Autosport 70: When Schumacher and Hakkinen battled in Macau

Future Formula 1 stars Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen had the headline battle, but buried in the field of the 1990 Macau Grand Prix was a galaxy of future stars. Autosport spoke to some of the key figures for the 15-22 December 2016 issue of the magazine

Autosport 70: When Schumacher and Hakkinen battled in Macau

Michael Schumacher led Mika Hakkinen past the old pits for the last time, and the Finn, surfing the crest of a wave after winning the British Formula 3 Championship, was tucked right in the slipstream of the German F3 champion. That, thought the West Surrey Racing team that ran Hakkinen, was surely enough to give him Macau Grand Prix victory.

Back then Macau was very different. The start-finish line was after the Reservoir kink - rather than before, as it is today - and the event was run to an aggregate of a two-heat format. Hakkinen had 2.66 seconds in his pocket - the margin by which he'd beaten Schumacher in the first part. All he had to do was sit right behind the WTS Motorsport man. And off they headed into the kink then known as Yacht Club Bend, now Mandarin Oriental...

"They went out of sight at 'Mandarin'," recalls WSR boss Dick Bennetts, whose team as usual in Macau bore Marlboro Team Theodore branding in deference not only to its drivers' regular tobacco sponsorship, but the Theodore patronage of Macau GP godfather Teddy Yip.

"There was a sudden, huge cheer from the crowd. I thought, 'Something's going on, he's got back past Michael', and suddenly I ran upstairs - we didn't have a TV on the pitwall - and here's our Marlboro car in the Armco..."

Hakkinen had tried an ill-advised move on Schumacher, who moved to block. The impact sent Hakkinen ricocheting into the barrier on the left, before bouncing back towards the right. Out of the Ralt-Mugen Honda sprang its desolate driver, punching the Armco with his fist. On sped Schumacher, the rear wing of his Reynard-Volkswagen seriously damaged - but with only one lap remaining there was enough of a buffer for him to be able to hang on.

It was a famous victory, one made more famous still in hindsight by the stunning accomplishments in Formula 1 of the two main protagonists. Was this the greatest junior single-seater field of all time? Hakkinen-versus-Schumacher is a good place to start, but consider also the other future superstars among the 30-car field.

As it had in 1989, WSR brought Eddie Irvine back from Formula 3000 - at the behest of Marlboro - to partner Hakkinen. Also stepping back from F3000 was Heinz-Harald Frentzen, joining British F3 Championship runner-up Mika Salo at the Camel-liveried Alan Docking Racing. Rickard Rydell, who had starred in British F3000, was another F3 returnee, lining up with the Bertram Schafer Racing-run Volkswagen Motorsport.

"The quality was very high and that was probably attributable to the fact that there were more championships and a lot more cars. We had potentially 60 to choose from, so it's no surprise the majority of the drivers went on to greater things" Barry Bland

Fellow future touring car superstar Laurent Aiello switched from his regular French-championship mount to British team Bowman Racing, where current F3 team bosses Trevor Carlin and Anthony 'Boyo' Hieatt (Double R Racing) were on the staff. Italian F3 Championship frontrunner Alex Zanardi piloted his regular RC Motorsport Dallara, and French series ace Olivier Panis lurked way down the grid in his KTR Reynard.

Add in top F3 pedallers such as Bowman's Steve Robertson and Philippe Adams, and then five further champions - Roberto Colciago (Italy), Eric Helary (France), Naoki Hattori (Japan), Fredrik Ekblom (Sweden) and Jo Zeller (Switzerland) - and you begin to understand how tough it must have been to pick the field.

"The choice was far greater then - we always went for the best we could get," said Motor Race Consultants' Barry Bland, who from 1983 to 2015 built the race into junior single-seater racing's single most prestigious event (and who passed away in 2017).

"There were a lot more cars around than now, and one of the priorities was to always take every championship winner and work it back from there. The quality was very high and that was probably attributable to the fact that there were more championships and a lot more cars. We had potentially 60 to choose from, so it's no surprise the majority of the drivers went on to greater things."

Hakkinen and Schumacher had also been selected as F3 rookies for participation in the previous Macau GP, and it is generally lost in the mists of time that Schumacher had been desperately unlucky not to win the 1989 event. With the country's predilection for sportscar and touring car racing, German F3 had been considered the poorer relation alongside the British, Italian and French championships.

But, while Jo Winkelhock was winning the '88 German title for WTS, the team's co-founder Willi Weber - the 'W' from WTS - had discovered a rare talent in the form of Schumacher in the junior ranks, and signed him to a management contract. Engineer Klaus Trella - the 'T' of the team, with the 'S' standing for Stuttgart - ran Schumacher in '89, and he narrowly lost out on the crown after a battle with Frentzen and eventual champion Karl Wendlinger. All three would form part of the new Mercedes junior team in Group C in 1990, but before then Frentzen and Schumacher starred in Macau, proving that the German championship was now at least the equal of the others.

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"Heinz-Harald was in front, and Michael behind," remembers Trella of the first heat of the 1989 Macau GP. "Heinz-Harald goes in the wall, and we win the first race. For the first heat Michael had older tyres, while for the second he had new [from the allocation of 14 for the weekend], so we saw it was no problem to win the second heat.

"After the first lap he had a big lead, and on the second lap it was the same, and the third the time difference was smaller. I could not see what the problem was. I saw the car was not so fast on the straight - it was OK in the city section, but on the straight he had a problem with top speed.

"He began losing places, and after the eighth lap he came to the pits and said, 'I have no more gears - only first and fifth.' They were broken. At the end of the second lap, he had broken third gear so he was having to go from second to fourth, and that was why he was losing time on the straight. On the monitor I couldn't see that."

Schumacher went on to win the German title in 1990, but it was possibly the appearance of interloper Hakkinen at the Hockenheim finale that allowed the WTS star to find further pace that would aid him in his quest for Macau.

"Philip Morris Europe [the Marlboro parent company] were querying why they were spending so much money on a driver doing British F3 when we had to cover up the branding [due to tobacco-advertising laws]," explains Bennetts. "So to prove a point, one of the bosses at Morris UK said, 'Right, we'll do a couple of European rounds with Mika and WSR and see how they get on'.

"We won the Italian round at Imola, and then we did Hockenheim. We had problems - we had a test on Friday and the thing was misfiring, and we'd spoken to a German team to ask about gear ratios and they were miles out. We were like 20th quickest, and it was embarrassing.

"We'd brought the Leyton House car [driven during the season by Minoru Tanaka], took every conceivable electrical component off it, we rang Neil Brown [Mugen builder] about the engine, changed the gears, the set-up, the springs, the bars, and he went out on an old set of tyres on Saturday morning. He came back in, thumbs up, and went back out with new rubber.

"Meanwhile, Michael was sitting in the pits, arms folded, and of course Mika blitzed his pole time, and then we won the race by five seconds."

Hakkinen's pole lap on the old - 'proper' - Hockenheim was 1.01s quicker than Schumacher, who in turn had gone considerably quicker than he had done while taking pole for the early-season race at the same venue. "This was a very big, very fast circuit then," says Trella. "Mika was very fast, and this situation I think made Michael two seconds faster."

"Mika didn't know the word 'slow' and straight away got out there and on it. In those days you didn't have proper data logging like now, and Mika's feedback was difficult to interpret; you had to second-guess. But he had the raw talent" Dick Bennetts

But still he wasn't quite fast enough. On the first day of qualifying in Macau, Schumacher lapped 0.38s quicker than Otto Rensing's 1989 pole time... but he was 1.12s slower than the extraordinary Hakkinen.

"I think too many people are tense and aggressive," Hakkinen explained that evening. "They grab the wheel tight and they clench their teeth. But although my arms are hard and moving quick, the rest of my body is totally relaxed and that's what helps me."

"What we always say is, 'Go carefully on your first day, just build your pace up slowly'," explains Bennetts. "Mika didn't know the word 'slow' and straight away got out there and on it. The problem in those days was you didn't have proper data logging like now, and Mika's feedback was difficult to interpret; you had to second-guess. But he had the raw talent - it was unbelievable."

Schumacher closed the gap on day two, winning a fight with Aiello for the front row. But with the field split into two groups for qualifying, Hakkinen's session was affected by oil on the track at Lisboa and Frentzen's crashed Ralt at Maternity Bend - no red flags in those days - which dictated a less-than-ideal line. He felt he could have been a second quicker.

In heat one, Hakkinen and Schumacher both jumped forward before the start, and since Schumacher's foot was still on the brake pedal at the crucial moment he was swallowed up by Irvine and Aiello. When Aiello had a moment under braking for R Bend, Schumacher was able to slipstream past into third. Then, when Irvine missed the apex at the narrow Police bend, Schumacher somehow squeezed his Reynard into a tiny gap to grab second at Moorish. He set off after Hakkinen who, to Bennetts's anger, lifted off on the final lap and diminished his advantage going into the second heat.

"I said, 'Mika, what did I say? Win by the safest, biggest margin you can and have something up your sleeve for race two in case you have a problem'," says Bennetts. "So of course, in race two Michael slipstreams past him and... I'd explained to Mika, because we didn't have radios in the cars, only the old-fashioned Peltor plug-ins when you're stationary, 'If Michael does get past you, as long as you stay within one second, you've won the Macau Grand Prix'."

But Hakkinen wanted to win on the road too. The pace of Schumacher and Hakkinen was astonishing. Hakkinen set a fastest lap even quicker than his pole time, and a whole four seconds faster than David Brabham's best on the way to winning the previous year, but his was a desire that had terrible consequences.

"When he came back he was in tears, poor bloke, and I actually gave him a bollocking," says Bennetts. "He just chucked it away."

Further down the pitlane, WTS was celebrating. The Reynard 903 Schumacher drove was renowned in the UK as a poor car - it lost the constructor pretty much all its customers for 1991 - but it had a very quick Spiess-tuned VW engine.

"Mika had a better car, a little bit faster," says Trella, "which was not a problem to overtake us. The problem was... Mika looked to his left, Michael goes left and then right and it was too late. He touched the front wing on Michael's rear wing and crashed. The underwing was broken on Michael's car, on the right side. The left was OK but the wing went up at an angle of 30 degrees."

Was Trella surprised that Schumacher coped with this for one lap?

"It was no problem," he says. "To the next car was a big, big difference. Between five and eight seconds, so no problem for one lap."

"I think he was crazy," Schumacher said in the immediate aftermath. "Nobody takes anybody on the last lap, not without a fight. I spent the whole race thinking he would win, so I'm even more delighted now."

A desolate Hakkinen replied: "I am disappointed with what he did - it's shocking when you're going at nearly 150mph. I was very surprised when he changed the line. I knew I had an excellent chance to pass, but he moved inside me. I thought I was going to die."

Bennetts had no sympathy. "There was a big argument afterwards," he says. But I said, 'Back to principles, Mika - you didn't have to pass him'."

Even with the damage, Schumacher finished eight seconds clear of second-placed Aiello, who had thoroughly disproved the conventional wisdom that his wet Monaco GP support-race win had been a fluke.

"Mika had a telex from the Lotus F1 team, and then suddenly the penny dropped. He was trying to impress at Macau by winning both races and beating Schumacher, because he was in dialogue with Lotus F1" Dick Bennetts

Unlike compatriot Hakkinen, Salo was canny and sat dutifully behind Aiello, knowing his first-heat advantage was enough for second on aggregate. Irvine was also close enough behind to demote Aiello to fourth in the overall result.

Completing the top six were Rydell and Zanardi, after Frentzen's charge from his qualifying crash-enforced poor grid position came to an end when his car began jumping out of third gear. What a remarkable collection of future racing superstars.

Bland doesn't recall thinking that year was particularly special. "They all sort of mix together in a haze! It's five-plus years on when you see how good they are," he said.

But he does recall the spectacular denouement of the lead battle: "Did he [Schumacher] brake-test him as karters do? There was an awful lot of talk that he'd just backed off a little bit, otherwise Hakkinen wouldn't have run into the back of him, but Hakkinen should have used his brain properly."

What made the shunt even more aggravating for WSR was that the following weekend the field was in action again, this time at Fuji in Japan. A prize fund of £20,000 had been on offer for anyone doing the Far East double, and Hakkinen had not only thrown that away but he'd also given his team a lot of work by destroying the chassis - not to mention having to re-livery the car for its Japan-only Casio backing.

It was a tough time between driver and team. Hakkinen had won the European Opel Lotus title with Dragon Motorsport in 1988 and had a difficult season with the same team in British F3 in '89. But he had Keke Rosberg advising him, and Rosberg had been run by Bennetts when the Kiwi worked for Fred Opert Racing in Formula Atlantic and F2 in the 1970s.

Even when it wasn't certain that Hakkinen would retain Marlboro backing, Rosberg promised Bennetts he would underwrite a season with WSR if necessary. His protege went on to deliver in Britain, but not Macau...

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"I gave him a real hard time because a) he'd written off the chassis and b) he'd lost that year's special prize," says Bennetts. "That £20,000 was massive for F3. And it wasn't until we checked in to the hotel in Fuji... Mika had a telex, and I said I'd take it to his room, so I had a nosey and it was from the Lotus F1 team, and then suddenly the penny dropped. He was trying to impress at Macau by winning both races and beating Schumacher, because he was in dialogue with Lotus F1."

With a swarm of extra cars - mainly from Japanese F3 - joining the field at Fuji, it was run as two heats and a final. Schumacher won - and claimed the big double-header prize money - after a seesaw slipstreaming battle in the final with the underrated Robertson. Hakkinen crashed early in his heat, and sat out the final. An ignominious end to a glittering season, as he watched Schumacher's star rise yet further.

"Mika was not so strong as before," says Trella, who draws comparisons with Hakkinen's famous tears-at-Monza gaffe in 1999. "He was broken in the head."

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