1998: Schumacher strategy sinks McLaren
'You dream of the ideal result,' said Michael Schumacher on Sunday afternoon, 'and this is it. Before the race, I'd hoped I might win, with Mika second, but this is unbelievable. I think now we have a very good chance in the World Championship.'
Schumacher had every reason to be exhilarated after the Hungarian Grand Prix. While a virtuoso drive brought him victory, Hakkinen, the championship leader from the first GP on, scraped but a single point. The Finn's McLaren-Mercedes, after starting from the pole and leading more than half the race, was hobbled by a mysterious handling problem and slid down the order.
Ferrari, emphatically back from the dead (after an abysmal performance at Hockenheim), won by virtue not only of its number one driver's skills but also of a superior strategy.
'We could have gone for either two or three stops,' said Schumacher, 'and Ross Brawn (Ferrari's technical director) decided to go for three. At the time, I was worried about it, but it turned out to be the right choice.'
So it was - but, for success, it depended on the German being able to run for a long time at an extraordinary pace, so as to build up enough of a lead to permit the third stop. 'For me it was like a qualifying race,' he said.
The McLarens, which stopped only twice, ran one-two for the first 44 laps. They looked like winning again, albeit narrowly, but Ferrari's revised strategy allowed Schumacher to get ahead of Hakkinen and David Coulthard at the second stops. When the Finn eventually began to fall back, the issue was settled.
'We had a problem today,' said McLaren boss Ron Dennis crisply, 'and whenever we have a problem, Michael's there, ready to pounce.'
No disputing that. He was aided by having the right tyres for the job. Twelve months ago, Bridgestone had the upper hand in Hungary, but this time Goodyears were the thing to have. Although Coulthard finished second, he was never able to threaten Schumacher, and admitted he was all out of grip.
Third was Jacques Villeneuve, and a great third it was - the World Champion lost his power steering after 10 of the 77 laps, and the Hungaroring is a tiring place. The Williams couldn't frighten Ferrari or McLaren, but the Canadian was pleased by its balance and grip at a track where his expectations had not been high.
Fourth and fifth, ahead of the unfortunate Hakkinen, were Damon Hill, thereabouts for Jordan-Mugen Honda all weekend, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who was weakened by a bout of gastric flu. The Williams man deserved some kind of gallantry award simply for finishing what was a long, hot race.
Schumacher may not have been able to threaten the McLaren drivers for pole position, but he saw no reason why he couldn't run with them in the GP. 'I'm sure,' he said, 'that we'll be better in the race than in qualifying.' He had good grounds for thinking that way: Ferrari's tyre choice was the harder of the Goodyear compounds on offer, whereas McLaren had gone for the softer of the Bridgestones.
In the warm-up, Hakkinen and Coulthard duly duplicated their qualifying performances, with the courageous Frentzen third, then the Schumachers (Michael ahead of Ralf), Villeneuve, Hill, Eddie Irvine, Giancarlo Fisichella and Johnny Herbert. Seven of the top 10 cars were on Goodyears.
The McLaren boys were happy enough, however, and had a trouble-free session. Hakkinen admitted to a touch of understeer. He said it could have been dialled out, but he preferred to live with it, so as to preclude any possibility of tyre-destroying oversteer in the early part of the event.
If anyone had cause to worry before the race, it was the unfortunate Frentzen, who said he felt a little better than in practice, but was still seriously debilitated, having eaten nothing for two days. He would take the start, it was decided, but there were doubts that he would be able to make it through to the end.
There had been predictions that it might rain, but there was no sign of any such thing as the cars went to the grid. In fact, it would stay dry, hot and sticky all afternoon.
The grid at the Hungaroring has always been problematical for those with even-numbered qualifying slots. They start on the right, where the cars rarely run, and thus the surface there is dusty, which is not what you need for good traction when the lights go out.
The suspicion had been that Schumacher, starting third, directly behind poleman Hakkinen, would be able to get the better of Coulthard on the sprint down to the first turn. In fact, the Ferrari driver made a very middling start, not only failing to pass DC, but coming close to losing places.
This was bad news for Hill, who got away well, then had to back off for the German, which, in turn, allowed Irvine to get by him. Into the opening corner, it was Hakkinen, Coulthard, Schumacher, Irvine, Hill and Villeneuve. This being the Hungaroring, where overtaking is an endangered species, that was also the order at the end of the opening lap.
It was to stay that way for some considerable time. Actually, that's not strictly true: on lap five, Shinji Nakano and Tora Takagi passed Esteban Tuero.
That apart, there was no movement whatever until lap 13, when Irvine brought his Ferrari into the pits - too early, one thought, for routine service, and so it proved. The Irishman was clearly in no hurry. His car was immediately pushed into its garage, its gearbox short of fourth and fifth. Astonishingly, it was his first mechanical failure of the year, and only the second Ferrari has suffered all season long (the first being Schumacher's engine breakdown at the opening round in Melbourne).
At the time his problem struck, Irvine had been running fourth, and actually gaining slightly on his team leader, who was now left to fight the two McLarens on his own.
Not that Schumacher was showing signs of panic, mind you. If we had expected, from their qualifying and warm-up performances, that Hakkinen and Coulthard would ultimately ease away from the rest, such was not the case. After 10 laps, the Finn had led the Scot by three seconds, with the lead Ferrari a second or so further back. Fifteen laps in, and the McLarens were only two seconds apart, and Schumacher continued to keep a close watching brief.
From the outset it had been clear that this was to be another contest exclusively between McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari; after 15 laps, Hill, running fourth, was 14 seconds behind Schumacher and consistently dropping virtually a second a lap to him.
Nor were the McLarens stroking. 'The early part of the race was fine for me,' Hakkinen said. 'I had David in my mirrors all the time, so I was driving more or less flat out, but I felt quite comfortable about that. Then I decided to push even harder, as my first stop was approaching, and I built up a small gap.'
The significant pit stops began with Hill, who was running the softer Goodyears, and came in on lap 24. Next time round, it was the turn of Schumacher, then Coulthard (on lap 26), and finally Hakkinen, two laps after that. No significant problems were encountered by any of them.
However, while the McLaren pair duly kept their first and second places, Schumacher came out behind Villeneuve's Williams, which was not to pit until lap 31.
'We'd gone into the race with the possibility of making either two or three stops,' Schumacher said, 'and when Ross (Brawn) decided to make it three, I was worried that it was the wrong choice, because at that point I was stuck behind Jacques. I'd made my stop earlier than the McLarens, hoping that it would get me ahead of them, but they both rejoined in front of me. Fortunately, the race then developed in a way that allowed me not to lose hope. There was a long way to go, and I just told myself to keep pushing.'
Villeneuve's stop finally left the Ferrari driver with a clear road, and he responded immediately with a new fastest lap, the first under 1m20s. Within three laps, he was right back on the tail of Coulthard, but DC was equal to the situation, and proceeded calmly to keep the Ferrari at bay.
On lap 43, Schumacher was in for his second stop, and the time - a mere 6.8s - told you that it would not be his last. For all that McLaren seemed to be responding to the German's every move. On the very next lap, one of the silver cars peeled off into the pit lane.
In the circumstances, it might have appeared more logical to have brought Hakkinen in first. He had a lead of almost four seconds, whereas Schumacher had been right on Coulthard's gearbox when he made his stop, and there was every possibility of his making up a place here. Nevertheless, it was DC who came in - and DC who indeed came out too late to keep the Ferrari from taking over second place.
Two laps later, Hakkinen pitted - and the same happened again. Now Schumacher, on fresh tyres and with a light fuel load, was really able to get the hammer down. 'Ross told me, "You have 19 laps to build up a 25-second lead,"' he recounted. 'I said, "Thank you very much!"'
In fact, his task was to prove easier than he might have expected. Not all was well with the McLarens. It was not merely that they had made their last stops, and were now very fuel-heavy, with a long stint for their tyres ahead of them but also that both cars were in some trouble.
'Shortly before my second stop,' Hakkinen said, 'I started to experience what felt like oversteer, but I wasn't 100 percent sure what the problem was. After the stop, it became almost impossible to drive, especially over the bumps and through the corners.'
His lap times immediately dropped off by a couple of seconds or so. At which point, his team-mate should have been given orders to go by, to take up the chase of Schumacher. Even that wasn't the simple matter it should have been, however. There was a problem with Hakkinen's radio, and it was some time before his crew was able to understand what he was saying.
After four frustrating laps behind his team-mate, Coulthard finally went past, but by now the Ferrari was 14 seconds up the road, and apparently beyond reach.
'Michael had a lot less fuel,' DC explained, 'and I simply couldn't stay with his pace.' It didn't help that the Scot's car was not handling as it should, one of the rear tyres on his final set being incorrectly pressured.
Schumacher, of course, knew nothing of these dramas at the time. Indeed, he did not even know he was in the lead! 'On lap 52,' he said, 'I went off the road at the last corner, simply because I was pushing so hard.' The Ferrari got sideways, and slithered briefly off, then rejoined without problem.
The German made his third, and final, stop on lap 62, coming in with a lead of 29 seconds - rather more than he needed. Prior to pitting, he put in an amazing sequence of four sub-1m20s laps. On his way again after just 7.7 seconds stationary, he now led Coulthard by five. Given the latter's predicament, he swiftly extended this by a couple of seconds a lap or so.
For Hakkinen the closing stages were heartbreaking. As his car became progressively more difficult to drive, so he fell into the successive clutches of Villeneuve, Hill and Frentzen. By the end of the race he was glad to come away with a point.
Hill, fourth for the second time in a fortnight, maintained Jordan's recently-acquired points-scoring habit, and was pleased with his day. The Williams folk had every reason to applaud Villeneuve for a fighting drive (without power steering, remember) and the tormented Frentzen for simply taking part in the race, never mind scoring.
Four races to go, seven points only between Hakkinen and Schumacher, Spa the next port of call. 'I love Spa,' Michael said. 'It's near where I was born, and I think of it as my home circuit.' He has won there four times already.
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