Grooves & Young Lions
Copyright © 1997, 2014 Glenn B. Manishin.
Once again demonstrating that change is the essence of motor racing, as F1 entered the late 20th century it was joined by a pride of new lions, another generation of drivers fashioning the stuff from which legends are made. From Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve to Mika Häkkinen and former bad boy Eddie Irvine (together with Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld) these new lions were talented, well-paid and — in light of the savage commercialization and politics of the modern F1 circus — brave in an entirely new way as well.
Not that controversy and politics had been eliminated, however. Far from it. They actually began in earnest again in 1994, where Michael Schumacher was stupidly shown the black flag at Silverstone for “overtaking” on the pre-race formation lap, and then slapped by FIA with a two-race suspension for allegedly ignoring the flag while Benetton’s Flavio Briatore argued with the stewards. The shenanigans escalated at the Hungaroring that season, where Schumacher was disqualified on technical grounds after the wooden undertray plank on his Benetton was judged too thin to comply the new FIA technical regulations. They peaked at Adelaide — the last gasp for a fun-filled Australian GP F1 venue — where Damon Hill, second in the race and the world championship, desperately dove for a small gap and Schumacher shut the door, breaking the Williams’ front wishbone and securing the win and season title. And controversy continued into 1995, where Hill, superficially appearing confident in the superior Williams FW17 of Patrick Head, collided into Schumacher at Silverstone, spun out while leading at Hockenheim, and made a general mess of things as Schumacher handily won his second title. (This included a fantastic victory in the 1995 European GP at a refurbished Nürburgring, where “Schumi” adroitly managed rain tyres and pit strategy to pass Jean Alesi with three laps to go to take the win, while Hill crashed once again attempting to catch the German.)
Emulating the storied Senna-Prost duels of the late 1980s, the 1996-98 F1 seasons featured an odd combination of tremendous on-track racing and sometimes unbelievable off-track wrangling. During the winter, Frank Williams had abruptly doffed Coulthard for the young Jacques Villeneuve, who immediately proved mature beyond his years by outpacing Hill in the season-opening 1996 Grand Prix at Melbourne’s Albert Park — capturing pole position and setting fastest race lap before eventually succumbing to an oil leak that forced him to accept the second step on the podium. Damon won his championship, becoming just the second British World Champion in 20 years, but in turn was fired by Williams, whence he moved to a Tom Walkinshaw managed TWR Arrows team that never really managed to become competitive except for an outstanding 2nd place in Hungary the next season — very nearly the most improbable victory of Hill’s career. In 1996 Monaco provided one of its celebrated surprises when, against the odds, Olivier Panis came through to take his first, and Ligier’s last, Grand Prix win. A downpour in the Principality meant that only three cars finished on the circuit, the fewest in F1 history, with fourth-placed Heinz-Harald Frentzen sitting in the pits when the checkered flag fell and the 5th and 6th-placed drivers having both retired on lap 70. Meanwhile, Villeneuve managed his own share of controversy in winning the 1997 drivers’ World Championship. Driving the last of the Adrian Newy designed Williams cars (the FW19), Jacques bleached his hair blond and captured the pole in the season-opening GP, but was shunted into the gravel at the first corner by the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine. Thereafter, despite occasionally erratic driving, he posted some of the best statistics ever for a second-year F1 driver, with 10 poles, 7 wins, 3 fastest laps and 86 points in 16 races.
Damon Hill was very much alone and only he knows how heavy was the weight on his shoulders. He carried the eternal comparison with his father and now he had to replace Senna. That he emerged from this by taking Schumacher to the final race of the season in the 1994 championship, and became the only man who could seriously challenge him in 1995, remains a feat of considerable courage, resource and fast learning.
Grand Prix Showdown — Christopher Hilton
As had become altogether too typical, there was major controversy, as well, with Villeneuve being disqualified at Suzuka for failing to slow down under a waived local yellow flag in practice (running the race under appeal). This followed a seesaw mid-season battle with Schumacher in which Michael put the Ferrari 14 points in the lead with consecutive victories at Montreal and Magny-Cours, while Jacques was reprimanded by the FIA — and summoned to appear personally in Paris the Wednesday before his home Grand Prix — after criticizing proposals for 1998 rule changes (grooved tires, narrowed monocoques, etc.) again designed to slow the cars. The perhaps inevitable result was a first-lap Jacques shunt into the wall on the pit straight chicane, appropriately nicknamed by Bob Varsha of ESPN/SpeedTV as the Wall of Champions, while leading the Canadian GP in Montreal at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The Canadian press responded that “by calling such an ill-timed meeting, FIA president Max Mosley emerges from the affair covered in infamy and looking for all the world like a petty tyrant on a power trip.” For his part, maverick Villeneuve was nonplussed, remarking that “I haven’t been asked to change my views, just my language” (he reportedly called the new rules “shit”), cementing his reputation as an irreverent non-conformist with a refreshingly open-minded approach to Formula One.
The 1997 F1 season saw the entry into Formula One of Jackie Stewart’s new Stewart Racing team, backed by Ford, and a brilliant second-place finish by Rubens Barrichello for Stewart in the rain at Monaco. Team Tyrrell introduced the ugly and controversial “X-Wings” — sidepod-mounted winglets — that would eventually be banned in 1998. But the big story of ’97 was how changed rules led to changed tactics that fundamentally altered the sport. With refueling introduced as a measure to add drama, F1 enthusiasts complained that Grand Prix racing had become an overly esoteric technical exercise with overtaking on most circuits the product of pit stop strategies rather than passing cars on the track itself. The black art of race strategy is constantly evolving, but goes through particularly marked transitions when major rule changes are introduced. Shortly after the reintroduction of refuelling, the teams’ race strategists worked out that at some circuits benefit could be gained from making two or three stops, rather than just one. This was because the car could run substantially quicker on a lower fuel load (with less weight) and using the grippier, but less durable, soft tire compounds. The difference in performance was such that it could be sufficient to offset the effect of the 30 or so seconds lost making a pit stop. Undoubtedly the master at this new craft was Schumacher, whose tactical genius at Benetton extended to Ferrari, using tremendously quick “in laps” that allowed him to pass faster cars in the pits.
The end to the 1997 season proved remarkably different, but in hindsight was merely the prelude to an even more memorable 1998 F1 championship. Moving into the penultimate ’97 race at Suzuka, Villeneuve held a nine-point advantage, but his DQ and Ferrari’s timely win put Schumacher in the points lead by one. So it all came down to the European GP, this time returning to Spain’s Jerez, where high drama was in order. Villeneuve qualified on pole with Schumacher alongside, posting the exact same time (and placed second only since his hot lap was later in the session). On lap 48, 20 tours from the finish, Villeneuve moved to overtake Schumacher for the lead, and Schumi turned into the Williams’ left-hand sidepod as the Canadian dived inside. The move
Villeneuve is a bundle of contradictions. Hugely talented, there are times when he seems to have cultivated the role of F1’s most conspicuous dissident, a blond-tinted, high-grunge enfant terrible who marches to his own beat, no matter whether it makes his team uneasy or leaves him vulnerable to sanctions from officialdom.
Autocourse 1997-98 — Alan Henry
was widely perceived as a re-run of the controversial Schumacher-Hill accident at Adelaide in 1994 — which Schumacher has consistently denied was deliberate — but this time ended up with the Ferrari stranded in the gravel trap and Villeneuve coasting to an easy third-place and the World Championship title. Schumacher this time, moreover, was brought before the FIA, stripped of his second-place in the driver’s championship, and transformed among many Formula One fans from Saint in the making to Satan incarnate. More importantly, perhaps, the Ferrari team for which manager Jean Todt had brought Schumacher on as its salvation in 1996 faced the prospects of another hard winter and yet another season in the many long years since Jody Scheckter, the last prancing horse World Champion, captured the title in 1979.
Discarding their long-lived orange and white livery when Marlboro withdrew from Formula One, McLaren International returned to F1’s roots with new silver West cars powered by Mercedes, hearkening to the “Silver Arrows” driven by Fangio and Moss in the 1950s. This time, the drivers were Mika Häkkinen — who had taken Michael Andretti’s seat and survived a massive head injury during a high-speed crash at Adelaide in 1995 — and Coulthard. The Scot won the opening race of the 1996 season, and with characteristic sportsmanship gave way to permit the Finn to win his first GP in the finale at Jerez. Would Häkkinen’s victory, like Alesi’s 1995 Canadian GP win, be a one-hit wonder? The 1998 Grand Prix season would answer with a resounding “No.”
In fact, despite initially looking like a McLaren romp, Formula One ’98 proved to be the most exciting Grand Prix season in years. Despite the rule changes and grooved tires (supplied by both Goodyear and Bridgestone) the cars once again were faster, and overtaking just as difficult. Then Häkkinen’s dominant MP 4/13 McLaren won four of the first six races, including opening 1-2 finishes with Coulthard in Melbourne and Interlagos. But Schumacher split the McLarens on the Buenos Aires grid, and outfoxed Coulthard into making a mistake to capture the Argentine GP. After Häkkinen’s victory at Monaco left him 22 points in the drivers’ championship lead, it looked like Ferrari were doomed to another season of disappointment and F1 fans resigned themselves to a McLaren cruise to the crown.
But Schumacher fought back fiercely, driving his Maranello team to improve the car, winning (as in 1997) back-to-back in Canada and France, then adding the British GP to move within two points going into the ninth race at the Austrian A-1 Ring. There, Schumacher first showed signs of being human, pressing too hard at the start on a light fuel load and ploughing through the gravel at high speed, eventually finishing third. By the time the F1 circus moved on to Spa-Francorchamps, Schumi was again seven points down and hanging on just barely to Häkkinen in the title battle. Belgium indeed proved the turning point of the season — with another controversial race — where a massive 13-car shunt at the La Source hairpin, initiated by Coulthard, put many cars out of action at the first corner. On the restart, Häkkinen then spun and destroyed his McLaren when hit by Johnny Herbert’s Sauber-Petronas. In atrocious rain, Schumacher opened up a massive lead, but then reamed a slow-moving Coulthard from behind in the spray, wiping off the Ferrari’s entire right-side suspension and wheel. Incensed, Schumacher raced down pit lane to have it out with “DC,” but was pushed away by the mechanics. Eventually, Damon Hill went by to give Team Jordan its first GP victory.
Despite a Schumacher win at Monza to tie the World Championship, Häkkinen rose to the occasion. Under intense pressure, Mika won the Luxembourg GP at the Nürburgring, outpacing Schumacher’ pole with a pass in the pits, taking a four-point lead to the finale at Suzuka. With the F1 media all talking about the two previous Schumacher final-race incidents (Hill and Villeneuve), the German captured the pole — o.2s from Häkkinen but well over a second ahead of Coulthard’s McLaren and almost two seconds in front of his Ferrari teammate Irvine — but stalled on the grid and was forced to start from last position. Schumacher knifed through the field, making up a staggering 10 places on the opening lap alone, yet on lap 32 Ferrari’s title ambitions ended not
After eight hard years with Team McLaren, Häkkinen had come back from his huge shunt at Adelaide to take the Championship in a flat fight with the acknowledged giant of the sport.. . . But for Schumacher and Ferrari, there was no disguising the fact that a season’s worth of hard work had clunked to a halt on the Suzuka grid. The long climb towards the elusive title would now start all over again — more like Sisyphus than Hercules — and there would be little rest.
FOSA F1 99 — George Goad
in a whimper, but the bang of an exploding Goodyear tire. Häkkinen took the title in style — a deserved World Championship who outqualified Ayrton Senna in his first race for McLaren in 1993, cheated death in the 1995 Adelaide crash that ended with a broken neck, won his first race in 1997, and now stood on the top podium of the world.
That left 1999 as the 50th anniversary season of the modern Formula One era and the end of the first century (and first millennium) of Grand Prix racing. Another classic. With Alex Zanardi returning to F1 from CART racing in the U.S., where he had scored impressive back-to-back championships, many expected a Williams revival and another riveting Schumacher-Häkkinen duel. But instead, Zanardi never got the feel for the twitchy, grooved-tired modern F1 car and languished at the back of the grid all season, with Ralf Schumacher taking the team lead and scoring well for Frank Williams. Stewart Grand Prix had a great engine and a good car, earning Johnny Herbert his third win, and Jacques Villeneuve led a massively funded British American Racing (BAR) team, using a modified Reynard chassis that has dominated American IndyCar racing, to a disappointing points-less finish.
The “other” Schumacher, Michael that is, shunted out for nearly the entire season at Silverstone, breaking his legs on lap one after a full wheel lock crash straight into the tire barrier. His Ferrari teammate Eddie Irvine took up the slack well, winning four races and finishing 98% of all laps in the season, an incredible display of reliability and consistency. Schumacher’s crash opened up a role reversal so outrageously impossible it seemed a flight of fancy. Returning near season’s end, Michael’s 1999 objective — despite the fact that Ferrari had spent $ billions and kept Irvine under contract restrictions so tight they essentially required team permission to pass the German — was to help Irvine win
The whole question of Ferrari generated an invitation to mythology; could any driver take on the temperament at Maranello, the politics at Maranello, the entrenched positions at Maranello, the resources of Maranello, and ride the Prancing Horse into the sunset? Berger, Mansell and Prost had all tried and failed. These were among the three leading drivers of their time. If the Scuderia horse had unseated them, who could ride it?
Michael Schumacher: The Whole Story — Christopher Hilton
the championship. But after losing concentration, making some bad offs and weeping emotionally following a self-inflicted spin out of the lead at Monza, Häkkinen convincingly won the season-final GP in Suzuka to capture his second consecutive drivers’ title by a slim two points.
While many observers felt that the 2000 Formula One season would see a resurgence among the backmarkers, particularly the new Team Jaguar, rising from Ford’s purchase of Stewart, it was hardly so. McLaren and Ferrari continued their dominance, together winning every race, nine by Michael Schumacher alone. Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher’s replacement No. 2 with Ferrari, won the German GP at Hockenheim to record his first F1 victory. With early-season reliability problems for Hakkinen and a late-season charge by Schumacher, Michael convincingly captured a second consecutive Ferrari constructors’ title in the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis in September — returning to F1 after a gap of nine years — and then the World Championship itself in the penultimate Japanese GP at Suzuka, his emotional reaction broadcast over the pit radio for the world to enjoy. It was Maranello’s first F1 drivers’ championship in more than 20 years, making good, at long last, on Jean Todt’s bold and expensive bet on the German phenomenon. And with his victory at Monza, Schumacher tied the legendary Ayrton Senna for second place among all drivers in career victories (eventually finishing the season with 44), weeping with joy during the post-race press conference as the magnitude of his accomplishment set in.
Later Michael commented, “When I arrived at Ferrari I did not think it would take me so long to win the championship. But the way we did it makes it even more extraordinary.” In Japan at parc fermé he sat for a long time with his head bowed in supplication before the fact, then after a handshake from Todt and a pat from Irvine, levered himself up in the cockpit and pumped both fists in triumph. Moments afterwards Schumacher joyfully conducted the Italian national anthem in pantomime on the podium while, in Maranello, Father Bernadoni apologized for not wringing the cathedral bells when Michael’s gorgeous, red F2000 crossed the finish line; he’d been saying Mass at the moment. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, who was put in charge of the Scuderia by Fiat in 1991 to return the team to its glory days, called that October Sunday “the most beautiful day of my life,” adding that he placed a congratulatory phone call from his home near Bologna to Schumacher in the early aftnoon “because in an hour’s time I will be drunk and will not be in full possession of my faculties.” The team party in Japan that night, not planned in advance for luck, was reportedly of historic proportions. Va Bene, Ferrari!