ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 35 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections on Spa

  by Roger Horton, England

Often during the season there is one defining moment of racing action. A moment so powerful that it creates an image of a driver that outlasts all the other memories that the season creates. Sometimes it can define a driver's whole career, in either a positive or a negative way.

Last year, the image of Mika Hakkinen's emotions overcoming him, after he had thrown away a comfortable race victory at Monza through a slip in concentration, defined him as a driver struggling to cope with the pressure of defending his World Championship crown.

This year, the image created when Mika Hakkinen dived through on the inside of a startled Ricardo Zonta to take the lead of the Belgian Grand Prix from his archrival Michael Schumacher, will live for a long time in the memory of all who witnessed it. It defined Mika Hakkinen as a daring and skillful driver prepared to risk all for the grand prize.

Zonta had moved to the centre of the track, as all drivers about to be lapped should, leaving the normal racing line on his left-hand side for Schumacher to use, which he duly did. For a split second Hakkinen, very much in the German's slipstream and carrying extra speed as a result, moved left as well, only to jink to his right at the last moment, entering the braking area at full speed, but decisively ahead of the Ferrari driver.

He had had just the barest of gaps to aim for, and for the briefest of moments, his whole race - and perhaps much more - were in Zonta's hands. Zonta, however, kept his head and his nerve as the two battling leaders passed either side of him.

It was a brilliantly instinctive move, the type that only works when a driver is on the top of his form. It sealed a race victory that had looked to be in some doubt and dealt Schumacher an important phsycological blow. For the second time in two races, the Finn overtook his main championship rival in a manner that allowed him no room for arguments. Hakkinen has remained aloof from all the talk of driver ethics and starting swerves, content to do his talking on the track; at Spa-Francorchamps he spoke, and the whole world listened.

Hakkinen's move past Schumacher on lap 41 was the culmination of a race-long duel between the two, in an event where both drivers were able to show off the respective current strengths and weaknesses of their cars. Hakkinen benefited from his pole position to lead away, and he was able to initially set a series of fastest laps. But once in clear air and on dry weather tyres, it was Michael Schumacher who looked to be the dominant driver, once again showing that when racing on a track where the grip level is constantly changing, the German has no equal.

Between laps 8 and 12, Schumacher set a succession of fastest laps as the track dried. Aided by a car carrying a low fuel load, he continued to set the pace until his second stop on lap 22. Just prior to his stop, Schumacher set his fastest lap of the race, a 1:54.252 on lap 18, and was able to continually put in laps in the sub 1:55 bracket. Later in the race, the Ferrari's current Achilles' heel - the way it eats its tyres when forced to run successive laps on the limit - was fully exposed, as Schumacher was unable to match his earlier pace, despite the fact that Hakkinen's McLaren was closing in.

Indeed, in the two laps before Hakkinen made his pass, Schumacher was struggling to break the 1:56 barrier - so poor was the level of grip afforded by his spent tyres. Hakkinen, by contrast, was able to push his car constantly to the limit in his pursuit of the leading Ferrari, and his speed got him into a position to attack once the opportunity arose. Unless Ferrari can find a fix for this problem quickly, yet another championship year will end in failure. So aware was Schumacher of his car's deficiency that he was constantly searching for the wetter parts of the track to cool his tyres from the time he first changed them.

For the second time in three races we had a situation where the various teams' pit stop strategies affected the result of the race and once again David Coulthard suffered. Post-race, the McLaren team boss Ron Dennis opined that he would be surprised if any analysis showed that Coulthard could have finished better than third, a claim that is hard to defend in the cold light of day.

It was the Prost of Jean Alesi that provided all the evidence. The Frenchman started on 'wets' but stopped on lap four to change to 'dry' tyres. He left the grid in seventeenth place and had climbed to fifteenth prior to his stop and rejoined where he started, in seventeenth position. He then set two fastest laps in succession, on laps six and seven, the second of which, a 2:00.889, was some five seconds faster than the lap time that race leader Hakkinen could manage. By lap nine, when all of the pit stop activity was over, Alesi was in fourth position, a place he would hold onto until he pitted again on lap 18.

So Alesi had moved up from fifteenth to fourth by some smart pit work, made easier by the fact that neither he nor his team had anything to lose. During the same period, Coulthard went backwards from third to ninth because his team once again failed to think on its feet, and it cost them the possibility of a one-two result into the bargain, to say nothing of what it did to David Coulthard's title chances.

By the end of lap five, Coulthard had been promoted to third position (from fifth) by dint of Jenson Button's failed overtaking manoeuvre on Jarno Trulli, and he was then only 3.1 seconds behind Schumacher. He trailed his teammate Hakkinen by some 14 seconds. Alesi was at this point already setting some impressive sector times, and McLaren could have easily got their man past the Ferrari driver if they had stopped him going into lap six. If Alesi in a Prost was capable of lapping some five seconds faster than Schumacher, it should have been even easier for Coulthard in a McLaren.

As it was, McLaren did not make their first stop until the end of the next lap, when they pitted Hakkinen, whilst Coulthard had to wait yet another lap, eventually getting his 'dry' tyres at the end of lap eight, at least two laps too late. When all the pit activity ceased, Coulthard had lost some six positions and fourteen seconds to Hakkinen. He was then stuck behind the Jordan of Heinz-Harald Frentzen until they both pitted together on lap 28, and his team's superior pit-work got him out ahead.

If Coulthard had made it past Schumacher in those early laps, he would of course have inherited the lead when Hakkinen half spun, and then it would have been in his hands what he then made of his race. Once again, McLaren's conservative and slow reactions to a developing situation hindered their race effort and only Hakkinen's lead in those early laps protected him from suffering too.

The decision to start the race behind the safety car, in what was essentially an American-style rolling start, when the track was only damp, was a serious mistake. To repeat this policy can only devalue further what is left of the stature of Grand Prix racing. These are supposed to be the world's best drivers, so starting and racing in the rain goes with the territory.

Once again, though, and not for the first time or probably the last, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher put on a display of world class driving that provided an enthralling contest. In the end, Hakkinen took his opportunity to score the win, and he did it with style.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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