Out of the red, into the black

When Michael Schumacher ended Ferrari's agony by delivering its first drivers' title for 21 years, he guaranteed the F1-2000 a special place in racing history. By Damien Smith

This is it, probably his last chance. Michael Schumacher has been staring at the rear wing of the McLaren for the first 37 laps of the Japanese Grand Prix. His Ferrari had failed to jump Mika Häkkinen at the first round of pitstops, and even the veil of drizzle that descended on Suzuka, playing to Schuey's wet-weather strengths, had not allowed a good old-fashioned passing move to settle this one. Ferrari's albatross, the 21-year drought of drivers' world titles, has come down to Michael's next three laps.

Häkkinen has pitted for the final time. Now Schuey must bank three fliers before he comes in, then hope for a clean stop that will be enough to 'pass' Mika for the lead. But the drizzle has intensified. Will Häkkinen's new Bridgestones find more grip than Schumacher's worn rubber?

The Ferrari hits its marks, the crew goes to work. Six seconds later the F1-2000 is heading down the pitlane, straining to be let off the rev-limiter's leash. Ferrari's master strategist Ross Brawn is on the radio: "It's looking good, it's looking good." But Michael still expects the worst, to see the silver-and-black McLaren shoot past him on its way into the first turn. But now Brawn shouts: "It's looking bloody good." The Ferrari bursts out ahead and dives into the long righthander. That cherished world title is effectively won.

Three-and-a-half years later, a Ferrari F1-2000 is heading Donington Park's pitlane. This the actual chassis that delivered its watershed tide; it is number 651198, the car Schumacher took to pole at Monaco but then retired when cracked exhaust overheated the suspension, causing it to fail.

The shrill V10's note rises and quickly falls as Donington's few straight bits are shortened further by 750bhp. Even at this (relatively) modest pace, F1-2000 takes your breath away.

At rest, the car is less imposing. Neat tidy and perfectly made, as you would expect, but the delicately curvaceous body panels and today's stunted narrow-track dimensions somehow rob it of latent aggression. The family resemblance to the car Schumacher is currently pedalling to victories is obvious, but even with chassis rules stability and a design philosophy of evolution, F1-2000 is beginning to show its age. Those sweeping body panels maintain the straight lines and abrupt edges that stood out on Rory Byrne's first Ferrari from 1997. Since 2000, these forms have been softened by thousands of wind tunnel hours to create a machine of liquid definition.

Time moves on; another year, another title for Schumacher. But even if Michael was to reach an unlikely double-figures tally of world championships, F1-2000 would remain special. For this is the first red car in which he finished the job, the one that heralded an era of dominance the like of which had never been seen.

From the first race in Australia, Brawn and Schumacher knew that F1-2000 was the car to lift a mountain of pressure. Since their first season together in red, expectation had mushroomed with each near-miss: the ignominy of Jerez 1997, the anti-climax of a start line stall at Suzuka '98, the broken leg in '99. This was their fourth attempt. If they failed, would Luca di Montezemolo's patience hold for a fifth?

In reality, the team had done brilliantly just to be contenders in those first three years. Brawn and Byrne had joined a team with the biggest budget — but one that was not equipped with a proper chassis department The John Barnard years, where Ferraris were designed in Guildford rather than Maranello, had left the giant out of step with the British empires at McLaren and Williams. The new technical director and chief designer had to start from scratch.

By 2000 their work was paying off; they no longer had to rely solely on Schumacher's genius to carry the team. For the first time since '98 McLaren had not arrived in Melbourne with a clear car advantage. "In previous years, we got to the first race and found we were half a second off the pace and thought, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?" says Brawn. "For the first time, in Australia 2000, we thought, `Right, at least we are starting on a pretty good footing'?

Yes, it wasn't bad. Schuey won the first three races, opening up a 24-point gap to Häkkinen, whose McLaren had already suffered two Mercedes engine failures. Surely there was no way back for the Finn, especially when he suffered a clear slump in motivation. But this title wasn't going to be won that easily.

McLaren's shot in the arm came at Magny-Cours, where an inspired David Coulthard fought — and beat — Schumacher, whose Ferrari suffered a rare engine failure. Then in Austria the 'real' Mika returned to lead a McLaren 1-2; Schuey was left floundering in a first-corner accident. He was taken out at the first corner in Hockenheim, too. Three races, no finishes and a title lead reduced to just two points.

The slip was caught with a pair of second places in Hungary and Belgium, but Mika won both and now headed the points. It was time for Ferrari to hit back if it was to avoid a humiliating defeat.

It was at Spa that Brawn noted the tide turning back in their favour, even though Häkkinen won. The MP4-15 was quicker on low-downforce tracks, but now it seemed there would be little in it at Monza. This was when Paolo Martinelli, Ferrari's engine guru, made the difference. The Mercedes and Ferrari V10s were considered to be level pegging at the start of the year. That had changed by the last four races; Martinelli's 90-degree 049 passed the 18,000rpm mark during the season, a first for a normally aspirated Ferrari engine. Schumacher took pole in all of the last four grands prix, and won each of them to claim the title. Meanwhile, heads were scratched at McLaren and Mercedes.

It is at these key times that Ferrari's test track comes into its own. Fiorano was essential when it came to the thorny matter of a system that replicated traction control. The policing of electronic driver aids was a hot topic before the FIA gave in and legalised them in 2001. The consensus among insiders during 2000 was that the Ferrari benefited from traction control despite it being banned. But the truth was not as simple as that. The team kept up an almost daily correspondence with the governing body as it pushed the boundaries with a sophisticated throttle and engine management system that replicated the effects of traction control's wheelspin reduction. It was perfected at Fiorano and helped convince the FIA that it was fighting a losing battle, one that the body is now preparing to take up again with the help of standard ECUs.

Another paddock theory was that Bridgestone, which had a monopoly on tyre supply in 2000, saved Ferrari's bacon with new rubber in the second half of the season. F1-2000 had its faults, one being that the car worked its rear tyres too hard. It was recognised as a classic design mistake; suspension developed in the cold of winter putting too much energy into the rears in summer heat. But rather than Bridgestone solving the problem, it was Ferrari returning to an older suspension solution that really made the difference.

That's the success of 21st Century Ferrari. Not only can it build a racing car as effective as F1-2000, it is also blessed with an ability and the resources to adapt quickly when it matters. That combination, as it remains in 2004, is almost unbeatable.