Japanese GP Race Analysis

Adam Cooper looks at how Michael Schumacher and Ferrari wrapped up the 2000 FIA Formula 1 World Championship in fitting style

Japanese GP Race Analysis

I don't know if the Japanese GP made for much of a show on TV, and I'm sure anyone tuning in and hoping to see a repeat of the spectacular Adelaide '94 and Jerez '97 clashes involving Michael Schumacher was disappointed. For once, the contest was resolved in gentlemanly fashion, with both contenders still on the track.

In fact the race had an awful lot in common with those infamous events. In all three instances Michael and his title rival - Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen in the respective years - set an electrifying pace. They left the rest of the field for dead as they tackled a race distance with the sort of commitment even they usually reserve only for qualifying.

We might not have seen wheel to wheel dicing in Suzuka, or even a passing move on the track, but nevertheless this was Grand Prix racing at its very best; two great drivers at the height of their powers pushing to the very limits. I watched Adelaide and Jerez from the trackside at the first corner, and last weekend's race from the chicane. As previously the pleasure came from the anticipation of just how this might be resolved. Suzuka was a little different in that it wasn't the finale, but still there was every chance that the battle would be resolved on the day.

The drizzle that fell from just under half distance until the end of the race merely added to the tension, and while Michael got in front with a lucky 13 laps to go, he still had to keep the car on the road and make it to the flag in one piece.

Michael had the edge in qualifying, taking his fifth pole at Suzuka (Mika has yet to earn one), but the complexion of the race changed at the start. Once again Michael wasted pole - he stalled in 1998 and was beaten away by Hakkinen last year. His wild lunge over to the right smacked of desperation.

All bets were now off at Ferrari, and whatever strategies the team had devised that assumed that Michael would lead were abandoned in favour of pursuit mode. In fact, through that first stint Mika appeared to have a clear advantage:

An indication of the pace the pair were setting is given by the fact that by lap 20 David Coulthard was 15.1s down on his team mate, and was clearly out of the picture.

The timing of the first stop was obviously going to be crucial. While most people came in between laps 18-20, Mika stuck it out until lap 22. Michael only had enough fuel to do one more lap, and it was never going to be enough to get himself ahead of Hakkinen. He had a damn good try, however, and his 'in' lap was 1.4s quicker than Mika's.

However, his 'out' lap was 1.1s slower, Mika having driven superbly on his first couple of laps on new rubber. The net result was no real change, and on lap 25 the gap was 2.463s - just 0.002s less than on lap 20, before the stops!

Mika spent less time at rest - 6.8s against 7.4s, according to the official TV timing. This suggested two things; firstly, Michael took on a little more fuel, and secondly, he was a little better at getting the car in and out of the pits. The evidence for this was that both men spent almost exactly the same time in the pit lane despite the fact that Michael was actually stationary for longer.

Michael said later that his car was better after the crew "made a little adjustment after the first pit stop," but his own engineer was perplexed by that comment, and reported that nothing was done to the car.

The complexion of the race changed on lap 30, when drizzle began to fall on the track. Where I was watching it was hardly enough to worry about, and according to my traditional rain gauge - how wet my note book gets - it was hardly anything to worry about. But it was certainly greasy enough to prevent drivers from running at optimum speed.

Inevitably, this played into the hands of Michael. Time and again he's shown that he has the edge on Mika in tricky conditions, and in this case the Finn had the disadvantage of being in front. It's much better to be the second man in line, because you can see how the guy in front is coping. In the first two laps on the damp track, Michael made significant inroads. He lost some of it when Mika appeared to gain confidence and began to push again, but then the gap shrunk again. They key thing was that despite having a slightly lower fuel load, Mika had not been able to make his escape.

As you can see, Mika effectively lost 1.3s during this period; not much, but crucial with the pit stops rapidly approaching. The next few laps is where the title was effectively decided, so I've looked at them in detail:

Hakkinen: 1m40.728s
Schumacher: 1m40.437s

Hakkinen: 1m44.631s (In lap)
Schumacher: 1m40.705 (takes lead)

This was crunch time. Mika came storming down the pitlane, and everything now hinged on how much time Michael could gain before he stopped. In the Ferrari pit, the mood was upbeat; they knew that Michael had enough fuel to run three more laps. He had the advantage of tyres that were working well, while Mika would be on a heavier fuel load.

Schumacher: 1m42.379s (Michael passes Irvine and gets caught behind Herbert)
Hakkinen: 2m05.019s (out lap - gets stuck behind de la Rosa at end of lap)

Ferrari's plans seemed to have been stuffed when Michael came across both Jaguars on this crucial lap. He passed Irvine, and then Herbert held him up through the chicane, but the good news for Schumacher was that a few seconds later de la Rosa did the same to Mika.

Schumacher: 1m41.280s (Michael passes Herbert at start of lap)
Hakkinen: 1m42.442s

With de la Rosa gone Mika had a clear run on this lap, but he failed take advantage of Michael's traffic problems and do the time he needed. In fact he found the car very tricky on his third set of tyres, which he erroneously described as being new; in fact they were a scrubbed set from qualifying - as is usually the case in three-stint races, the team had no fresh rubber left.

Schumacher: 1m44.637s (in lap - passes spun Wurz)
Hakkinen: 1m41.953s (passes spun Wurz)

Wurz spun at the exit of the chicane just as Michael was approaching. The Ferrari had to jink behind it before ducking into the pits, and Schumacher definitely lost time. Alex then rolled backwards leaving a gap in front of him - the racing line effectively - and Mika passed on that side. He too may have lost a little momentum, although he afterwards he said it wasn't an issue. Michael's in lap was almost exactly the same as that set by Mika a little earlier.

Schumacher: 2m00.489s (out lap - retains lead)
Hakkinen: 1m40.475s

Michael needed fuel for just 13 laps for the run to the flag, while Mika had required a load to go 16 laps. Therefore the Ferrari stop was always going to be fractionally quicker than McLaren's. As at the first stop, Michael also gained time with superior speed - in total he clawed back a total of 1.6s on Mika in the pitlane.

In fact that time wasn't even required. When Michael came charging out of the pit exit he was well clear of his rival; on the first flying lap past the startline, the gap was 4.1s. To summarise all this, between laps 36-41 Michael gained 5s on Mika.

On Sunday night I asked Michael if he had enjoyed the three laps that effectively won him the title. "I thought they were crap," he said with some conviction. He had a point; two Jaguars in the way, a spun Benetton... he was several seconds below his potential, and yet he still did it.

"As we saw Mika going in for his pit stop we knew that we had a couple more laps to go," noted Schumacher. "And we knew these were the crucial laps. The problem was I had traffic, and I wouldn't say it was too easy to pass them, and it cost me a little bit of time. And when I entered the pits there was this Benetton spinning in front of me and moving backwards, and I didn't know where he was going to go. So I thought it isn't enough, simply. I wasn't really thinking that I was going as fast as I should have done, and as I came out Ross kept me updated saying it's looking good, it's looking good down the pitlane. It's looking bloody good...""

The conclusion really is that it wasn't so much Michael's stunning pace that won the title, but Mika's lack of it at this crucial time. Mika also had traffic problems, but he was simply not quick enough on the greasy track on his third set of tyres.

"When you're out on new tyres they are very, very difficult to handle, because they're very, shiny, so they didn't grip at all," he said. "Also I had a backmarker in front of me. It was against me today."

Michael was also worried about tyres, and could see Mika's point.

"I thought that with old tyres I was worse off, because they were pretty worn. I was sliding a lot, and I was afraid that the new tyres would give Mika the advantage, but it wasn't the case, which I can well understand, because you have the shininess."

However, as mentioned earlier Mika was actually on scrubbed tyres from qualifying. In contrast when Michael came out in the lead he was on new tyres; as he had done only three qualifying runs, he had a fresh third set left for the race. If anything he should have found the car much trickier to drive on this brand new 'shiny' set than Mika did with his used final set.

In fact Michael was up to speed straight away, and with identical fuel loads for the run to the flag, Mika was not able to make any impression on him in the laps right after the stop. Of course, at this stage he would have been a little demotivated as he knew that there was little chance of catching Michael, and even less of passing. But he matched Michael's pace. Around lap 46 the rain got a little heavier, and both men had to tread carefully, but the gap stayed the same until Michael backed off on his final lap.

Hakkinen: 22 - 15 - 16
Schumacher: 23 - 17 - 13

The battle at the front was so all-consuming that very little else seemed worthy of attention. Coulthard had a lonely and untroubled run to third, but he was a whopping 68s behind his team mate at the end. When I asked DC if he was in cruise mode, he shrugged and said, "Unfortunately that was as fast as I could go..."

He was probably being a bit hard on himself, for in the latter stages there was clearly no point in risking his four valuable points. The interesting thing is that in the first 29 laps David lost 23s to Mika; in the last 24 laps, the wet ones, he lost a further 45s. That says everything about how close to the limit the leaders were when it was damp.

"I can only imagine what it must have been like trying to fight for the championship in those conditions," said DC, "because I was all alone and having a lot of difficulty. These are some of the most difficult conditions to drive in, because you just can't judge lap to lap just how damp it is. So it was, I thought, incredibly difficult."

In the same period Rubens Barrichello took around 11s off David, his race having been compromised by a poor start that left him behind Eddie Irvine in the early stages. Jenson Button did a phenomenal job to take fifth on his first appearance at Suzuka, and he certainly made a better impression than his team mate, who went off the road in the damp and later spun off when caught out by Marc Gene.

Also worthy of note was Jacques Villeneuve, who put in another tigering drive to sixth place. He also pulled off the only two successful passing moves we saw at the chicane all day, on Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine, and that made the difference between eighth and a point.

Not a great race then, but at least the championship ended with some style, and Mika's graciousness in defeat was very pleasing to see. And it was definitely appropriate that Michael should clinch the title with a typical Schumacher/Brawn strategic victory spiced up by some brilliant driving when conditions were tricky...

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