropped - as happened when Michael Schumacher crashed and broke his leg at Silverstone - the team ended up with egg on its face. In races Michael Schumacher's blocking tactics in Malaysia and Salo deliberately blocking Ralf Schumacher at Spa so that Irvine would not lose his place were either brilliant or unsporting, depending on the way you look at things. This is what Ferrari considers to be acceptable and that is a reflection of the people in the team.

If he had not crashed at Silverstone Schumacher would probably have won the title but his petulant outburst after losing at Suzuka - blaming Coulthard for blocking him - was as laughable as it was revealing. The computer timing print-outs showed that Michael was talking a load of hogwash. Schumacher remains the flawed genius of Formula 1 and his sometimes startling performances will always result in the more cynical folk in the paddock muttering about secret systems on the Ferrari. You never heard such comments about Ayrton Senna. Michael and the people around him are not trusted. It may not be right, it may not be fair but it is the reality - and it is rather sad when you consider the talent which Michael clearly has.

If Ferrari produces a car which is equal to a McLaren-Mercedes then the World Championship is going to go to Schumacher.

Before leaving Ferrari one must comment on Mika Salo's splendid job as Schumacher's replacement. He gave BAR its first finishes and then showed up Irvine on a couple of occasions, notably in Germany. It was a solid season which has been rewarded with a permanent drive at Sauber. Let us hope this is a good move.

In stark contrast to Ferrari McLaren showed that it has two number one drivers. This is a fine idea but inevitably one is faster than the other and so the slower of the two struggles. David Coulthard is not a number two by nature and he had a very frustrating season. He made mistakes - silly mistakes. He was not helped by the fact that his car was constantly breaking down and so it was tough mental slog. A year like 1999 will make him stronger in the future - so don't write him off.

It is a shame that one cannot say the same for Damon Hill. He had a promising year with Jordan in 1998 but this year was can unmitigated disaster. It was not the fault of the car. damon is a fairly complicated character and he seemed to lose himself once it became clear that Heinz-Harald Frentzen was quicker and hungrier. Hill scored four times. Heinz-Harald finished 12 of the 16 races in the points - and he won twice. Damon did not enjoy himself. Knowing when to quit is not easy - but Damon did not go when he should have done.

Damon used to say that after Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost you don't give a damn who you have for a team-mate - but he did. Frentzen blew him into the weeds. Having been dropped by Williams he joined Jordan with a lot to prove. And he came out with flying colours. 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 of the others he stayed on the road and won. Frentzen's win at Monza came because of Hakkinen's error. The high jinks of his rivals meant that for a brief period HH was actually in the running for the title. This was further motivation and he was on his way to victory at the European Grand Prix when his car failed him and put paid to his hopes. 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. He was not happy by the end of his time at Jordan and so he swapped drives with Frentzen. The Williams team demands success from its drivers. 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. He is still only 24. His brother may be the big star of F1 but Ralf is developing well...

Alessandro Zanardi was a great disappointment. The double CART Champion arrived with a reputation as a fighting driver but there was little evidence of it as the year went on. You can blame the tyres and you can blame the car or the engineering but at the end of the day Alex just did not seem to want it. All the indications are that he will not be back next year.

Alex's friend and former Lotus team-mate Johnny Herbert looked to be bound for the scrap heap until the end of the year. The Stewart-Ford SF3 was a quick car but Johnny's kept breaking down. Eventually this began to get to him and he started over-driving and making mistakes. Then he calmed down and as he edged closer to team-mate Rubens Barrichello 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 Barrichello but going to Ferrari may prove to be his downfall if Barrichello 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 but they have done it - and good on them.

The performance of the Benetton team is probably 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.

Alexander Wurz was slower but he supposed to be a technical driver with engineering qualifications. He could not figure out the B199. In the end the team got rid of 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. 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 design. 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 so perhaps Rocco needs to go back to investment banking...

That is not a choice which is open to Alain Prost but there must have been times in 1999 than anything other than F1 must have looked attractive to the four-time World Champion. The 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. After five years in the game Peugeot does not seemed to have learned much. Horsepower is not everything. When there were no corner 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. The fact that the 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 however 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 it was back but the car was no good and as Panis and Prost never really hit it off the long-term result was that Olivier got the bullet. After the decision had been made Panis 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 by being around at the finish but still managed to have more accidents than a man of his experience should be having. Team partners Peter Sauber and Fritz Kaiser disagreed on how the team should be run and split up. Kaiser argued that the team needed to move to England if it was ever going to be able to attract the right engineers. He is probably right.

Arrows acquired new management at the start, in the middle and at the end of the season. Money may not be everything in F1 but you can only do so much with last year's car. The team adopted the sensible policy of going for points at the start of the year and achieved the aim 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 came, talked a lot and went leaving Tom Walkinshaw to embark on another period of restructuring. Tom has still to learn that having one "interim year" after another does not make you Ferrari...

Given the budget and facilities available Minardi did well. 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...

...which brings us to everyone's favorite subject British American Racing. Having decided on the "hair dryer" approach to public relations (pumping out a lot of hot air) the team was expecting a warm feeling when it arrived in F1. The result was a very cold landing... and that led to everyone blaming everyone else. BAR is going nowhere until it sorts out who is going to be the boss. Jacques Villeneuve drove his heart out with no reward - which was not a surprise for anyone other than Villeneuve himself. Ricardo Zonta gave a good account of himself in very trying circumstances. Immediate success in F1 is a dream even for the best-funded teams.

It is hard enough for the teams which have been around for a long time although in 1999 McLaren and Ferrari both made it harder than it should have been. The result was that McLaren won the Drivers' title and Ferrari the Constructors'.

It was the perfect end to a perfectly imperfect year.