Not every race on the calendar can be Monaco, or Suzuka or even Spa-Francorchamps. Some are the Circuit de Catalunya, and getting through these races makes the prestigious ones even more "prestigier". So it is that the cars lined up on the grid in a familiar fashion; Michael Schumacher could only manage third and, ominously, Hakkinen was almost seven tenths faster than teammate David Coulthard in the shoot out for pole.
Schumacher’s job was made all the more difficult off the line when he had his pants pulled down and bottom spanked by both Fisichella and teammate Eddie Irvine. Languishing in P5 he might have started to wonder whether his chance of getting on to the podium, let alone winning, had slipped away.
Irvine would have been thanking his lucky Irish armadillos (they exist, right?) for his rear-gunner Fisichella, at least until the first round of pitstops when he pitted ahead of the Benetton then had a sudden and somewhat suspicious lack of pace. Backing up against Fisichella might have helped Schumacher regain third position, but it put Irvine directly into the firing line of the ferocious Italian, and at one of the few overtaking areas made a great move on the outside of the right handed corner to challenge the Scuderia.
At this point if you’re Giancarlo Fisichella, then He closed the door on the Ferrari and moments later they were both in the kitty litter is a phrase you only want to read in one of the Fifty Shades of Grey sequels. Nevertheless, it looked to me that Fisichella had done enough to claim the racing line, but now with two frontline cars out of the race someone needed to pay the price and post race Fisichella was slapped with a $7,500 fine. Perhaps the deciding factor was Irvine’s stunning insight that his opponent had, “came alongside me then hit the brakes and swerved to the right,” as if those manoeuvres weren’t integral to overtaking a Formula One car.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen had a race to forgetzen after spinning on the first lap, then pitting for a new nose and rejoining in last place. On the other side of the Williams garage Jacques Villineueve was being harassed by Johnny Herbert for most of the race, the Canadian looking uncomfortable and locking his wheels as frequently as humanly possible. When Hakkinen cruised up to lap the pair of them Herbert sensed an opportunity to pounce and get closer to Villineuve than he’d been since the start of the race, but when Coulthard came through to overtake them shortly after his fortunes reversed and the difficult task of overtaking became an impossible one.
Schumacher was handed a 10 second stop-and-go penalty for speeding in the pits, which is usually unforgivable but post-race he explained that his mechanism didn’t engage so make of that what you will. The Benetton of Alexander Wurst inherited P3 but in the second round of pit stops he emerges behind three back-markers that interrupt his flow enough that some blistering laps and a tidy pitstop was enough for Schumacher to not only jump Wurst but all of the slow runners that had caused him such grief, because that’s just the kind of fortune the guy has.
Rumors swept the paddock that Mika Hakkinen’s fiance was in the pitlane and that if she looked directly at you it would could your heart to turn to ice. Luckily someone caught her in a moment of weakness and breaking into a coy smile, otherwise I was worried for the safety of the Mclaren engineers. She’s about as far from Jennifer Becks as it gets.
Coulthard wiped a few seconds off Hakkinen’s lead which gave Murray Walker and Martin Brundle enough of an excuse to float the possibility of a late charge from the Scot. “The Mclaren team don’t enforce team orders,” they reminded us, apparently suffering from Men In Black style amnesia. So Mika claimed the chequered flag followed by Coulthard and Schumacher, a result that took a few twists and turns but was always pre-ordained.
Looking through the rest of the field a number of bizarre results were playing out. Rubens Barrichello suddenly made his prescence known snatching P5 and 2 points for Stewart Ford. Teammate Jan Magnussen had another poor race and word is that Jos Verstappen is waiting in the wings to replace him. Even stranger is the rumor that Michael Schumacher could be leaving Ferrari to join Mclaren, but we all know how that song goes. The only credence I could lend that rumor was the fact that Schumacher was so dismissive of the Mclaren drivers that he was more concerned with the state of his fingernails during the post-race presser.
Lastly, and it wasn’t covered in the broadcast, Frentzen overtook the Prost of Jarno Trulli on the final lap when a marshal mistook the Williams for a Ferrari and waved blue flags at him. Stranger still was the synchronised retirement of both Salo and Diniz, parking their Minardi’s within 200m of each other. As bizarre as these occurrences are, words can not come close the describing the absurd scene of Eddie Jordan playing drums while DC shakes maracas and Damon Hill’s guitar wails to a delighted Australian audience, with no lesser company than Wilbur Wilde and Red Symonds.
Bring on Monaco, and if you really can’t wait until then Mika Hakkinen wrote an account of the 1998 race on the Mclaren blog that got a lot of traction.