ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 43 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections from Sepang

  by Roger Horton, England

Despite the fact that a McLaren was fastest in both the Friday and Saturday practice sessions, there was a strange sense of inevitability about Michael Schumacher's pole position and subsequent race win. It now seems that the combination of Schumacher and Ferrari are natural winners, and that these days, somehow the once totally dominant McLaren team will find a new way to lose.

Either one of the McLaren drivers could, and perhaps should, have won this race. Mika Hakkinen's pace throughout was impressive; especially as he only had to stop once for fuel on lap 35, well past half distance. Once again the McLaren team had found a good race set-up, which was kind to Bridgestone's new softer compound tyres used in Malaysia. All of Hakkinen's efforts were wasted, however, when he allowed his car to move forward just enough to break the start line sensors and was therefore penalised for jumping the start, despite the fact that his car was stationary when the lights actually went out to commence the race.

For David Coulthard, the race was another missed opportunity. Just as in Montreal and Indianapolis, his car was good enough to win, and only his mistake when he ran wide on lap twelve, filling his air intakes with grass and forcing him into making a premature refuelling stop to have the ducts cleaned out, cost him the opportunity to prove it.

The Ferrari team have brought themselves to a new level this season. The whole team approached this last race of what has been a long hard year with the same enthusiasm as they approached the first, and more importantly, they maintained their discipline when it mattered. Already there are question marks appearing over just how much longer some of the key management people will continue with the team, but for the moment, they can quite rightly enjoy their moment of total victory.

Once again politics, in the shape of the ongoing row between Ron Dennis, team chief of McLaren, and Max Mosley, president of the FIA, erupted on Saturday afternoon. Mosley released to the media a letter he had written to Dennis concerning two issues raised by the McLaren boss during the Suzuka title-deciding race weekend in Japan, two weeks previously. These issues were the appointment of the Italian Steward Roberto Causo for that event, and the pre-race driver briefing, in which race director Charlie Whiting made clear to all the drivers just how seriously the FIA would view the use of team tactics that affected the outcome of the race.

Dennis dealt with the first issue by apologising unreservedly for his comments regarding Mr. Causo, and the second by writing a letter to Max Mosley clarifying his comments, although he refused to be drawn into further public debate on the matter through the media.

By way of illustration, two recent examples of borderline use of team tactics were cited in Mosley's letter to explain the FIA's reasons for taking action in Japan and to counter Dennis's criticisms of them. Firstly, Michael Schumacher's 'tactical' driving at Malaysia last year, when he held back Mika Hakkinen to assist his then teammate Eddie Irvine, and David Coulthard's slowing down dramatically in front of Michael Schumacher at Indianapolis just two races ago.

The letter also contained three possible scenarios that a team might hypothetically use to win a title deciding race in a manner which the FIA has now decided it would take action to stop:

A) "Team A tells its second driver to start as soon as the fifth red light comes on. If, after the start, Team A's first driver is in front, let him past and hold up Team B's first driver. If Team B's first driver is in front, try to hold him up to allow Team A's driver past. Team A knows it will take a few laps for the penalty to come up. If this is not enough, the penalty combined with leisurely subsequent pit stop would allow Team A's second driver to have another go at impeding Team B's first driver. The result would be that Team A's first driver would have an overwhelming advantage and almost certainly win if the two were otherwise evenly matched."

B) "Team A's first driver gets away behind Team B's. Team A's second driver makes a very bad pit stop and comes out head of Team B's first driver. Ignoring the blue flags he holds up Team B's first driver as necessary. He then gets a stop-go penalty, makes another bad pit stop and does the same thing again. He is then, in all probability black flagged, but by now Team A's first driver is almost certainly in front with a good lead."

C) "One of the two leading teams persuades an associated team - one to which it supplies engines or with which it has a close political affiliation - to instruct its drivers to make things difficult for the rival team when being lapped. This, particularly combined with the right fuel strategy, would be enough to tip the balance in a closely fought race."

The letter then continued: "The above are three crude examples and elementary compared with what the teams' strategists could come up with if asked. When you add the complexities of fuel and pit stop strategies, tyres, possible rain and so on, the scope for destroying a great sporting contest is almost infinite."

Max Mosley had obviously done his homework, because variations of these three scenarios have occurred in races over the past four years, and not only in title deciding events. Leaving aside just who did what to whom first, it is hard not to agree that it was time to stop these practises once and for all, although some might argue that it would have been less controversial if this new directive had been adopted at the start of the season and not at the end.

It is also possible to argue, that as Ferrari will be supplying engines to the Sauber and Prost teams next year, they would have had four cars that could have assisted them under Mosley's third scenario. So in reality, the enforcement of this new policy could well act in McLaren's favour after all.

Mika Hakkinen was certainly one driver not about to risk the possibility of incurring a possible race ban that would have extended into next season. Having been notified by his team that he was under investigation for his start line indiscretion, he not only let his teammate through into the lead, but both Ferraris almost immediately afterwards. This certainly breaks new ground as far as 'sporting' behaviour is concerned and it's hard to imagine that he would have done this without the FIA's directive.

Speaking at Malaysia, but before Mosley's letter had been made public, Ralf Schumacher came out strongly in support of the FIA's actions: "I just think that, at the end of the day, you work seventeen races a year, the whole team works for it a whole year too, and if two drivers are in that position to win the championship, no one, in my opinion, should interfere. They should do it between themselves and figure out who is the best."

Interestingly, he also agreed that what his brother, Michael, did to Hakkinen at Malaysia last year was also wrong, and recalled that, back in his Jordan days, he had the chance to hold up Jacques Villeneuve during his title deciding race with his brother at Jerez in '97, but didn't do it.

After the race, David Coulthard went out of his way to wipe the slate clean with race winner Michael Schumacher. The two have been involved in numerous on track incidents over the past few years, and much off track aggravation as well. "As everyone knows, we have had some differences, and I am embarrassed that sometimes I have said things too publicly instead of going to see him and to talk face to face," Coulthard said. "At the end of the season I wanted to apologise to him for that and to say that he is a great champion and that I look forward to competing with him again next season."

On that note of reconciliation, the last event of the 2000 season ended. The entire Ferrari team clowned around in their red wigs, and the other teams pondered the challenge of beating them next season.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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