Japanese GP 2000
OCTOBER 8, 2000
Japanese GP, 2000
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER won a glorious victory after a race-long battle with Mika Hakkinen in treacherous conditions at Suzuka. For most of the race it was what motor racing is all about, a fabulous demonstration of two men going head-to-head in evenly-matched machinery. After 21 years Ferrari has finally done it. Mika Hakkinen was generous in defeat. It was all too good to be true. Who would thought it?...
Suzuka is one of the great tracks in modern Formula 1 racing. It is an interesting track layout and the drivers love it for its changes of direction and elevation. It is a challenge to get it right and overtaking is not impossible. The crowds are large and enthusiastic but in a polite way.
And yet the thing that makes Suzuka a great race track is not any of this. It is the fact that the circuit has been a place where Formula 1 history has repeatedly been written in dramatic fashion. Suzuka has enjoyed the advantage of having held the last or the penultimate race in the World Championship for the last 14 years, and what years they have been.
The story began in 1987 when Nigel Mansell crashed in qualifying and went home with a bad back leaving his Williams team mate Nelson Piquet to be World Champion. A year later there was not a dry eye in the house as Ayrton Senna drove an amazing race after stalling at the start to secure his first World Championship. So many of the Suzuka memories are linked to Senna. In 1989 it was at Suzuka that Alain Prost took Ayrton out of the race in the closing laps to ensure himself the World Championship title. But Senna survived the assault (Prost was not an expert in such matters) and he restarted and drove several astounding laps to snatch back the victory. The FIA fumbled and bumbled and Ayrton was thrown out of the results and victory was given to Sandro Nannini. One always forgets that Nannini won that race.
In 1990 Senna took revenge on Prost by wrapping up his second title but driving into Alain at the first corner. This mess led to an emotional 1-2 result for Benetton with Piquet and a tearful Roberto Moreno. In 1991 Senna dominated the race but handed over the victory to his pal and team mate Gerhard Berger to say thank you for the Austrian's efforts. In 1992 Mansell did the same for Riccardo Patrese but in 1993 it was back to racing again when Senna won another great victory in his McLaren-Ford.
Twelve months after that Senna was dead and Damon Hill was the new hero. On the day of the Japanese GP he was quite brilliant and beat Michael Schumacher fairly and squarely in horrible weather conditions.
In 1995, Schumacher won when the two Williams drivers fell over one another, while in 1996 Jacques Villeneuve's chase of Hill ended when a wheel fell off his wagon. Two years later the title was settled in Mika Hakkinen's favor when Schumacher's Ferrari blew a tire as he raced through the field having started from the back of the grid.
Such great events leave a mark on a place perhaps only in the minds of those who remember what happened there. As a result of all this there is always something a little sinister about the cramped Suzuka paddock because, for the years we have been there, long after dark, controversies have been fought out and insults traded. Every year one arrives with a curious sense of anticipation and bad memories. The paddock is much as it always has been, which is absurdly small and cramped. How FIA President Max Mosley and his gang can go on bashing the facilities at Silverstone when Suzuka is still in the World Championship is a bit of a mystery but that never stops them. Every year there is talk that the Japanese will upgrade the place.
As in previous years we had a World Championship showdown and lots of political maneuvering in the paddock. Ron Dennis was seeing reds under every bed as usual and Ferrari was relying on Michael Schumacher to work magic with a car which is still clearly not a match for the McLarens although the latest Bridgestone tires seem to have given Ferrari a little hint of a boost.
The competition was barely disrupted by a small earthquake on Friday. A real earthquake rather than a paddock version. This gave everyone something to write about because Friday was worthless as usual for everyone other than the F1 engineers.
Saturdays and qualifying are when Formula 1 gets serious and so Schumacher's domination of Friday was quickly forgotten as Mika Hakkinen set the fastest time in the morning sessions, beating Schumacher by a tenth of a second. The story of the morning however was Williams' Jenson Button in third place but he had used new tires and so it did not seem to be hugely significant, although it did underline the fact that Jenson has a vague idea how to drive Formula 1 cars.
In the afternoon we were treated to a most entertaining battle for pole position between the two World Championship contenders. The action did not really begin until the first half hour had slipped quietly by and then Schumacher took pole with Hakkinen a tenth slower on his first run. A few minutes later Mika sliced a few hundredths from Michael's pole time and went ahead. But Michael's second run took a tenth off Mika's best.
In the final moments Hakkinen went for it again. "I was not able to get the power down well enough coming out of the chicane," he explained. "I lost two-tenths of a second."
The telemetry down at McLaren confirmed the fact that at the apex of the last corner Hakkinen was a tenth ahead of Schumacher. But such is the way with F1 at the moment. It does not matter if the gap is the blink of a humming bird's wing. It is enough. In qualifying, 0.009s equals eight meters of road when the grid lines up on Sunday. Schumacher was where he wanted to be, even if Hakkinen should perhaps have been there if all had gone well.
"I knew it was going to be tight," said Schumacher, who did not have time for a fourth run at the end of the session. "Actually this position is not as important here as at some other races because the surface on the main straight is not very abrasive on the racing line. On the inside it is more abrasive but more dirty. I am ready for the fight tomorrow."
Hakkinen was in a more somber mood. "It was a great battle for pole position," he said. "We were making adjustments to the car throughout the session but unfortunately on my last run I was not able to get the acceleration absolutely right."
Team mate David Coulthard was third on the grid but he was not really in the picture when you looked at the stopwatch. He was four-tenths off Hakkinen and "reasonably happy" given that he had been struggling to find the right balance during the morning sessions. "I felt confident enough to really attack the circuit," he said, "but we still didn't make enough progress to get pole position." Everyone said they would be on the pace in the race but that is not unusual. Drivers are by nature optimists.
The fact that Rubens Barrichello was fourth fastest was not of earth-shattering importance. Rubens was just a fraction of a second slower than Coulthard. He had a spin during qualifying and was twice called to the weight check and so was unable to complete all the runs he wanted to do. "We decided to try something different with the set up on the last run," he said, "but I never got the chance to see if it would have worked."
Often this year Ferrari has been competitive in qualifying only to lose out to McLaren in the race because of tire wear. But for the Japanese GP we had an unusual situation as Bridgestone decided to bring only one type of tire, working on the principle that everyone was going to choose the medium tire. These were new and rather more durable than early versions of the same tire.
In theory more durable tires would favor Ferrari. "The tires are good," said McLaren's Adrian Newey "although a little harder than we'd like. The medium compound tire is comparable to the hard tires that Bridgestone brought here in 1998 and at that time we ran on soft tires."
But Hakkinen said it made no real difference. "If you were to have tires that were a little softer than the ones we are running now it could be a problem," he said. This time Schumacher said he was not worried about tire wear.
In the paddock there was the usual Suzuka talk of plots and counter-plots of destabilization and all the rest of it. There were questions raised about what would be allowed as strategy and what would not and whether or not it was a good idea to have an Italian who had represented Ferrari in the Court of Appeal as one of the stewards but all of this was really not relevant. It made for some stories but the results were there on paper. The rest was a side show.
The third row of the grid behind the heroes was peopled by the two Williams drivers and once again young Button was ahead of Ralf Schumacher. That was impressive, particularly given that he had not raced at Suzuka before and Ralf Schumacher spent a season racing in Japan in Formula 3000 and has since raced at Suzuka every year in F1.
"It is one of the best moments of this season for me," said Button. "It's amazing! But I cannot start celebrating yet - obviously tomorrow I have to finish the race."
Ralf said that he had not been very lucky as he could not find the right set-up in qualifying. Patrick Head revealed the Ralf was losing time on the straights and reckoned this was odd as the two drivers had similar settings.
Usually the two Honda teams (BAR and Jordan) are on the pace of the Williams but on this occasion they were not in the running as well and seventh place went to Eddie Irvine's Jaguar. This was a good effort given that the car is a bit of handful.
"I'm really pleased it all came together," said Irvine. "I don't think I could have found any more time in the car. I was on the limit to the point where the car was sliding around a bit. Maybe a perfect lap would have given a couple more tenths but there is no such thing as perfect lap of Suzuka."
Johnny Herbert was 10th, four-tenths slower than Irvine and a little bit annoyed because he was held up on his fastest lap by Jos Verstappen in his Arrows. "It would have been nice to get an extra tenth and get into the top eight," he said, "but we are definitely in the ball park."
The fastest of the Honda-engined men was Heinz-Harald Frentzen in eighth place on the grid but this was not a great result for the Jordan team. The German reckoned that this was not a bad result given the handling problems he had during the session. "The car just does not seem to be performing well on this track," Heinz-Harald said.
Jarno Trulli agreed. He was back in 15th on the grid having been the victim of power steering trouble in the high-speed corners. He was not happy at all.
Just behind Frentzen was Jacques Villeneuve in the BAR-Honda. This was a pretty disappointing showing given the team's pace in recent events. Honda had produced one of its "Suzuka specials" as usual and while this had a lot more power it was rather more brutal and made the car handle very differently. This resulted in Villeneuve having spins in virtually every session. Jacques blamed the tires. Well, he could hardly have blamed the engine.
Ricardo Zonta was very disappointed to be down in 18th place on the grid, the Brazilian losing half the session while his engine had to be changed. This was described as "some late changes to his car between practice and qualifying" in the team press release which was not really telling the truth. Still, this is Honda's home event.
Benetton was 11th and 12th on the grid with Alexander Wurz again outpacing Giancarlo Fisichella. This was not really surprising given Flavio Briatore's statements in Indianapolis criticizing Fisichella's lack of preparations. Both he and Wurz seemed to be mystified about why the car was so slow.
Thirteenth and 14th on the grid were the two Arrows cars with Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Jos Verstappen by two one-hundredths of a second. De la Rosa had to overcome a string of mechanical problems while Verstappen struggled with handling.
The two Saubers were out of the fight at Suzuka with Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz lining up 19th and 20th. Salo had electrical problems and had to switch to his T-car which was set up for Diniz while the Brazilian went into qualifying knowing that his two fastest laps were going to be disallowed because he had driven around the circuit in the morning session after his engine blew up, spraying oil everywhere. The stewards decided to give him shock treatment and it undoubtedly hurt Pedro. "The penalty certainly compromised my qualifying and will, of course, affect my race tomorrow," he said.
At the back as usual were the two Minardis which was no surprise at all. Thus it was strange that Gaston Mazzacane declared himself to be "totally disappointed" with his grid position... No-one else in the world was.
THE morning warm-up saw Michael Schumacher fastest by half a second with Hakkinen second fastest. Rain threatened throughout the morning but there were only spots now and then. The skies remained overcast and the atmosphere heavy. The cars lined up on the pre-grid and then, when it was time to depart, Hakkinen's McLaren was smoking nastily. It looked bad but later it emerged that it was simply an overfilled hydraulic system leaking slightly. The car was still smoking when they came back to the grid for the start but when the lights went out Hakkinen was the quickest away from the line.
Schumacher was slower away and immediately sliced across the road to block Hakkinen in his usual unsubtle fashion. Given the FIA's sudden conversion to good sportsmanship it was a little odd that we did not immediately see Race Director Charlie Whiting rushing down to the flag-waving tower with a black and white diagonal flag for bad behavior. But no, there was not a sign of him. It seems that sporting behavior is still only defined as strategic blocking as opposed to... um... well, strategic blocking.
Oh, never mind. Mika Hakkinen was not fazed by it and jinked past the slow-moving red thing in his path and took the lead. Michael was second. David Coulthard had also been slow away and this meant that he was disputing the same piece of tarmac as Barrichello and the fast-starting Ralf Schumacher. The result of this was that David and Ralf nearly collided and Rubens had to lift to avoid smacking both of them. As this was happening Button had to take avoiding action. All this meant that Coulthard was third with Ralf fourth, Irvine fifth and Barrichello sixth. Button was seventh.
And so battle commenced with Hakkinen and Schumacher trading tenths. The chipping process did not really start until lap six when Mika began to edge away. It took until lap 18 for Hakkinen to get to 2.5secs and then the pair of them began to get into traffic. On lap 22 Hakkinen came into the pits. It left Michael in the lead. On the next lap Schumacher went into the pits and when they were both back out the gap between them was exactly the same as it had been before.
"We made some adjustments at the first stop and they helped," explained Michael later.
It also helped that the conditions were changing. Rain was spitting down onto the circuit and there was a hint of greasiness about the race track. Suddenly Schumacher began to claw back the lead. On lap 30 Hakkinen had trouble with de la Rosa's Arrows and lost a second. Schumacher was back in touch. The pair diced through the traffic with the gap coming and going and Michael was fortunate not to be taken out when he and Zonta touched while Michael lapped the BAR-Honda.
And then on lap 37 Hakkinen dived into the pits again. Schumacher knew that now was the moment he had been waiting for. He had enough fuel to go another three laps. The conditions were still treacherous and there was traffic but he went for it. On lap 40 Michael pitted. On the way in he had to dodge a spinning Benetton.
"I did not think I had done enough," he explained, "but as I went down the pitlane Ross Brawn was saying: "It's looking good, it's looking good". Then he said: "It's looking bloody good." It was the most amazing moment of my racing career."
The timesheets reveal that Schumacher and Hakkinen recorded the same time on the IN lap. They spent the same amount of time in the pitlane, but Michael's OUT lap was over four and a half seconds faster than that of Mika. In part that was due to the change in conditions during those three vital laps. In part it was due to the fact that Mika had trouble with his new tires.
When Schumacher came out of the pits he was ahead by four seconds and that was that. Everyone knew it as well. All Michael had to do was to keep the car going and not fall asleep (as he did in Indianapolis). For three laps Michael went away by a tenth here and a tenth there and then Mika fought back. Chip, chip, chip. And then there was traffic. In the closing laps Michael backed off and Mika closed up dramatically but he was still 1.8secs ahead at the end.
After the race Jean Todt reckoned that the victory had come from the set of new tires which the team had saved during qualifying. As Hakkinen also left the pits on new tires it is hard to see the logic of this but it does not really matter. Michael had won. Hakkinen was dignified in defeat. "I believe that to be a good winner you have to be a good loser as well," he said.
And so Ferrari has finally done it. For the first time in 21 years, when Jody Scheckter won in 1979, a Ferrari driver has become World Champion. The interesting thing now will be to see whether the team can survive success as it survived failure. Failure tends to bond people together and make them work harder but success can be destructive. Ambitions have been achieved and there will be some members of the Ferrari team who will now relax a little and others who will move on elsewhere. Perhaps by losing the World Championship, McLaren has cleared the way for more titles in the future. We shall see.
It would be nice to say that it has not been an acrimonious season but that would not be true. After Suzuka we had the rival teams shaking hands and kissing each other (boys and girls, you understand). It would be nice if it was always like that. One gets the feeling that such things are nigh on impossible in these days of high-pressure commercialism. Still it is nice to see from time to time.
The battle at the front overshadowed everything else. Coulthard was third after an uneventful race. Barrichello made it through to fourth place having recovered the places he lost to Irvine and Ralf Schumacher at the start.
Fifth place went to the impressive Button of Williams. He had made a bad start but was able to recover, jumping ahead of Irvine at the first pit stop and then getting the better of team mate Ralf Schumacher when he made a mistake on lap 30.
As a result of this the final point went to Villeneuve which was not a bad effort after a difficult weekend in which the BAR team struggled with the tires and the peaky but powerful new Honda engines. Zonta ended up in ninth place, his only incident being the brush with Schumacher's Ferrari. "I moved over as far as I could to give him room," Ricardo said, "but he still managed to come over so much that we touched wheels as he went past."
Jaguar Racing finished seventh and eighth - with Herbert beating Irvine. This was a great result for the team given the current situation. There was a moment when it looked as though Herbert and Irvine were going to collide and the men in green were holding their breath.
Arrows' de la Rosa came home 12th. The car was a bit of a handful until the second pit stop when the team did some rapid mods. These worked well and in the closing laps Pedro overtook both Fisichella and Trulli. Jos Verstappen's race ended after nine laps with a glitch in the gearbox.
Trulli was 13th and it was not a great day for Jordan. Jarno had decided on a three-stop strategy but had been held up behind Frentzen early on. Three stops was obviously not the right choice because Jarno was 12th at the end of the first lap and 13th at the end of the race. Frentzen raced his T-car but retired when he suffered a hydraulic pump problem which screwed the gearbox.
If Jordan had a bad day it was an even worse day for Benetton. Fisichella dropped from 12th to 20th on the first lap when his anti-stall system left him chugging off the line. He finished 14th. Wurz failed to finish after he spun off and the anti-stall device failed to live up to its name.