ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 41

  Reflections from Suzuka

  by Roger Horton, England

It was perhaps fitting that Michael Schumacher should finally win his long sought-after world title for Ferrari, in a race that was so typical of this modern era. The pattern of the race never varied; it was always Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen at the front, and it was plain that only a driver mistake, a mechanical problem, or the pit stops would change the order.

At the start, Schumacher's hard-won pole position counted for nothing, as Hakkinen once again beat the German away from the line. Schumacher's now predictable lunge across the track failed to slow his rival's momentum, as he was able to use the full width of the pit lane exit to avoid the encroaching Ferrari.

It was soon clear that the Hakkinen/McLaren combination was just a little bit faster than the chasing Schumacher/Ferrari one, though not by much. Try as he might, Hakkinen was never able to extend his lead to anything resembling the sort of margin that would have put the race beyond the red car from Maranello. Hakkinen managed the fastest lap of the race on lap 26, and his lap time of 1:39.189 stretched his lead to 2.9 seconds, the biggest margin he would enjoy throughout the race.

As the second round of pit stops approached, it was clear that this would be the Ferrari team's only chance to win the race and leave Suzuka with the drivers' title secured. As if in answer to the collective prayers of the Tifosi, a slight but persistent drizzle began to fall. This caused Hakkinen's lap times to fall by between 1.5 to 2.0 seconds per lap just prior to his second stop, which occurred on lap 37. Just how much slower the track now was, was shown by Schumacher's lap times just prior to his pit stop three laps later, remembering that Schumacher was now running in clear air. Lap 38 was a 1:42.379, an extra slow lap, caused by the need to lap both Jaguars, while lap 39 was a 1:41.280 - free of traffic but still some two seconds slower than Hakkinen's best.

If Michael Schumacher's lap times were affected, running with a very light fuel load and hot, though worn, dry weather tyres, Hakkinen was even worse off. The Finn's car was heavy, and the tyres took longer than normal to come up to working temperatures, due to the reduced level of grip from the damp track to heat them. By the time Schumacher emerged from his own stop, the Finn was still just entering the main straight, and so the race and the championship fight were over.

Once again, the Michael Schumacher/Ross Brawn combo had called it just right, but Brawn's magic in these situations can only work when he has a genius in the cockpit to do the hard part. And as we have seen so often over the years, there is no one better than Michael Schumacher when conditions are like this. There can be no argument that the best driver of the season was crowned champion in Suzuka, his record over the sixteen races speaks for itself.

The FIA's decision, announced to the drivers at their Friday briefing, that there were to be new rules to prevent 'blocking' and 'unsporting behaviour', took many by surprise. It might have been a good idea if implemented at the start of the season, but to try and enforce a new code of conduct on the eve of a title deciding race was controversial, to say the least.

On the surface, many interpreted the FIA's actions as another shot across the McLaren team's bows, as they were the team with most to gain if David Coulthard could somehow get himself ahead of Michael Schumacher in the race. Just how hard it would have been to enforce this rule was clear to all afterwards, when Coulthard came home in third position, over a minute behind the winner, which translates into over a second per lap. Therefore, had Coulthard managed to jump Schumacher at the start and hold the German up by that margin until the first round of pit stops, would he have been shown the waved black flag?

The FIA's warning suggests that such a driver would be breaking the new rules. These rules are surely a case of closing the stable doors long after that particular horse has bolted, so if race director Charlie Whiting decides to penalise a leading driver under them, Formula One will once again make the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

These may be great days for the elder Schumacher, but Ralf looks increasingly like a driver under strain. Sure, he is still achieving some solid results, but he has been outqualified by his precocious young teammate Jenson Button in three out of the last four races. In Formula One, speed in qualifying, more than anything else, defines a driver's place in his team. Jenson Button is a driver who has natural speed, the intelligence to work with his engineers to harness it, and is more than making his presence felt against a vastly more experienced teammate, who enhanced his own reputation no end in '99.

Suzuka is supposed to be such a technically challenging track, that those with some Japanese experience on their resume are supposed to have an advantage there, even some years into their F1 careers. It would be interesting to know just what Ralf Schumacher made of Button's stunning speed on all three days of the Japanese Grand Prix. Previously, Button was showing his inexperience by not consistently managing to put together a mistake-free race weekend, even though he had shown the ability to potentially get the job done from the earliest part of the season.

At Suzuka, Button was starting to look very much like the finished article, as far as being a complete F1 driver was concerned. At Indianapolis, he asserted that he would see out his two-year contract with Benetton whatever happens at Williams next year, but should the much-touted Juan Montoya stumble during his transition to F1 from CART, then Frank Williams will surely waste no time in returning Button to the fold.

But Suzuka 2000 was all about Michael Schumacher and the entire Ferrari team, so it's only fitting to give the new champion the last word. Speaking afterwards about the moments when he was driving down the pitlane to take the lead of the race, he revealed just what technical director Ross Brawn said during those pivotal seconds: "I did not think I had done enough. But as I went down the pitlane, he was saying 'it's looking good, it's looking good.' Then he said: 'it's looking bloody good!'"

And for millions of Ferrari fans all around the world, nothing has ever looked better.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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