The entirety of Michael Schumacher's career, its highlights and record-setting moments, would make it nearly impossible to highlight just one race as significant for there were so many that would likely fall into that category. However, if there could be just one race that would help to not only help to define Schumacher's career, but also, set the stage for the coming era of Schumacher/Ferrari dominance then perhaps the 2000 Italian Grand Prix would qualify.
After Schumacher's debut in the Jordan 191 at Spa in 1991, Michael would immediately be signed by Benetton for the very next race the Italian Grand Prix. While initially sought after by Benetton, Schumacher would soon assume his role as a galvanizing figurehead that would lead to back-to-back World Championship in 1994 and 1995.
Benetton was on the upswing when he came, but Michael would help to take the team the extra mile to become World Champions. Although the team wouldn't take the Constructors title in 1994 they would provide Michael with a car capable of battling with the mighty Williams-Renault. Schumacher would do the rest, albeit perhaps with a little controversy. Then, in 1995, Benetton would come into the season armed with Renault engines themselves. And with the new engine and Schumacher at the wheel the team would dominate the Drivers' and the Constructors Championships. But after two-straight World Championships with Benetton a lucrative, but uncertain, future with Ferrari was to be next on the table.
When Schumacher arrived at Ferrari in 1996, Michael arrived at what many up and down the paddock considered to be an inferior team. After coming close to its first Drivers' Championship since 1979 in 1982 and again in 1990, Ferrari would take a serious dive in the early '90s. The cars would consistently under achieve and would even lead to Alain Prost's firing after he called the cars 'trucks' and a 'pig'. Even the performance of the pit crew was something of a joke amongst the other teams. Therefore, many would consider the move by Schumacher to go to Ferrari to be a huge career risk.
Schumacher's determination and ability to inspire a whole team was very contagious. Therefore, Michael wouldn't come to Ferrari alone. Part of a winning team is the driver, for sure, but a great car and team are what make the talented driver great. And with Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn's accompaniment of Schumacher to Ferrari, the Maranello outfit had all of the necessary pieces to regain its place of power in Formula One.
John Barnard would still be with Ferrari heading into the 1996 season. He would design the F310. While the car was good, it still lacked outright pace and reliability. Nonetheless, Schumacher would still take the car and earn two victories.
Byrne's addition to the team as designer, taking over for Barnard, would be one of the important keys to the coming Ferrari era. Taking the base of the 310, Byrne would design the 310B. This would be a much more streamlined car but it still lacked reliability and performance. However, Schumacher would more than make up the difference. And in just his second season with the once ailing team, Schumacher would challenge Jacques Villeneuve throughout the 1997 season for the World Drivers' Championship. Then would come the infamous move at Jerez where he slammed into the side of the Williams in a failed attempt to save his chances at the World Championship. Instead, his 2nd place in the standings would be forfeit. This would be a dismal season, and yet, bright one for the team as they truly had brought Ferrari back to be one of the favorites and not an 'also ran'.
In spite of continual improvements, Schumacher and Ferrari would continue to face large hurdles to overcome. During the 1998 season, the hurdle would be McLaren-Mercedes and Mika Hakkinen. In 1999 it would again be Mika Hakkinen and a broken leg that would ruin another chance at a World Championship.
Heading into the new millennium, it had been now 21 years since Ferrari had a World Champion. The last to have done it for the fabled team had been Jody Scheckter in 1979. And not unlike 1983 and 1990, the team had come close throughout the later-part of the 1990s but still had not been able to break the spirit seemingly holding the team at bay.
Yet, despite the frustrations, Ferrari knew it had the right elements to make it work. All of the elements within the team seemed to be there. Even the car was right. There just needed to be some minor 'tweaking' and it was certain to come together at some point in time.
Rory Byrne would take the F300 and F399 and would continue to develop the design. It worked. It just needed to work better. And while there would be some changes to the bodywork and other outward parts of the car, one of the big changes would come underneath the bodywork. The engine V-angle would be made wide to 90 degrees. This made the car a little wider and placed the center of gravity lower. This, and other changes, would make the car virtually equal to the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15. It would just come down to the races, the drivers and providence.
The beginning of the 2000 season would see Michael absolutely dominate the first three races despite Mika Hakkinen taking the pole for each of them. The next two races, the British Grand Prix and the Spanish Grand Prix, would see McLaren return to form with David Coulthard taking the win at Silverstone and Hakkinen winning at Barcelona. While Schumacher still held onto a commanding lead in the championship standings, the duo from McLaren-Mercedes were beginning to come on strong.
The next four races would see Schumacher and Coulthard trading blows. Coulthard would have the pole for the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. However, Michael would go on to win the race. The next race was the jewel in Formula One's crown, the Monaco Grand Prix. Schumacher would take the pole for the race and would look strong throughout pulling away from the rest of the field until a cracked exhaust pipe handed the lead and the victory to David Coulthard. The same order of events would happen over the next two races except that Schumacher was on pole for each. The first of the two races would be the Canadian Grand prix and Schumacher would cruise to victory in that race. Then, at the next race, which was the French Grand Prix, David Coulthard would give the famous 'gesture' to Michael and then would put together an inspiring drive to snatch the victory away from the German. After Schumacher retired late with engine failure the gap in the championship was just 12 points between himself and Coulthard.
Although Coulthard looked to be the number one threat from McLaren, the next four races would see Hakkinen charge to victory in the three of them while Schumacher struggled. Therefore, as the season moved to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, Mika Hakkinen was now the leader in the championship with 74 points and enjoyed a 6 point margin over Schumacher, who was in turn under pressure from David Coulthard just 7 points back in 3rd place.
As is tradition, the Formula One teams would arrive at eh Autodromo Nazionale di Monza on the second weekend of September to prepare for the Italian Grand Prix. The teams and drivers would arrive at the 3.60 mile circuit to find it had gone through a small change from the previous season. The Variante Rettifilo chicane would be redesigned and re-profiled. Instead of a double chicane, a new design with a deeper first turn and tighter second turn would help to slow the cars down even more before heading into the Biassono right-hander. It would also provide drivers with an opportunity to grow straight ahead if they missed the entry instead of trying to avoid crashing into a barrier.
The Ferrari team came to its home track down in the World Championship for one of the first times all season long. The team needed a boost before heading into the final couple of races, that is, if they wanted to have a shot at the World Championship. There would be no better next race for the team than a homecoming with the tens of thousands of Tifosi to urge on their man in the scarlet red chariot.
The adrenaline burst of being in front of the home fans would certainly work as both Schumacher and teammate Rubens Barrichello would be fast all throughout practice. Then in qualifying, the two Ferraris would run almost in lock-step with each other. Schumacher would end up taking the pole for the 53 lap, 191 mile, race by just two-hundredths of a second over Barrichello. Mika Hakkinen would start from the second row in 3rd after having set a time in qualifying just two-tenths of a second slower than Schumacher. The only other player in the championship hunt would be David Coulthard. He would need the race to go right for himself but would have some work to do after starting the race from the third row of the grid in the 5th position.
The day of the race would be the usual sunny and warm and the twenty-two cars would line up on the grid for what effectively would turn into two sprints. And as the race would unfold, there would be trouble at the end of each of these sprints.
Schumacher would make a fine getaway and would lead the field. In contrast, Barrichello would make a poor start and would lose out 2nd place to both Hakkinen and Coulthard who would make a great start from the third row of the grid. Schumacher clearly had the lead despite Hakkinen's assumption of perhaps some blocking. Barrichello would end up holding up Villeneuve who would have one of the best getaways of any of the front-runners, but it would come to naught as a result of Rubens. Going into the tight first turn chicane, the front-runners would make it through without incident, but further back, there would be trouble.
Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo would come together. When the two men collided they would end up hitting Pedro Diniz in the other Sauber. Diniz would go straight through some polystyrene signs on the escape road and would need a new nose. In spite of the contact, the Saubers of Salo and Diniz would be able to continue. Eddie Irvine's Jaguar would be stricken, however, and he would be out of the race.
Then came the second sprint. And this would be the most tragic of the two. Not only would it end up being tragic for championship hopes, but it would end up being tragic in the larger scheme of things.
Michael had the lead and was far enough ahead of Mika going into the next chicane that he was under really no pressure. However, the pressure for a good result, for that next position, would end up causing a melee that would dramatically change the complexion of the race.
Barrichello's poor start and caused him to fall down into the clutches of the two Jordan cars. Jordan's drivers, Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, were eager to try and get past Barrichello in hopes of keeping him at bay and taking away his position. However, heading into the chicane, Barrichello would squeeze to the right and would leave Frentzen nowhere to go as he tried a last-minute maneuver to out-break both Trulli and Barrichello from between the two men. This would be a bold, and rather unwise move. And it would turn absolutely tragic as one of the wheels would come off of Frentzen's car and would shoot across the track striking Paolo Ghislimberti, a fire marshal, in the chest and head.
Heavy contact between the two Jordans and Barrichello's Ferrari would end up causing a melee of rather large proportions. Trulli would be shot ahead by the contact, and therefore, would collect an innocent David Coulthard in the rear. Trulli would then fly off to the right collecting the tire barrier but would ricochet along it for a little bit before finally coming to a stop. Coulthard would be turned sideways slightly and would immediately come to a stop in the gravel. A little beyond him is where Barrichello's Ferrari would come to a halt. The immediate contact between Barrichello, and Frentzen had caused the left rear tire on Trulli's car to be shot across to the left where it would strike Ghislimberti.
Jacques Villeneuve, who had been held up at the start by Barrichello's poor getaway would end up benefiting from the Brazilian's poor start as he would approach the second incident with enough distance in front of himself to avoid it and go on to take over 3rd place.
The first incident had caused a number of mid-pack runners, like Pedro de la Rosa to be slightly held up. This put the pressure on Pedro to try and regain the lost ground, but it would end up being a disaster in a matter of yards as we would not recognize other drivers, like Villeneuve, slowing down to avoid the accident amongst the front-runners. This would end up causing de la Rosa to strike Johnny Herbert's Jaguar. Pedro would hit Herbert with enough force to rip off his left-rear wheel entirely. Nevertheless, Herbert would make it through and would do his best to make it back to the pits driving on three wheels. De la Rosa's car would then launch into the air, turn sideways and would clip the back of Coulthard's McLaren with him still in it. Coulthard would be blessed and would escape without injury. Surprisingly, so too would Barrichello as Pedro's car landed on its side literally on the side of the Ferrari.
Out of the race after the two short sprints were Coulthard, Trulli, Barrichello, Frentzen, de la Rosa and Irvine. Mika Salo had been listed out of the race but he would make it back to the pits for new tires and would continue in the race. Just like that, after just about a mile, the life in Coulthard's championship hopes would give up. But more importantly, the life of fire marshal Ghislimberti would be lost, the first life lost at a grand prix since Aryton Senna's tragic death back in 1994.
While the accidents had been horrific and tragic, the handling of the next period of the race would be absolutely foolish. Doctors and cranes had been rushed to the site of the huge second accident. However, while physicians were doing everything they could to revive the live of Ghislimberti they would have to deal with the unnecessary safety concern of the safety car and the remaining grand prix cars continually circulating around the track. Instead of bring the race to a stop under red flag conditions the officials would keep the race rolling under the safety car. This would draw criticism by many of the drivers, including David Coulthard, and the criticisms wouldn't be unfounded. Most of the attention throughout this period of time had gone to clearing the gravel of the stricken cars and rightfully attending to the gravely wounded marshal. However, the circuit itself was still littered with debris from the accident and could have caused even more problems while everyone was focused on the tasks at hand.
Up at the front of all of the chaos behind him was Schumacher. Michael and Mika had seemed to be in a whole other world as they would be the only two left in the field of cars that had not been, at one point or another, somewhere in the midst of the chaos. Michael just continued to lead the field lap after lap under the safety car. Already on a one stop strategy, the lengthy period behind the safety car would cause Todt and the rest of the engineers to scramble figuring out just how much fuel they would save, and then, how much they would need when, and if, they made their one and only stop.
Finally, after 11 laps behind the safety car, the race would get back underway with Schumacher immediately pulling away at the head of the field. Hakkinen would hang tough in 2nd place while Villeneuve would begin to slip back ever so slightly.
Schumacher continued to do what he could to build his advantage. However, Hakkinen would not go away without a fight. And so, Schumacher would only manage to pull away by about a tenth each lap. But a tenth is still a tenth. And by the 30th lap of the race, he had an advantage of nine seconds over Mika.
Hakkinen would not be happy with his car prior to his one and only stop. As he pulled into the pits his team would go to work. They would change the tires, add fuel and make some quick adjustments to make the car better. But as he rejoined the race, he was still behind Schumacher.
Once the stops were over with, so too was the race. The Tifosi had just one Ferrari left to cheer on, but it would be the best one of the two. The last third of the race would be dominated by Schumacher. The gap between himself and Hakkinen would be too much for the Fin to overcome. Over the course of the final couple of laps, the Italian fans would make such a noise to be easily heard over the screaming sounds of the V10 engines. They could sense that perhaps this was the year for Ferrari. Keeping his focus on the task at hand, Schumacher would control the pace over the last few laps and would cruise to the victory beating Mika by just under four seconds. A gap of over fifty seconds would pass before Michael's brother, Ralf, came across the line in his Williams-BMW to claim 3rd.
The emotions of Michael on the cool down lap were extremely obvious. Shaking his fist in celebration a number of times, waving to the Tifosi enthusiastically and even bringing his hands up to his head perhaps in disbelief, the Italian Grand Prix had been a race Ferrari and Schumacher needed to win in so many ways and they had done it!
The scene at the awards presentation would be absolutely electric. The spectators had clamored onto the circuit as is tradition. There would be a large Ferrari flag dominating the view from the podium. Then, when Schumacher and the other drivers appeared to climb up on the podium the crowd would get even louder. Schumacher's exuberance and realization of the fact that he and the team had done it when they needed to was clearly obvious in his body language and actions.
But then there would be the press conference afterward. And all of a sudden, the 71st Italian Grand Prix would go to take on a whole new meaning and Schumacher's usually stoic emotions would no longer be able to hold back emotions that had obvious built up over a long period of time.
After the usual offer of congratulations and inquiry about his emotions on the achievement, Schumacher would then be reminded of the victory being his 41st, tying him with the late Aryton Senna. He had been asked whether the record meant a lot to him and about the only thing Michael could say before he would be lost in tears would be, 'Yes, they do mean a lot to me.'
Michael had never elaborated on the reason for the unusual show of emotion, and speculation abounds about the reasons for it. But the facts were simple: The season had started out great but had come to be an incredible struggle throughout the middle part of the season. However, the victory not only revived Schumacher's and Ferrari's championship hopes, it had been achieved in front of some of the most passionate fans and at home for Ferrari. The fact the victory tied him with Senna would be too much for many grand prix fans to handle.
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