Ferrari recruits Michael Schumacher, a Rebirth that sets it on course for four world titles. And Motor Sport undergoes some big changes, too
Driver: Michael Schumacher
No sooner had the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher flashed over the finishing line to win the Japanese Grand Prix than he was beating both clenched fists on his hi-tech steering wheel. The euphoria as he tasted his own third world title must have been almost overwhelmed by a towering surge of relief --- the same emotion that reduced him to tears at Monza after he had won on Ferrari's home turf --- because now, finally, he'd delivered the world drivers' title. That's what he'd gone there to do, five long years ago.
We all know grand prix racing is a team sport, and that winning in F1 involves scores of talented links in a human chain. But, as far as the world at large is concerned, it is on Michael's expensive shoulders that the real weight of responsibility for Maranello's renaissance has rested since 1996.
Suzuka marked Michael's 75th grand prix for Ferrari and, along the way, there's been plenty of drama. Like the first win in the Barcelona rain in 1996; the coming-together with Jacques Villeneuve in the final round at Jerez in 1997; the collision with Coulthard at Spa in 1998; the leg-breaking shunt at Silverstone that ended his tide chances in 1999; the first-corner accidents in consecutive races this year that destroyed his early points lead; and the persistent controversy over his driving habits.
Away from the public eye and TV cameras there have been untold days of testing, and tens of thousands of kilometres, working with his old Benetton pals Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, and building a strong relationship with everyone in a ceaseless team effort The tabloids are very fond of pointing out that Michael earns £2 million a race, a sum so large that it's hard for us mere mortals to put it in context: but there's no doubt the man does work for it.
By the end of 1995, Ferrari had clocked up the longest drought of its illustrious F1 history The richest team of the day thanks to its mix of Fiat ownership and Philip Morris tobacco money, Ferrari was the example pundits used to prove that money alone couldn't buy F1 success. No Ferrari-mounted driver had become world champion since 1979, and now the team had gone for five years with just two inherited wins.
By contrast, Michael was the brilliant 26-year-old who had already won two world tides. Sooner or later, he could have picked any drive on the grid, and if he'd gone to McLaren we'd have had a monotonous few years watching his statistics romp ahead of Alain Prost's. Instead, he set himself a goal that he knew would prove far tougher than winning those first two titles: he decided it was his vocation to drag Ferrari out of the doldrums and bring the drivers' title back to Maranello. --- SFGT