Schumacher tolls championship bell
10 September 2000
Michael Schumacher re-ignited the world championship battle with a Monza win that left the German driver in tears at the press conference, and the locals ringing the church bell in Maranello.
Schumacher broke down at the emotion of taking victory in front of the tifosi and equalling the late Ayrton Senna's total of 41 race wins, and was unable to communicate whatever joy he may have been feeling to the waiting world.
Fortunately, the press had much to report in an Italian Grand Prix full of incident from start to finish.
Fears that the race would produce an accident at the re-profiled Rettifilio chicane proved to be unfounded, with only a brush between Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo producing any incident of note. The Irishman retired on the spot having ploughed through the various marker boards to the left of the circuit, but would shortly be joined by half a dozen of his rivals.
With 21 of the starters having made it almost virtually unscathed through the opening combination, the relief that spread down the pit-lane was quickly tempered by a huge accident at the slower Roggia chicane.
Schumacher, having made a good getaway when the red lights went out, was comfortably ahead of the rest of the field as it headed into the tight left-right, and Mika Hakkinen, at the front of the pack, also made it through without any trouble. Behind the Finn, however, all hell broke loose as the next group of cars made contact in the braking zone.
Rubens Barrichello, having made a shocking start from the outside of the front row, appeared to be regaining ground on those ahead of him through Curva Grande but, according to the following Heinz-Harald Frentzen, braked early than usual for the chicane. The German had nowhere to go but between the Ferrari and Jordan team-mate Jarno Trulli, taking all three into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren just ahead of them.
The incident did not end there, however, for, as Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher picked their way through the debris, the ensuing dust cloud hid Johnny Herbert's Jaguar from the tail of the field. In the confusion, Pedro de la Rosa ploughed straight into the back of the green car, riding up over its rear wheels on somersaulting into the gravel trap. The Arrows' trajectory took its right onto the top of Coulthard's McLaren, bouncing off the stricken machine and perilously close to Barrichello's as it took flight for the second time.
The rest of the field made it through safely, but the organisers had no option but to deploy the Safety Car whilst the wreckage was cleared away. Coulthard initially tried to run back to the pit-lane, before realising that there were no red flags, and no chance of him rekindling his shattered title hopes.
Of more concern, however, was the fate of de la Rosa, whose car remained inverted for some time, and those involved inadvertently in the incident, and with less protection than the drivers. Frantic scenes behind the barriers, including the administering of CPR, triggered memories of Imola '94, and it slowly emerged that, whilst all five drivers involved had escaped serious harm, a luckless fire marshal remained in a critical condition.
As a result of the treatment being given by the safety team, and the feverish work to clear the aftermath of the accident, the Safety Car stayed on track for the next ten tours.
Then, as it finally prepared to pull off, there was further commotion on the run down to the Parabolica, as Jenson Button's Williams speared left into the barriers. It later transpired that, in an effort to give himself a good run out of the final corner, leader Schumacher had backed off to such an extent that the rest of the field quickly bunched up behind the Ferrari. Caught unawares by the rate of deceleration, Giancarlo Fisichella and Button went either side of Jacques Villeneuve's BAR, with the unfortunate Briton taking to the grass, sideswiping the barriers and plunging into immediate retirement.
The first few laps after the restart - which was not affected by Button's demise - contained the rest of the day's retirements. Villeneuve was the first to go, his BAR's engine giving up the ghost whilst in a comfortable third place, before Nick Heidfeld departed the fray, spinning out at the Roggia and threatening a return of the Safety Car as marshals struggled to pull the Prost out of harm's way.
With ten cars already out, and only 15 laps on the board, the race looked likely to finish with the lowest number of runners since the early, reliability-afflicted, races of the year. Remarkably, however, there were no further retirements in the remaining forty tours.
Focus switched to the battles, both at the front and further back through the field. In the lead, Schumacher was gradually stretching away from championship adversary Hakkinen, and had opened up a three-second advantage in the first eight laps of racing. Further back, Jos Verstappen and Ricardo Zonta were the men on the move, the Dutchman powering past Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher to take third on the road, with his Brazilian counterpart close behind in fourth.
Zonta, like both Mika Salo and Jean Alesi, had taken advantage of the Safety Car period to make a pit-stop, but his pace did not suggest that he had taken on too much extra fuel. Passing Verstappen on lap 20 put the BAR into the top three and a good result appeared to be on the cards until Zonta peeled off into pit-lane just three tours later.
A lightning quick stop boded well for another climb through the field, until the white car became ensnared behind Alex Wurz's Benetton. Unable to pass because of his heavier weight, Zonta responded to his crew's call for another pit-call when it also became apparent that he would not reach the window to complete a one-stop race. The extra time lost taking on fuel and tyres dropped Zonta out of the reckoning for a podium finish and, despite not having to stop again, he was unable to make any further inroads, coming home in an eventual sixth place.
Verstappen, however, was able to run on the same strategy - and pace - as the two cars now ahead of him, all but matching the lap times and consumption of both Schumacher and Hakkinen. The German had pulled out a bigger gap over the McLaren as the race went through half-distance, and was still able to turn in fastest laps despite the inevitable wear on his tyres.
It wasn't until lap 32 that Hakkinen finally turned a lap quicker than the leader and, although Schumacher responded with another fastest mark four laps later, the signals were obvious that the most important pit-stops of the race were in the offing.
Schumacher was the first to stop, his lead a fraction under ten seconds at the time that he pulled off, and conceded the advantage to Hakkinen for the first time all weekend as a result. Seven seconds was all it took the Ferrari team to turn the car around, and Schumacher immediately put on a spurt when he rejoined to ensure that the McLaren had no great advantage when it made its stop.
He needn't have worried for, when Hakkinen rejoined after a 6.6secs stop, the Ferrari was already through the Rettifilio. Seven seconds to the good with eight laps remaining, Schumacher began to measure the gap back to his rival, counting off the laps to a comfortable victory.
Further back, Verstappen's tenure of third place had come to an end when he called in for fuel, allowing Ralf Schumacher to line himself up for a third podium visit of the year. The German ran almost to the end of the list of pit-callers before coming in and, after a very short stop, was able to rejoin well in front of the Arrows.
Verstappen nevertheless remained in fourth, with the gap back to Wurz only likely to be affected by the proximity of the second Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella between the two rivals. The Italian had looked to be on for a points finish, in fifth place, before his car refused to engage gears on its one and only stop. Fisichella had been the last to peel off but, with the rear wheels spinning until they hit the ground, well over a minute was lost before he rejoined.
Mika Hakkinen set the fastest lap of the race as he set about reducing the gap to Schumacher at the head of the field, preventing the German from equalling Alain Prost's mark. He could do nothing about the five-second gap that remained between the two current champions-elect, however, nor prevent Schumacher from equalling Senna's race win record.
It all proved too much for the Ferrari man as, after celebrating the win with the tifosi he broke down in front of the press. Whether it was the emotion of closing the championship gap, winning in front of Ferrari's fanatical fans, or drawing level with one of the few men in F1 he revered may never be known.
Michael Schumacher was just happy to win.