Australian Grand Prix, 1998: The Gentleman's Agreement

I’ve been wanting to revisit the 1998 Formula 1 season for a long time now. Even seeing photos of the silver Mclaren from that era gets me feeling all the feels and daydreaming about late nights and F1 talk with mates during my early uni days. I’ve avoided researching the year in too much detail to make sure rewatching the races still have an impact.

As their pre-season form had suggested, Mclaren set a high benchmark that left the rest of the field eating their dust. Their secret weapon was a dual braking system, calibrated such that one pedal could be used when approaching a left handed corner and another one for right handers.

This allowed the car to fly through the corners with incredible speed, a subtle braking differential from the left side of the car to the right launching the car through the corners while keeping it stuck firmly to the asphalt. It was, naturally, the brainchild of Adrian “you didn’t explicitly say I couldn’t do that” Newey.

Hakkinen was quick off the line, but under pressure heading into turn 1. With the race outcome on the line (more on this later) he took a slightly tighter line than usual and assured his position in the lead. Coulthard in P2 must have been furious with himself. Renowned for his clean get aways (and not just with the ladies) his rhythm through turns 2 - 4 were less metronomic, giving Schumacher a sniff at splitting the two.

The Ferrari F300 was simply no match for the MP4/13 that day, and had he his engine not let go after a few laps of Albert Park Schumacher would have reached the final step of the podium at best. Clearly steering wheels where not as valuable as they are now, as Michael threw his at the wall with disgust - even the driver tantrums were better back then!

It goes without saying that there were a number of differences between racing now and racing then. They were still refueling the cars during the stops, so it was jarring to watch pitstops where the wheel men are in no particular hurry. Tobacco sponsorship is also rife; after watching the replay I needed to wash my clothes and air out the livingroom for a bit.

Some of the old liveries still hold up thanks to their classic minimalism. Mclaren’s beautiful black and silver looks stunning, as does the bold blue of the Prost-Peugeots. Ironically, before the race Murray Walker lamented the Williams design suggesting they had loaded up a cannon with names and logos and aimed it at the car, how far we’ve come!

To hear Murray Walker back in the commentary box was a pure joy. He’s not always the sharpest, and he can identify a constructor without issue, but I’m always listening out for Brundle’s call of which driver we’re looking at as Murray’s skills in this department as a bit of a coin toss. Although he’s a likable character, Ted Kravitz could learn a few things from James Allen on how to report from the pitlane, and back then he did it amidst a dizzying fog of fuel vapours.

Lapping the entire field twice was a very real prospect, however behind the scenes another game was playing out. Before the race a deal had been struck between the Mclaren drivers and team management that whoever lead the race after the first corner could proceed to the end of the race without any threat from the other driver.

DC had always been pretty quick off the line during his junior career, and fancied his chances of taking Mika at the start, even lining up his car at an angle off the line. Having missed his opportunity, he must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when, on lap 36, Mika pulled into the pits, found his team unprepared for a stop, and continued through handing the lead to his teammate.

Just as we had all resigned ourselves to a famous Scottish victory that day, with three laps remaining Coulthard yielded heavily (and obviously) on the main straight giving Hakkinen a hollow victory. Third place went to Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Williams, besting his teammate and reigning champion Villeneuve in fourth place.

Team orders were a major talking point after the race that permeated all forms of media, the first time I remember Formula 1 bleeding into the rest of my daily life. Although I’m not a huge fan of his, I vividly remember Wil Anderson quipping on Good News Week about the incident. “Ladies love David Coulthard, finally they’ve found a guy who doesn’t mind coming second.”

In the face of heavy, and deserved, criticism the two were dragged off to the World Motorsport Council and warned that the punishment for any future incident orchestrating a racing result would make them wish they’d never been born. Team orders were formally banned in 2002, although as we all know it did little to curb the practice that will always play a supporting role to the theatre of Formula 1.

DC wrote (or, at least dictated to his ghost writer) in his autobiography that it seemed like a good idea at the time, but later regretted the move. Looking back at the careers of Michael Schumacher and even Sebastian Vettel, it became apparent to him that World Champions were unrelentless, and never gave up the opportunity for a victory, no matter who they pissed off in the process.

Similarly, he couldn’t fathom why Mika was crying on the podium considering the race was served up to him on a platter. I have more sympathy for Mika than this given that the previous year his car let go a number of times with victory in sight. not to mention the fact that he nearly lost his life after an accident during the 1995 Australian Grand Prix.

Incredibly in 2007 Ron Dennis claimed that during this race, “someone had tapped into our radio and instructed Mika to enter the pits.” Whether the message was an act of sabotage, given in error or simply misheard remains is unclear. The fact that politics would determine the outcome of this season was however clearer than Andrea de Cesaris’ trophy cabinet.

Despite this there’s plenty of on-track action to come this year. I vaguely remember it but I am reliably informed that the ‘98 race at Spa is a cracker!

Up next, however, we're off to Interlagos, Brazil...