Wednesday 2 July 2014

Michael Schumacher wins the race from the pits!

                                                 Michael Schumacher's last lap was in the pit-lane                             Image Courtesy - Daily mail 
The race at Silverstone is always nostalgic. It is at this very circuit the first race of the modern F1 championships was held on 13th May 1950. British Grand Prix over the years have been hosted by other circuits and personally this remains my favourite British circuit among the others.

In this post, I would not be writing about Silverstone or its history or its struggles to stay relevant in the modern business of Formula One. Instead, I would like to look back on a 'wet' afternoon in 1998 when the race leader pitted on the last lap and yet emerged victorious. Protests were lodged by McLaren-Mercedes and the final verdict didn't alter the results of the Grand Prix. Instead it cost the jobs of the three stewards who awarded the penalty - unclear and ill-timed.

McLaren Mercedes was the car to beat. Ferrari was close and yet so far. In the eight races prior to the British Grand Prix that season, McLaren had won five (Mika Hakkinen four out of them) and Ferrari had three. If at all, the only consolation was that - the last two races were won by Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. Ferrari was not a force to reckon with at all - it was Michael Schumacher who drove not just the car but also the team forward ever since he took the seat in 1996.

McLaren cars were the quickest on all the three practice sessions and on the pre-race warm-up. Mika Hakkinen courtesy of a swift lap put his team on pole ahead of his immediate rival Michael Schumacher.
With heavy rains on the race day morning, the track was not completely dry and this prompted many of the teams to start the race with intermediate tyres. The two Stewarts took the brave decision to start with dry tyres!

There was no major shakeup at the top for the first 12 laps of the race barring for David Coulthard moving to the second position - a move aided by the unsurprising choice of Schumacher and Ferrari to go with a dry set-up, hoping the track to dry as the race progressed. Then Michael Schumacher clocks in a stunner of a lap, 1.6 seconds quicker than any other car on a track that was starting to get wet with dark clouds looming around the 5.89 km circuit. These harsh conditions of wind and wet track made driving a little difficult as the first of the casualties happened to be Damon Hill on lap 13 and Heinz Harald Frentzen two laps later.

Rain upset the strategies of all the teams forcing the drivers to make an unscheduled pit stops. From lap 18 onwards, the pit lane saw a parade of cars making their way in to make this change - some like McLaren on Bridgestone and few other like Ferrari on Goodyear. Most of them braved the track with intermediate tyres (Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard) while Mika Hakkinen was given a fully-threaded wet weather tyres.

Up until the lap 35, Mika Hakkinen controlled the race and drove around the circuit comfortably than most others could manage. Coulthard had to win the race to keep his championship alive managed to put in two stunning laps to catch Hakkinen. The track became wet with a fresh round of downpour and in a moment of frowziness while overtaking a back-marker, Coulthard slid off the track and off he went on to the gravel. David Coulthard retired from the race on lap 37.

Mika Hakkinen having the advantage of wet-weather tyres had built a lead in excess of 40 seconds to the now second placed Michael Schumacher. Was this lead under the treacherous weather conditions enough? It sure was, unless you make any mistakes!

Mika Hakkinen had a 'heartbeat moment' when his car on lap 42 turned 360 degrees at the high speed exiting corner 'Bridge'. He lost control for few seconds before recovering and turning the car on the circuit in the right direction - what reflex!. A deficit of 10 seconds would not damage his chances of victory, though there were concerns if his machinery and aerodynamic parts were intact.

Safety car was deployed to aid the drivers on track. Yes, it was such a race that - by the end of it all, only nine cars out of twenty-two were on track when the chequered flag was waved. Unsurprisingly, nine of those thirteen cars were as a result of 'slippery' track conditions.

The advantage built up by Hakkinen went in vain as Michael Schumacher and him were separated by a lapped Benetton car. On lap 49, the safety car went into the pits. Two laps later, Hakkinen straight-lined his car at Beckets - which put Schumacher into the lead and he was away! The damage caused by that spin on lap 42 was clearly visible as Hakkinen soon came under pressure from the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine.

While Michael was leading the race, behind the scenes at the steward's control room there were discussions surrounding his overtake manoeuvre (to lap) on Alexander Wurz's Benetton on lap 43 - under the stationary yellow flag (safety car period). Normally in such cases back then, the penalty verdict must be informed to the team (in this case Ferrari) within 25 minutes of the time of the incident under investigation. The trio - Canada's Roger Peart, India's Nazir Hoosein and Britain's Howard Lapsley took about 24 minutes to make the decision.

The decision of the penalty was handwritten and it stated '10 seconds penalty' to Michael Schumacher. It was brought to the notice of Ferrari seven minutes after the decision was taken by the three stewards. The verdict did not specify if the penalty was a 'stop-go' (Article 57C) or whether 10 seconds would be added to Schumacher's time post race (Article 57E). To top it all, the official who delivered the note to the Ferrari did not know which rule was to be enforced.

While all this confusion was going on, the race was reaching its climax with just about two laps to go. Ferrari pit-crew were ready but were waiting for the instructions. Keeping in mind of the ramifications of the ignored penalty at the 1994 British Grand Prix (Schumacher later disqualified for the same driving for Benetton), Ferrari did not want to take any chances. Having a lead in excess of twenty seconds coming onto the last lap - he entered the pits to take the stop-go penalty. In doing so, he had to cross the 'start/finish' line to enter the Ferrari pit-lane. Michael Schumacher won the British Grand Prix. With-in minutes after the race, the stewards confirmed - they had applied Article 57E.

McLaren were disappointed and wasted no time to appeal the decision. Technically, article 57E applies only if the incident took place in the last 12 laps - which clearly was not the case. McLaren argued that it was a clear case of 'stop-go' penalty. The hearing was called at the FIA International Court of Appeal before the next race at Austria which was scheduled to start in fortnight's time.

After hearing out F1 race director Charlie Whiting, his deputy Herbie Blash and the three stewards, the World Council concluded that - the stewards applied the wrong rule in the situation and failed to communicate their decisions as per the regulations. The three stewards accepted the verdict and gave up their licences.

 Ferrari could rejoice as Michael Schumacher finally managed to win at Silverstone. It was his first of the three victories he managed to secure at this historic venue. Murray Walker, veteran F1 commentator commented at the end of the race aptly - " I have never, ever in the years I have been watching Grand Prix racing seen a finish like that - it is absolutely unprecedented". And he start commentating in 1949!

TO END IT.....

Whether or not, Michael Schumacher would watch this year's British GP - he can never forget the memories from the Silverstone circuit. It was here in 1999, he suffered a major blow - an injury which made him sit out most part of the 1999 World Championship and eventually cost him that year's driver's crown. He bounced back from that setback and what a comeback he has had after that. And hoping his bounce-back ability is the same this time around as he fights to lead a normal life.  

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