ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 35

  Two for the Show

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

"One of the greatest in the sport's history" was how McLaren chief Ron Dennis described Mika Hakkinen's audacious overtaking manoeuvre on Michael Schumacher during Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix. Perhaps the exhilaration of the race triumph swayed Dennis' judgement, or perhaps the processional nature of modern Formula One has dulled the memories of yesteryear.

Either way, Hakkinen's passing move should have instantly transported Ron Dennis back almost twelve years to Suzuka 1988, where Ayrton Senna pulled off a similarly bold pass to take the lead, the race, and ultimately the Championship, from McLaren teammate Alain Prost.

Formula One was a very different beast back then. Less aerodynamic disturbance behind the cars, big soft slicks and judicious use of the turbo boost option made passing and close racing a lot more viable. It was also a time of unprecedented dominance for Dennis's Woking outfit. It wasn't a question of which team would win, but rather which of the two McLaren drivers. For Ron Dennis, the only overtaking moves of note were those between his own two drivers. The rest of the field were there merely to be lapped, and had it not been for Senna's untimely shunt with Jean-Louis Schlesser's Williams at Monza, the mighty MP4/4 would have clean-swept the season.

How things would change with Prost's departure to Ferrari for the 1990 season. Now, exactly a decade later, history is again repeating itself. Formula One is once more a two-man show - and again one is driving a McLaren, the other a Ferrari. For all their differences, Schumacher and Hakkinen are remarkably similar to the Senna/Prost duopoly which preceded them.

Schumacher is a curious blend of Prost's racecraft with Senna's ethics and wet-weather ability. Hakkinen in turn has Senna's qualifying speed combined with a Prost-like talent for accumulating championship points remorselessly, while staying out of trouble. Perhaps that is too generous, for the Finn can lose the car along with the best of them - Imola and Monza '99 being two recent examples.

However, Hakkinen also shows remarkable ability to rescue the car from the most improbable situations. Silverstone '98 was probably pure luck, with the Finn a helpless passenger in a car spinning wildly across the sodden grass, only to miraculously miss every solid object in sight. Those were probably the luckiest six points Hakkinen has ever earned.

Later in the year, at Monza, he again found himself out of shape as brake problems pitched the MP4/13 into a spin. Travelling backwards through the trackside dirt at near racing speed, he had the presence of mind to keep the car pointed straight and the engine running, using his mirrors to guide his way back onto the track and to an eventual fourth place finish.

On Sunday at Spa, he again showed great car control. Despite its wide-open layout, sections of Spa have very restricted run-off areas - the inside of Stavelot is one of those. With the nose already pointed straight at the barriers just a few yards off the racing line, and the rear of the car swinging around ominously, Hakkinen applied full lock and managed to stop on the proverbial dime.

In an unbalanced car, and with Schumacher pulling out a healthy lead in front of him, most expected the Finn to repeat what he had done so often in the past - choose the 'Prost option' and settle for six safe points. We'd seen it all before - the pitiful podium posture, the bland and hostile interview stare, the halting speech as he strove to find words to describe his afternoon of misery. Yet Hakkinen was about to add another facet to an already enigmatic personality.

Whatever magic the McLaren technicians worked during that second Hakkinen pitstop, it elevated Spa 2000 into a truly great race. Early on, the signs had been discouraging. The Finn nearly a second faster than anybody else, an absurd rolling start, and a damp track which dried out in the first half-dozen laps were hardly the ingredients for a classic thriller of a race. Yet Schumacher and Hakkinen showed that, whatever the track conditions and technical regulations, true racers can always find the means to provide a spectacle.

Schumacher had no business leading the race in a Ferrari that was clearly outclassed all weekend. Hakkinen showed equal nerve, not only in forcing his way past the German, but in how he achieved that. At the entrance to Les Combes just a lap earlier, Schumacher had shut the door firmly on the Finn, proving once again that he is currently the most intimidating driver to pass in Formula One. Add BAR's unpredictable Ricardo Zonta into the equation at nearly 200 miles per hour, and the end result was a pass which will be remembered as the move of 2000.

Currently, it seems unthinkable that anybody else could challenge the Hakkinen/Schumacher or McLaren/Ferrari dominance. For perennial bridesmaid David Coulthard, Spa 2000 only reinforced what many had already suspected: despite the Scot's upbeat early-season predictions, this year will be no different to any other. Coulthard may claim rotten luck, and indeed, whether it is due to pitstop/strategy errors, technical infringements, unreliability or traffic problems, he does seem to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Yet, even in a healthy car, the Scot always manages to vanish back into the midfield when the chips are down. He did it at Nurburgring, and at Suzuka '98. At Nurburgring '99, he was offered a golden opportunity. With main championship contenders Hakkinen and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine battling down the field, Coulthard enjoyed a healthy lead in the wet - only to crash out of contention. A lacklustre Monza race and another anonymous Suzuka performance capped a truly abysmal 1999 championship challenge.

If he wants to earn respect, Coulthard will need more than empty promises, a new fitness regimen and pleas for British public support. The two McLaren drivers couldn't be more different in their approaches. While Coulthard will readily engage Schumacher and Ferrari in a war of words, Hakkinen steers clear of such conflicts, letting his driving do the talking instead. For all his shyness and awkward public manner, Hakkinen has achieved something that few would have believed - he has earned Michael Schumacher's respect.

Barrichello, like most of Schumacher's teammates, has proved to be a marginal performer. With Jacques Villeneuve stranded in a hopelessly uncompetitive BAR, it doesn't look like any other driver is ready to challenge for the crowns of Hakkinen or Schumacher. Yet this is Formula One, and change is inevitable. It could also happen sooner than expected.

With the imminent retirement of Rory Byrne, and possibly Schumacher shortly thereafter, Ferrari will doubtless be thrown into disarray. Hakkinen will also probably retire soon, and next year the Mercedes-Ilmor engine will start year four of the traditional five-year engine dominance span. So the door is wide open for pretenders to the throne.

With Renault, Honda, Ford and Toyota all prepared to throw obscene amounts of cash and expertise at a title shot, Formula One could become more competitive than ever over the next couple of years. Yet the smart money would have to be with Williams.

With the potentially explosive Juan Pablo Montoya joining the maturing and dependable Ralf Schumacher, their driver line-up looks set for years to come. Patrick Head and Gavin Fisher have always had the chassis smarts, and Frank Williams is rarely wrong in choosing an engine supplier. He was spot-on with Honda, and again a few years later with Renault. If BMW deliver the goods, it'll soon be 1992 all over again.

Richard Barnes© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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