"The overtaking move of the year," pronounced John Watson, himself a renowned overtaker during his own Formula One career. And, indeed, it was an outstanding pass, with risk, daring and speed, as Mika Hakkinen snatched the lead and the victory...
"The overtaking move of the year," pronounced John Watson, himself a renowned overtaker during his own Formula One career.
And, indeed, it was an outstanding pass, with risk, daring and speed, as Mika Hakkinen snatched the lead and the victory from Michael Schumacher's fingers on the 40th lap of the Belgian Grand Prix, with less than four laps remaining.
While there are still four Grands Prix remaining this year, it may yet turn out that this was the pass that enabled Hakkinen to gain the decisive edge over Schumacher in the Championship. With it, he is now six points ahead of the German; had he not been able to pass, he would have been two points behind.
The Finn had had an outstanding qualifying session, having set the pole time some three-quarters of a second ahead of Jarno Trulli's Jordan-Honda, with Jenson Button an impressive third in his Williams-BMW. Schumacher had been back in fourth place on the grid, just ahead of the third title contender and Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes teammate, David Coulthard.
Schumacher and Coulthard were denied the opportunity to attack Hakkinen at the first corner, though. As the grid formed, the rain had already ended, but the track was still quite damp, with standing water in places. As a result, all teams chose the cautious route, fitting intermediate tires to the cars.
At the last moment, the race stewards made the decision to take the start behind a safety car in order to prevent a start-line mayhem. As a result, the drivers took a CART-style rolling start, with the only notable change of position being Rubens Barrichello's pass of Johnny Herbert for eighth place.
The fireworks began on the fourth lap: with Button busy trying to make his way past Trulli, Schumacher steps past him at the Bus Stop chicane, and then follows up with a pass of Trulli at La Source. When Button tries to follow the Ferrari past Trulli, though, he touches wheels, and the Jordan spins off the track and is forced to retire.
Button's luck was better, but he still lost time, and by l'Eau Rouge, his teammate, Ralf Schumacher, pulled alongside, and outdrove him through the corner to claim third place.
With the track having dried, the drivers began to duck in to pick up dry-weather grooved tires. Jean Alesi was one of the first, bringing his Prost-Peugeot in on lap 5. With his rain experience and delicate touch, he went on to immediately set the fastest lap of the race, and, by the end of the tire stops, claimed fifth place as his own.
In explicably, though, McLaren decided to delay their drivers' stops, while Ferrari brought in both Schumacher and Barrichello on the very next lap, with the Brazilian having to wait a few additional seconds for the first Ferrari to vacate the pit box.
The late stop strategy - one lap late for Hakkinen, two for Coulthard - definitely hurt the Woking team, and gained time for Schumacher, who was only seven seconds behind Hakkinen once the Finn exited from the pits. And with the track still damp, Schumacher's car-control skills shone, and he was able to claw half a second, a second a lap from the lead.
And then it appeared that Hakkinen had just thrown away the race. With the track still damp, he pushed just a little bit too hard at Stavelot, and spun his McLaren. He was able to keep the engine running, but lost some ten seconds, handing the lead to Schumacher.
Schumacher didn't look back, and continued to push his car and build the lead, getting it up over ten seconds by the time of his pit stop. Hakkinen was able to gain a few seconds with a quicker stop, but the red Ferrari was still well ahead when he exited the pits. But McLaren had made a slight handling adjustment, so Hakkinen was much happier with the feel of the car after his stop.
And the bane of the Ferraris was to return, forcing Schumacher to ease up his speed: the tires were wearing too quickly, again. The Maranello team has repeatedly experienced heavy tire wear, but has not, to date, been able to find the right chassis settings to resolve the issue.
While Hakkinen now truly flying on the mostly dry track, Schumacher was frequently ducking off the racing line, looking for puddles to cool down his overheating Bridgestones. And this clearly did not bode well for the German.
In less than ten laps, Hakkinen had his nosecone mere inches away from the Ferrari's rear diffuser, and began to look for a way past. Never an easy task, this was at least made feasible by the outstanding Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
He made the first serious attack on the Kemmel straight on the 39th lap, but the Schumacher moved first right, then left, and closed the door on the McLaren as the two reached the Les Combes corner. Hakkinen was clearly not happy, shaking his fist at his rival, but he was not about to give up quite yet.
On the next lap, Schumacher came up to lap Ricardo Zonta's BAR-Honda, again at Kemmel, and with his mirrors full of silver McLaren. As Zonta tried to ensure he did not block the leaders, Schumacher went for the right-left sequence again, pulling past the Brazilian on the outside.
"I knew that there was no point in following Michael and then trying to overtake him at the end of the straight," said Hakkinen. "Obviously he wouldn't have given me room."
But Hakkinen was having none of that. Having drafted Schumacher down most of the straight, he got some extra speed from Zonta, and aimed for the smaller gap on Zonta's right side. No prisoners here, all out, and as the two pulled past Zonta, they were side by side.
To complete the maneuver, Hakkinen braked oh-so-late, ensuring that he would arrive at Les Combes first, and then succeeded in holding the McLaren on the racing line, and in first place. This time it was for good, as Hakkinen was by now clearly faster, and able to pull a comfortable gap ahead of the Ferrari.
Their Ferrari and McLaren teammates were having a much less successful day, though. Barrichello had short-fueled his Ferrari in order to get past Villeneuve and others, and he took advantage of the short stop, following it up with a series of fastest laps.
It was all to come to naught, though, as the Ferrari team appeared to have miscalculated the amount of fuel remaining. On the 33rd lap, he pulled into the pits ... in neutral, with his tank completely dry. Unable to get to the pit box without assistance from the marshals, he had to, in the end, retire from the race.
Coulthard had fuel, but his late pit stop had put him well back, over 30 seconds behind Hakkinen, and into the second-tier pack of cars. Stuck behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen, he was unable to make an impression on the Jordan until a lightning pit stop by the McLaren pit crew got him back out on track just ahead of Frentzen.
Coulthard was able to pass Button for fourth half a dozen laps later, but Ralf Schumacher was still well up the road, so he had to settle for just three points this afternoon.
Alesi's day, though, had ended in disaster, again. With a dozen laps to go, the Frenchman had to yet again walk away from a lifeless Prost.
The end result, then, gave Hakkinen a solid 74-68 lead over Schumacher in the Drivers' Championship points standings, and a strong upper hand for the remaining four races. Coulthard is thirteen points adrift of his teammate, with Barrichello now looking very much like an outsider at 49 points.
"We do not feel we have lost the championship," emphasized Schumacher. "Everyone is still pushing very hard in the team. I picked up six points today. The championship is still alive."
Meanwhile, the spectators and the TV audience were treated to some of the best racing of the 2000 season, with suspense, drama, heartbreak and some absolutely outstanding driving by the top contenders. A race to remember, certainly!