Race Analysis

Mika Hakkinen's victory at the A1-Ring will have been received with mixed emotions by Michael Schumacher. On the one hand the German inevitably considers Mika rather than David Coulthard his major threat on the run-in to the Malaysia finale, and would prefer the Finn to be more than eight points behind at this stage. But on the other we now have two McLaren drivers in contention for the title, and potentially taking points off each other, while as usual Michael has clear precedence at Ferrari

Race Analysis

Hakkinen's resurgence is something of a mystery, even to team insiders. Much was made of his 'holiday', and that break from testing certainly helped to clear his head. There were no PR functions, no sponsors to meet, no interviews, no de-briefs. He spent the 10 days after Magny-Cours at home in Monaco with wife Erja, and most of the time they didn't even go out to eat, venturing away from the apartment only for a bit of sport or training. When asked whether his little break helped, Mika was reluctant to put too much emphasis on it - he said he didn't want to be blamed in case everyone in Finland suggested to their bosses that a 10-day holiday would improve their performance! Never a great fan of testing - apart from in 1993, when he was trying to earn a fulltime drive - he now has the luxury of having Olivier Panis on call.

"David was having time off, which was absolutely understandable, Olivier did a lot of work, I did a lot of work, so let's say it this way. I think the McLaren team, me and David, are very fortunate to have a professional test driver who also has many years experience of racing in F1. So we can feel relaxed and comfortable that he's doing a good job. So for me to have any time off, I don't feel guilty at all, the way I would if we started losing some performance because I wasn't driving or David isn't driving. Time off sometimes is a very good thing to have."

The problem which has been bugging Hakkinen of late has been set-up. He has not been unhappy with the handling as such, but the times just haven't been what he expected them to be - and we're talking only the odd tenth or two, enough to drop him from his customary pole to the second row.

The issue has also been complicated by tyres, as Bridgestone gears up for next year's fight with Michelin. Last year they were barely mentioned, but in recent months the choice between medium and softs, or softs and super softs, has become far more critical. What's more, teams have experimented by qualifying on old tyres, or a split of old and new. It's easy for a driver to get lost, especially as there has been no definite answer - different cars are better suited to different tyre packages.

Ironically McLaren tried all both options in qualifying in Austria, before eventually finding that new tyres were the best solution. The team also found a set-up which brought the car back to Mika's liking, and he said it was like 'on rails'.

However, it was noticeable that Mika went off the road several times, which proved that he was exploring the limits. He had two identical spectacular spins between the penultimate and last corners, one on Saturday and one in the warm-up, and on both occasions he seemed to get his left hand wheels off the edge of the track. This section of the circuit, which requires enormous commitment, was the key to his pole winning time. Coulthard admitted that he was beaten to pole because he got the last corner wrong, and in the race too Mika was quicker than anyone else through this sector.

Once he'd secured pole, Mika's confidence - if it really was down - was back up, and he knew that if he got the start right, he'd have a pretty good chance of winning. The McLarens never seem to trade places at the start, and Schumacher had both his team-mate Rubens Barrichello and David to get past before he could attack Mika.

The race followed a pattern that we've seen with so many of his wins; he simply remained in front throughout, and stayed focussed. The knowledge that Michael was out must have been a boost, but he still had Coulthard right behind, at least for the opening laps. DC kept the margin at around a second for the first eight laps, and then the gap gradually opened up; 1.4s after 10 laps, 2.8s after 15 laps, 6.5s after 20 laps, 11.2s after 25 laps, 15.2s after 30 laps. Any thoughts of David somehow getting by through superior pit strategy were well and truly gone.

"I knew I was running some more fuel (than Mika)," said Coulthard, "So I was curious to know whether I could keep the gap initially. And inevitably he was a little bit quicker to start with. And then I thought really, what is the point of risking everything, when I have potentially six points clawed back on Michael? That's the big picture at the moment."

David's comments suggested that the spectre of team orders didn't really raise its head. But with Michael out, one can hardly blame Ron Dennis for wanting to ensure McLaren got 16 points, rather than risk something by having his two cars run flat out. He always says he doesn't care which driver wins, but I'm sure that most McLaren folk were keen to see Mika back on a winning track. Both men were given 'Revs' signals on their pit boards, to remind them that there was no point in pushing the cars to the limit.

Mika's lead had grown to 17s when he made a relatively early stop on lap 38, while David had a short spell in the lead before coming in on lap 42. He enjoyed four laps on near empty tanks while Mika was full, but in that time the gap only came down to 14.2s; Mika was incredibly quick on a heavy fuel load, and just wanted to make sure that David didn't get close enough to be a threat.

After that the gap went out to as high as 18.5s on lap 51. Ten laps later it was down to 14.0s, then 11.1s on lap 66. At that point David put in a storming fastest lap to take 2s out of Mika and bring the margin down to 9.1s with four laps to go. Any possibility of a formation finish was forgotten when Mika responded, and it went out to 12s at the flag. "I was just playing around, just getting a bit bored," said David of his late surge. "The race was long over after about lap 10, when I decided it wasn't worth taking the big risk. Obviously Mika was very motivated, very fired up to make the most of it. It was a conscious decision just to try and be very careful with traffic. I've never seen so many cars out there! At the end I had a clear run, and I thought let's have a little practice in that last sector, because that what cost me in qualifying."

In terms of the contest for the lead, Austria was probably the dullest race of the year, but there was plenty going on behind. The first corner shunt shuffled the pack and gave drivers who are usually in the back half of the field a chance to shine. The following table shows how everyone fared from the confusion:

Grid (Pos after first corner)

Hakkinen (1st)
Coulthard (2nd)
Barrichello (8th)
M Schumacher (Out)
Trulli (Out)
Zonta (17th)
Villeneuve (15th)
Fisichella (Out)
Salo (3rd)
Verstappen (4th after shunt, then passed by de la Rosa)
Diniz (19th, into pits at end of first lap)
De la Rosa (5th after shunt, then passed Verstappen)
Heidfeld (13th)
Wurz (11th)
Frentzen (9th)
Herbert (6th)
Alesi (14th)
Button (7th)
R Schumacher (18th)
Gene (10th)
Burti (16th, started from pitlane)
Mazzacane (12th)

Ignoring Hakkinen and Coulthard, who were not affected by the accident, here's a list of who gained and who didn't. Bear in mind that anyone who started lower than eighth automatically earned three spots from the retirements of Schumacher, Trulli and Fisichella:

Winners and Losers

Button
Herbert
Gene
Mazzacane
De La Rosa
Salo
Frentzen
Verstappen
Burti
Wurz
Alesi
R Schumacher
Heidfeld
Barrichello
Villeneuve
Diniz
Zonta

It's worth noting that the two men who suffered the most were Zonta and Diniz, who later were given stop and go penalties for their roles in the accident! Verstappen soon dropped to the back with a pit-stop for a new nose, while Button lost a couple of spots at the re-start. De la Rosa passed the struggling Salo, and Frentzen fell off the road on lap 5. By the time everything had calmed down a little, the order looked like this:

Lap 5

Hakkinen
Coulthard
De la Rosa
Salo
Barrichello
Herbert
Button
Gene
Wurz
Heidfeld
Alesi
Villeneuve
Zonta
Burti
etc

Although overtaking is possible at the A1-Ring, there were virtually no changes to this order from genuine passing moves in the first half of the race, apart from Barrichello taking Salo for fourth. Alesi dropped back when he pitted on lap 24, while de la Rosa's retirement on lap 33 moved everybody else up a spot.

And yet despite making only one passing move on the track, Jacques Villeneuve managed to get up to fourth! He did it simply by staying out longer than anybody else. In Austria there is a marked difference between lap times with empty tanks and a full load, and the trick is to eke the fuel out as long as possible. Three factors come into play; the size of the tank, the general consumption
of the engine, and the degree to which the latter can be improved by the
electronic map selected (and whatever the driver can do to save fuel by
adjusting his style).

But capacity is the key, and the points at which cars stopped gave a fascinating insight into how big those tanks might be. Most drivers admitted afterwards that they were certainly at the limit, although Coulthard was not necessarily showing McLaren's true colours, and Verstappen might have taken his Arrows a little further than de la Rosa was planning to. The Jordans were both out early and I don't know when they were due in, but here are the remaining latest stops on a team-by-team basis:

Arrows/De la Rosa (projected)
Prost/Heidfeld
McLaren/Coulthard
Minardi/Gene
Sauber/Salo (Mika claimed he could have done a couple more laps)
Jaguar/Herbert
Ferrari/Barrichello
Williams/Button
BAR/Villeneuve
Benetton/Wurz

The question this poses is why don't all the designers find room for fuel tanks as big as those in the BAR or Benetton? Obviously there are compromises in terms of chassis layout and so on, which have to be considered at the CAD/CAM stage. But time and again we see drivers lose or gain priceless points as a direct result of how far they are able to run. It's surely worth squeezing in as big a tank as possible, certainly for the midfield teams, whatever the cost in other areas of performance.

Villeneuve's late stop won him fourth place. As those ahead pitted, he happily gained ground, passing only Marc Gene on the road just before the Spaniard came in. With a clear track ahead, Jacques put in quick times, so that when he made his own stop he was able to return to the track still in fourth position, helped by a great effort from his pit crew, and a slightly shorter stop due to the smaller load required - enough for just 22 laps. An impressive performance, by any standards.

In contrast Alex Wurz missed the chance to save his season. He was actually ahead of Jacques before an off-track excursion on lap 34 dropped him back. Nevertheless he was still not far behind Jacques when the pit-stops began, and as you can see, he had the tank capacity to stop as late as the BAR driver, on lap 49.

But he simply couldn't produce the lap times that would have allowed him to make the sort of leapfrog move we saw from Jacques. Despite a very quick stop, Button, Salo, Herbert and Gene all stayed ahead, and Alex finished 10th, even losing out to the delayed Diniz at the end after a move he tried on Gene went wrong. It's perhaps no surprise that the team hierarchy was critical after the race...

But Diniz aside, the driver who probably got the frostiest reception from his team was Nick Heidfeld, who was also on the end of some sharp criticism from Villeneuve for his blocking tactics.

After tapping Alesi into a spin in France, Heidfeld took both Jean and himself off when he swept into the first corner on lap 42, seemingly oblivious to the presence of his team-mate on the inside line. It looked like a fairly fundamental misunderstanding - realistically Jean could only expect a team-mate to make room there, while Nick obviously thought that no one would try.

Alesi has had a lot of bad luck in collisions of late, usually with drivers a decade younger than himself. But at 36 he takes such dramas in his stride. He didn't even glance back at Heidfeld before jumping on a marshal's motorbike and heading to the pits. Later I asked Jean if he thought the German hadn't realised he was there. "He knew I was there. I hit him three corners before! But this is what you get when you have young drivers..."

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