Modern times

Great Britain, Austria, German: three Grands Prix in four weekends. Not to mention a three-day Monza test, the first confirmations of 1999's driver signings, and FIA hearings in Paris. It's been a busy month for the boys.

Those three races brought a third win on the trot for Michael Schumacher, two more McLaren one-twos, and 26 more championship points for Mika Häkkinen. But don't think you can accuse F1 of being predictable. Sylvester Stallone, if he ever gets round to making his Hollywood film about F1, could do worse than point his scriptwriters towards the changes of fortune between the first Friday session at Silverstone and the chequered flag at Hockenheim 23 days later.

Most notably Ferrari, whose horse was prancing so successfully when we last met on these pages a month ago, is back in trouble. But there's more. After dramatic redesign work a Williams has qualified, and finished, a Grand Prix in third place. Jordan have gone from being the team without a 1998 score to four finishes in the points: and D Hal has beaten M Schumacher. Giancarlo Fisichella, with a little meteorological help, has earned the first pole position of his career. Ralf Schumacher has outqualified his brother and, but for a misjudged pitstop strategy, outpaced him on the track. And Michael himself has made two expensive driving errors, and finished his home Grand Prix a disconsolate fifth.

It's another reminder in today's constantly developing Formula One, how dramatically things can change from one race to another as the competitive edge shifts from team to team. At Hockenheim, a rare mistake from Michael Schumacher on Saturday morning put the Ferrari off the track and curtailed his track time, but the problem ran deeper than that. Dealing resignedly with the battery of cameras and microphones that afternoon after qualifying a mere ninth, Schumacher said: "We have to go back now, and work and work. And work."

And this was the same man who, a few weeks before, had embraced Jean Todt after Ferrari's McLaren-crushing one-two in France, and punched the wet Northamptonshire air from the top step of the Silverstone podium. Silverstone, of course, provided a shaming example of how the weather can expose weaknesses in a race's organisation. After 44 laps of the 60, with the track awash and ten cars in the gravel, the race director decided — not before time — to deploy the safety car. Bad news for Häkkinen, who'd built a huge lead over Schumacher, but had damaged his front wing in a monumental high-speed spin across gravel and grass at Bridge Corner. Behind the safety car the field closed up, and once the race was on again Häkkinen’s now ill-handling McLaren could no longer fend off the Ferrari, which went by with 10 laps to go and disappeared into the distance.

But, before the safety car came out, Schumacher had been seen lapping Wurz's Benetton under a stationary yellow flag. The normal penalty would have been a 10-seconds stop-go in the pits. Only if the transgression occurs in the last 12 laps of the race do the FIA rules allow the penalty to be the much less costly addition of 10 seconds to a driver's total race time: and Schumacher's sin was committed on lap 43, with 17 laps to go.

However, with the safety car taking priority, 25 minutes elapsed before the Ferrari team were notified, and even then the penalty wasn't published on the electronic screens. So, that late in the race, Ferrari were told that the penalty would simply be the addition of ten seconds to Schumacher's race time. That would have left him with victory anyway, while a stop-go in the pits would have certainly dropped him to second place. But Ferrari boss Jean Todt, knowing that the incident had happened earlier and that protests might ensue, ingeniously decided to bring him in to serve the penalty in the pits on his final lap — as the race ended. Which is how motor racing history was dubiously made: Schumacher won the race driving down the pitlane — although he then went out and did a couple more laps in case somebody found a rule to say that to win a race you had to cross the finish line...

It was all a sorry confusion, and left the Silverstone spectators, and the world's TV audiences, bewildered. McLaren protested, unsuccessfully, and then turned to the FIA's Appeal Court. They lost their appeal, and the next day the three stewards, the race director (Charlie Whiting) and his deputy were up before the World Council. It was the stewards, Howard Lapsley, Roger Peart and Nazir Hoosein, who got the blame, losing their steward's licences. By then the transporters were rolling into Spielberg for the next race, and F1 had other things on its mind.

In Austria the rain played its part again, producing on Saturday the first fully wet fight for the grid since one-day qualifying began in 1996. With 15 minutes to go the weather lifted and in the closing moments a dry line was beginning to appear, so whoever was last to cross the start-finish line before the chequered flag came out had the strongest chance of pole. The man who timed it precisely right was Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella, with Jean Alesi next to give Sauber their first-ever front-row position. But Häkkinen managed third quickest, and on race day, from the moment the lights went out, he was in command, dominating to the finish.

As usual, Michael Schumacher provided most of the excitement. Opting for a two-stop strategy, he was light enough on fuel to be able to attack Häkkinen from the start. He ran wide at one point and lost second to Fisichella, got it back again, and then went right ()tithe rails on the downhill right-hander, bouncing wildly over the gravel and losing his nose cone. When he rejoined he was dead last, and his race-long fight back up to third was classic Schumacher.

But this time the drive of the day came from David Coulthard. He'd lost out in the qualifying lottery, started 14th, got tangled up in other people's accidents on lap one, and also needed a pitstop for a new nose. He made up 14 places in 13 laps, finished second five seconds behind Häkkinen, and set fastest lap. It was one of the drives of his life. Behind the two McLarens, Eddie Irvine held third until obediently moving over for the recovering Schumacher to earn his points all very sensible, and the only pity was that lack of clarity about the FIA's official view of team tactics (since clarified) meant that Irvine had to claim he lost third place to Schumacher because of a braking problem, which fooled no-one.

When the 1998 rules stipulated grooved tyres and narrower cars with lower downforce to reduce speeds, we wondered how long it would be before the new breed of slower F1 car was going faster than its predecessor. At Hockenheim we got the answer: Mika Häkkinen’s pole for the German Grand Prix was a new record. Of course, at Hockenheim a quick lap is all about speed down the long straights, and thanks to their smaller frontal area the best of the 1998 cars were seeing well over 220 mph. "That's a serious speed", said a serious-faced Häkkinen and then his face split into a delighted grin.

But in the corners this year's cars, running the small wings that Hockenheim demands if you're not to be slow down the straights, were frighteningly twitchy. As usual Michael Schumacher drove, as Murray Walker would say, out of his skin. He knows no other way. The sight of him so nearly losing the Ferrari in the final corner onto the start-finish straight in the closing laps haunts me, his right fist on the wheel flicking up once, twice to the top of the cockpit in microseconds of lightning reaction as he defied the car's efforts to fling itself across the gravel trap. In low-downforce form, the Ferrari is clearly not nice to know.

By contrast Jacques Villeneuve, having qualified the revised Williams third, was in a position to discomfit the McLarens when Häkkinen’s car began to use its fuel too quickly and his pit told him to ease his pace. Coulthard, unaware of his teammate's problem, was obliged to slow too, as team tactics dissuade him from overtaking the championship leader: but if Villeneuve got any closer he would have to. Sadly a problem in the Williams' electronic differential in the final laps robbed us of the prospect of a Williams overtaking a McLaren, and Ron Dennis' script was maintained.

The Jordans were very competitive, too, more than at any time since this race last year, when Fisichella in the Peugeot-powered version led the race. They qualified a startling fourth and fifth, and Ralf Schumacher reckoned he could lead his home Grand Prix if he went for a two-stop strategy. He didn't lead but, light on fuel, he harried the Mcl.aren duo until his first stop: meanwhile Damon Hill opted for a more sensible one-stop plan, and took a strong fourth place. After 200 miles of hard racing Hill finished just seven seconds behind the winner.

We now know the Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton driver pairings will not change for next season, and the betting is that Jordan will manage to hang onto the much-improved Ralf Schumacher (although BMW would like him at Williams the year after), and will also retain Damon Hill for perhaps his last F1 season. We also know that Jacques Villeneuve will spearhead the new BAR team, and expect Alex Zanardi to return from a glorious Indycar career to lead next year's Williams challenge, maybe with test-driver and F3000 star Juan-Pablo Montoya as No 2. By Monza most of the pieces of the driver jigsaw will be in place.

Before then, the twists of Hungary (where overtaking is harder than at Monaco) and the swoops of Spa (where it will probably rain and Schumacher M should be mighty). But High Noon will come when this intriguing championship battle reaches that shrine to the works of Enzo in the old park north of Milan next month. At Monza, it really matters to Ferrari: and it's at Monza that Ron Dennis would most like to beat Jean Todt. We should see something special.