Ferrari turned up for the start of the 2000 Formula 1 season spoiling for a fight, aware that it had a very competitive package. Eddie Irvine had moved to Jaguar so that the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello now lined up alongside Germany’s Michael Schumacher. The campaign got off to a brilliant start with Schumacher winning the opening three rounds, although as spring moved into summer performance tailed off somewhat. It was Mika Hakkinen and the McLaren that seemed to have the upper hand. That famous overtaking move at Spa in Belgium propelled the Finn into the history books and into the lead of the championship on the eve of the race in Monza. However, in Italy and then again at Indianapolis in the USA, Michael took the wins, so that he came to Suzuka leading Hakkinen by eight points. The Maranello marque had not won the Drivers’ title for 21 years but in Japan, the German was to deliver the knock out punch.
In qualifying, the two contenders were in a class of their own, lapping within thousandths of one another and five times they traded fastest laps. In the end, the Ferrari man took pole in 1’35”825, beating the McLaren driver by just nine thousandths, less than a blink of an eye. The others were a long way back, with third placed David Coulthard in the other McLaren, 411 thousandths adrift, followed by Barrichello over half a second down.
On Sunday, the only thought in the minds of the two guys on the front row was of victory. Schumacher wanted to wrap it up in Japan to make up for his troubles at this track two years earlier and to leave no room for manoeuvre for a worthy adversary like Mika. As for the Finn, he only had one option to stay in the hunt for the title and that was to finish ahead of his rival.
When the lights went out, Michael had some wheelspin, while Mika got the perfect getaway to take the lead going into the first corner, the scene of many incidents in the past, and then pulled out a two-second lead over the Ferrari. The pair were over half a second quicker per lap than the rest of the field. Hakkinen pitted for the first time on lap 22, with Schumacher coming in two laps later, before the high speed chase resumed with the gap unaltered. On lap 30, drizzle began to fall on Suzuka and the German made the most of the tricky conditions to close the gap. McLaren called its driver in on lap 37, but the Ferrari had enough fuel for one more lap, his pit stop having been planned for lap 40.
Michael pushed like mad for those three laps with a clear track ahead of him and the Scuderia Ferrari pit crew finished off the masterclass by sending him on his way with fuel and fresh tyres in 6.5 seconds. The number 3 F1-2000 came out of pit lane in the lead, over two seconds ahead of the McLaren. With his tyres up to temperature, Hakkinen briefly closed up, but then he had to give best to the Ferrari. The final 13 laps went by without a hitch but Prancing Horse fans over the world had their collective heart in their mouth all the way to the chequered flag.
Back in Italy, it was just 7 o’clock in the morning: a drought that dated back to Jody Scheckter’s title win in 1979 had ended. On the radio, a tearful Michael thanked the team and praised Ross Brawn’s strategy. The church bells rang out in celebration in Maranello as crowds rushed into the streets, so that even though dawn had just broken, it seemed like rush hour outside the Ferrari factory.