What a difference a fortnight makes. After Michael Schumacher splashed home in Canada to score his fifth victory of the season, heading another Ferrari one-two, the consensus on the flight home from Montreal was that the 2000 championships were all over bar the inevitable shouting. By then, Schumacher had scored a remarkable 56 points out of a possible 80, Ferrari 84 out of 128. There was an air of inevitability about it all.
Fourteen days later, at MagnyCows, Coulthard passed both Ferraris to score a crushing victory, and this time it was a McLaren one-two — their third of the season. Indeed, Coulthard looked the class of the field all weekend. He was fastest throughout practice despite various car problems, but when qualifying began his car was still in pieces. After kicking his heels for half the session he was sent out in Hakkinen’s hastily-adjusted spare: fastest in the first sector, he spun the lap away. More adjustments, and by now the track was perhaps a fraction slower. Even so, he only missed Schumacher’s pole by a tenth.
In all sorts of unobtrusive ways, you find yourself noticing that Schumacher has of late switched his attention, his focus on the threat to his championship strategy, away from Hakkinen and onto Coulthard. And you sense that it’s not just because Coulthard is closest on points: it’s more because Coulthard is closest on the track. And it was against Coulthard that the familiar Schumacher tactics were brought into play in France: the giant swerve across the track at the start, and later the move off the racing line to block an overtaking challenge.
In Canada you could say that Schumacher had something of a lucky escape. Coulthard stalled his car on the grid — his fault, as he was the first to admit — but was able to take up his position on the formation lap after frantic work by his mechanics, who were, dangerously, almost engulfed as the grid set off. It was vindication of the recent rule that insists the grid is cleared 30 seconds before the formation lap begins; Coulthani’s stop-go penalty was inevitable and justified.
As it turned out, that stall probably added 14 points to Schtunacher’s lead: Michael’s Ferrari was not in good shape by the end of the race, and in the rain he understeered straight off the road at one point. Barrichello, driving to team orders, had to slow right up at the end to follow his leader. So, rather than Schuey 10, DC nil, the result could easily have been DC 10, Schuey 6. Well, as with the six points that Coulthard cruelly lost in Brazil, rules is rules. And then in France things finally went McLaren’s way. But in all their euphoria after the Magny-Cours clean sweep there was no getting away from the fact that Schumacher still had a healthy 12-point lead, and remains clear favourite for this year’s world drivers’ title. Nevertheless, I was reminded of Ron Dennis two weeks earlier, casting about for an optimistic sound bite in the Canadian rain as the balloons celebrating McLaren’s 400th grand prix deflated around him.
“Clawing back a points deficit,” he said portentously, “has been and, I hope, will continue to be one of our specialities.”
Nothing gets Ron going more than the threat from Maranello. In fact, the battle between Ferrari and McLaren has been raging, on and off, since long before he took over the reins of the Surrey team. More than a quarter of a centwy ago, Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni tossed the lead of the 1974 season between them all year, arriving at the final round in Watkins Glen dead level on 52 points each. As it turned out, Regga’s Ferrari had a handling problem and was nowhere; Emmo’s McLaren came home a safe fourth for McLaren’s first title.
The following year Ferrari, with not a little help from new recruit Niki Lauda, bounced back. Fittipaldi led on points as far as round six in Belgium, but then Lauda’s four wins and a second in five races put him out of reach. In 1976, it was McLaren versus Ferrari again, that great Hunt versus Lauda year which included James’ Brands disqualification, Lauda’s dreadful Nurburgring crash and brave return, and his withdrawal from the flooded Fuji decider. Then in 1977 Lauda won his second title for Ferrari, and McLaren were starting to lose their way.
The next time Woking and Maranello fought for the title was in 1985. Michele Alboreto led the championship in the Ferrari 156 turbo from round two to round 10, and only then did Alain Frost take the initiative in the TAG Porsche-powered McLaren MP4/2B as Alboreto hit a run of five consecutive mechanical failures.
Five years on, in 1990, it was Frost in the Ferrari. That was when Ayrton Senna settled the drivers’ championship in McLaren’s favour by driving the Frenchman off the road in Japan. As I watched Coulthard and Schumacher diving wheel to wheel into the Adelaide Hairpin at Magny-Cours this year, that was the incident which jumped unbidden into my mind. So there’s a lot of history, some of it acrimonious, between McLaren and Ferrari. And this year’s drivers’ championship is really another battle between those two old rivals, because I have a feeling it will be decided not so much by the skill of Schumacher, or the speed of Coulthard, but by the extent of both teams’ ongoing midseason development. No Formula One team worth its salt stands still as the season unfolds. Constant testing, wind-tunnel work, alternative tweaks and yet more testing — as well as engine improvements — will dig out improved pace and reliability as race succeeds race. In terms of outright speed (but not reliability) the advantage seemed to be with McLaren at the start of the year: then it shifted to Ferrari, and now it seems to be shifting back. If McLaren can keep that slight initiative, together with reasonable reliability, things just might go Coulthard’s way: but Schumacher will take an awful lot of beating.
On the Monday after MagnyCours, the British tabloids seemed more interested in Coulthard’s frustrated cockpit gestures than the rest of the race put together. But then, in using the particular signs he did, Coulthard was probably speaking a language that they understand. Clearly he regretted it afterwards, perhaps fearing some self-righteous sanction from the FIA might cost him precious points, so he was quick to apologise in the multilateral TV interviews afterwards. But it was nothing worse than you can see in a typical traffic jam any day of the week. It was more a gesture of frustration to the world at large than anything else: the driver being gesticulated at can usually see very little, with his restricted field of vision and his tiny rear-view mirrors.
In the days when cockpits were bigger, drivers frequently shook their fists at cars they felt were baulking them, but even then it was more a display to wake up the flag marshals. Stirling Moss made a habit of giving any car he passed a courteous wave — a thank-you if a backmarker had got helpfully out of his way, or a demoralising wave if the other man had been trying to hold him off and had failed. All part of the racing psychology.
Much more important than Coulthard’s hand signals is what happened to motivate them. David has complained before about Schumacher’s favourite tactic at the start: move across on your rival, and block him effectively enough for your team-mate to go round him and take second place behind you. Well, that’s motor racing, and the best way for David to stop him doing it is to out-qualify him, and make a better start.
But it’s very different when a driver departs from the racing line and moves across on an overtaken Moving off your line to push a driver on the outside wider is, in my view a punishable offence. It was that manoeuvre which generated Coulthard’s ire. It’s as unacceptable as Schumacher’s alleged trick in Malaysia while defending Irvine’s position last year, when (according to Hakltinen) Schumacher, with Hakkinen hard on his tail, took to coming off the power unexpectedly in the middle of a corner, in different places on different laps, to slow him down.
I raised this over lunch with FIA President Max Mosley recently. If Schumacher was in fact doing what Haldcinen claimed he was doing, should the FIA have taken action? Max’s careful response was that, with no complaint from the officials at the race nor from Haldcinen’s team, he couldn’t possibly comment.
No one, least of all me, wants to emasculate Formula One in any way. It was a great race in France, but, just as Ayrton Senna sometimes abused his position as the fastest, most determined racer in the world and descended into ruthless irresponsibility, so I would hate to see today’s best driver do the same. The FR must take seriously all facets of their responsibility. They’re very strict in penalising a car whose front aerofoil is 3mm too low. They should be equally strict about penalising dubious tactics on the track, too.