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.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

1978 South African Grand Prix - Kyalami

March 4, 1978

Colin Chapman was a legendary innovator. As founder and team manager of Team Lotus he is most remembered for his many clever designs and for his enormously successful Grand Prix team. Chapman introduced the monocoque form of construction into modern single-seater racing, he brought Ford into Grand Prix racing and along the way laid the ground plan for the venerable Cosworth DFV engine, brought sponsorship into the Grand Prix world, and he very quickly forced the pace of aerodynamics development once the use of wings were introduced to Grand Prix racing.

Perhaps Chapman's greatest legacy was to harness airflow beneath a car to increase its roadholding. In 1977 he introduced the Lotus 78 which was the forerunner of a new breed of grand prix car. Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson dominated the 1978 season in the black and gold cars as everyone learned a new expression: "ground effect".

Ground effect involved smoothing the under-car surfaces and attacehd "skirts" to the sides in order to give the underside the profile of a saucer. This shape had the effect of creating a vacuum between the car and the road surface, the effect increasing with the speed of the car. The vacuum "sucked" the car down onto the road, enabling it to corner at speeds that hitherto would have been inconceivable. 

Colin Chapman

Many doubted Chapman's wisdom in pairing Andretti and Peterson in 1978. Mario had an close and trusting relationship with Colin and he and contractually made the American the team's number one driver. Ronnie, however, was widely regarded as the fastest driver in the world in the mid-seventies, his seat-of-the-pants driving style and astonishing car control won him an army of fans. He was at the very least equal in ability and talent to Andretti, but Chapman probably knew better than the track-side cynics that Ronnie would honour the agreement that Mario was to be world champion that season.

It is likely that Peterson accepted the role of number two because he had not won for over a year. During his first stint with Lotus winning seemed to come easy. In 1973 he won four Grands Prix and added another three in 1974. A dreadful 1975 saw him leave Lotus for March in 1976, where he took a further win before being tempted to join Tyrrell in 1977. However, the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 turned out to be a disaster and by now the critics questioned whether he would ever win again. But a switch back tot he resurgent Lotus team for 1978 gave him back all of his enthusiasm and he was ready to prove the critics wrong.

In truth, however, this was not a race which Peterson looked likely to win. It was a race which should have produced a victory for team-mate Mario Andretti, for a young Riccardo Patrese (Arrowa-Ford) or for Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell-Ford). 

Andretti started from the front the front row and streaked away into the distance. But at quarter distance Andretti noticed that his front left tyre was starting to blister. If he carried on pushing at this speed, he would lose the race. But if he backed off to conserve it, then the chances were he would be able to pick up the pace again.

So he let Jody Scheckter (Wolf-Ford), who was being closely pursued by Patrese, through. The young Italian pushed Scheckter so hard that the performance of the Wolf's rear tyres went off and, after a spirited wheel-to-wheel battle, Patrese forged ahead. 

Patrese & Scheckter - wheel-to-wheel for the lead.
This was only the second race for the new Arrows team, and Riccardo built up a sizeable lead with Depailler moving up to second as Scheckter faded. Then, with just 15 laps to go, Patrese's engine blew. That left Depailler in the lead, but with Andretti, John Watson (Brabham-Alfa Romeo) and Peterson not far behind. This, in fact, had been a remarkable drive by Peterson, for he had been relegated to the sixth row of the grid by gearbox problems. But, once into the race, he picked his way through to the top six with aplomb.

Watson was next to go when he spun on oil, and that left Andretti, his car working perfectly again, catching Depailler for the lead, with Peterson closing up to both. Then Andretti's engine started to stutter. He was out of fuel, and livid because, to keep the weight of the car down, the Lotus team manager, Colin Chapman had taken out some fuel on the grid.

"What made me so mad was that Colin had three gallons of gas taken out of my car on the grid!" Andretti recalled later. "I didn't really argue with him because the guy was nearly always right. Colin, I says to him, if I run out of fuel, I'll take it out on your hide. Trust me he says ..." Apparently, even legends get it wrong sometimes and Andretti had to pit for a splash of fuel.

The day was not lost for Lotus, however, for Depailler's car was now trailing smoke. But Ronnie made no real inroads into the Tyrrell's lead until, with just five laps to go , the fates decided that the next helping of bad luck was to go to the Frenchman, and the Tyrrell began to stutter - it too was having trouble picking up the last drops of fuel.

1978 South African GP - Depailler tries desperately to hold on for his first win.
Peterson took up the chase. As they went into the last lap Ronnie was gaining, the Lotus virtually on the Tyrrell's gearbox as they came out of Crowthorne. This victory was going to be important to someone. After five years in Formula One Depailler had still to win his first Grand Prix. And Peterson was keen to show the sceptics that he was the man of old.

Round the last lap they went, sometimes side-by-side they ran, each driver's desperation to win plain to see as twice they banged wheels. But Ronnie was very determined to get by, and Patrick's car was hobbled. At the Esses, the last but one corner, the blue and white Tyrrell slid sideways slightly and the gleaming black Lotus slipped ahead. From 12th place on the grid, the great Swede won by half a second.

1978 South African GP - Peterson relentlessly pursues Depailler.
With an absolutely brilliant drive Peterson emphatically answered the critics who questioned his ability. Together, he and Andretti, dominated the 1978 season and, as well as scoring two more superb wins, Ronnie often sat just behind Andretti's exhausts, his integrity refusing to allow himself to break his contract and pass the American.

His performance that season was enough to win him an offer to be McLaren's number one driver in 1979, but after an accident at the start of the Italian Grand Prix left him with serious leg injuries, a bone marrow embolism entered his bloodstream, and Peterson died the following morning, depriving Formula One of one of its most electrifying talents.