Italian GP 1998: All squared away

I was thinking of combining this race with the next one and doing a double-header recap, but considering the result I’m really glad I didn’t do that because in the context of the 1998 season… the Italian Grand Prix might be the most influential race so far. 

Not the most controversial, or memorable, but influential.

Right from the starting line, where both Schumacher AND Villeneuve squeezed ahead of the Mclarens to fill out the front row, you knew the atmosphere on the track would have been electric. 

When the five lights went out both Mclarens bit into the tarmac and tore past Schumacher like he was standing still to the dismay of Tifosi and the delight of Ron Dennis (and probably others). By lap 3, Mika and DC had built a four second gap over Schumacher in P3 and it was starting to look like finishing on the podium would be the best the German could achieve.

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Ahead of him, a very different story was playing out. 

Seemingly due to their qualifying position, Mclaren had split strategies across the Mclarens and, with a lighter fuel load, Hakkinen was now slowing down his lighter, faster teammate and hurting his chances in the race. What happened next was almost unthinkable, but Hakkinen pulled over and let Coulthard through. 

It was hard not to be reminded of Coulthard yielding to Hakkinen in Australia as part of their “gentlemans’ agreement”, but with three races to go Mclaren had the chance to wrap up the constructors’ championship if they could score nine points more than Ferrari for the race. It would be their first since partnering with Mercedes, it would justify four years of hard work and development between the two camps and (although they didn’t know it at the time) cement a working partnership that lasted in total almost twenty years that only ended last year when they switched back to Honda's power units.

Just as the marshals were extinguishing the flaming chassis of Shinji Nakano’s stricken Minardi, a very frustrated and fed-up Scotsman was retiring his car by the side of track with a “grenaded” engine.

If that wasn’t enough encouragement for the Italian fans to stand up and cheer, the sight of Hakkinen running wide and Michael Schumacher dancing past him to take the lead had them jumping wildly into the air and cheering as he passed under the old embankment and along the grandstands on the back straight and around the parabolica to start his first lap as leader of the race. 

Finally it looked like Schumacher would take the victory that he felt he deserved in Spa, and this time DC wasn’t around the stuff it all up for him. From here the race was coming down to does Mika have a mechanical issue, and if not when will the front runners pit.

Behind them running in 7th, 8th and 9th were Fisichella, Frentzen and Hill, the later dueling and dicing not only for track position but supremacy heading in to 1999. This came after the announcement that Spare Schumacher and Frentzen would be swapping seats meaning the Jordan team would become the Hill-Frentzen show (a pairing that I remember very fondly and a team that ended up becoming my “second favourite” after Mclaren for the years to follow).

When Fisichella and Frentzen both had stops to forget, Damon cruised in to take service and emerged ahead of both of them on his way to claiming sixth place. 

Most pit stops that day saw the cars throw up huge, black clouds of brake dust, and it’s tempting to draw a metaphorical parallel with Schumacher’s situation as he pitted with everything to lose. In reality the Ferrari engineers pulled off a trademark display of precision and put the pressure on Hakkinen to chase down their main man in clear air - however needing to make up almost eight full seconds it was always going to be a tall ask.

My mind started to wonder off during the mid-race lull, and I noticed strange little details in the coverage like how many times they used Soundgarden were used when throwing to commercials, or how you could hear the sound of the helicopter when they cut to the overhead shot - as if they were worried that the audience wouldn’t understand how a camera was floating magically in the sky.

Then a few things grabbed my attention. The first, Villenueve flying off the track at one of the Lesmos, and secondly a report that Johnny Herbert had to retire his car after an engineer dropped a spanner into the cockpit that rattled around throughout the race and eventually lodged itself under his pedals. I’m sure F1 is full of stories like this, and as inconsequential as it might seem, I really get a kick out of these kind of them.

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After catching Schumacher at a slow and steady rate, Hakkinen’s car went in to a violent spin and sent his car through a corner backwards and destined for the barriers. Without missing a beat Hakkinen checked his mirrors and steered his car away from the barriers and back toward the road WHILE SLIDING BACKWARDS for a few hundred metres. As someone who can’t even reverse a trailer into a driveway, I was suitably impressed.

At that stage Hakkinen was 30 seconds ahead of third place man Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari, and he managed to hang on to P2 momentarily, but Irvine quickly caught and passed him right and made sure to do it right in front of the Tifosi at the entry to the Ascari chicane. 

Mika wasn’t struggling for top speed, but looked vulnerable under breaking and lost a few more places before eventually finishing fourth after being overtaken by Spare Schumacher in the Jordan for the final podium position.

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This brought the drivers’ championship to a very interesting position in that M. Schumacher and M. Hakkinen left Monza with the exact same number of points with only two races remaining. Regardless of whether you know the result of the championship this year or not, that’s mental.

Having won the race, it was easy for Schumacher to laugh about his terrible start by joking, “It looked like I wanted to go for a walk rather than a race,” but it was clear that whichever driver was at the top of their game would claim the title this year, and it was going to go down to the wire.

One other thing was for sure, momentum was now on Michael’s side. Bring on Luxembourg!