by Tom Haapanen, motorsport.com NURBURGRING, SPAIN (2000-05-21) -- It rains mainly on the plains in Spain ... or so the saying goes. However, as far as Formula One goes, the rain was once again a factor at the European Grand Prix on the ...
by Tom Haapanen, motorsport.com
NURBURGRING, SPAIN (2000-05-21) -- It rains mainly on the plains in Spain ... or so the saying goes. However, as far as Formula One goes, the rain was once again a factor at the European Grand Prix on the Nurburgring, rather than at the preceding Spanish Grand Prix. This region, stretching from Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium to Nurburgring in Rheinland region of Germany, has certainly seen more than its share of wet races.
And when it rains, you need a combination of wet-weather driving skills, race strategy - and luck. This time the combination was right for Michael Schumacher, who edged his main rival, Mika Hakkinen, by some 13 seconds at the end of a rather exciting race.
The start was dry, but the grid had been shaped by the rain that had begun falling near the end of the one-hour qualifying session on the preceding day. Hakkinen, the master of qualifying in the past few years, had not succeeded in putting together a truly quick lap before the rain took away everyone's chance at setting competitive times. So, in the event, Hakkinen lined up his McLaren-Mercedes in third place, next to Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari, and behind his team-mate, David Coulthard. Sharing the front row, though, was Schumacher, who had been the fastest man throughout much of the weekend.
But although it looked like Hakkinen's race was doomed from the start, he proved otherwise, with a truly blistering start, darting into the gap in the front row, and rapidly past, into first place by the time they reached the first corner.
Schumacher's start was less than stellar, and Coulthard appeared to lose a lot of time shifting into second, so, at the start it was McLaren - Ferrari - McLaren - Ferrari. Behind them, Villeneuve also takes advantage of a great start to move from ninth position on the grid to fifth.
Hakkinen wasn't able to run away and hide, though, and it looked like Schumacher had a faster car - though not enough faster to make it past the Finn.
Or so it appeared. This all changed when the drizzle began to dampen the track: the lap times started climbing rapidly, although most drivers much more so than Schumacher, who has shown a number of times in the past what he can do on slicks and intermediates in wet conditions. So on the eleventh lap, Schumacher took the lead from Hakkinen, who was clearly struggling to keep the car on track, and Barrichello followed example a few laps later by taking third place from Coulthard.
But would the rain last, or would we end up with just a damp track after a short sprinkle? "The only critical point was when it started to rain. None of us in the front wanted to pit as it was not clear if this was for real," related Schumacher on this dilemma.
On lap 14, McLaren decided that the rain was for real, and called Coulthard in for wet-weather footwear. This turned out to be an excellent call, and may have, in the end, defined the result of the race. As it turned out, Hakkinen was called in on the following lap, but had lost precious seconds slipping around the track on slick tires. By the time Hakkinen pitted, he had already fallen some ten seconds adrift of Schumacher. Had McLaren chosen to call Hakkinen in first and Coulthard second, who knows what might have happened ...
After the stops, Hakkinen reels Coulthard in quickly, and passes him without much of a scrap. The second McLaren-Mercedes was clearly not handling to Coulthard's liking, possibly due to the dry suspension and aerodynamic settings. Whatever the cause, Hakkinen was easily over a second faster on each lap once both were on full wets on a wet track.
On the other hand, if Hakkinen's pit stop timing was not ideal, Barrichello's was worse yet. He stopped a lap later than the rest of the leaders, and ended up falling through the field all the way back to eighth place. As it turned out, he would have to work hard to get past people he would not normally meet very often during a race: Jos Verstappen (Arrows), Eddie Irvine (Jaguar), Pedro de la Rosa (Arrows) and Giancarlo Fisichella (Benetton).
Worse news for this group was the pair of incidents that followed Barrichello's overtaking of them: Eddie Irvine attempted to force his way past de la Rosa's Arrows on lap 29, but ended up touching wheels. The resulting spin also collected Ralf Schuhmacher, who had been following closely. Verstappen appeared to have the friendship of Lady Luck - but only for a few brief moments, as he spun off the track on the very next lap.
By this time Schumacher's driving and the traffic had gained a 15-second lead for the German. This was comfortable, but it certainly wasn't enough to make a pit stop and retain the lead. So when Schumacher came in for his second set of tires and some additional fuel, Hakkinen flew past the stationary Ferrari, taking a nearly 20-second lead.
After this stop, things started getting even more interesting, as Hakkinen was now out-driving the German, adding a second or so to his lead on nearly every lap. However, this was all for naught as the Finn was caught out by a unyielding Alexander Wurz, who took his time before making room for Hakkinen to lap him.
So Hakkinen pitted with a twenty-second lead, which was sure to not be enough to retain the lead - even McLaren can't do pit stops in less than zero time. And so it was: after the final Hakkinen stop, things were back to status quo, with Schumacher still fifteen seconds ahead.
However, Hakkinen was not about to give up. With no regard for Schumacher's reputation as the F1 rainmaster, he began chipping away at this lead, and with six laps left, had the lead down to just six seconds. Schumacher was clearly not in cruising mode, though, with the Ferrari twitching and sliding on a regular basis.
At this point, though, fate intervened, in the form of lapped traffic. Schumacher caught up -and passed - first he group of Wurz, Button and Herbert, two laps behind, and then Barrichello still following Coulthard. The two had battled long and hard, but the Brazilian had not succeeded in overtaking his rival, and, in th end, had settled into position some five seconds behind Coulthard. By the time Hakkinen got to this group, there were only three laps left, some seven seconds to Schumacher, and four cars in between.
Here, clearly, thinking had to take precedence over feeling: there was going to be no way to overtake all that traffic on a circuit as tight as the new 'ring, catch up to Schumacher, and overtake him before the finish line. "I would certainly have got very close. But naturally I also understand that Michael could have pushed harder, too," said Hakkinen after the race. Better to take the six points for second place, concede this round, and focus on the championship.
And so it finished: Schumacher, Hakkinen, Coulthard and Barrichello, followed by Fisichella's Benetton, and de la Rosa scoring the maiden point for Arrows this season.
With Hakkinen's decision to play safe, the gap from first to second was over ten seconds at the end - but everyone from third down, including Coulthard and Barrichello was lapped by the two leaders, the true rainmasters of this cold and wet weekend. Nor'westers off to Schumacher and Hakkinen for this performance ...