ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 41 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Redemption

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

The script said it should go down to the wire. Most fans wanted it to go down to the wire. And, for the first half of Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix, it did indeed look like the 2000 World Drivers Championship would only be settled at the final race of the year in Malaysia.

But Michael Schumacher has been there once too often. For the German, championship-deciding end-of-season races don't represent a finishing wire, but rather a minefield strewn with the memories of driver errors, controversial collisions and shattered hopes. This year, he wasn't about to let it happen again.

For the first time since joining Ferrari five years ago, Schumacher enjoyed the luxury of two opportunities in which to clinch the coveted World Drivers Championship. It's a measure of his overall development in 2000 that he only needed one of those opportunities. How the fortunes had turned in just one month...

Hakkinen congratulates Schumacher after the Japanese GPAfter Spa, Schumacher faced a career watershed. He'd seen a huge championship lead eroded and then lost to arch-rival Mika Hakkinen. Staring down the barrel of yet another failure, this time in front of the fanatical tifosi at Monza, the German was under the most intense pressure of his career - and probably more than any other driver had faced in the history of Formula One. His response was a perfect triple - three pole positions and three wins from the following three Grands Prix.

Outwardly, Schumacher looked as calm and collected as ever, and his driving mirrored the studied concentration and tactical acumen which are his trademarks. Inwardly, he was in turmoil. His emotional release, captured via radio transmission to the Ferrari pit after he'd crossed the finish-line, showed the magnitude of the weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. It's difficult to know whether he was crying tears of joy or just simply relief, for another loss might have been more than either Ferrari or Schumacher himself could bear.

Perhaps Schumacher has had enough of bottling up his emotions and playing the hard-nosed icy professional. Maybe fatherhood has softened him. Possibly his accident at Silverstone last year caused him to re-evaluate his priorities. Whatever the real reason, this year's Schumacher was very different to the one that many fans had grown to hate.

Failure is the greatest character-builder of all, and Schumacher has had more than his fair share of it. He certainly invited failure, by taking up the challenge which had left many careers in tatters - the task of winning the World Drivers Championship for Ferrari.

For four years, he suffered the emotional payload that is part and parcel of failure at Ferrari. Even though Ferrari won twenty Grands Prix in that time (more than the previous twelve years combined), their efforts were tainted by allegations of cheating, unethical team tactics and dirty driving, culminating in the disgrace of the Villeneuve incident at Jerez '97.

This year, there would be no such sour notes. The F1-2000 was clearly as legal as any other car on the grid, if not more so. Traction/launch-control systems have two trademark features - they facilitate lightning starts and reduced tyre wear. This year's Ferrari is dire off the line, and chews tyres at an alarming rate. If there's any illegal software in the F1-2000, it certainly isn't giving them any tangible benefit.

The biggest damp squib of the year was the 'Schumacher teammate' issue. Brazilian Rubens Barrichello has been as anonymous as is possible in a Ferrari, neither challenging nor helping Schumacher throughout the season. Apart from the odd chopping manoeuvre at the starts, the German has also stayed clear of the 'dirty driving' controversies which dogged his earlier championship attempts.

However, the greatest aspect of Schumacher's championship year was Mika Hakkinen. A great champion needs a great rival, and Hakkinen fits the bill to perfection. Both of Schumacher's Benetton championships were compromised by weak opposition, either from the rival car (1994) or the driver (1995). Hakkinen has pushed Schumacher to another level, and vice versa. In the two years (1998 and 2000) when these two have fought it out, the ultimate winner has scored around 100 championship points. In 1999, after Schumacher's championship bid came to an abrupt halt against the Silverstone tyre wall, Hakkinen limped home with a mere 76 points and looked a pale shadow of his best form.

When Coulthard's 2000 championship hopes wilted at Monza, and it again became a two-horse race between Hakkinen and Schumacher, we were in for a monumental championship either way. If Schumacher won, the Ferrari dream would be realised. If Hakkinen triumphed, he'd be the first driver since Juan Manuel Fangio to 'three-peat'. Despite all the mid-week rumblings about 'team tactics', there was never any danger that either Coulthard or Barrichello would affect the outcome. Suzuka is possibly the most technical circuit on the calendar, and the perfect venue for Schumacher and Hakkinen to stamp their superiority on the field. That's the way it was last year, and Sunday's race was no different.

As Hakkinen once again out-dragged Schumacher off the start-line, it seemed as if history would repeat itself. All of Schumacher's hard work during the thrilling qualifying battle went out the window, and not even a robust chop could prevent the Finn from taking the vital first-corner lead.

Hakkinen could easily have refused to take avoiding action, leaving the stewards to decide the outcome of any contact between the two cars. Fortunately, the Finn prefers to win his championships on the track rather than in court, and took the sensible inside line. In the titanic and engrossing battle which followed, the deciding factor was the light sprinkling of intermittent rain. There were other factors - McLaren's conservative strategy, the spun Benetton blocking Mika's path through the chicane, and the speed and efficiency of the Ferrari pit crew. But ultimately it came down to Schumacher's superior pace in the greasy conditions.

In true Schumacher fashion, the win didn't come without the odd heart-stopping moment. First was the near-miss while lapping BAR's Ricardo Zonta. The Brazilian seems to have a major problem with spatial awareness, and had clipped not only Schumacher but also his own teammate Jacques Villeneuve earlier in the season. Some will blame Schumacher for cutting across Zonta's line too early after passing. But this race was about two drivers, and two only - the rest of the field were there to make up the numbers. Even Jacques Villeneuve, who is no fan of Schumacher, went out of his way to avoid holding up his old nemesis while being lapped. Zonta should have done the same.

Then, a few laps later, on an increasingly slippery surface, the German survived the Formula One equivalent of a biking tank-slapper at 130R. Strangely enough, that was probably the most reassuring sight for Ferrari and Schumacher fans: Michael had found his traction limit and wouldn't exceed it from that point on. Sure enough, his last few laps were uneventful before the chequered flag and the celebration party, which many thought would never come.

As ever, Mika Hakkinen's post-race congratulations bore the hallmark of true class and sportsmanship. The Finn has never risen to the bait of mind-games or a war of words, and his earnest no-nonsense attitude has rubbed off on Schumacher. Golfing sensation Tiger Woods would have us believe that 'second sucks, and third is worse'. In a world with such an abysmal attitude, it is a rare and refreshing treat to witness the healthy and growing respect between the two current superstars of Formula One. For once we can enjoy an intense competition that is free of the bile and vitriol which tainted the Senna/Prost and Mansell/Piquet rivalries of earlier decades.

And so to Malaysia. Michael Schumacher would have every reason to treat the Sepang event as a victory parade. But, knowing the German's professionalism and dedication to Ferrari, he will only relax once the team has secured the three points needed to wrap up the Constructors' Championship as well.

It's been a long and frustrating five years for Schumacher, filled with episodes and incidents he'd probably rather forget. But a brilliant race at Suzuka on the 8th of October 2000 secured him a thoroughly-deserved World Drivers Championship and a special place in the history of Formula One. Not even his harshest critics could deny him that.

Richard Barnes© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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