Features - Seasonal Review
NOVEMBER 15, 2000
The horse finally prances
BY JOE SAWARD
This is not to denigrate the efforts at Ferrari for it was a truly titanic battle between the two teams but McLaren let its opportunities slip, The Ferraris and their drivers were more reliable. On the whole the McLarens seemed to have the edge in outright speed. Often it was down to how the cars handled on different sets of tires. It was that close. Sometimes Michael Schumacher's remarkable abilities made the difference but there were occasions too when the steely determination of Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard forced Michael to back down.
Michael is a very rounded racing driver in many respects but like Ayrton Senna before him he has reached the point at which he needs to learn how to lose with grace and without endangering those around him. There were one or two moves this year which were not very sporting. Michael and some of the people at Ferrari do not understand this concept and, for the good of the sport, they should. Winning is not everything and, as Mika Hakkinen said when it was all over, a good winner needs to know how to be a good loser as well. There were other occasions, such as at Magny-Cours where David Coulthard adopted Schumacher-like tactics, when we all applauded someone taking the fight to Michael but when all was said and done they should not have needed to do that. The sport needs to be good clean fun.
If there was one thing wrong with the circus this year it was that there was too much backstage griping and accusation. Ferrari, McLaren and the FIA were equally to blame for this. This sort of stuff does no good for the sport. Ferrari and McLaren need to whine less about each other and the FIA needs to think more carefully about things like the appointment of stewards and the phrasing of the rules and regulations.
But when all is said and done there were more positive things this year than there were negative ones. There were no obviously dodgy performances to compare with things that happened in 1999 and for this some praise must go to the FIA which insisted that certain wires be cut early in the year. After that had happened the allegations of this and that slipped away. Hopefully this sort of thing will drive out some of the more cynical and less principled software people and leave the sport to the racers. This is what the public want to see. There a number of great races this year but nothing compared to the wonderful psychological battle between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen in Japan. That was Grand Prix racing at its finest. People may whinge about Formula 1 not being exciting and there being no overtaking but to my mind the sport is magnificent. The problem, if there is one, is that the battles are not always explained and presented to the public in the right way. There is more to motor racing than overtaking, even in a world where attention spans are as short as braking distances. And just as people who watch cricket and baseball are besotted by statistics and such things, hard core F1 fans appreciate tactical battles.
Having said that, the presentation of the sport gets better with each passing year. Bernie Ecclestone's multi-channel TV feed may not be available to everyone but those who get it love it. It can be improved - but with Bernie running the show you know that improvement is always part of next year's plan.
Such is the way in Formula 1.
Ferrari did a good job in 2000 and improved on the 1999 package but McLaren had done the same and so the two teams were pretty evenly matched when the World Championship kicked off in Australia. Ferrari won the early races one after another but it was clear that McLaren should have been winning some of them. In Australia Hakkinen's engine popped. He broke down again in Brazil. Michael Schumacher won San Marino with a magical bit of tactical driving. At Silverstone the Ferrari was hopeless and the entire event was miserable. David Coulthard won and it was becoming clear that Mika Hakkinen had completely lost the plot. He looked like a man who was happy to be losing. Coulthard was looking like the strong man and he became stronger after surviving a plane crash before the Spanish GP.
The battle for the World Championship is often mental one. Hakkinen has shown in the past that he can come back from being all at sea and he did so once again as the season ticked on. Coulthard's challenge faded and only Schumacher remained on an even keel as things went wrong for him. For two consecutive races he was punted off at the first corner. He stayed calm. By the end of the year Hakkinen was back to his usual steely self and so we ended the year with the classic races in Belgium and Japan. They may not be as charismatic as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost or Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet but in time Michael and Mika will mark this generation.
It will be interesting to see how Ferrari handles winning. Losing was easy because all you can do is dig deeper and work harder. But now that the goals have been achieved can the team hold together? Schumacher is the key man in all of this. If he can keep his men together he will still be in the game but if that falls apart he faces a long slog because McLaren has already told him that they are not interested. Schumacher is a driver at the very height of his powers and with no hints of controversy (as there were in early years) he stands to build a very fine reputation even amongst his harshest critics. Mika Hakkinen may be a double World Champion but he still has to convince most people in F1 that he is a match for Schumacher. In qualifying both men are wonderful to watch but in races Michael seems to have the smallest of edges when it matters and he always delivers when the chips are down. His mistakes are rare indeed.
Hakkinen is fortunate in that he has a remarkable support team who seem to be able to bash him back into shape each time he gets lost in the dark forests of F1. If he could stay on the path all the time it would be easier. One has to feel a little bit sorry for David Coulthard. He is almost as fast ass Hakkinen and Schumacher. He is in many ways a much better overall package as he is able to express himself and people believe what he says and think he is genuine. But there is always a tenth of a second when the chips are down. Perhaps when Mika and Michael clear off to spend their money David will emerge as the star he almost is but until then he has to go on chip-chip-chipping and it is tough on him. Avoiding getting bitter or settling for money (as others in his position have) is difficult. We thought the breakthrough had come this year but then he was shoved firmly back in place.
Funnily enough, David's great rival in Formula 3 was Rubens Barrichello and here are the two men again snapping to be third best. Rubens did a good job. He came into Ferrari to support Michael Schumacher. He dealt with the pressure easily. Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo may say that the two men are equal number ones but the F1 world knows that this is a load of tosh. Rubens is there to help Michael and he did a better job than Eddie Irvine has done in recent years. The fact that Rubens won a race was not hugely significant (except to him) for while his German GP victory was well-judged and brilliantly-executed it was also lucky. If that strange French protester had not been there, Rubens would not have had a hope of victory. But such is motor racing. You have to deal with the twists and turns as they come along. Rubens was there at the end to see the man waving the checkered flag - and that is all that matters.
Behind the big two teams this year there was a big gap. A b-i-i-i-g gap. Williams was there as it should have been but a pretty good year is not something that delights Frank Williams and Patrick Head. The good news was that pre-season worries about BMW engines were quickly overcome and one has to say that the Munich engines were impressive from the very start. The Williams chassis was very good indeed and apart from a couple of bungled set-ups which threw the team into total disarray, things went well. One of the saving graces of Williams is that it is the most human of racing teams. They make mistakes and people love them for it. There are many who think that Sir Francis has made a huge bungle by sending Jenson Button off to Benetton for the next two years but one can understand what happened. Button was astoundingly good for a youngster but could it be that Juan-Pablo Montoya is better? There was only one way to find out and Williams has worked out a way to have its cake and to eat it. Montoya comes in but Button will be back. Ralf Schumacher did a good solid job but looked fragile when Button was right there with him at the end of the year. Signing Jenson was a big risk but he kept the car off the walls and delivered results on a consistent basis. The signs are that he will soon be a big Formula 1 star. He seems to have his feet firmly on the ground (although it will be interesting to see whether working with Flavio Briatore at Benetton will launch him into an orbit where being in Hello! magazine and being photographed with the latest top model is more important than being a good racing driver). Button should eat Giancarlo Fisichella for breakfast given the Italian driver's showings in recent months but with the Benetton team you just never know because politics seems always interfere with the running of the cars. The team seems to be incapable of running to cars of a similar quality. Fisichella was the blue-eyed boy early on and once Briatore was back in charge it was very clear that Alexander Wurz was not going to be darkening the Benetton doors for much longer. Wurz was polite. He did not rant and raver that he was not getting the same equipment as his team mate but it was clear that something odd was happening (as it used to so in the days of Michael Schumacher and whoever was number two at the time). And then Fisichella did a few dumb things and suddenly he was no longer flavor of the month and suddenly he was done at the back and Wurz was the flag-waver. A very odd way of doing business - as always. It will interesting to see what the mandarins of Renault make of Flavio's efforts in the years ahead.
The performance of Jordan Grand Prix was a big disappointment in 2000 but there are reasons for this. The Mugen engines were not really there with the Hondas by the end of the year and the chassis was clearly not great either. It did not help that the technical director had departed in the mid-season and that the team is still lagging behind the opposition in facilities and numbers. Success is dependent on resources available and Jordan needs more. The technical team needs to be strengthened. A new factory is needed. The good news is that Eddie Jordan seems to have come to the conclusion that he is in Formula 1 for the long-term but we have to see whether he can make the jump from being a little team owner to being the boss of a big team without losing his way. On the driving front Heinz-Harald Frentzen showed himself to be rather fragile when faced by the speed of Jarno Trulli. They were evenly matched most of the time but as the year went on the Italian seemed to be getting to HH. We will have to see how they do when they get a better car but the impression is that Trulli is probably going to be the faster in the longer-term.
It is difficult to know what to think about Jaguar. The expectations were far too high at the start of the year and when the actual level of performance became clear the management was smart enough to stop all the hyperbole. The car was not much good. The engine did not go well. There were lots of electronic problems. The team was trying to catch up all the time and there was something of a management vacuum after the Ford takeover of the Stewart team. Eddie Irvine is probably not the best man to have in the middle of such a situation because he has a tendency to shoot from the lip and this is not always constructive. He was not universally loved inside the team but in general he drove hard which should be expected given the amount of money Ford is reputed to be paying him. Did he pick up the team and lead it as Michael Schumacher would have done? No. Johnny Herbert played out the last chapter of his Formula 1 career with a car that seemed to be made of cardboard and string. It fell apart all the time and despite a couple of really good showings by Johnny the results were never really there. It was a horrible last season in F1. The paddock will be a poorer place without Johnny's chirpy nature (he's a bit like F1's pet budgie) but almost everyone was happy to see him go. Perhaps CART will give him more success.
The Sauber team was duller than ditchwater. Having come through a management split last year the team had some new faces onboard. They were finding their feet. The car was not much good. The drivers rarely inspired (although Mika Salo drove some strong races) and all in all it was a drab year. The 2001 season will be an important one for it will be the first time we shall see what the team can achieve with the new men.
The Arrows team sparkled on occasion. After nearly 10 years in Formula 1 racing you would have thought that Tom Walkinshaw would have built something a little more substantial but there have been a lot of setbacks. Given where the team was at the end of 1999 the position a year later is considerably better. There are no more Clown Princes to keep us amused but telecom executives who think that the world is orange and like their colons irrigated on a regular basis are enough to keep the press room tittering. Walkinshaw does not like to be tittered at but he is a tough survivor. He takes money from wherever he can get it. He understands how to put together a good team so he has the potential to be successful. This year's team had potential. The engines were OK, the chassis was obviously good. There was some tweaky gearbox stuff which the bigger teams wanted to find out about. The drivers were cheap and cheerful and did well with Pedro de la Rosa outshining Jos Verstappen on most occasions. But somehow there is always something missing in the package.
They are many who feel that the missing element at Arrows is leadership which may sound strange when you have a man like Walkinshaw barking orders but looking in from the outside it seems that if Walkinshaw spent more time concentrating his very considerable talents on racing alone he would be successful. But he has other ambitions. There are his other businesses. There is rugby. There are too many distractions and when Tom is looking the other way no-one is allowed to be the leader the team needs. One would have thought that a bright spark like Walkinshaw would have figured this out by now but it does not seem to be the case and until he does Arrows will never go anywhere. The good people will be frustrated and will go off when they are offered other jobs and the team will go into another slump.
It is not an unusual pattern in the history of Formula 1. Every team owner is a successful man but putting all the elements together and then being able to run the show is not an easy game. Giancarlo Minardi is always just one deal away from turning his team into a success. This year he had a great chassis and a good sponsor. But the engine was weak and the drivers were not exceptional. Now the sponsor has gone and if Minardi cannot hold the team together it will be back to the drawing board again. If he could put all the elements together just once the team would break out of the rut in which it has been stuck but it is not an easy game.
In many ways it is a similar story with Alain Prost. He has a very clear idea of where he needs to go and what he needs to do but there are too many political issues involved. The team is too French by nature and until Alain breaks that mold the operation is going nowhere. The firing of Alan Jenkins in the midseason was about as disastrous a move as he could have done. In a flash the team's credibility amongst the English engineering world took a dive. People started to leave. The team sank back into the old Ligier mold. Alain is no fool. It is clear that Jenkins had to go for political reasons. Since then Alain has been trying to reduce such effects on his team. He is now trying again with new management under Joan Villadelprat. Maybe this time it will be different...
It is easy to be critical of teams which do it wrong but at the end of the day one must respect them all for trying to play to make it in the most difficult game there is.