Sunday, 14 August 2011

Looking back: Schumacher falls to a Hakk attack - the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix

In many ways it felt like the first Grand Prix I'd ever been to. I wasn't strictly, as I'd been to the British Grand Prix in 1993, but I wasn't very old then and was in the company of a parent. This certainly felt like branching out on our own. A 21st birthday present from the parents: a trip to the Belgian Grand Prix at the classic Spa-Francorchamps circuit with my brother. For a young man who hadn't spent many of his days outside Scotland up until this point it seemed like an incredible leap into the unknown. And, what do you know, at the end of it all the race we watched turned out to be a great one, featuring a classic man-to-man battle between the two drivers of the age, settled by a late-race pass that has gone into folklore. Just as well I timed my 21st birthday so well.

So, off we went with a tent, on the train from Edinburgh eventually to Spa via London and a Brussels youth hostel. For much of the journey, even quite close to Spa, it's quite hard to imagine that the beautiful, wooded, undulating landscape that one associates with the Spa circuit is at the end of it. A matter of miles away Belgium instead is characterised by flat cornfields, with the odd (and dare I say a little grim-looking) town. Only on the last leg of the journey, which involved a bus trip, does the scenic Ardennes landscape that we know so well from our television screens begin to show itself.

Credit: Lester Klaassen / CC
The town of Francorchamps is like something from a picture postcard, and when the Grand Prix is in town a large, good-natured and multi-cultural camping crowd, replete with their fair share of, shall we say, larger than life characters, settle and ensure a jamboree atmosphere. But even with this in 2000 one nationality in particularly was dominant. Spa is a matter of miles from the German border, and this was during the high plateau of Michael Schuamcher's popularity. It seemed much of Germany had made the trip, determined to make it another 'home race' for Schumi. The Schumi fans were easily recognisable, complete as they were with what seemed like standard-issue red Schumacher hats (you can say that Deustsche Vermoegensberatung got a decent return on that investment).

The road from the campsite down to the circuit (also the road that, in real life, eventually became a junction that was the La Source hairpin) was lined with fans, banners, tents and camper vans, even the odd coach and lorry! One banner I remember (and thanks to my brother for translating it from the German) was 'Ferrari without Schumacher is like sex without women'. An interesting concept...

We sat on the inside of Blanchimont for the first F1 practice session, and the sensation of the sharp, distinct noise of a V10, far away and out of sight because of the trees, making its way down through Eau Rouge and up through Raidillon and Kemmel and echoing across the wooded landscape, is one that will always stay with me.

Then, as now, an Adrian Newey-designed car was the thing to have around long, fast corners, and in the year 2000 that meant a McLaren. And it usually meant advantage to Mika Hakkinen. From the first session the McLarens, and especially Mika's, were nailed to the road in a way that their rivals definitely were not.

The year 2000 was very much in the era of McLaren vs. Ferrari, which usually boiled down to Hakkinen vs. Schumacher. Mika had won the previous two drivers' championships, equalling Schumi's tally. In 2000 however, Michael started the season superbly, taking wins in the first three rounds, as well as five wins from the first eight. He was aided by early season Mercedes engine unreliability for McLaren, but it seemed that the Ferraris were close or at the McLarens' pace, as well as usually superior on strategy and avoiding treading on their own tail. This all left Schumi 22 points clear in the table at the year's halfway point, and it seemed he couldn't fail to end Ferrari's long, 21 year, wait for a drivers' championship.

Mika, on the other hand, had a patchy time of it in the early part of the season. He often looked a shadow of himself and left team mate David Coulthard to lead the McLaren challenge in many rounds. However, Mika was awarded a 10-day break by his team after the French race, and after that he looked just like his old self. He took two wins and a second place in the three rounds before Spa, while Schumi, around the same time, strung together three DNFs (including two first corner accidents). All of this added up to Mika leading the championship for the first time that year after winning the Hungarian round, the one before Spa, and the momentum was very much with him.

Mika Hakkinen in his McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15
Credit: Rick Dikeman / CC
It continued to be that way in qualifying, Mika took the pole as he liked, with Schumacher and Coulthard almost a second back, in fourth and fifth places (though Schumi was held up by a yellow flag on his last run). Indeed, in a year dominated by McLaren and Ferrari Spa's qualifying session was unusual in that the sharp end of the grid featured two interlopers: Jarno Trulli's Jordan in second and Jenson Button's Williams in third, Jenson, in his debut season, showing the sort of talent that eventually won him a world championship (Patrick Head, not one for hyperbole, described Jenson's performance as Prost-like). From where I was sitting, qualifying had some spice added by a nearby group of boisterous Dutch Jos Verstappen fans, who were determined to cheer on 'Jos the Boss' and hurl abuse at Schumacher in equal measure. One took it upon himself to moon the Ferrari the first time it went past us!

It seemed that the only thing that could stop Mika was Spa's famous inclement weather. It had been unusually (for Spa) unremittingly hot and sunny all weekend, but there were some gloomy forecasts for Sunday and the race, which if true would likely bring Schumi right back into the picture.

As a brief aside, Saturday afternoon after qualifying featured the final round, and championship decider, of the F3000 championship (which, for the uninitiated, was the GP2 of its day). There were two title contenders: Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, and Junqueira held all the aces, as Minassian had to win with Junqueira almost nowhere for him to take the title. What's more, Junqueira had a much better qualifying, Minassian starting only eighth.

Junqueira faded in the race, struggling with engine problems he finished out of the points. Minasssian did well to come through the pack to finish third despite an injured knee, but he was never going to get the first place he needed. This was because a driver in a car resplendent in yellow Telefonica colours led from pole and disappeared into the distance like he was born to do it. Turns out his name was Fernando Alonso, and six months later he was making his F1 debut. Think he turned out OK, that one.



The tell-tale rat-a-tat on the roof of the tent overnight before the Sunday confirmed that the expected rain had indeed arrived, and it was still going strong the following morning: the rain was strong and incessant and the low cloud suggested it was here for a while.

The warm-up (remember those?) took place in streaming wet conditions, and Giancarlo Fisichella underlined the challenge and dangers at hand by flipping his Benetton, having clouted a tyre barrier on the outside of Stavelot. The Porsche Supercup race was cancelled (at least I assume it was, because it never happened), while in the drivers' parade none of the pilots fancied coming out from a huddle underneath a few umbrellas.

However, at around noon (two hours before the race start) the rain ceased and the clouds lifted. Come 2pm the track was still damp, but clearly it wasn’t going to stay that way for the duration and the rivers and 'standing water' of the morning had gone. It was therefore a surprise to most when it was announced the race would start behind the safety car, apparently at the request of the drivers (risk aversion in F1 is not a new thing). So, off they went in that manner, though the safety car pulled off after just one lap, as if to emphasise the absurdity of the decision.



By the time the cars in anger reached where we were, at the Kemmel straight, Hakkinen had put some daylight between him and the chasing pack, and Schumi, usually the man to watch in such conditions, was not yet showing designs to make progress past the cars ahead. He soon sorted that though: Trulli had a very slow lap four (Hakkinen putting over five seconds over him on that one tour), and in the queue behind him Schumi neatly slithered up the inside of Button at the Bus Stop to take third then, almost immediately, outbraked Trulli from what seemed like a mile back to take second. Button tried to pass Trulli in the same manoeuvre, but was aiming for a wedge that was always going to disappear, and the resultant collision put Trulli out and Button into the pack.

So, this left us in the familiar position of Hakkinen and Schumi first and second. But it was also clear that dry weather 'slick' tyres would soon be the thing to have (still commonly referred to as slicks despite them featuring grooves at this point in history). Jean Alesi, as usual at the brave end of brave, was the first to change, at the end of lap four, and immediately set fastest sector times. The rest of the field were a bit slow to react, and Schumi, usually quick on the draw, didn't pit until two laps later, and Hakkinen not until the lap after that. At this point in history McLaren were seen as slow on the uptake on strategy, and the earlier change meant that Schumi took a bite out of Hakkinen's lead, around six seconds after they both pitted. It also dropped Coulthard out of race contention, as McLaren were averse to queuing their cars in the pits, meaning Coulthard faced a further, now brick slow, lap on the wet tyres, and after he did get serviced with slicks he had dropped down to ninth (which also effectively ended his championship hopes for that year).

Schumi, with the track still perfidious, was faster than Hakkinen and every timing spilt on the big screen, showing less and less of a gap between the two, was greeted with applause by the massed German ranks.

Things then swung dramatically in Schumacher's favour on lap 13. Hakkinen got into a slide at the exit of Stavelot, which eventually ended with his car broadside on the inside of the corner. By the time he'd gathered things up Schumacher was through and 5.6 seconds up the road. Schumi continued to stretch his lead, and by the time he pitted for the only time (not including his change to slicks) at the end of lap 22 he was almost 12 seconds ahead and it was difficult to see him being beaten. Hakkinen stayed out five laps more, and he was able to trim Schumi's lead to 5.8 seconds by the time he'd completed his stop.

Crucially though, McLaren were able to make a tweak to Hakkinen's car at his stop, thought to be to his electronic differential, and his advantage seen in qualifying was now back. He hunted Schumacher down to be on his tail by lap 40, with just four to go.

On the long uphill run out of Eau Rouge and into Kemmel Hakkinen seemed to take yards out of Schumi, and as Hakkinen swooped out of his slipstream to pass Schumacher suddenly and egregiously aimed his car at Hakkinen's. The cars touched slightly, and a firmer contact, which would have occurred had Mika been less wily, would have resulted in carnage akin to a plane accident.

That it happened right in front of me, and with the 200mph speed shown graphically it was particularly unsettling. Indeed, I briefly lost myself and started to shout some choice observations in Schumi's direction (it was kind of touching in hindsight that I thought he might hear me), forgetting for the moment that I was mainly surrounded by burly Germans!

In any case, Mika didn't have to wait long for retribution. Having allowed himself a constrained wave from his cockpit, the next time around and at the same point he was again on Schumi's tail. The difference this time was that Ricardo Zonta's BAR, about to be lapped, was in the middle of the road and had lifted to let the leaders through. Schumi went to his left, but Hakkinen spotted a gap to his right, about the width of a McLaren plus a cigarette paper. He went for it, and in a flash he was through, the three cars briefly being three abreast, had Zonta deviated at all from his line there again would have been carnage. Indeed, to this day Zonta probably sees red flashing past to his left and sliver to his right every time he shuts his eyes.



The move also showed that Mika was an aggressive, decisive racer, an attribute that he often didn't get to show given he tended to qualify on pole and dominate races from the front. Even the assembled Schumi acolytes seemed to appreciate the overtake. It's rightly gone into folklore as one of the best ever.

'I didn't try to overtake at the end of the straight as I knew he wasn't going to give me room...' said Mika, his words rather loaded, 'so I took Plan B....it was a great overtaking manoeuvre and I loved it' before adding with a typical flash of Mika's understated sense of humour 'I'm not sure if Michael did'.

Hakkinen went on to win as he liked, with Schumi in tow. After the race Mika had too much class to tell Michael off in public for his 'chop', but the private conversation the two had in parc ferme, and Mika's hand movements, left little to the imagination. 'Don't do that to me again' seemed to be the message, and Schumi, who respected Mika like no other rival, certainly listened.

This all left Hakkinen six points ahead in the table with four rounds left, and it looked for all the world that he'd beat Schumi to claiming his third title. It didn't work out that way however, as Schumi went on to win the remaining four races (assisted by another Mercedes engine failure for Hakkinen at Indianapolis), meaning that Schumi ended the Prancing Horse's wait for a drivers' title with a round to spare.

Indeed, Spa very much marked the end of the classic Schumacher/Hakkinen tete-a-tetes, as Hakkinen went off the boil in 2001, seemingly exhausted and exasperated, and retired from F1 at the season's end. Indeed Schumacher, now minus a consistent adversary, won five titles in a row and broke all records as he did so.

But what a tete-a-tete it was to finish with.

Race results
Race highlights, courtesy of the BBC

3 comments:

  1. awesome write up, you lucky bastard to have been there! Truly one of those moments engrained in F1 fans collective memory, and to have seen Nando in f300 as well, what a weekend!

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  2. Thanks very much! Yes, I do feel like a bit of a lucky so-and-so to have been at this one!

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  3. Amazing time you had back then. That was the race day that featured one of the most spectacular overtakes I've ever seen - Hakkinen on MSC.

    Also, I was actually surprised to see the young Alonso winning at F3000 - I haven't seen that video so far.

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