Imola ’98: Heartattack at the Rivazza

If you got your hands on the Australian coverage of Imola 1998 a special treat awaited you. Joining Darryl Eastlake and Alan Jones in studio was none other than Mark "Obviously" Webber with conspicuously absent cheekbones.

Prior to the race start our fearless threesome (there's a mental image for you) informed us that Mclaren's revolutionary braking system had been banned, and those who guessed that was going to happen can collect their prize from the gift shop counter. 

Although Coulthard had given Mclaren yet another pole position, Schumacher had managed to qualify just behind the pair and fresh off his victory in Argentina and with two shiny new sidepod winglets things were looking up for the downtrodden German. 

imola1.jpg

Off the line Coulthard held a comfortable lead, while Hakkinen was forced to defend furiously against the charging and confident Schumacher. An opportunistic Villeneuve skirted around Eddie Irish for P4 when his wheels decided to spin right round, baby, right round like a record baby, right round, round round on the start line. 

After an otherwise uneventful lap or two the leaders fell into a groove yeah you've got to prove your love to me... (alright, Rod, that's enough mate) with a few seconds separating each of the three leading cars. Fisichella was pushing like crazy and mounting a sustained attack on the Williams of Frentzen, as if the Italian could smell fear admist the exhaust. Eventually the heat gets too much for Fisi and rather than making his mark on the race does so on the barriers after letting it slip away from him on one of the high speed corners.

After looking uncomfortable for most of the weekend Mika Hakkinen eventually retires from the race with a gearbox issue. The sight of Schumacher overtaking Hakkinen is enough to get Murray Walker shouting and yelping in the commentary box, and it won’t be the last time technical issues give Ron Dennis a few extra stress lines this afternoon. 

On the topic of commentary, next to the fairly green (in 1998 at least) Martin Brundle, I am still impressed with Murray Walkers impartial enthusiasm. I’ve highlighted elsewhere that he might not be the most accurate race caller, but his appreciation for peak racing highlights regardless of the invested national interest is still something I deeply value. Too often in the modern era does the commentary suffer from British “tunnel vision” focusing on the UK drivers and sometimes even distorting the true state of the race, tailoring it for their cherish home audience.

Pit stops proved uneventful, and in the final round DC had managed to build such a large gap that he emerged ahead of Schumacher was yet to take service for the final time. Plenty of cat and mouse was played in the pitlane with Ferrari attempting to outfox Mclaren by hiding their pit board instructing their drivers to pit (these days you’d just radio to them), and calling their engineers to the pitbox with tyres at the ready without a car anywhere in sight.

Olivier Panis puts a lovely move on Spare Schumacher for 9th place, while Irvine continues to fend of Villineuve for 3rd. A few times I swear I could see Jacques cursing the commentators for reminding the audience that the Villeneuve chicane was actually named after his father.

Finally, just to keep Murray Walker’s cardiologist in business, Schumacher starts to gain on Coulthard. “First the gap was 20 secs, then 19 secs, then 18 secs, then 17 secs, then 16 secs and now it’s only 15 secs,” explains Walker, just make it crystal clear to an uneducated audience. 

Ron Dennis starts to strut back and forth between the pitwall and the back of the garage to consult DC’s telemetry, apparently instructing him to nurse his breaks and gearbox home without succeeding to Schumacher.

Despite Murray’s heart-attack moment when both cars could be seen within the same helicopter shot at the Rivazza the result was all over bar the shouting and without enough laps to seal the deal Schumacher had to accept P2 behind the Scot. With two pole positions and his first victory of 1998 Coulthard had finally stamped his authority on a race (earilly similar to 2015 thus far).