French GP 1998: Hey hey, it’s Darryl and AJ!

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My journey through the 1998 F1 season takes me to the French GP, a track that was seemingly created purely for Formula 1 as all the corners are named after other tracks, and a track that hasn't seen top level action since 2008 (no wonder I know jack shit about it). 

Our coverage (sadly the ITV feed and not the rough-and-tumble Channel 9 broadcast) starts with a recap of qualifying where Mika lead Schumacher by a nose to take pole position. Even more entertaining was the pre-race interview with Craig Pollock, Managing Director of the eminent British-American Racing team who was asked, "How difficult is it to set up a new F1 team?"

His response: "I think I'm about to find out." Oh Craig, you have no idea how right you are.

Jos "the boss" Verstappen, who was subbed in for the under-performing Jan Magnussen, stalled his car whilst in grid formation and the grid completed a needless lap before pulling up in the same positions for a restart. For Mika Hakkinen, who had kept Schumacher behind on the opening lap, he had it all to do again and it may have played on his mind a little too much as both Ferraris easily jumped the pole sitter leaving him in P3 and wondering just what went wrong.

With Irvine as a rear-gunner it was going to take something special for Hakkinen to mount a challenge for the lead, and when the Finn found himself in a spin and facing the wrong way on the side of the track it didn't look like he would be conjuring any miracles that day. 

Through the first round of pitstops Hakkinen regained third place from Coulthard when DC’s refuelling rig suffered an abysmal failure. So much time was being lost that the engineers sent Coulthard back out while they sorted out the problem, and pitting again the following lap the problem had not been resolved. When the refuelling rig, which resembles a giant fire hose for those who came to the sport after refuelling was abandoned. 

The second time into the pit did nothing to help Coulthard either, and now the Scot had his work cut out for him if he was even going to leave France with any points whatsoever. 

Despite being the heartland of Formula One, the French Grand Prix was one of the few races during this era that had banned cigarette advertising leading to the unusual spectacle of not only blank sidepods and rear wings (like the Mclarens), alternative logos (the Buzzin’ Hornets design on the Jordans) and the barely disguised Marlboro boards that littered the track.

Outside of the top three it was Villeneuve in the Williams-Mechachrome making hay and eventually putting himself up into 4th place. Behind him Jean Alesi briefly defended from a charging Alexander Wurz, who clearly had the wood on his Benetton teammate that weekend. 

Approaching the end of the grand prix it was Hakkinen that was on a charge, the Finn really showing his class and chasing down Eddie Irvine for P2. Mika started to change his line through the braking zones looking for any small advantages or hoping to surprise Irvine and force him into a mistake. I remember Hakkinen during this period being very predatorial, perhaps second only to Schumacher for “Drivers you’d least like to see in your mirrors”.

Irvine held it together until the very last corner where he defended heavily against Hakkinen and carried very little speed through the corner, Mika meanwhile brought a boatload of momentum through the final corner with him and scrambled to pull alongside Irvine, the two scrambling to the finish line like children on a slip 'n' slide. 

In the end it was Irvine ahead by 0.1 sec, and Coulthard did manage to claim the final points position a lap down on the leaders in P6, edging past Jean Alesi and forcing the Frenchman out of the points. I can still see the disappointment on Alesi’s face from the ’98 Monaco GP where he nearly threw himself into the harbour, and I was glad there was no standing water nearby for Alesi to leap into after another difficult year in the sport.

With his second win in succession Schumacher pushes up into second place in the 1998 drivers’ championship and Murray Walker informs us that Ferrari have achieved their first 1-2 finish in eight years, a factoid courtesy of the boffins themselves Darryl and AJ from Channel 9 who telephoned ITV the old-fashioned way. These days facts like this are not only readily at hand but difficult to avoid, especially when major F1 accounts spoilt the results for me on a semi-regular basis!

Up next it’s the British GP as we continue to inch toward the one everyone is truly waiting for… Belgium.