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Ferrari and Schumacher alone in the world
May 12, 2002, Austria. On a circuit which is not yet called the Red Bull Rig but the A1 Ring, the 6th round of the world championship, at the end of the 1st third of the season, suggests a dazzling domination of Ferrari. Apart from Malaysia, where his brother won, Michael Schumacher won 4 of the first 5 races of the season. Already holder of 4 titles, the Kaiser, who built around him a formidable Ferrari team with Jean Todt as conductor, is on track to join Fangio and his 5 world titles. His nearest rival in the championship, Juan Pablo Montoya, is already 21 points behind, the equivalent of more than two victories at the time according to the current scale, but the Williams BMW is not the most reliable and the Colombian does not have the metronome regularity of the German.
Michael Schumacher doesn’t have to worry either about his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, who is an official No. 2. Arrived in the Scuderia in 2000, the Brazilian is a very good driver, fast, able to replace his leader when the latter fails, as during the famous German Grand Prix 2000, but he must be ready to sacrifice his race in the interest of its leader. Already the previous year, during the same Austrian Grand Prix, Barrichello, 2nd, had to step aside – not without fuming – to let Schumacher through so that he wouldn’t lose too many points on David Coulthard, who was then a serious rival for the title. It was the famous “let Michael pass for the championship” coolly ordered by Jean Todt live.
But in 2002, Ferrari is without real rival. On the A1 Ring, the weekend seems to be Barrichello’s, however, since he took pole position ahead of Ralf Schumacher and Michael Schumacher, only 3rd more than half a second behind his teammate, which is quite unusual. In the race, the supremacy of the Brazilian is confirmed, since he prances in the lead while his teammate has to get rid of his brother (who is on a Williams) on which he only takes over in the last third of the race. Schumacher goes up and comes back about 1 second from Barrichello. Montoya, 3rd, is more than 15 seconds behind, the McLarens are out of the game, the operation is perfect both for Ferrari and for Schumacher, who will nibble two more points on the Colombian.
“8 Towers in Hell”
But 8 laps from the end, in the radio of Barrichello, the order arrives. Todt and Ross Brawn ask him, like the previous year, to step aside in favor of Schumacher. But there, it’s not for 2nd place but for victory, and Rubens dominated the race head and shoulders. So yes, even though things were more or less agreed before the race, Barrichello has no intention of backing down this time around. Problem, he has just signed a new extension contract for two additional years at Ferrari which must undoubtedly confirm his status as eternal n°2. The tone rises in the radio. But it may go even further, as he confided to Brazilian media much later, once his career was over, implying that the threats had gone beyond his simple driving at Ferrari. Has a sudden end to his career, pure and simple, been brandished as a threat? Rubens Barrichello: “It was eight laps of hell. I can’t tell you what was said. It wasn’t about my contract, it was something more general. It was a kind of threat that made me see life differently. I wanted to drive.”
Still, contrary to what Ferrari wanted, Barrichello will step aside, yes, but ostensibly, to make it clear to everyone that it is an unfair instruction, and not disguised circumstances, which will have caused him to lose the race. And it’s coming out of the last corner of the last lap that Barrichello slows down and yields the victory to Schumacher. But Ferrari and Jean Todt probably did not anticipate what would happen next or imagine the slap in the face inflicted on millions of sports enthusiasts that day: the indignation is total, everywhere, in the pits, in the press rooms – the Pierre Van Vliet’s anger and very harsh words live on TF1 will earn him his place at the end of the year – and especially in the stands, where the spectators have the impression of being taken c….
An unprecedented bronca
The podium of the Austrian Grand Prix 2002 was then undoubtedly the most difficult of all. The noise is incredible, the atmosphere heavy, the whistles of the crowd spring up, the two Ferrari drivers go up to the podium with frozen features, while Montoya, with a little smirk, seems to be amused to see his German rival, with whom it’s not true love, to be taken to task like this. Uncomfortable, confused, Schumacher pushes Barrichello to take the top step in his place and take the cup, but the damage is done.
The German anthem, celebrating the victory, rings out and seems endless. No one pays attention to it, faced with the ridiculousness of the situation and so much public anger is immense. Rarely, Ferrari drivers are greeted with a mass of boos and whistles in the press room. No doubt the “Kaiser” understands the backlash that this maneuver inflicts on him, and some will wonder why the champion did not refuse the sacrificial offering? Easy to say, of course. In a press conference, no better, we turn our backs…
Schumacher looks taken aback, shaken, expressing his regret and explaining that, in the heat of the moment, he hadn’t had time to weigh the pros and cons and possibly refuse Barrichello’s “gift”. The controversy grew, his detractors taking pleasure in recalling, on the contrary, Schumacher’s ability to analyze quickly and also to be willingly involved in dirty tricks…Schumacher will try to return this gift to a belittled, humiliated Barrichello. Is charity better, or only increases humiliation? In the United States, Ferrari gave us another laughable finale when Schumacher, after dominating the race, decided to make a joint finish with Barrichello, but the two drivers missed each other and the Brazilian won by 0.011 seconds. A sort of repair for some…
The impossible regulation
The case caused a stir at the time, it revived the debate on respect for the spirit of sport in the face of the superior interests of large groups, it was all the more worrying as F1 at that time, partly because of the crushing domination of Schumacher and a rather dull on-track spectacle, lost enormously in popularity. This scandal tarnishes the image of F1 and Ferrari more than ever, even if we know that the interests at stake leave little room for feelings. The FIA is trying to legislate. It sanctions Ferrari with a fine of 1 million dollars for…non-compliance with the protocol. Ferrari assumes its strategy, and Barrichello, locked up in his golden prison as the Red Baron’s “lackey”, will continue his mission until 2005. Years later, Ross Brawn will admit that it was a mistake, more on the consequences than on the initial choice: “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it again, because the consequences were much bigger than we thought. What should have been an internal problem in the team became very political“. The FIA will try to ban race orders, a challenge. the “Fernando is faster than you” of 2010, when Ferrari told Felipe Massa to let Alonso pass, shows the impossibility of preventing team strategies. It will then be necessary to be more discreet, like the famous “Mutli 21” from the Malaysian Grand Prix 2013 between Vettel and Webber. There were many others and these instructions ended up being imposed, provided they were discreet or coded…
The final of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, where Rubens Barrichello yielded victory in the last meters to Michael Schumacher, triggered an unprecedented reaction from the public and the media at the time, to the point of pushing the FIA to try to legislate on the subject.