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24 August 2000 Volume 2 - Issue 26
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If Michael Schumacher does not win this weekend in Belgium he must at least hope that Coulthard and not Hakkinen wins the race. If Hakkinen wins again it would be almost impossible to catch him before the end of the season.
Schumacher and Ferrari had a great start to the season. The Ferrari was fast and reliable while their archrivals, McLaren, were struggling with reliability. Michael and Ferrari romped ahead in the drivers and constructors championships.
But halfway through the season McLaren overcame their reliability and set up problems. Hakkinen, who was struggling to find a set up that he was comfortable with, suddenly seemed to get it right and over the last handful of races McLaren emerged as the dominant team.
This season still remains as the one in which Michael has the best chance of winning that ever elusive world championship for Ferrari, but it is starting to slip through his fingers. Both Spa and Monza are fast, low downforce circuits, which definitely suit McLaren. Indianapolis is a new track that looks as if it will also favour McLaren and the last two races of the season (Japan and Malaysia) are circuits that could go either way. There is no race left where Ferrari could feel that they have the upper hand.
The atmosphere in the Ferrari team must be one of grim desperation. They could be excused for wondering what they have to do to win a season. Every time they found an edge, McLaren found a better edge.
The future does not look that rosy either. In the last 4 years, with the exception of last year when they won the constructors championship, they have played second fiddle every year. Initially Williams beat them and now it seems that it is McLarens turn. For 4 years they must have felt that they are almost in a position to get that elusive drivers championship if they could just get that little extra out of the car. Now even that second spot is starting to look less secure from 2001 onwards.
McLaren may still be the team to beat because there is every chance that they will maintain their power advantage but BAR, Jordan, Williams and maybe even Jaguar all have the potential of matching the brute force of the McLaren Mercedes engine.
Honda have made huge progress this year and BMW are exceeding expectations in their first year. Both these engine manufacturers have a very good chance of producing a competitive motor for next year, which will catapult BAR, Jordan and Williams into contention. Jaguar, with their enormous budget and backing from Ford only need to get organised to also mount a challenge.
So next year Ferrari could easily find themselves competing to score points compared to this years competition for podium positions.
Lets face it, this year is Schumachers best chance to win a drivers championship for Ferrari. From here on the future looks tough.
Having said that I do not know how he is going to do it. Maybe he is already doing a rain dance.
Circuit National de Spa-Francorchamps is the longest of the season (4.33miles/6.97km). Although it is one of the faster circuits (we can expect average speeds of around 140mph/226km/H) it is not a particularly high maximum speed circuit. The highest outright speed will be attained on the approach to Les Combes and that should not be much above 190mph/306km/H which is considerably slower than Hockenheims 217mph/350km/H+ and several other tracks have sections as fast as Belgiums top speed.
What makes Belgium different from other circuits is the large number of very fast corners, with only three places where speed will drop below 70mph/113km/H. The rest is fast and almost never straight.
Being a long circuit, spread over quite a substantial stretch of real estate, this is also the circuit where the possibility of rain on only part of the track is highest. If it happens again this year we are almost assured of an eventful race. One thing we know is that rain always changes the processional nature of F1 in the current season and another half wet track will have you on the edge of your seat.
Rain is also never very far away at Spa. If the last decade is anything to go by there is almost an even chance of some rain during the race.
In the past we have seen overtaking on the approach to Les Combes as well as under brakes approaching the "Bus Stop" chicane. This year, sadly, I suspect that any overtaking (if at all) will be restricted to before Les Combes and even that may be too difficult. As we all know modern F1 cars are no longer designed to overtake on the track.
Overall time lost during pit stops is also less at Spa as the entry and exit are probably the fastest of the season. With virtually all teams and drivers achieving the same level of efficiency in the pits, pit overtaking should not play a big role. Timing and pitting tactics will play a far greater role, but that is really no different from any other circuit in modern F1 racing.
Because there are relatively few medium speed corners cars will be set up to maximise speed through the long, very fast, sweeping corners. Downforce will be low which will make the cars very loose and tentative through the three really slow corners.
This is McLaren territory and I expect to see them dominate. Unless something goes wrong, or it rains, they should qualify on the front of the grid and if Hakkinen can repeat his blistering starting style he could lead the race from beginning to end.
BAR will be worth watching as they have always performed better on low downforce circuits and they are getting better fast. Villeneuve may not have the equipment to stay with Schumacher yet but I will not be surprised to see him fighting for position with Barrichello.
So what can Schumacher and/or Ferrari do to keep their hopes alive?
As I have already suggested they could pray for rain. Schumacher is one of the few wet road experts and the only one in a fast car. Fisichella and Alesi (who immediately come to mind as good wet track drivers) do not have the cars to win the race.
They could opt for a very low downforce to maximise speed on the dominant faster sections and hope that the gain in the high speed sections will exceed the loss on the slower corners.
Although I see this as their only option it could backfire on two counts: It could cause excessive tyre wear and therefor only work for some of the time and it could count against them if it rains. A car set up with too little downforce will struggle to get power down, corner and brake on a wet track.
We will just have to wait and see, but if Hakkinen wins again and Schumacher finishes in 3rd place behind Coulthard he will be 8 points behind Hakkinen and equal second with Coulthard in the drivers championship. Assuming that McLaren will also dominate in Monza the gap will be getting prohibitively large.
On the other hand the new Ferrari engine may prove to be fast enough and reliable enough to be competitive and Ferrari may turn the tables again this season. I will not be holding my breath.
Agree or disagree ?