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Michael Schumacher and Ferrari celebrate winning the Hungarian GP of 1998 (Image Credit: Scuderia Ferrari Fans)

Ferrari’s greatest strategy calls – Hungary 1998

The Scuderia in the past has been at the centre of truly inspired race strategies. In their prime, Ferrari were untouchable

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Ferrari’s 2022 strategy calls continue to mystify its drivers, rivals and fans alike.  Another win slipped through the Scuderia’s grasp in Hungary. But there was a time when rivals feared Ferrari’s strategic abilities. 

Ferrari’s strategy in Hungary threw away a certain win for the Scuderia (Image Credit: Ferrari Press Office)

Charles Leclerc’s P4 in Hungary was the result of an incomprehensible call from the Ferrari pit wall. Placing the Monégasque onto hard tyres on a cooling track left him easy prey to the recovering Verstappen.  Both Mercedes cars also flew past. Team Principal Mattia Binotto maintains this was the best strategy, and he trusts his team to make the right calls.  At the same time, memes of Ferrari’s strategic troubles continue to circulate. This is not providing a respite from reminding the Italian marque of the event.

Ferrari has squandered the first real pace advantage it has had in years.  Due to poor decisions from the pit wall and other issues, Ferrari finds itself nearly 100 points behind Red Bull in the Constructors Championship.  The F1-75 is a blindingly quick car and should be leading both championships, even for accounting for some reliability and driver errors.

It was not always the case that Ferrari buckled under strategy calls. At one point, the team was both feared and revered by rivals for its daring and ingenuity. With the legendary Ross Brawn leading on strategy and the genius of Michael Schumacher behind the wheel, even the most unlikely plan was likely to be successful. There are many instances to consider, but one race stands out.  It involved Schumacher and Ferrari needing to think quickly to secure the win, using calm and collected decision-making. It is an example of where Ferrari can aspire to be again.  But it must work through the issues preventing the team from securing wins first.

Same track – very different result
The F300 in the hands of Schumacher proved a match for the McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard in 1998 (Image Credit: MaxF1.net)

There is a massive sense of irony that one of Ferrari’s biggest and most memorable strategic wins is at the same circuit it had one of its worst at this year’s race. The year was 1998. The Ferrari project Schumacher had joined was in its third year. All targeted personnel from Bennetton had transferred to the Scuderia, including tactical guru Ross Brawn. After bedding in changes in 1996, Jean Todt’s Ferrari had just missed out on the title in 1997, in a controversial fashion. Schumacher had driven into title rival Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams, damaging his Ferrari, before beaching in the gravel. He was disqualified from the Drivers Championship.

1998’s F300 was a significant step forward over the previous year’s 310B. Featuring a new design for its V10 engine and gearbox, the car took three races to claim its first win. During the second half of the season, it took three consecutive one-two finishes. Title rivals McLaren still had the fastest car overall, but the F300 was lightning quick in the hands of Schumacher.

Round 13 at Hungary was doomed for McLaren before it had even begun. In the race build up the late legendary commentator, Murray Walker performed one of his curses. When asked who would win Walker said, “McLaren should walk it”. Murray’s curse did indeed come to pass,  but it was the result of an inspired strategy call.  To this day few others could pull off such a daring move.

The McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard locked out the front row at the start of the race, the eighth of the year. Schumacher lined up third. At lights out the McLaren’s shot off into turn one a long way ahead of the Ferrari’s which bogged down off the line.  To compound Ferrari’s troubled start, Eddie Irvine pulled into the pits to retire on lap 6 with gearbox failure. With one Ferrari out and the other trapped behind the two McLarens on a circuit notorious for lack of overtaking, the outlook was bleak for the Scuderia in Hungary.

Schumacher was the first of the top three to pit on lap 24. Slick work by the Ferrari mechanics was not enough to take P2 away from Coulthard after the Scotsman made his first stop a few laps later.  On lap 28 race leader Hakkinen pulled into the pits. Such was his pace on the opening stages, the Finn maintained his lead rejoining the track. Once Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams peeled off into the pits a couple of laps later, Schumacher was promoted back to P3 and pushed to close the gap to the McLarens.

Brawn pulls a masterstroke
Ross Brawn, Michael Schumacher and Team Principal Jean Todt could pull off strategies few else could (Image Credit Bleacher Report via Michael Cooper/Getty Images)

The race began to change from lap 43, when Schumacher and Ferrari again chose to pit first, in a seemingly out-of-sequence move. McLaren responded by bringing Coulthard in immediately afterwards in a bid to keep track position.  McLaren though had miscalculated, and the Ferrari overtook the Scotsman before the McLaren had rejoined the circuit, thanks to a strong out lap from Schumacher. The German was now free to set off after race leader Hakkinen.

Schumacher undercuts David Coulthard for P2 during the Hungarian Grand Prix (Image Credit: formula1.com)

Schumacher began to pump in a sequence of fastest laps as he hunted down his title rival. Hakkinen pitted again, but Schumacher’s pace saw him take the lead from Hakkinen. However, the German ace would need to stop again, while the McLarens could run until the end. Ross Brawn radioed Schumacher and said that he needed qualifying lap pace, every lap until his next stop. This was so Schumacher could get the gap necessary to pit and rejoin in the lead.  The German rose to the seemingly impossible challenge of a 25-second lead in 19 laps. Pushing hard, Schumacher ran wide at the final corner but continued in a lucky escape.  By the team he pitted, the gap was at 29 seconds. Strategy and raw speed combined to produce an unstoppable force. With 15 laps to go, Schumacher’s victory was all but secure.

Hakkinen’s McLaren had a mechanical problem and began to drop back, teammate David Coulthard running a comfortable P2, but nowhere near Schumacher’s pace. By the final lap, Schumacher had lapped the Finn who ended the race P6. By lapping his rival, Schumacher had guaranteed Hakkinen a point.

Brawn’s unconventional strategy had worked on several levels. First, it had thrown McLaren off guard by forcing the Woking marque to pit in response to cover them off. Ferrari had moved Schumacher from a two to a three-stop strategy, believing Schumacher had the speed to make it work.  Secondly, Schumacher’s raw speed meant he and Ferrari could perform a satisfying undercut Coulthard in P2, bringing them back into play. With Schumacher then hunting down Mika Hakkinen, the advantage the McLarens had was gone. When Hakkinen pitted for the second time, Schumacher took the lead and knew how hard he had to push to secure P1 when he pitted again. Creating a 29-second lead in 19 laps is nothing short of incredible.

Ferrari then – and now

The race had been totally turned around. At the start, Ferrari was looking for at best a P3 finish. Ross Brawn realising that he and the team needed to think outside the box made a decision on limited data, and with a calm head. The strategy would have failed if any doubt had crept in on the pit wall. Total trust and faith between driver and team were key to having the confidence and conviction to try such a daring move while battling for a World Championship.

This is where the current Ferrari team is severely lacking. How the decisions are being made at Ferrari show that doubt and lack of conviction are running rife at the team. Until this is resolved and total trust with faith exists between the drivers and the team, mistakes such as Monaco and Hungary will continue to happen. The Scuderia is more than capable of amazing race calls and strategies. Until it changes its philosophy, returning to races such as Hungary 1998 will remain a distant pipe dream.

Feature Image Credit: formula1.com

 

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