Why

Why

Sunday, 10 May 2015

MIRACLE ON THE LAST LAP - 2001 SPANISH GRAND PRIX

"Just the other way around" - Michael says to Hakkinen 
The rushes of smoke billowing from the back of McLaren-Mercedes is still fresh. Mika Hakkinen, the driver in it was cruising as he prepared to drive the last lap with a lead over 40 seconds. "This is not the way I like to win" - these words from Michael Schumacher summed up the lap, race and the eventual victor of 2001 Spanish Grand Prix.

This was Michael Schumacher's 150th  start of his career and being on pole position seemed like the best place to start the race in the Circuit de Catalunya. Unlike the previous year, Mika Hakkinen was having a horrid time behind the wheels and coming into that race he had scored only four points in as many races. David Coulthard, his teammate was in top form and was tied with Michael for the top place.

THE GET-AWAY AS USUAL
The race was held towards the end of April and so the temperatures were pleasant, hovering around 20°C. Michael Schumacher made his usual get-away without any drama as he eased his way to the first turn, and second turn and went about his regular business. From McLaren's perspective, it was Mika and only him to challenge Michael that afternoon. David Coulthard had to start from the back as his car stalled at the start of the parade lap and soon in opening lap of the race, he had a minor collision, as a result of which he had to pit to nurse his damaged front wing. It was catching up all the way through to the chequered flag for the Scotsman.

The battle for the front was between the maestros - Schumacher keeping Hakkinen behind him as they duelled closely through to the first round of pit stops. Schumacher first to pit on lap 23 and four laps later, the Finn came in for his fuel and fresh set of tyres. 'The strategy' of delaying the tyre stop didn't work for the McLaren team as the race order remain unchanged, though Mika Hakkinen had now set the fastest lap which was soon beaten by Michael Schumacher.

The gap between these two veterans constantly hovered around 3 seconds as Hakkinen tracked Schumacher and never let Michael get out of his sight. This was the case until Michael Schumacher came in for his second pit stop. 9.3 seconds stationary and out he went, lap 44, game on and from the looks of it, advantage Ferrari.

LOSING THE LEAD AND THE BACKING OFF
If one can make conclusions based on the events till that point, it was certain Michael Schumacher would go on to win the race. Hakkinen, until that point was trailing and never had any significant opportunities to overtake the #1 Ferrari on track. 'The Tactic' of staying on track a bit longer would ensure less downtime while refilling the tank. The plan worked for the Finn and the McLaren team, as he managed to stay six laps longer. Those six laps were enough to build a lead in excess of 26 seconds as he came in to his final tyre and fuel stop. My mind went back to that historic Japanese GP of 2000 when the roles were reversed as Hakkinen maintained his lead with only 15 laps left. In the meantime, Michael Schumacher was losing a second to Hakkinen on each sector.

A FINAL LAP TO REMEMBER
Ten laps to go and Michael Schumacher was already in cruise mode. A slight problem with the balance on his tyres was preventing him to go faster. With a large gap to the third placed Montoya, there was no threat and a drive at that pace (nearly four seconds off his personal best) would ensure the second place.

 The pace went down even further in the last four laps and he was driving to the chequered flag to secure those 6 points. Coming into the last lap, Hakkinen had a lead close to 40 seconds over Michael Schumacher and had lapped everyone but the second placed driver. The fourth consecutive Spanish GP victory looked set for Mika and it was just a matter of him driving the car for another 75 seconds. 

Then came the rattle, Montoya unlaps himself as he zooms past the slowing McLaren. It was time to win at ease as there was no hurry! Oh wait, Mika shakes his head as he turned into a corner, Hakkinen is slowing down and I was like - "Where is Schumacher?". Soon those were the words of the commentators as well as the TV producer got busy ordering his crew to shift cameras between the dramatic slowdown of McLaren to the slightly off-pace Ferrari. Faced with clutch problems, Hakkinen made few adjustments and a couple of moments later he realised he was unable to reduce the problems he was facing.

Holy smoke!! on the last lap 
Sparks ignited and then came the smoke, a thick one and the car was going nowhere. He slows it down, turns left to park his car and a rose from his seat with a shake of disbelief. Just as Hakkinen was stepping out of the car, Schumacher gets past him to become the new race leader.

POST RACE
A couple of corners to go, Schumacher and Ferrari and rest of us were all in a puzzled state as to what had just transpired. The dejected faces on McLaren pit said it all, what could you say to convince yourself that it didn't happen??? This is what viewers expect out of a F1 race, if possible each race.

Schumacher waved at his fans as he came around to complete his race, chequered flag and yet another victory. A shocked but relieved at this result, he went on to say - "I just saw Mika. Poor guy, I feel sorry for him. We had a huge problem with the third set, I had huge vibrations and that's why I slowed down because I was afraid, I have a tyre which is delaminating or something or going quite wrong - but anyway guys, it seems to be our day, we have been bloody lucky, nevertheless we have got a good car with all the changes (traction control and other electronic aids), we have to finish and we did it. Good job".

Hakkinen's His Man Friday Coulthard - but this time it was after the race 
Hakkinen took a ride back to the pits from his teammate and along the way, he waved at all those track marshals and few of the fans, who kept on cheering "Mika, Mika". Schumacher at the Parc Ferme, saw Hakkinen and ran to him in spite of FIA officials wanting him to finish the pre-podium formalities. They embraced a warm hug, few smiles and few words were spoken in a hurry about luck in F1 racing.

"I'm super-disappointed - goddamm it, you know, Jesus" Those came from Hakkinen.  
Schumacher later admitted he was shocked to see Mika retire and said "This is not the way I like to win, but it has happened in the past and these things happen in racing".

A driver like Schumacher would have loved a fight, however, equally he was philosophical about these elements like luck in racing. On that Sunday, 29th April 2001, the luck went his way and like he said, you lose some, you win some!