Monaco GP 1998: From bad to Wurz

In reviewing the '98 season there were always going to be a few tentpole races; Spa, Monaco, even Hungary. I've tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but a race diary from Mika Hakkinen on the official Mclaren blog at this years' Monaco Grand Prix got a lot of traction and was difficult to avoid. Reading it now and watching the 1998 race it's easy to see why Mika was so keen to return to that weekend, where he took pole and won without incident when those around him were losing their heads.

It's known as the jewel in F1's crown and the race every driver wants to win. As usual the pitlane was full of celebrities, and none other than Liz Hurley appeared on the broadcast to declare her affections for, "the Irish guy". The track is renown for being unforgiving, and to quote a Hakkinen-ism, it looked just as "narrow, tight, sinuous, tortuous, bumpy, yumpy" that day as it ever has.

Despite the boffins predicting that only half to field would finish the actual start of the race was uneventful, and again it seemed that Coulthard's starting prowess had abandoned him. Giancarlo Fisichella showed that his qualifying pace was genuine, bravely defending against the charging Schumacher amidst rumours that the Ferrari's were heavy with fuel allowing them to go long on race strategy and pull in for a splash and dash when required. 

On lap 18 Coulthard suffered a spontenous and catastrophic engine failure that saw him drop out of the race. Big points were on offer, and if Schumacher was going to reign in the Mclarens he needed the blessing of the Monegasque Yacht-Gods that day. 

Eddie "ladies man" Irvine tank slapped Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the hairpin, shoving the German into the barriers. (Eww, what a bully!) The mean streets of Monaco are truly the wild west of F1, and today overtaking at the hairpin is like walking a tightrope. After an early pitstop Schumacher found himself behind the Benetton of Alexander Wurz and, needing to overtake to salvage his chances of a podium, he threw his car up the inside only to lose the inside line on the following corner as Wurz made a contest of things.

Switching back on the approach to Portier Schumacher demanded the inside line and commanded the racing line in what would have been the overtake of the season had it not resulted in damage to his rear suspension. Confusion reigned as Michael pulled into the pits, and eventually he rejoined the track... albeit three laps behind the leaders.

Wurz wasn't quite out of the woods, and a mysterious excursion through the tunnel saw him emerge without either of his front wheels. A replay from his on-board camera showed him bursting into the light only to crash into the barriers, slide straight across the harbour chicane and into the wall on the other side. I don't think I'm exceeding my authority as a humble observer to say that Wurz's efforts to steer through the chicane without his front wheels redefines the word futile.

With the final phase approaching and most of the field looking to consolidate their position, the commentary turns to another pressing issue in the sport during that era... the Tyre War. At its best a tyre war introduces unpredictability and pushes innovation, at worst it unfairly disadvantage genuinely credible outfits with no course for remedy. I wouldn't mind seeing it return to the sport, however the current approach to tyre wear would thus need to be reconsidered, as two companies producing degrading tyres seems too difficult to regulate, and too easy to circumvent.

In P5 and with the finish line in sight, light plumes of smoke emerging from Jean Alesi's car was probably the very last thing he wanted to see. A few laps later he retired his car (on the racing line, for what it's worth) and for a moment he looked poised to leap into the harbour. With Alesi out of the race the final world championship point was handed to none other than Pedro Diniz, the son of a Brazilian Supermarket owner who grew up dreaming of showbiz.

As the chequered flag flew wildly through the air, so to did Mika's hands with a fever that only a Monaco winner can summon. Following him home was Fisichella who capped off a brilliant weekend and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine having bullied his way to a podium that he'll never forget, and the first of three trips to those auspicious stairs in four years.

After the race, Mika writes in his recap, he thought to himself, "Mika, you're won the Monaco Grand Prix. Not every driver can do that. So you're good enough to win the World Championship. You are. You really are. Now go and win it, Goddammit!"

The next step on Mika's road to glory is the Canadian Grand Prix where I will, presumably, take far less screenshots...