Before I say anything else, I want to say something about Jules Bianchi, who very sadly passed away while I was conceiving the blog you are reading now.
I did not know Jules, but I recognised in him a remarkable talent. He was very quick, and I am sure that, but for his tragic accident at Suzuka last October, he would have enjoyed a long and successful Formula 1 career. I am also told that he was a truly lovely guy. I therefore want to offer my heartfelt condolences to his father Philippe, his mother Christine, his brother Tom, his sister Mélanie, his girlfriend Camille, and his many friends. May he rest in peace.
Thankfully, fatalities are nowadays extremely rare in Formula 1. Indeed, Jules is our first since May 1st 1994, the day on which the great Ayrton Senna was so shockingly killed at the wheel of a Williams-Renault. I finished third in that race, in a McLaren-Peugeot, and I have to say that I have rarely found controlling my emotions on a grand prix podium more difficult than I did on that fateful day.
I was not in Hungary this year, so I viewed the race on TV. I found watching the drivers gather in a three-quarter circle 15 minutes before the start very touching - and, when Jules's family joined them, arm in arm, to complete the circle and stand in mournful silence among them, I found the scene extremely poignant. It must have been difficult for the drivers to walk from that gathering straight to their waiting race cars, but they did it with courage and aplomb. They were a credit to their sport that afternoon, every single one of them.
Anyway, life goes on, and so does racing. Jules would have wanted it to, of course, as would Ayrton.
At this time of year, all ex-Formula 1 drivers tend to miss racing grand prix cars more bitterly than ever. Why so? Because it is nearly Spa time.
Alongside Monaco and Suzuka, which in their different ways are also magnificent racetracks, Spa is the greatest challenge for a driver on the modern Formula 1 calendar. It has everything – fast corners, blind bends, tricky crests, nasty dips – and I have to say I always absolutely loved driving there.
My most memorable Belgian Grand Prix was undoubtedly the 2000 race. I had won the world championship in both 1998 and 1999, and in 2000 my McLaren-Mercedes was as quick as ever, albeit not always quite as reliable as it had been in the previous two seasons. Nonetheless, I arrived at Spa at the head of the world championship standings, and in an optimistic mood. My principal rival, as ever, was Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, just two world championship points behind me.
As soon as I drove out onto the circuit I loved so much that Friday morning, I felt good. My car felt good too – straight away it gave me great confidence – and I felt sure that pole position would be attainable. The next day I was proved right. My best qualifying lap was one of those laps on which everything just works: I was on the limit everywhere, pushing flat-out, or maximum-attack as I always used to phrase it, but never running wide or locking up. I was very happy with that lap, and the result was indeed pole position: nearly eight-tenths quicker than the second-placed man, Jarno Trulli in a Jordan-Mugen-Honda.
Race day dawned dull and drizzly, as so often in the Ardennes. The morning warm-up was held on a wet track, and I was quickest, just ahead of Michael, who was second. But it was extremely slippery out there. To confirm that, Giancarlo Fisichella had a big shunt in his Benetton-Playlife, and Jacques Villeneuve also had an ‘off’ in his BAR-Honda. It then rained on and off all morning. As 2.00pm approached, it had stopped raining, but there was still a lot of standing water all around the circuit, meaning that the race would have to be started behind the Safety Car.
At the end of lap one, the Safety Car peeled into the pit-lane, and I was able to keep my lead, driving on a clear track, a big advantage over my pursuers, all of whom were having to make their way through a thick film of spray kicked up as we splashed through the puddles.
In my mirrors I could see the distinctive bright-yellow of Jarno’s Jordan-Mugen-Honda behind me, but behind Jarno all I could see was a ball of spray. Jarno was a naturally gifted driver, but in those conditions I expected my principal challenger to be Michael, who had qualified only fourth but was always extremely competitive in the wet. Sure enough, soon Michael was up to third, but he could not find a way past Jarno, which enabled me to pull away. By lap five I was 10 seconds to the good, and I began to feel pretty good about my situation.
A dry line was developing, and I stopped for dry tyres on lap seven. By lap nine, everyone was on dry tyres. By the time the field had re-formed, on lap 10, I was still leading, but in second place was now Michael. As expected, he had begun to push hard. His Ferrari was going really well, and he underlined that by recording four consecutive fastest laps. By lap 13 he was just 4.6 seconds behind me, in fact.
Clearly, I would have to push a bit harder myself, and I duly did so. But, in so doing, on lap 13, I made a small mistake at Stavelot, touching a kerb, and the result was disaster: I half-spun onto the grass, and before I had managed to gather up the car and get going again, Michael had nipped past, demoting me to second place.
I was angry with myself. Even so, I determined not to do anything silly, so I concentrated on driving smoothly and sensibly, consolidating my second place. Ahead of me, though, Michael was really putting the hammer down, and by lap 20 he was 10 seconds ahead.
Next, everyone would have to make their second pit-stops, and by lap 34 we had all done so, leaving a 10-lap sprint to the finish of the 44-lap race. I was still second, 7.0 seconds behind Michael, and my car was running perfectly.
The track was bone-dry on-line, but still damp off-line, so driving flat-out laps was a risk, because I knew that any error would be punished by another half-spin – or worse – that I could not afford. But, even so, I started to push harder, and as a result I began to inch my silver McLaren-Mercedes towards Michael’s scarlet Ferrari.
By lap 40 I was on his tail. As we sliced our way through Eau Rouge on that lap, we both lifted momentarily, and powered our way towards Les Combes. Eau Rouge was a majestic corner in those days, almost flat but not quite, a real test of man and machine. I had taken it well, perhaps a little better than Michael had, and, as he and I approached the braking area for Les Combes, I decided to try to outbrake him.
I thrust the nose of my McLaren-Mercedes alongside his Ferrari, and prepared to brake late. But Michael saw me coming, and chopped across me, at 300km/h (186mph), his right rear tyre touching my left front wing endplate as I lifted so as to back out of the manoeuvre.
After the race, Michael received a lot of criticism for that high-speed chop, but, now, 15 years later, I have no problem with it. I massively enjoyed my Formula 1 career, and one of its highlights was my ongoing rivalry with Michael. I respected him, and I think he respected me. We raced each other hard, but for the most part we also raced each other fairly. He was a terrifically combative competitor, but you could say that about all the great champions. You do not win seven world championships by being soft-hearted, and Michael was never that; but he was a superb driver, one of the best in the history of the sport in fact.
As I drove the remainder of lap 40, I could tell that, although my left front wing endplate had been slightly damaged, my car was still handling beautifully. I knew the entry to Les Combes was going to be the only place where I was going to be able pass Michael, but I also knew that I would have to make my manoeuvre a very decisive one, simply because Michael was not likely to give up the lead easily. He had made that abundantly clear already. So, as we began lap 41, I decided to take a risk.
It was a big risk, but it was a calculated risk. I was going to take Eau Rouge flat. In those days, taking Eau Rouge flat was not something for the faint-hearted. It was extremely difficult, and the penalty for getting it wrong was usually an enormous accident. Worse still, the track was still damp off-line, so I knew I would have to be millimetre-perfect – not an easy thing to be in the world’s most daunting corner, foot to the floor, powering through the apex towards a blind exit.
As I approached that (in)famous corner, I was right behind Michael. As I turned in, every fibre of my being was imploring me to lift. I decided to count to three, daring myself to keep my foot planted on the loud pedal as I counted, knowing that by the time I got to three I would either have taken Eau Rouge flat or would be in the barriers. There was no in-between, of that I was 100 per cent sure.
“One,” I said aloud, and the car began to tremble, assaulted by tremendous g-forces, both lateral and compressional. I knew I would have to fight the car if I was going to avoid a shunt, and I will be honest: I also knew I would have to fight my own fear.
“Two,” I gasped, sawing at the wheel as the car was pitched first this way and then that. For a split second, right in the middle of the corner, I thought I could not hold it. The car was absolutely on tippy-toes, but then it gripped, and clung on.
“Three,” I yelped, just as the car went scarily light on the exit of the corner. It is always a nasty feeling when a race car goes light at high speed, but, again, the car continued to hold on. I had done it. I had taken Eau Rouge flat, in a race not in a qualifying session, with only a very narrow dry line on which to do it.
Ahead of me on the straight, Michael had clearly not taken Eau Rouge flat, because I was now catching him at a rate of knots. As we approached Les Combes, ahead of us I spotted Ricardo Zonta’s BAR-Honda, which we were about to lap.
I thought to myself, “Whichever way Michael goes, I’ll go the other.” He went to the left, so I went to the right, braking as late as I dared, off-line, on a still-damp track, at 300km/h (186mph). As I turned in, I had done it; I had passed Michael; I had retaken the lead.
Through the next few turns Michael tried his best to harry me into a mistake, chucking his Ferrari around from left to right behind me, in an effort to unsettle me. As I say, he was always such a committed battler, a real racer in fact. But I held my nerve, whispering under my breath “Mika, keep calm, keep calm, keep calm.”
By the end of the 44th and final lap, I was still 1.1s ahead of him.
Job done. Great win. Fantastic day.
Please forgive me for attaching an epilogue. I feel I must, because this blog would not be complete without my saying something about Michael now, rather than merely describing one of my battles with Michael then. We all know that he had a bad skiing accident on December 29th 2013, and that ever since then he has been under medical care. I do not profess to know the details of his condition, but I was pleased to see that in a video interview released a couple of months ago his manager Sabine Kehm said that his condition was slowly improving. Keep fighting, my old friend.