Help Michael? And why is that? It is with this sentence that Ralf Schumacher hastens to nip in the bud any hypothesis of possible family agreements in the next three decisive Grands Prix, from which the Formula 1 world champion for the 1997 season will have to emerge.
Only one point separates the Ferrarista from Villeneuve, and Ralf drives a competitive car very aggressively. So, in pure theory, he could be of valuable support to his brother, but the youngest of the Schumachers firmly rejects this possibility:
"He races for Ferrari and I race for my team: brotherly love does not exist on the track. Michael has already been world champion twice without my help, what could stop him from being world champion a third time? If he doesn't win the title this season, he will in 1998".
It seems absurd that the younger of the two brothers will become so important for the awarding of the championship, unbeknownst to him, also thanks to the increased competitiveness of Jordan, unlike Ferrari which has not been able to evolve its car in the last weeks as it hoped. On 23 September 1997, a technical briefing was held at Maranello, with chassis and engine designers, to find answers to the F310B's lack of competitiveness in qualifying and in the race. As already mentioned, there is only one point separating the two drivers leading the championship with three races to go.
Michael Schumacher has already found himself in a similar situation to this one in 1994, when at the wheel of Benetton he was playing for his first world title against Damon Hill. At that time, following his success in Hungary, the German was ahead of everyone in the general classification with a 31 point lead over the Briton. Then came the maxi disqualification of three races, all won by Hill, who managed to reopen a question that seemed to be closed, bringing himself to within one.
In view of the Luxembourg Grand Prix, to be held at the Nurburgring circuit in Germany, where Schumacher will also be celebrating his 100th Grand Prix in Formula 1, the current world leader is relaxing at his home in Switzerland, enclosed in the 1,200 square metres of the villa and the silent park that surrounds it and enveloped in peace. But Schumacher is not only tired, but he also has a slight illness to work off in the days leading up to the race weekend:
"A terrible cold, which I caught in Austria, and I also had a bit of a fever. It's seasonal stuff, it doesn't just happen to me. Luckily I'm recovering quickly because until yesterday I was sick, thank goodness that there is a week before going on track again".
Speaking about his personal 100th Grand Prix, Michael admits that he is not sure about the exact number of starts:
"I'm not so sure, some people say 98 or 99, it depends. If I remember correctly, I didn't do one or two, I think I retired before, but I was on the grid, I don't know, it could be a hundred".
And of the first one he remembers:
"I remember the start of that first Formula 1 race. Well, actually it was just a start because I retired immediately afterwards".
While among the three best of the first hundred, Schumacher chooses:
"Belgium '92, Belgium '95 and Nurburgring '95".
Michael arrived at the Nurburgring on 25 September 1997 in his helicopter after an official visit to Luxembourg:
"A rightful visit, a heartfelt tribute from me. It's the first Grand Prix organised by this country, which is close by and at the heart of Europe. I went this morning, landing in a helicopter in the park, and was received by the Burgomaster and a minister. Then the Ferrari Club of Luxembourg organised a parade through the old streets with 40 classic cars. I paraded in the 166 that made the Mille Miglia in 1948. There were a lot of enthusiastic people there, something I didn't expect and that cheered me up after the last two races didn't go so well".
Then, it's back to talking about the championship:
"Maybe Williams has grown, us less so. There have been ups and downs. At the beginning of the championship we were doing well and we scored more points than we expected. In the summer, at Magny Cours and Silverstone, we were unbeatable, then down at Monza and Zeltweg. At Monza we were not very fast in practice and not very fast in the race. In Austria, on the other hand, we were very competitive in the race, but we suffered a setback in qualifying. Who knows, if I had had that extra glass of petrol maybe I wouldn't have started ninth and finished sixth".
Of course that yellow flag overtake was fatal, but Michael responds:
"I'm not an amateur, at least I hope the others don't think I am. If I did that overtake it's because I didn't see the flags. I should have seen them, but I didn't. No argument here. But we are working on a system whereby the drivers will receive a warning on their dashboard when the flags are shown. In this way we will avoid mistakes and there will be more safety on the track".
In '94 the world title over Hill was won by one point, but Schumacher thinks that these are different situations:
"Then I won at the last race by one point, now I'm three points short. I hope it goes better this time. I will try my best. This race will be important but not decisive. I think everything will end at the end, at Jerez. I know the Nurburgring circuit well, I did well there last year and that should make it easier. Certainly, however, that having my public here means a very different charge, and this means that you can give something more and maybe it will be something important for the result".
On the opposite side, mindful of how the '94 season ended between Schumacher and Hill (with the controversial accident in the last race in Australia that led to the retirement of both drivers and therefore to the conquest of the title by Schumacher, who was accused of deliberately closing the door in Hill's face), Frank Williams says with a touch of sarcasm:
"I'm going to tell my drivers to get their suspension reinforced".
After that, the founder of the team of the same name concedes a little comparison between the two contenders for the championship crown:
"Our cars are fast and Villeneuve is very similar to Schumacher. When it comes to being decisive, he doesn't back down".
At Nurburgring it was warmer than one would normally expect at the end of September, a factor that was welcomed by Williams since according to Jacques Villeneuve the FW19 suffered from low temperatures. The Canadian, meanwhile, did not attend the Thursday press conference, arriving in the paddock only late in the afternoon, since, according to some rumours, he had stayed until the last minute at Silverstone to practise his Achilles' heel starts this season. Considering the minimal gap separating him from his rival, Jacques says he can change his approach to the races:
"He's one point ahead but now he's the one suffering. You only have to see that huge mistake he made in Austria to understand that he can't handle the enormous pressure anymore. We have the best car, the best team and two great drivers, the world championship cannot escape us".
On Friday 26 September, Montezemolo arrives in Germany to support his team, and tells journalists:
"I think I have a long experience in Formula One. I arrived at Ferrari in 1974 and at the penultimate race our Regazzoni was on equal points with Fittipaldi. And then in the last race Fittipaldi became world champion by only three points. But we made up for it the following year with Niki Lauda's first title".
"So I'm not giving up even in the middle of a cannonball. We have a great driver, a great team and a car that is certainly not the best, but we will fight until the end, until the last lap. We missed a great opportunity in Austria. But these are things that can happen".
Talking about Ferrari's ambitions, the President underlines:
"We started this year with other ambitions, with other plans, with other goals. We achieved them and when we saw, along the way, that we could also win the world title, we changed our ambitions, objectives and programmes. And we want to win it, we'll fight until the end, we'll do everything we can. But nothing is lost. We didn't win the world championship before Austria and we won't lose it now, here, where we are always in the lead. In any case, we can and must record with satisfaction that Ferrari is back at the top".
"I've been thinking about the world title for three years since we started to reorganise the whole team. Lately we have seen that it was possible even if it was not within our expectations. We are all aware of the difficulties but we are also aware that we have the potential to do it. It's a shame we lost in Austria, but that's part of racing".
"Unfortunately we lacked Irvine's points but I have faith that in these last few races Eddie will return to being what he was in the first part of this season when he gave us a hand".
The Ferrari president also participates in the cutting of the cake to celebrate Schumacher's 100th race; a brief ceremony during which a little curtain opens between the Ferrari driver and Formula 1 patron Bernie Ecclestone.
Schumacher jokingly threatens Ecclestone with a knife, while the latter grabs him by the throat before the whole thing ends with slices of chocolate cake smashed in his face.
For the Grand Prix of Luxembourg, the paddock embraced Olivier Panis again, who after a forced stop that forced him to skip seven races following the bad accident that occurred in Canada, could finally drive his Prost again. So Jarno Trulli is out of the picture at least for this season, despite Alain Prost's incessant pressure on Honda to allow him to continue racing in place of Shinji Nakano; the Japanese opposed this request, which is why Jarno will have to wait until the following season to return to racing. However, the Italian driver turned up at the Nurburgring circuit with his overalls in his bag:
"They phoned me and told me that they would be happy to welcome me into their pits, but there was no room in the car. In short, both Alain Prost and Cesare Fiorio were very affectionate but they didn't promise me anything. I'm not sorry or disheartened because I knew from day one that something like this would happen, that Panis would take his place and I certainly don't want to take it away from him. But I think I did a good job in that team. At the beginning of my experience, at the French Grand Prix, we had a lot of problems with the car and we worked a lot to solve them and I think I also made a certain contribution to the technicians. When things went badly, they never blamed me, they also knew that some problems had to be solved. Budapest was supposed to be our first big chance, that's where we thought we would reap the first fruits of this work and instead things didn't go well. Spa and Monza were the worst circuits for us and we didn't expect great things. Then there was Austria, a new and unfamiliar track, but on paper it looked a bit like Hungary and it suited us. So finally we started to go well, thanks also to Bridgestone, who had studied things carefully and brought tyres that went really well".
As in the Austrian qualifying, the pole position became a personal matter between Hakkinen and Villeneuve, but this time the Finn won, who had already shown his speed on Friday, setting the best time in free practice, and on this occasion he stopped the clock at 1'16"602, setting a new circuit record and taking his first pole position in his career, beating the Canadian driver by just 89 thousandths. McLaren is at its eightieth pole, but it is also a result of a certain importance, considering that the Woking team did not win in qualifying since 1993, thanks to Ayrton Senna. Villeneuve missed the appointment with the ninth pole of the season, but he can be satisfied with his performance especially because Schumacher was behind him, in fifth position, with Frentzen and Fisichella in the middle to occupy the second row:
"It's not about winning here, it's about finishing ahead of Schumacher," said the Canadian driver. "I can't take any risks, mine will be a reasoned attack. It would be stupid to finish outside, just because I'm looking for success at all costs. If I'm ahead of the German, I have to get to the finish line and collect some serious points. This Grand Prix and even more so the Suzuka one, are two decisive races; I want to close the account".
And talking about qualifying, Jacques declares:
"Even if it's all my fault, Hakkinen is only 89 thousandths ahead of me, and I lost at least two tenths on my fastest lap, getting a corner entry wrong and taking a chicane wrong. Has McLaren started to go very fast? I'm happy. If they take points away from me, it doesn't bother me, because they also take points away from Schumacher".
And in conclusion, Jacques let himself go to a criticism of the layout of the track, pointing out several dangerous aspects:
"This circuit has a dangerous chicane, which offers no reference points for braking. There's no room to brake, it's very easy to end up on the grass. And risky, because if you go off, then with the tyres you bring everything into the track. That's why the asphalt is so dirty. I preferred Zeltweg, which may have been boring, but there was less danger. But here, if there is a battle, anything can happen in that chicane. If you're alone, you look at the grass and you adjust. But in a group it's like being in the dark, you'll see how many cars will go straight or onto the kerb".
Schumacher, who does not sleep with his wife for fear of being infected with the flu, improved on his previous two qualifying sessions, which placed him ninth:
"I'm half happy. Starting from the third row is not exciting, I hoped to do better. Luckily in the race we are always better than in practice, but it will be hard also because Villeneuve is ahead. Of course, if Frentzen was not between me and Villeneuve I would be more relaxed. In any case I will fight and I will play until the end even if the weapons I have are what they are".
If on the one hand Villeneuve and the Williams team can smile, on the other hand Schumacher and the Ferrari team cannot be satisfied. As at Zeltweg, also at the Nurburgring during the qualifying session, the German driver was forced to stop without petrol after the last fast lap, a sign that the fuel was once again being sipped to save weight and try to create an advantage, while Irvine was even fourteenth and too slow to be able to give a real contribution to the team. Despite this, Montezemolo tries to keep morale high, admitting however that:
"Unfortunately since the beginning of the year, we haven't had great moments in qualifying. We are there in the third row, but we can fight. For now there is Villeneuve in front, we will make the race about him, we will see after the race. I am not surprised to see that we have two Williams in front of us, I have always said that ours is not the best car and then this time Villeneuve and Frentzen it seems clear to me that they will play a team game. Anyway, we will fight until the end, we will do our best, if we lose this world championship we will sell our skin dearly".
Sixty-seven laps for a total of 305 kilometres. The Nurburgring is a track where overtaking has become rather complicated with modern cars, so, as usual in certain circumstances, the start and the strategies take on greater weight. In this case, the start provided more answers in terms of the world championship than one could have imagined.
When the lights went out, Hakkinen got off to a good start and didn't have to worry about Villeneuve, who continued to have a bad relationship with starts, letting himself be overtaken by a rapacious Coulthard; at the same time, Michael Schumacher also spun his rear tyres and was forced to give up his position to his brother. At the first bend, everything happens.
Villeneuve and Frentzen go wheel to wheel, the contact is heavy and will cause some problems to the German; Ralf Schumacher tries to close the door in Fisichella's face who is on the inside, but he does it as if the Roman was not even there. The two Jordans inevitably collide and also involve the unfortunate Michael Schumacher, who is only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, despite trying to avoid his brother's car by widening his trajectory. Schumacher goes straight together with a Benetton and after a short excursion on the gravel he returns to the centre of the group. For the two Jordan cars the race is over.
Schumacher seems to be able to continue, even if he is in tenth position, but then at the Veedol-Schikane bend he loses control of his car. Something is wrong. Michael realised this and immediately returned to the pits, where the mechanics noted damage to the suspension, which meant a forced retirement for the leader of the championship, the third of the season after those in Argentina and Great Britain.
Ironically, it was his brother Ralf who caused the retirement that could decide the championship. Ralf was the one who, according to Villeneuve, would have helped Michael with serious possibilities to do so in the present races.
In the following moments, Eddie Jordan is reached by journalists to comment on the disaster, which is heavy for his team, fighting in the constructors' championship with McLaren, but even more so for Ferrari. The team manager labels it a racing accident, trying as far as possible to exonerate young Ralf:
"Giancarlo had a bad start, already during the reconnaissance lap he had told us that he had felt something strange in the clutch. This coincided with a very good sprint by Ralf, and unfortunately there wasn't enough room for everyone at turn one. It's not the first time our two drivers have collided; it happened in Argentina. We will have to discuss it".
But Ralf knows in his heart that he's done it wrong, and as soon as he returns to the pit lane he heads to the Ferrari pit lane to apologise to his brother.
"Unfortunately there wasn't room for three cars at that point. The collision was inevitable. I saw my brother's car lift-off and crash into me. I started driving again, but after two corners I realised I had a problem".
Says Michael Schumacher, while in the pits, after the accident, Willy Weber, manager of the German Ferrari driver, walks up to Ralf, covers his face and says:
"What have you done?"
Shortly afterwards, journalists ask Weber if Ralf had realised the damage he had done to his brother:
"I don't think he realised".
Michael now has only to support the two McLarens, so that they take away as many points as possible from Villeneuve. In the meantime, in fact, at the head of the race Hakkinen and Coulthard are leading, ahead of the Canadian, Barrichello, Alesi and Magnussen. Exceptional start for the Stewarts, who started respectively from the ninth and eleventh position. After the illusory performance in Austria, Jackie Stewart is back to hoping for points.
The Mercedes-powered Mp4/12s were flying and challenging each other with fast laps, offering Villeneuve no chance to counter. In such a scenario, Jacques would gain four points, moving up to +3 on Schumacher. A scenario which, considering the circumstances, might suit Michael. But the race was still a long one.
After making contact with his teammate at the start, Frentzen inadvertently switched off his car and managed to regain speed when he was already in the middle of the pack. The German was twelfth, and a race of comebacks awaited him, beginning with an overtaking move on Olivier Panis.
The German driver, however, was blocked by a group of drivers led by Jan Magnussen, who had to watch out for a Damon Hill determined to get into the points zone. In the meantime, the only Ferrari left on the track sailed aimlessly in thirteenth position, with little chance of getting back into the points zone.
On lap 21, Alesi, unable to get rid of Barrichello, was called back to the pits for the first of his two scheduled stops, while in the meantime Frentzen overtook also the Arrows of Diniz, and also thanks to the game of the ongoing stops, he went up to eighth position.
One lap later, Irvine parked his car in a safe zone and abandoned a race that saw him far from important positions. A brave James Allenn approaches Jean Todt to ask the reason for the retirement.
The French team manager is laconic: the Irishman was forced to stop because of the engine failure. After not even thirty laps, the first three drivers are by now competing against each other; Barrichello, in fourth position, pays a gap of thirty-four seconds from Hakkinen.
At the twenty-eighth passage, after having recorded the fastest lap of the race, Hakkinen came into the pits for his first stop, imitated on the same lap by Villeneuve: 6.9 seconds was the duration of the Finnish driver's pit stop, two seconds faster than the one made by the Williams mechanics. At this point, however, the doubt rages in the pits: is the McLaren on one or two stops?
Both drivers returned to the track avoiding having to follow Barrichello, an eventuality from which Coulthard could have benefited, who decided to lengthen his first stint, while shortly afterwards Frentzen also returned to the pits, who, anticipating the stop for Magnussen and Hill who were right in front of him, hoped to be able to gain more positions.
The doubt as to how many stops McLaren had decided to make was resolved on lap 31. Coulthard stopped, his stop lasted just 4.9 seconds, too little to take on the fuel needed to get to the end. The Scotsman comes in second, between Hakkinen and Villeneuve, re-establishing the positions before the pit stops.
At Spielberg, Barrichello and Magnussen opted for two stops, a decision that didn't pay off; now the two Stewarts, as well as Damon Hill who has been very close to Magnussen since the first lap, are on a one-stop strategy, hoping that this time they have made the right choice. Of the three drivers mentioned above, the reigning champion is the first to stop.
However, at the moment of leaving the pit-stop, Hill clumsily turned off the engine; the mechanics started the Arrows again, but the lost seconds were many and Hill's race, who came back to the track as a lapped driver, was completely compromised.
Probably the choice made by Stewart's house on the strategic plan could have brought the hoped-for results, if it wasn't that the usual failures that characterized Sir Jackie's white cars didn't leave any respite even for the first time. Jackie's white cars didn't let up at the Nurburgring either.
Once the stop was made, Magnussen never regained speed and was overtaken at the exit of the pit lane by Pedro Diniz, only to stop along the track due to a problem with his driveshaft.
Barrichello in turn, according to some rumours filtering in from the Stewart box, is slowed down by a hydraulic problem, which at least for now does not force him to stop.
At the forty-second of the sixty-seven scheduled, Hakkinen is firmly in the lead with thirteen seconds on Coulthard, who manages six on Villeneuve.
The McLarens are flying and the improvements made since the beginning of the season are macroscopic, to be undoubtedly attributed to the genius of Adrian Newey, who has not resisted and has also inspired solutions already tested and introduced with Williams in the recent past to improve the Mp4/12 performance; an example is the new front wing of the silver arrows.
Hakkinen was uncatchable and nothing could stop him from celebrating his birthday by winning his first race in his career after taking pole the day before. But on the 42nd lap, a Mercedes engine explodes.
This time it is not Mika's, but Coulthard's, who stops his car at the beginning of the main straight. Villeneuve is second, which means a five-point lead in the championship:
Whispers Michael as he watches the race from his motorhome. Only one lap passes, after which the camera, which frames the entire straight from the first corner, shows the two McLarens standing at the edge of the track, a few hundred metres apart, with their engines smoking.
Schumacher covers his face with his hands, saying:
"No, not this one".
A retirement that makes poor Hakkinen despair for the umpteenth time, whose first victory is increasingly a taboo difficult to break. But it is Michael Schumacher who despairs, perhaps even more than the Finn. Yes, because with this clamorous double retirement, Villeneuve finds himself all of a sudden in the lead of the race and with ten more points in the classification that have an unspeakable importance for the World Championship.
Just to make en-plein, the first pursuer of Villeneuve, but who couldn't have bothered him anyway, namely Rubens Barrichello, abandons the race for the aforementioned hydraulic problems. Villeneuve makes his second stop in complete tranquillity, from the height of the abysmal advantage he has over the second, Jean Alesi, who is followed very closely by Frentzen, whose excellent comeback was however facilitated by Hill's retirements and mistake. The fourth was Gerhard Berger, while Pedro Diniz and Panis followed in a tussle between them to compete for the fifth place. Behind them Johnny Herbert was waiting patiently, ready to take advantage of the first useful opportunity to jump the two rivals.
But unfortunately for him and for the spectators, in the last fifteen laps absolutely nothing happens. Jacques Villeneuve calmly and cautiously managed the advantage over Alesi and won the race, projecting himself into the lead of the World Championship with two races to go, with nine points ahead of the unfortunate Michael Schumacher. Now, the favourite for the World Championship is the Williams' driver.
Frentzen's podium allows the English team to gain fourteen points, to reach a total of 112 in the Constructors' Championship. Ferrari, stuck at 86, needed a miracle to straighten out the situation. There is no talk of a miracle as far as Schumacher and the Drivers' Championship are concerned, but it is undoubtedly a titanic undertaking that the German will have to face
While at Ferrari the atmosphere was mortified, smiles were spreading inside the smaller teams such as Arrows and Prost: Diniz conquered his first points in the championship, Olivier Panis reminded everyone of his value by scoring points in his first race after his long injury. In the press conference, Villeneuve starts by commenting the contact at the start between him and Frentzen:
"After the first corner, I was a bit worried because Heinz and I touched, wheel to wheel at the first corner. I thought I had done some major damage, but luckily the car was OK and it was fast".
Then, talking about the race and the accident involving Schumacher, the Canadian driver admits:
"I saw the accident on the big screen while I was driving, which was great. They had told me the news from the pits, so when I walked past the display, I didn't want to miss the show. I don't know if Ralf was responsible for the accident. At the first braking point there were a lot of cars close together, you don't help anyone at that point, you have to do your own race. Maybe someone was going too fast and it wasn't a coincidence that he touched the others. I'm going my own way, I'm not looking for controversy and I expect to be left alone. I was third, so I was happy with that, I could be satisfied. I gave up immediately to chase the McLarens, I thought it was useless to risk, also because today they seemed unbeatable. They were faster than me even though their tanks were fuller of petrol. If they hadn't broken their engines, there was no way we could have beaten them. Then they broke down".
But Jacques is not talking about luck, but about his and the team's ability to overturn the forces on the field:
"Here I was certainly not unlucky, but the wheel throughout the season, between Schumacher and myself, turned in equal parts. Do we want to remember the rain in Monte Carlo or Belgium? I'm rather pleased to have given him the coup de grace at home. In Canada he ran away and overtook me in the standings, and in Germany I caught up with him. And I want to close the account at Suzuka. I love the Suzuka circuit, I think we will be competitive because it suits our car very well. All that matters now is to gain another point on Michael, because I have more wins than him and ten points would be enough to keep me ahead. We need to qualify better and stay ahead of him in the race. Nothing else".
Frentzen also dwells on the first phase of the race, made complicated by contact with Villeneuve:
"Yes, Jacques and I touched, and at that point I lost my grip on the steering wheel and inadvertently pressed the lever that turns off the engine. When I came to, I was already in the back of the pack, fourteenth or fifteenth. At that moment it was hard to overtake the riders in front of me, but I managed to climb the classification as I went along. In the battle with Gerhard, the strategy was fundamental, as we decided to re-enter a few laps later than him, and without this change in strategy I would not have been able to take his position. I'm happy for Renault, who today can boast four cars powered by their engines in the top four positions. I'd say it's a nice way to leave the circus, considering they won't be there next year".
Thanks to Alesi's podium, Benetton bid farewell to Flavio Briatore, in his last race as team manager before leaving his post to David Richards:
"The sprint wasn't great, but there was a bit of chaos in front of me that allowed me to gain several positions anyway. After the second stop I saw on the pit-board displayed by the team that I was in second position, and I found it hard to believe because before stopping for the second stop I was eighth".
Admits Jean Alesi, who then concludes:
"Considering where I was starting from and the fact that overtaking here is very difficult, it was impossible for me to think of reaching the podium. I want to thank the team for giving me a car that was fast and reliable enough to finish this race".
On the other hand, there is enormous disappointment at Ferrari, whose dream of returning to winning the World Championship is becoming increasingly utopian. Despite the logical disappointment, Schumacher exonerates his brother Ralf, the one who caused the car crash at the start:
"I can't blame Ralf, these things happen in racing. Of course it's a shame, it's even more bitter since it happened with him. I didn't get a good start, the tyres skidded too much, but I quickly recovered and was regaining my starting position. At that moment, at the first corner, Ralf ran into me and hit my right tyre. There were three of us where only two cars were going by: that's what caused everything. I got back on the track and immediately felt that the car was having problems. I hoped it was just dirty tyres, maybe a puncture. But when I pulled into the pits I saw that the suspension was bent. Nothing could be done. By now the world championship is compromised, it is difficult to straighten out a situation like that. But there are still two races left and I'm not giving up beforehand: I'll go to Suzuka and Jerez with the right spirit and the will to fight until the end".
The team principal of Ferrari, Jean Todt, echoes the words of the German:
"We felt a great disappointment, we couldn't have a worse result. On the other hand, accidents like the one that put Michael out of action can happen, they are part of the racing world even if they are unpredictable and unmanageable. There is nothing you can do about them. Villeneuve is leading by nine points, a few races ago it was Schumacher leading by ten points. The situation can always change, there are still twenty points at stake for the world championship and therefore mathematics has not yet defeated us. After what happened here and the week before in Austria it is useless to make predictions, anything can always happen, that we go back to the top of the world championship or that we lose it. We continue to work as we have always done, we are already thinking about the next race, we are committed to the maximum and we will not declare ourselves defeated until the numbers establish it".
Returning to the incident involving the two Jordans at the start of the race, Giancarlo Fisichella did not mince his words with his teammate:
"I found myself in front of him and there was nothing I could do. If I had braked, the accident would have been much more serious".
On the other hand, Ralf Schumacher is not about to take the blame, and rejects the accusations:
"I'm very sorry about all this, but I don't feel guilty. I made a great start, then I braked to avoid Frentzen and Fisichella; on my left I saw Michael, there was no space and unfortunately I hit his car. It happens in racing. Now don't sue me".
However, Niki Lauda does not agree, and, as always, goes straight to the point and declares:
"Ralf was a stupid fool, if he had anything in his brain he would have lifted his foot off the accelerator, instead of throwing his brother out and making him lose the title. Fisichella, on the other hand, is not to blame".
Perhaps disappointed that his own presence had not brought good luck to his compatriot Schumacher, Helmut Kohl, the first German chancellor to attend a Formula 1 Grand Prix, urged the Ferrari team to take heart, even though Jacques Villeneuve was already singing victory.
Before the start of the race, Kohl had visited the Ferrari pits, talking to Schumacher and wishing him good luck, which then turned out to be unpropitious. Then, at the end of the race, he urged the Ferrari men to hold their heads high and not to give up. And leaving by helicopter he promises:
"I'll be back next year".
Making too many trials or dwelling on what has already happened, however, serves little purpose. Ferrari must pick itself up and leave behind a negative trend that has been going on since the Monza Grand Prix. But that's not all. On September 29th, 1997, in Maranello a long summit takes place to analyse the question of the McLaren's electronic accelerator that is considered a violation of the Formula 1 technical rules, even if it has been authorized by the International Federation. The engineers point out that a fundamental rule introduced in 1995 prohibited any external aid to the driver and that this included all electronic aids and automation.
The throttle itself is not illegal because it is always operated by the driver, but if the software that controls it were to allow other results to be achieved, such as better traction at the start and in corners, then it would constitute an external aid to the driver. Such a sophisticated system had been used a few years earlier in another team, but by the same engineers who now work for McLaren.
However, Ferrari does not intend to lodge any official complaint. However, it is likely that the FIA will carry out its checks, as it does at every Grand Prix (at Monza, the electronic control units of Williams and Benetton). On the same day, Jean Todt returned to talk about the Grand Prix run at the Nurburgring, and Ferrari's poor performance, declaring that:
"It is not Ferrari that has braked, but it is the others that have accelerated. There are people working day and night here, we give most of our lives to Ferrari, to do what, to brake it? Let's look at things calmly and rationally. We have done a huge amount of work this year to improve and we have managed to improve. Maybe Williams did a bit more than us, but looking at the mid-season results you can see we were doing well. They were probably almost always better in practice, but in the race we defended ourselves well. Then, at a certain point, other cars started to fly. Not Williams, but at McLaren, for example, which is a very good team with very good people, they suddenly started to fly. I'm not saying that they're cheating, maybe someone misunderstood what I said on Sunday. All I'm saying is that they are legitimately using an electronic device on the accelerator that prevents the car from skidding at the start. And this, according to the regulations, is an external aid to the driver that is expressly forbidden".
It was precisely the skidding of the wheels that got Schumacher into trouble at the start, forcing him into the point of the collision with his brother, while the McLarens, on the other hand, had a great sprint:
"Yes, but I repeat, it's not McLaren that's cheating, it's the FIA that has endorsed this solution that allows, I'm sure, things that are forbidden by the regulations. We were also studying something like that but we stopped because it didn't seem right".
Then, talking about the championship that will end in two race weekends, the Ferrari team principal admits:
"It's true, I don't believe in miracles, nobody believes in them but that's not why I give up. We are condemned not to give up, out of respect for all of us and for those who follow us with such passion. Our car is what it is, everything that could be done has been done, the performance is what we know it is: we do badly in practice but we do well in the race. That's all the problem. Of course, if we had been able to start Schumacher further up the grid, he wouldn't have been in the middle of those two. Starting behind the second row is a huge risk, not just for us but for everyone. The problem is that with the current regulations, there is no more overtaking and so what is a driver to do who starts behind and knows that for three hundred kilometres he will stay where he is? He has to try to gain a few positions at the start or hope for pit stops. And everyone tries to do that and they do. Yesterday the accident happened to Schumacher, but it's like that in every Grand Prix and there have been accidents at the first corner. I hope these things don't always happen to us, I hope it rains in Japan because that would give us an extra chance. We have to win, it's difficult but not impossible. Do you remember the year of the world championship at stake between Prost and Senna? Prost had to win the race and Senna had to retire. And that's what happened, which is not a miracle but a reality of racing. Do you remember Prost jumping for joy? He didn't believe it either. That's why I'm not giving up, even if the disappointment is great. In the last three races we have only scored two points, we have lost twenty on Villeneuve, and even 34 in the constructors' championship. Of course I am very disappointed. I don't believe in miracles but I don't believe in a magic wand either. If I had one we would have won everything already. But we can still play for it. It's very difficult but possible. I just hope that one of those normal days happens when our car is going really well".
In the meantime, the collision between the Schumacher brothers at the start of the race takes centre stage on television programmes and in the press. Ralf Schumacher is rebelling against the wave of accusations that has hit him in all the newspapers, including German ones. And through an interview with the German newspaper Bild, he responds by saying:
"I don't brake for my brother and I didn't even apologise to him because there was no reason to. Should I have braked just because I'm Michael's brother? No way. I'm no different to any other driver, I race for myself and for my team and that's what I did on Sunday from the start. I got a great start while Michael and Fisichella didn't get off to a good start and that was the only reason I could overtake Michael so easily. However, there has been no reconciliation with Michael for the simple reason that we have never fought because of this episode. He understood very well the reasons for what happened and he is not angry with me, why should he be? Of course, I understand that he is very bitter, but Michael is exceptional, the best of all, he doesn't give up and I am sure he will make it to his third world title".
Michael's words are echoed by him:
"The accident was not his fault but chance and Ralf wouldn't be a good professional if he didn't try his best every time. As for me, I don't want to wrap my head around it, I still have some hope of winning the world championship. Before Sunday I had a fifty percent chance, now only thirty percent, but many things can change in the last two Grands Prix".
Since 30 September 1997, the Prancing Horse team has been practising at Mugello with Irvine, but then moved to Fiorano, where Eddie gave way on Thursday and Friday to Schumacher, before the cars were due to leave for Japan on Friday evening. Routine tests because there are no technical innovations in sight. Montezemolo's message must instil hope in the entire environment, because in Formula 1, history teaches us, anything is possible:
"We will not give up, we will try until the end, even if this black series is cruel".
Davide Scotto di Vetta