ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 43

  Signed, Sealed and Delivered

  by Richard Barnes, South Africa

With Michael Schumacher having wrapped up the 2000 World Drivers Championship in Japan, the main excitement for Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix lay in the resolution of the season-long tussle for the Constructors' Championship.

Needing nothing less than a 1-2 finish combined with major problems for rivals Ferrari, McLaren's scant hopes received a slight boost when both Hakkinen and Coulthard out-dragged the two Ferraris to the first corner. If Schumacher retired, leaving a flu-ridden Barrichello needing at least fourth, then we might just have had a thrilling Constructors' battle after all.

Alas, Hakkinen's jump-start was duly spotted by the stewards, and the resulting 10-second penalty ended the Finn's hopes for the race, and McLaren's for the Championship. Hakkinen had escaped unpunished after a similar infringement at Spa '99, and ITV commentator Martin Brundle thought he might do so again, because the car was totally stationary as the lights went out. After the race, Hakkinen himself explained, 'My car moved a little before the start, but I was stationary before the lights went out.'

It's unclear why the 'stationary car' argument is ritually offered as a mitigating factor, as it's patent nonsense. The cars are separated by eight metres on the grid. Crawling forward before the start reduces this regulatory distance advantage for the car in front, and should rightly be punished. Otherwise, what would prevent the second-placed car on the grid from easing forward until he was level with the pole-sitter, and then stopping just before the lights go out? Apart from the eight-metre distance infringement, a jump-starting car is a severe distraction to the other drivers, at the very moment when nerves are stretched to bow-string tension.

With Hakkinen reduced once again to fighting a Minardi for position, David Coulthard took up the cudgels on McLaren's behalf - and did a sterling job. It's not often that any driver (other than Hakkinen) causes Ross Brawn to switch tactics mid-race. Coulthard's blistering pace over the first ten laps was enough, though, and Ferrari reacted to the threat by switching to a two-stop strategy.

At the time, it seemed an odd decision. Both Schumacher and Barrichello recorded their fastest race laps on tyres that had very nearly gone half the race distance, and Schumacher stated after the race that the car went faster as the tyres wore down. Hakkinen in turn went half-a-second faster than anybody else on tyres that were 34 laps old - way over half the race distance.

At the finish, Hakkinen was only 35 seconds off the lead, a few seconds more than he would have lost during the penalty stop. Considering how much he was held up by having to fight through traffic, and that he visibly eased off for the final dozen laps or so, Hakkinen's one-stop strategy was doubtless the way to go. Perhaps Brawn made a rare tactical miscalculation, or maybe the Ferraris were chewing their tyres more than the McLarens. Ultimately, it led to a Ferrari 1-3 when a 1-2 looked a certainty for a while.

In Brawn's defence, it seems that several teams switched from one-stoppers to two as a result of unexpectedly heavy tyre wear. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they were correct. Earlier in the season at Indianapolis, virtually all drivers pitted early for dry-weather tyres. On that occasion, Schumacher proved the conventional wisdom wrong, and continued to lap faster on his wet tyres. If Hakkinen hadn't been stuck at the back of the field, he'd have benefitted greatly from staying with the one-stop pre-race plan.

The drivers who are leaving Formula One, or moving teams at the end of the season, all arrived at Malaysia with hopes of a grand send-off. Without exception, they were bitterly disappointed. Prost's Nick Heidfeld didn't even last one lap before a multiple collision ended his race. BAR's Ricardo Zonta and Williams's Jenson Button saw their efforts come to naught as well, engine failures sidelining both. Sauber's Mika Salo at least made it to the finish, albeit in a disappointing eighth place. To cap a final season of woe, Austrian Alex Wurz also suffered crushing disappointment. After manhandling the marginally-competitive Benetton to a brilliant fifth in qualifying, and running in the points for much of the race, brake problems eventually forced him back into seventh place. And then there was Johnny Herbert...

Surely there has never been a braver, nicer and more talented driver to suffer such an extended and relentless run of bad luck? For a multiple Grand Prix winner like Herbert, having to spend his last season in the uncompetitive and unreliable Jaguar was bad enough. Then, just when it seemed the Jaguar would last until the chequered flag and a possible points finish, Fate had one final twist for the popular Englishman. To add injury to insult, it wasn't a blown engine, but a spectacular rear suspension failure which sent Herbert spinning wildly off the circuit. His race, and his Formula One career, came to an abrupt and painful halt against the tyre wall, bruising his knee in the process. Lady Luck owes Johnny Herbert more than a few favours. Let's hope she makes good her debt during his post-F1 career.

Over the last two decades, we've grown accustomed to the chilly perfectionism of the McLaren and Williams duopoly, where any non-podium finish is greeted with disdain, and even a 1-2 merits only the barest nod of approval. How refreshing was it, then, to witness the entire Ferrari team's boyish glee at their double-title haul.

Ferrari came to Sepang well-equipped, not only in F1 terms, but also with several dozen irrepressibly jaunty wigs of a dubious crimson hue. These eye-catching hairpieces were doubtless purloined from the same supplier favoured by Cyndi Lauper, Toyah Willcox and other luminaries, and how fetching they looked too. Even Michael Schumacher, renowned for his ultra-serious and aloof attitude, was game enough to join the public display of hi-jinks.

As they mounted the steps, we had a bizarre momentary vision of Schumacher and Barrichello conducting the Italian national anthem on the podium, their vermilion locks swaying merrily to the beat as the mechanics roared the lyrics from below. It's as well they didn't, for such heresy would have been enough to send Italian ex-President Francesco Cossiga into a permanent state of frothing apoplexy. To his credit, Schumacher was the picture of sombre respect during the anthems. Even though he clutched his hands tightly throughout, he still couldn't avoid the odd involuntary twitch. The man simply loves showing his joy at winning.

In a season characterised by regular bitter exchanges between the two rival camps, Malaysia's greatest moment was the public apology by McLaren's David Coulthard, and his subsequent reconciliation with Michael Schumacher. No doubt the first controversial incident of next season will renew the conflict, with battle lines drawn once again. But for now, peace reigns and the teams and drivers can tackle pre-season development with a clean slate. Roll on 2001!

Richard Barnes© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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