ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 45 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections on 2000

  by Roger Horton, England

The 2000 season will always be remembered as the year when Michael Schumacher finally ended Ferrari's twenty-one year wait for that elusive drivers' title. Yet, apart from that dramatic race at Suzuka, where their mission was finally accomplished, it is not easy to recall a special moment around which the whole season turned.

In recent seasons there have usually been one or more defining moments that somehow summed up the year, and all these moments seemed to have Michael Schumacher involved. Last season, it was Schumacher's accident at Silverstone and his comeback drive in Malaysia. In 1998, his incident with David Coulthard at Spa, together with stalling on the grid in the title-deciding race in Japan were the moments most remembered, and in 1997, his collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez.

Some might say that it was Mika Hakkinen's engine failing at Indy that turned the tide, or the spectator wandering onto the track at Hockenheim, bringing out the safety car and destroying Hakkinen's lead, but perhaps his season was already too damaged by his retirements in both the opening races, whilst Schumacher romped to successive wins.

Apart from the Suzuka race itself, most Ferrari fans would pick Monza as the turning point - a win that stopped the rot, and just when the McLaren, in Hakkinen's hands at least, was beginning to look unstoppable. And then there was Imola, and the Nurburgring - typical Schumacher victories - or Indy, where the German drove for so long on his rain tyres, to once again outsmart his opponents.

Indeed, there are those that say that modern Formula One racing is all about Michael Schumacher, and that without him F1 racing would struggle to hold onto the world wide interest that it currently enjoys. There can be no question that the combination of the talented but controversial German, challenging for the title, and driving for the most famous and revered racing team in the world - Ferrari - is a promoter's dream, and the F1 media circus has enjoyed the ride.

This season has been the culmination of a huge programme that started in the early Nineties by Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo and team chief Jean Todt, who took over day-to-day control in mid 1993. Schumacher became part of the package in 1996 and moved Gianni Agnelli, honorary president of Fiat, to famously state, "If we don't win the World Championship with Michael, it will be our fault." For a number of seasons, and at times during this year as well, those words would ring in the ears of the men from Maranello as they tried to fulfil their boss's prediction.

In the end Schumacher triumphed because he drove the better season. Mika Hakkinen was often almost a match for him, but not quite, especially when you compare their respective performances over the entire season. Mika Hakkinen, his main rival for the title, has refused to be drawn on the exact reasons for his apparent loss of form for three or four races in the early part of the year, which suggests that there is more to it than the simple need for a holiday break, the reason so far advanced by team boss Ron Dennis.

If  Michael Schumacher is the man of the moment, then Jenson Button has certainly staked out his claim to be judged as the man of the future. Button entered F1 with many senior figures in the Paddock opining on his lack of experience and questioning whether he was ready for Grand Prix racing. After a troubled practice and qualifying session that saw him line up 21st on the grid on his debut in Australia, he showed his talent and maturity by coming through the field into sixth position, before his BMW engine failed.

There are some drivers who, from the moment they drive a Formula One car, look at home. They look and act as if they belong in F1, and very few drivers who make this type of instant impression fail to make the grade to the very top. The young Englishman is a perfect example of this phenomenon and he has time on his side to engineer a partnership with the right team. Button is very aware that his next season with Benetton is likely, in many ways, to be more difficult than his debut year with Williams, but he is looking forward to the challenge.

Whilst Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen are the established men at the top, and Button is on course to join them, David Coulthard seems to be caught in the middle. Just what makes the Scot so inconsistent is hard to pin down, and he continues to confound all those who appreciate just what an incredible talent he has. His weekend at Indianapolis was a good example of the problems that continue to dog his career. He failed to complete a timed lap during the first practice session on Friday morning due to an electrical problem, and so lost some important setup time on a track that was an unknown quantity for everyone.

In the second session, Coulthard dialled himself straight into the groove to top the time sheets for the day, and looked to be in outstanding form. He then out-qualified his teammate on the Saturday, and in the race set the fastest lap during a stirring drive through the field to finish in fifth position. But, once again, a mistake at the start led to a stop/go penalty and another wasted race weekend, sadly an all too familiar scenario in the Grand Prix life of David Coulthard.

His recent comments that he would consider leaving McLaren if it would enhance his chances of winning the World Championship have sent out a mixed signal. Was it a threat to his team to treat him more fairly when it came to calling the mid-race pitstops? Or the realisation that his time with his team is ebbing away and that he was ready to listen to other offers? Either way, if he can't win the title with Mclaren, he is unlikely to win it for anyone else and most observers know it.

A  look at the Constructors' Championship results underlines just how hard it is to win in Formula One, and during this last season the standards set by Ferrari and McLaren were raised yet again. Even the 152 points scored by the second placed team, McLaren, were more than the combined total of all other teams below them in the table, and no other team managed to break the stranglehold that the Big Two had on the winners' circle.

One team that discovered just how difficult it was to even maintain their position in the F1 pecking order, let alone move up, was the newly launched Jaguar team. Moving up the ladder in the F1 game is never easy, but the sagging fortunes of this team are a lesson for all to ponder over.

From the time Jackie Stewart announced his decision to step down as chairman of the team he founded as Stewart-Ford back in 1996, the team's management structure looked unbalanced and was further damaged when his son, Paul Stewart, was forced to resign due to illness.

Ford Motor Company Vice President and Chief Technical Officer Neil Ressler took over the reins as the new team boss, and he certainly can be said to have had a tough initiation into the hard and unforgiving world of F1. No wonder he looked relieved come September, when he announced the appointment of CART boss and team owner Bobby Rahal as the team's new CEO.

According to the team's lead driver, Eddie Irvine, the car's main deficiency is its aerodynamics, which is hardly surprising, as the team has yet to have the sole use of its own dedicated wind tunnel - a rather surprising omission, one would have thought, for a team soon to start its fifth season in F1. Next year, Irvine will again lead the team, and Luciano Burti, who has just one F1 start to his name, has replaced the hugely experienced Johnny Herbert.

Eddie Irvine has been very forthright in his criticism of the car and the time it has taken to sort out its problems, something that has not endeared him to the team, and there are those close to the situation who wonder if Irvine is in fact part of the problem. Then, in September, Jaguar hired the inexperienced Tomas Scheckter as their test driver, at a time when even their mid-field rivals like Jordan were employing test drivers with race experience, such as Ricardo Zonta and Alex Wurz.

All this has taken place amidst a huge Jaguar marketing blitz that has served to highlight even more the gap between the expectations created and the reality of the results produced. Despite all this, the sales of Jaguar cars appears to be growing strongly, so perhaps being on the grid at the start of F1 races is really what matters, not where you finish at the end. Good news, perhaps, for many on the grid, as there will always be more losers than winners.

Without question, one of the highlights of the year was F1's return to America, where some 250,000 fans turned up to watch Grand Prix cars race clockwise at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although there was some criticism that the infield was a little too tight, overall the track allowed the cars to really stretch their legs, an essential part of the spectacle, if Formula One is to capture the imagination of the American racing public.

The sight of Formula One cars racing on parts of the historic oval track was a culture shock whichever way you looked at it, and there were very few F1 people that were not impressed by the spectacle of racing in front of those packed historic grandstands, that have witnessed so many racing feats.

If there was a down side to the season, it was the constant and consistent war of words between some of the teams, and between the FIA and McLaren, which culminated in the infamous exchange of letters in Malaysia between FIA president Max Mosley and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis. Without question, both sides had some valid points, but fighting out their differences via press releases did neither party much credit.

Whilst understanding that F1 is a complex sport, the FIA's ruling that the McLaren car would be eliminated from the results of the Austrian Grand Prix while the driver, Mika Hakkinen, kept his individual points towards the Drivers' title, was surely the anomaly of the season. Even the FIA never doubted that the car's electronics had been tampered with, despite the fact that the external seal from the control box was missing. Even so, just how a driver was allowed to win with an 'illegal' car certainly stirred up the paranoia in the Paddock.

In the end, the driver with most wins took home the trophies, and few can argue with that. It was a clear-cut win and the margin of victory in favour of Schumacher at the end of the season was substantial. By the time the Ferrari team were jumping around in Malaysia wearing their red wigs, celebrating their title wins with their fourth race victory in a row, you were forced to ask yourself the question: how come it took them so long?

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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