Sunday, 2 October 2011

2000 Belgian Grand Prix - Spa Francorchamps

August 27, 2000

Three races into the 2000 Formula One season and Mika Hakkinen had only 6 points to Michael Schumacher's 30, but Hakkinen was still putting on a brave face. He must have known something the rest of us didn't: seven races later, he'd clawed back all but 2 points to his title rival and seemed to have all of the momentum going into the net round in Belgium.

Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, on the otherhand were on the back foot as they prepared for Belgium. Two weeks before, Hakkinen had pulled off a near miracle in Hungary to transform a badly-handling McLaren MP4-15 between qualifying and the race so he could drive the opposition into the ground. Ferrari was unable to match McLaren on the twisty Hungaroring, but hard work following that defeat left it quietly confident for Spa-Francorchamps.

Schumacher - Four time victor at Spa.
After all, the circuit had come to be seen as a near certain 10 points for Michael Schumacher. He scored his first victory there in 1992, he'd won a further three times and he should have taken the spoils in 1994 and 1998 but for a disqualification and a slow moving David Coulthard hidden by a curtain of spray in a rain-drenched race.

But what Schumacher had come to learn in his Ferrari days was that even being the best driver in the world isn't any good without equipment to match. McLaren had been the better package for most of the 2000 season, and Schumacher was pinning his hopes on a new Ferrari 049C engine and aerodynamic tweaks to move him back to the front of the field. Sadly for him, it wasn't to be. 

In qualifying it was Hakkinen who got it right, fighting off competition from Jarno Trulli (Jordan-Mugen Honda) and an inspired Jensen Button (Williams-BMW) to snatch pole position. Schumacher would start in fourth just ahead of his team-mate Rubens Barrichello in fifth. Ferrari was clearly struggling.

2000 Belgian GP - Hakkinen and McLaren, faster than the Ferraris

But hope appeared to have been resurrected on race morning when a downpour washed out the track. Although it was clear that the rain would not stay all afternoon, it was a blessing for the undoubted skills of Schumacher, that era's acknowledged master of wet weather racing.

At the start, Hakkinen led away once the Safety Car had peeled off into the pitlane and, with the track drying out rapidly, the Finn maintained his advantage through the change to grooved "slick" tyres as Schumacher found a way past Button and Trulli to move into second place. On lap 13, however, the race turned on its head when Hakkinen touched a wet white painted line on the exit of Stavelot and spun through 360 degrees. He recovered and got back on the race track ... but the damage was already done. Schumacher took the lead, and charged into the distance. As the gap between them extended to 12 seconds, it appeared the race was over, with victory to Schumacher.

But as the afternoon wore on, there began to be signs that all was not well for the leader. On the long run down from Eau Rouge to Les Combes, Schumacher repeatedly ran off the racing line to cool his tyres on a damp section of the track. The implication was clear: the Ferrari was using its tyres more heavily than the MP4-15. For how long would Schumacher be able to maintain his lead?

Sure enough, Hakkinen began to close the gap as his car started handling better and better as the fuel load lightened. With five laps to go, Hakkinen was right on Schumacher's tail, looking ready to overtake. Through Eau Rouge he got a good run on the Ferrari and as Hakkinen jinked out of his rival's slipstream to the right, Schumacher slowly moved over to cover him. Hakkinen kept his foot down but as he started to pull alongside Schumacher firmly shut the door in an ultra-aggressive manner. The rear wheel of his Ferrari touched Hakkinen's front wing and the Finn braked to avoid what would have been a sizeable accident.

Hakkinen's determination was solidified by Schumacher's aggression.
"It was a very hectic and unpleasant moment - at the time I thought I had damaged something on the car," said Hakkinen. " Michael was holding the inside line and I tried to put the car half on the tarmac and half on the grass and it didn't quite work out. It was very exciting indeed."

As the pair turned into Les Combes, Hakkinen waved his fist in anger at the leader. It was perhaps his frustration at what happened that proved to be a key factor in his aggression the following lap.

Once again Hakkinen got a better run through Eau Rouge and, as Schumacher came up to lap Ricardo Zonta (BAR-Honda), all three drivers were closing in on each other. Schumacher moved to Zonta's left, believing that Hakkinen's only means of getting past had been blocked. But the reigning world champion still livid over what had happened on the previous lap, had other ideas. As Zonta held his ground in the middle of the track, Hakkinen pulled over to the right. Running three abreast with Schumacher and Zonta, he had the acceleration to pull clear and overtake. The race was his.

The Pass - Hakkinen's bravery is unquestionable.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis, watching on the pit wall, punched the air in delight, fully aware of the move's significance - Hakkinen went on to extend his lead to six points in the title chase.

"It was unbelievable," said Dennis. "I think I'd rate the move as the best I've ever seen in Formula One. There have been some exciting moves in the past, but it was the difficult conditions under which Mika did it, having been pushed almost off the circuit and on to the wet track during the previous lap. It wasn't just a question of going either side of a driver. It was also the wet part of the track, and that required commitment and bravery. In order for it to work, the momentum had to be there to keep him on line for the next corner."

The overtaking move of the 2000 season? Definitely. The best overtaking move in Formula One history? Probably not. Whatever the quality of Mika Hakkinen's spectacular manoeuvre past Michael Schumacher, there was no doubt that it was a significant moment in the fight for the 2000 world crown.

Hakkinen stakes his claim on a third straight driver's title.
Hunting Schumacher down in the final laps, refusing to be intimidated by a ruthless chop at over 190mph and passing him in one of the boldest moves ever. It was a spellbinding display made all the more impressive when Zonta later admitted that the reason why he didn't jink to the right when Schumacher came past was that he felt the track was too wet on that line.

Hakkinen was one of the few drivers of that era who had the talent to battle with Schumacher on even terms. The Finn was a hard racer, but he was also a fair and honest sportsman. The bravery and commitment demonstrated during that pass at Spa-Francorchamps was simply brilliant.

There are not many Grands Prix where a single pass defines the race, but this was surely one of the finest examples.

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