Pass master Hakkinen takes sweet Belgian win
27 August 2000
Mika Hakkinen made the sort of overtaking move normally the trademark of Michael Schumacher to beat the German to victory at Spa-Francorchamps.
In a race filled with typical Spa suspense and drama, the Finn led, spun and recovered before choosing the narrowest strip of road to pass both Ricardo Zonta and Schumacher at Les Combes to claim a miracle win and extend his world championship lead.
Hakkinen had led from the start, courtesy in part to the decision of the drivers to begin the race behind the Safety Car. Although the pit-straight was hardly producing any spray, the rest of the fickle Belgian circuit was still holding water, and it was decided prudent not to tempt fate at La Source or Eau Rouge on lap one.
Consequently, Bernd Maylander led the race for the opening four miles, before peeling off into the pit-lane and allowing Hakkinen to go about the job of easing out a gap over second-placed Jarno Trulli. Other than the Finn's gradual disappearance, there were few major moves in the first couple of tours, but it was not for wont of trying.
Trulli was unable to go with the leader because of massive pressure from third on the grid Jenson Button, while the rookie, in turn, had Schumacher for company. A gap then extended back to David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher at the tail of the top six, with the rest of the field squabbling in their wake.
The first incident of note arrived on lap five, when Button, sensing a gap down the inside of Trulli at La Source, clipped the Jordan and spun it broadside across the road. Delayed in the incident, the youngster was then powerless to prevent Schumacher, Coulthard and Ralf from filing past, before rejoining in a chastened fifth place. It was worse for his victim, however, as Trulli climbed from the stalled Jordan, albeit refusing to blame his assailant for the retirement.
At the front, however, hakkinen sailed blithely on, unaware that his main challenger was now the man he feared most. The leader's mind was more closely focused on the conditions, which were beginning to improve rapidly and, with the news that Jean Alesi had already switched his Prost onto slicks - and lapped three seconds faster than Hakkinen - the Finn contemplated a change of rubber himself.
He was beaten to the draw by Schumacher, however, as Ferrari pulled its man in almost immediately. A 6.3secs stop reflected the small amount of fuel added to the car and, when Hakkinen finally stopped a lap later, the German was able to close the gap considerably and increase the pressure on the leader.
Further back, it was looking less likely that Hakkinen's McLaren team-mate Coulthard's championship hopes had long to live. The Scot had qualified badly as the result of his petty squabbles with Frentzen on Saturday, and now ran fifth on the road as he attempted to make up lost ground. His day got worse as, once again, Hakkinen got the first call for slicks, and Coulthard was forced to make another tour of Spa before finally calling in.
This policy cost him more than a few places, and left him firmly entrenched behind nemesis Frentzen for much of the mid-part of the race. With the leaders pulling away, the last place Coulthard wanted to be was exactly where he was, unable to respond until he found a way past the Jordan.
The surprise in the top six at this point, however, was Alesi, the quick thinking of the Prost team having vaulted him ahead of the Frentzen-Coulthard battle and into the vicinity of Button's recovering Williams. Only as the rest picked up the pace, and the need for a second early pit-stop to add the fuel eschewed first time around dropped the luckless Frenchman down the order, but it proved that the Alesi myth cannot be laid to rest just yet.
Things were about to change at the front, however, as the pressure finally got to Hakkinen, and the McLaren driver dropped a wheel onto the white line at Stavelot. While not repeating Giancarlo Fisichella's accident from the warm-up, Hakkinen had to control a slide across the infield grass, and could only watch as Schumacher sailed past.
As expected on slicks and a damp track, Schumacher then proved to be the fastest man in the race, pulling away at anything up to a second a lap from Hakkinen. The Finn had easily slotted back into second place, but was now having to push in pursuit of both the lead and to protect his advantage in the championship.
The battle continued right through the second round of pit-stops, which Schumacher initiated slightly earlier than expected, again reflecting the amount of fuel added first time around. Five laps between their respective stops allowed Hakkinen to briefly resume the advantage but, as soon as McLaren called its man in, there was Schumacher ready to resume where he had left off.
Almost immediately, however, the gap between the two leaders began to reduce, as Hakkinen began to eat into Schumacher's margin. The German was noticeably using the still damp part of the Kemmel straight to cool his tyres, losing fractions where he had earlier gained them with intelligent strategy.
Hakkinen could sense that all was not well with the Ferrari which, despite being mechanically sound, was already losing grip on tyres several laps older than the McLaren's, and the gap began to shrink at an even more impressive rate.
Backmarkers posed no problem until, with just three laps to go, the lead pair bore down on Zonta's BAR-Honda. The Brazilian, to his credit, did nothing, holding his line along the run to Les Combes, and allowing the faster men behind to make up their own minds which way to go.
Schumacher jinked out of the slipstream and, in contrast to his cooling runs down the right, opted for the wider left-hand gap and the better line for the approaching corner. Hakkinen waited fractionally longer, swapping the tow from the Ferrari for that from the BAR, before popping out to the opposite side and squeezing between Zonta and the treacherous grass verge.
It was a brave move, and one that worked beautifully for the Finn, as he emerged not only clear of the BAR, but also just enough ahead of Schumacher to take the advantage going into the right-hander. Holding his line and his nerve through the following left, Hakkinen was clear, and able to pull out a comfort zone over the Ferrari now in his mirrors.
There was little that Schumacher could do but try and stay with the McLaren, but such was the condition of his tyres, that this proved difficult to do. A two-second gap appeared quickly, with only the occasional quick burst from the Ferrari maintaining any semblance of respectability after what had been a brave effort.
Far behind them, Ralf Schumacher continued his lonely vigil in third place. The Williams driver had hardly been troubled since getting past his slowed team-mate early on, and made the most of workman-like pit-stops from his crew to ease out an advantage of those behind him. A slight fuel surge problem in the closing stages caused a few butterflies, but eventually proved no hindrance to a podium visit.
The slight stutter in the BMW's progress gave the briefest glimpse of another point to Coulthard, who had finally put paid to the Frentzen obstruction when the pair pitted simultaneously for their second stops. Once free of the Jordan, Coulthard was able to eat into the gap between him and fourth, passing Button with eight laps to go, before trying to do the same to the other Williams. It ultimately proved to be too big a task, however, completing a weekend of frustration for the Scot.
Frentzen, like compatriot Schumacher, tried to maintain touch with the McLaren that had got ahead of him, but dropped some twelve seconds behind at the chequered flag. Button, too, proved to be out of reach of the German, taking a handy couple of points and a double-figure total for the season.
Jacques Villeneuve, having run in the points between stops after a quick call from the BAR team, finished seventh, midway between Frentzen and the equally frustrated Johnny Herbert. The Jaguar driver had lost a place to the Jordan at the start, but otherwise maintained a place in the top ten right to the end. For once, the car ran reliably but, as in Austria, was not quite good enough for the Englishman to open his account. Mika Salo and Eddie Irvine rounded out the top ten.
Given the conditions, there were surprisingly few retirements, with final finisher Gaston Mazzacane having to make do with 17th place. Of those to go out, Trulli was the first, but was quickly followed by Giancarlo Fisichella (electrics) and Nick Heidfeld (engine). Alesi's promising run came to another galling end when a top ten place looked on the cards, while Rubens Barrichello had to endure the most embarrassing exit of the day.
The Brazilian had made the most of the early pit-stops to take on even less fuel than his team-mate, and began to slash into the gap to the top six, setting the fastest lap of the race in the process. It all came to nought, however, as the Ferrari trickled down pit-lane, apparently out of fuel. His crew rescued him from beyond the white line marking the pit entrance, but it was to no avail as insufficient fuel pressure finally forced Barrichello to abandon.
It was not quite so frustrating for team-mate Schumacher, and the German, for the second race running admitted that if Hakkinen had gone for the breath-taking option in assuming the lead, probably would have done so in easier fashion before the end of the race.
With Coulthard only taking three points, the championship battle is beginning to look more and more like a two-horse race. Ferrari had development engines at Spa, and still Hakkinen had the power to close the gap and win the race.
The Italians may need more to rein the leader back in, but anything they do now may simply be a case of closing the stable door a little to late....