ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 39 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections from Indy

  by Roger Horton, England

They are big on tradition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is only fitting to record then, that it was Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Jordan that led the way as the cars streamed out for the first practice session of the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. The date was Friday the 22nd of September 2000, and another chapter in the story of 'The World's Greatest Racecourse' had begun.

For the record, it was the Jaguar of Johnny Herbert that became the first Formula One car to 'kiss' the wall during the opening Friday practice session when 'something broke' on his car, but it was only a glancing blow, and he suffered no serious damage to his car or injury to himself.

For the many millions watching this race around the world, the big picture was the ongoing battle between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen for the world drivers' title. For the vast majority of fans at the track, it was a chance to look at Formula One cars for the first time, but for the teams, their main focus was on how the tyres would perform and the constantly changing weather conditions. In the end the former would play a much less decisive role than the latter, much to everyone's relief.

By the end of Saturday's qualifying session, Bridgestone had lowered the relatively high tyre pressures they had insisted all the teams run due to fears about the stress their tyres would be under through the banked turn thirteen, and any fears about catastrophic tyre failures had disappeared. The extremely hard compounds that Bridgestone brought to this race track was to prove a mixed blessing for some driver's fortunes, and caused some drivers dearly in the first half of the race.

On one hand, all the teams used the hardest compound 'wet' that was available, and it proved to be so hard it coped extremely well with extended running on the dry high-speed part of the track. On the other hand, those that changed to dry tyres early struggled for some laps to get them up to temperature.

During qualifying, the unique nature of the Indianapolis road course, with its super fast last corner leading onto such a long straight, led to an opportunity for the teams to work their cars in tandem to tow each other along, and as always it was Ferrari and McLaren that led the way. Rubens Barrichello providing the assistance for Michael Schumacher on their third run, which worked, and vice versa for their fourth run, which didn't.

With the two Ferraris on the front row, and just minutes remaining, both McLarens took to the track, even though Hakkinen had only two of his twelve lap allocation left. Their intention was clear as David slipstreamed Mika down the pit straight, moving through at turn one as his teammate made way. Afterwards team chief Ron Dennis opined that it had benefited Coulthard by just a tenth of a second, not enough to snatch pole away from the number three Ferrari, but enough to join him on the front row of the grid.

Michael Schumacher held on to his pole position, but only just. On his pole lap he passed the stricken Prost of Jean Alesi under a local yellow flag, but although he had improved his total lap time, his second sector time, which was where the Prost had broken down, was slightly slower, so his time stood.

Some three hours before the race, the rain that had been threatening since Friday started, and a steady drizzle fell for around an hour. But, by the time the cars formed up on the grid, the 'old' part of the circuit was completely dry, but small 'rooster tails' were being thrown up from the rear tyres on the new road course part of the track as the cars made their way to the grid.

Clearly all the teams were going to have to gamble with set up, as the possibility of further rain was rated at 50 percent as the start drew closer, with the whole race picture being clouded by the fact that the cars were, in effect, going to race on two tracks. One was dry, while the other was wet, and with the wet one drying slowly as the race progressed, it was no surprise to observe many last minute adjustments on the grid, including a last minute wing change on Schumacher's car that tuned his car more towards a dry set-up.

Effectively this was a race that McLaren lost, more than Ferrari won. David Coulthard blew his chances of playing a major role at the front when he jumped the start by some margin. His role as a 'mobile chicane' in front of the chasing Schumacher was evident as early as the fourth lap when he dropped his pace down to a 1:24.156 after posting a 1:23.341 on his first flying lap. After a very pedestrian 1:26.980 on his fifth tour, his teammate was on Schumacher's tail, but he soon fell out of contention when forced to serve his ten-second stop and go for his jumped start.

This was a penalty that Schumacher himself had narrowly avoided. "Yeah, you're allowed to move as long as you stop again and then you are allowed, I think, maybe the centimetres I moved."

The race was effectively decided in Schumacher's favour when Hakkinen's engine blew on lap 25. But the difficult track conditions were clearly shown by observing the McLaren's progress through the early period of the race. Hakkinen was one of the earliest stoppers when he pitted on lap seven for dry weather tyres. He settled back into fifth position on lap nine behind the Minardi of Gaston Mazzacane who was fourth and still on wet tyres.

For the next five laps we would witness the unusual sight of a McLaren struggling to get on terms with a Minardi, as Hakkinen struggled to overtake on his dry tyres, and he was only put out of his misery when Mazzacane pitted on lap fourteen. The effect on the race was dramatic. Now in clear air, Hakkinen dropped his lap time by an incredible 4.9 seconds, punching in the fastest lap of the race so far with a 1:21.061, some 2.4 seconds faster than Schumacher - still on wets - could manage.

Ferrari responded immediately by pitting Schumacher, and the Ferrari emerged from the pits some ten seconds ahead of the McLaren. Hakkinen, though, was on a mission, and with the track now drying rapidly he carved great chunks out of Schumacher's lead, reducing it to just 4.1 seconds before his engine let go.

Later in the race, David Coulthard would suffer the same fate as Hakkinen had done earlier. It would take the Scot some five laps to fight his way past the other Minardi of Marc Gene. These problems for the McLarens clearly showed the difficulties the teams faced in setting up their cars to be fast around an entire lap, and to overtake for position even a car with a much slower overall performance capability.

With Hakkinen's retirement, the race, and possibly the world championship, was decided, although Michael Schumacher would give the many thousands of Ferrari fans around the track a heart-stopping moment when he lost concentration and spun with just a few laps to go. Prompted by Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn to keep his concentration, he replied on the radio: "Don't worry, I am awake now."

So the Ferraris crossed the famous 'yard of bricks' for the last time to score their third one-two finish in America, and their first win in this country since Gilles Villeneuve's victory at Watkins Glen in 1979. Fittingly, the man waving the chequered flag that greeted them was none other than Tony George, President of the Speedway, and the man almost solely responsible for bringing Formula One back to the United States.

Post race, Schumacher reflected on becoming the first driver to win a Formula One race at the new Indy. "Oh, its something really, really nice It's the first time we have been here and I guess none of us expected to have such a great welcome from the American race fans." But at a place where tradition is respected almost as much as religion, it will mean more, much more. Michael Schumacher's name is now added to a very select group of first time winners that may never be expanded. First time Indy 500 winner Ray Harroun, Jeff Gordon, winner of the Brickyard 400 in 1994, and Mark Martin, winner of the 1998 IROC at Indy.

Schumacher, though, will have little time to reflect on this and his place in Indianapolis folklore. He is better placed than ever before to finally end Ferrari's 21 year drought and seize that elusive drivers' title. It could happen in Suzuka in less than two weeks time, and for the Ferrari number one, there is no time to rest. "I fly home tonight, we are testing on Thursday and Friday, and the championship is not yet won."

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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