Modern times

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Days before the Malaysian Grand Prix Michael Schumacher, having vowed he wouldn’t race until next season, changed his mind. Perhaps a little telephone call from Luca di Montezemolo, or even Signor Agnelli, might have had something to do with it. We’re told Agnelli had promised Eddie Irvine a $2 million bonus if he won the drivers’ title: what sort of bonus might Schuey have been on to help clinch the constructors’ title? Whatever the reason, Schumacher announced he would rise from his bed of pain to help his Irish friend’s quest for the title. It made headlines round the world.

The scene of his comeback could scarcely have been more appropriate: a tropical country (where cigarette advertising is unrestricted), on a magnificent new track edged with canopied grandstands, liberally supplied with glass hospitality suites air-conditioned against the 35-degree heat and 95 per cent humidity. Limping only imperceptibly, St Michael clambered aboard his red rocket ship, took pole position by more than a second, and next day dominated the race before graciously waving his apprentice by and falling back to block the opposition. But an hour after the chequer waved, before the presses could roll, the Ferraris were disqualified. Headlines upon headlines. Six days later the President of all Motor Sport announced from his Paris palace that the Ferraris weren’t disqualified after all. Those barge boards might have been the wrong size, but they weren’t guilty by enough of a margin to be really guilty. They were, if you like, only slightly pregnant. For Ron Dennis, who had just a little bit of an axe to grind, it was a Black Day For Motor Sport. For M le President, it was not impartial judicial appeals but Ron Dennis whinging that was bringing the sport into disrepute. Yet more headlines, TV interviews, columns and comment. None of this did much for F1’s image: but it ensured that even more hundreds of millions of people around the world would get up early or stay up late to switch on the final round from Japan.

Actually, I was pleased Ferrari’s appeal was upheld. It’s never a good thing if a race is decided in a courtroom rather than on a track. But it made me hope fervently that Mika Hakkinen would render the whole Paris affair irrelevant by winning in Japan anyway and, bless him, that’s just what he did.

Barge boards aside, there was something unsavoury about the Malaysian race which needs examination. It’s not about the technical rules even if Michael Schumacher’s devastating pole position in Malaysia, more than a full second clear of the McLarens, did give rise to mutters about traction control, which was of course outlawed in F1 some time ago. (Every startlingly good performance by anybody produces such mutters, and it’s no secret that all the top teams are working on different systems to maximise traction while remaining within the rules.) No, what worried me was the deliberate baulking of another competitor under the guise of team strategy.

I’ve always said that F1 is a team sport, and I have no problem with team-mates working together to maximise the title chances of one of them. In fact, had Hakkinen failed to win the World Drivers’ Championship one could have blamed Ron Dennis for not insisting that Coulthard move aside to let Hakkinen score maximum points at Spa. But in Malaysia we saw teamwork on the track reach a new level: Schumacher, having moved aside to let Irvine win the race, allowed Hakkinen to catch him up and then slowed his lap times by up to 4sec a lap. He did this with manoeuvres like suddenly lifting off in the middle of a flat-out 170mph corner, yet at the places where the McLaren might have been able to get past he was always able to stay just out of Hakkinen’s reach.

If you thought Hakkinen lacked grace on the Malaysia podium while Schumacher and Irvine sprayed the champagne, you’re wrong. He was so exhausted he could barely stand. He said later it was not a nice way to have to drive a motor race, because he never knew what Schumacher was going to do next. It was, of course, a bravura performance by Schumacher, and you could say it was yet another demonstration of his consummate skill. But it’s not what F1 should be about.

In days gone by, if a driver slowed by 4sec a lap, the man behind would find it pretty easy to overtake. When most of the grip came from the tyres rather than the aerodynamics, even someone of Schumacher’s talent couldn’t slow a following car that much for lap after lap. But, with the regulations as they are now, it is all too easy for deliberate baulking to become an accepted part of the game. If anyone else had done what Schumacher did in Malaysia – Fisichella, say, or Panis – there would have been an iuproar, questions asked, penalties threatened. But Michael Schumacher has done it, so it must be OK.

Except when it is done to Schumacher. In Japan David Coulthard, a lap down after his off, was caught by the second-placed Ferrari. Coulthard got the blue flag, but for two or three corners he didn’t exactly drive off the track to allow Schumacher past: after all, team-mate Hakkinen was leading the race and looking good for the World title.

Schumacher was outraged, and in the multilateral TV interviews after the race launched a bitter attack on the Scotsman. He said Coulthard’s tactics had cost him 10 seconds and implied that the result of the race, and thus the World Championship, had been compromised. He argued that because he was lapping the McLaren, rather than fighting it for position, Coulthard’s behaviour was reprehensible where his own behaviour in Malaysia had been acceptable. And, disgracefully, Schumacher told the watching millions around the world that Coulthard’s behaviour indicated that perhaps their infamous collision at Spa last year had been deliberate. Study the timing and you’ll see that on the lap when Schumacher caught Coulthard he lost perhaps 2sec – often the cost of coming across a back-marker at an awkward part of the lap. And, as Coulthard pointed out afterwards, Schumacher probably didn’t want to win the race anyway: the German’s ideal scenario was no doubt that he should get the glory for helping Ferrari win the Constructors’ Championship, but that their first Drivers’ title since 1979 should remain his goal for 2000. He certainly didn’t want his Irish No 2 ending up at the top of the pitlane next season, with No 1 on his Jaguar.

In Japan, Schumacher didn’t like it because he was a victim of the sort of tactical baulking which he has been making an accepted part of modem F1. Commercial pressures being what they are, this sort of thing looks like becoming more common. The FIA, as well as learning how to measure barge boards correctly, needs to focus on how it can differentiate between justifiable fighting for position and deliberate obstruction, and should fearlessly impose strong enough penalties to stamp out the practice.

Of course, there’s nothing in the roles that says that World Champions have to be Nice People. The old proverb has it that nice guys don’t finish first, and I have to concede that superhuman ability and an overwhelming will to win don’t always go with a cuddly personality. No-one seems to have had a word to say against Fangio, or Clark: but half a century ago if you upset the first World Champion, Nino Farina, he was prone to try to teach you a lesson on the track. In more recent times Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest of all was not above desperately aggressive, and dangerous, manoeuvres in the heat of the moment. And in Schumacher’s case we remember the shunt with Damon Hill in Australia that decided the 1994 championship, and the collision with Villeneuve in 1997 for which the FIA removed his name from the championship altogether.

Aside from the ‘handbags-at-20paces’ fuss between Schumacher and Coulthard, there was much to celebrate about the Japanese GP. Hakkinen’s drive, at the end of a season in which he made some expensive mistakes, was completely faultless, and a joy to watch. After seeing that drive, you knew he was a worthy champion. And one man who impressed by his demeanour and dignity in Japan was Eddie Irvine. He was cheerful and gracious in defeat, there were no tantrums and no whinges when it was all over, and the Irish grin as he sprayed the champagne over the new champion was genuine.

Afterwards, in a heaving media crush, I interviewed him for radio. As always the wit and the sharp tongue did not desert him. Was he looking forward to working with his new team next season?

“Well, I won’t be up against Michael in the same car at every race, which’ll be nice. God help Rubens. It’s like arriving at every race and being hit over the head with a cricket bat for four days. It’s not a pleasant experience.” Michael Schumacher is the best driver in F1 today. He’ll probably get that Ferrari World Championship in 2000, and he’ll deserve it. I just hope Rubens Barrichello, one of the nicest guys in F1, doesn’t get to Maranello to find his job is baulking the opposition to help St Michael on his way.