I was a little worried when I started reviewing this season that Mclaren would lead the other teams around in a procession week in, week out. I've become more adept at devolping engaging narratives from boring races since I started podcasting and writing about F1, but there is no need this time because our retro race for the week was a cracker - so let's get straight into it!
Without having seen the Argentina track in recent memory, I found the Ubi Soft simulation very helpful this week, after all as Alan Jones said, "It's as close as you'll ever get" to experiencing the real thing. The brief qualifying recap delivered the good news that Bridgestone had brought a fatter front tyre helping Ferrari close the gap on Mclaren. Although Coulthard had taken pole, Schumacher split the Mclarens and nabbed P2, relegating Hakkinen to the second row.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the opening lap Mika overtook the Ferrari, but when you pick a fight with Michael Schumacher he doesn't run and hide, and by swiftly retaking second place he kept his chances of winning the race alive. Shortly afterwards Schumacher and Coulthard came together when DC braked too late leaving the door open for the German to poke his nose up the inside. Post race Schumacher said he came off second-best after a similar move in Melbourne (although, that's not really true) however Coulthard fared the worst this time rejoining in sixth place.
With only a damaged floor and a gearbox issue for his efforts, Coulthard fell behind a lacklustre pack including Villeneuve and Alesi where he spent more of the race. When Alesi peeled into the pits, DC decided to seize the cheese but only managed to get tangled up with the Canadian while attempting a courageous move around the outside. Villeneuve was left singing a sorry tune from the sidelines, but fortunately for Coulthard he landed on his feet and held on to claim the final solitary championship point.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen carried the hopes of the Williams team, but when he stalled his car in the pits and then copped a stop/go penalty for speeding in the pit lane any hope of a glorious podium finish in Argentina looked unlikely.
Although I've highlighted before how commanding the alcohol and tobacco advertising was in those days, it really struck me how much the Williams look like cigarette packets on wheels. Also, if Fosters doesn't do it for you (and I don't blame you) but you're keen to try Campari, I would recommend one of my favourite cocktails called the Combustible Edison (invented by and named after my favourite 90's neo-lounge pop band).
Sauber’s Jean Alesi lost one of his "tower wings" during a pitstop when the front right wheel gun did not fully disengage before he sped off. So far this season Prost, Sauber and Jordan have all experimented with the unusual vertical winglets that are mounted to the sidepod of their cars. Debate continues about whether these disturb the air around the rear wing, and (without spoiling anything) Ferrari give them a guernsey next race, which is enough to spark an investigation by the FIA.
Although all teams will be asked to come to a unanimous agreement, they fail to do so (shocking, I know) and a blanket ban will be enforced. So, if you're a fan of those tall side-winglets fill your boots now, because they are not long for this world. For the record, I think they are butt-fugly, and the cars look so much better without them, still who could have known that Max Mosley was such a design Nazi, ready and willing to whip the teams into line?
Jordan had a pretty average race with Damon Hill holding station after qualifying 9th and crossing the line in P8, the last of the cars to be lapped by the front-runners. F1's spare Schumacher in the other Jordan had a number of incidents and finally retired with a suspension problem. To add insult to injury the marshals prevented Ralph from crossing the track to get back to the pits, presumably explaining in broken-english that "taking an early shower" is just a turn of phrase.
Mika Hakkinen, the Ingmar Bergman film with a pulse, had confessed before the race that the circuit didn't suit his driving style. I can only assume this is because Argentina is neither distant nor unemotional. On a one-stop strategy he inherited the lead when Schumacher took service, leaving himself everything to do in the middle and final stints if he was going to take home the largest trophy of the day.
After his solitary pitstop Hakkinen emerged 11 secs behind the German and things looked promising. However Schumacher drove like a man possessed to pull out a 19 second lead over the Finn and, in a brilliant piece of pitwall strategy, Schumacher was called in just as he was catching traffic. With Hakkinen fending off back-markers himself, Schuey earned the outright lead on fresh tyres after his second and final visit to the garages and wasn't troubled before reaching the chequered flag.
The final surprise of the afternoon came in the form of Alexander Wurz in the Benetton. In the middle of the race he set the fastest lap to that point, and found himself rocketing through the field, eventually pressuring Ferrari's rear gunner Eddie Irvine for third place.
You'd have thought an Irishman would be at home amidst some light drizzle, but the sprinkle of moisture worried him out of it and a charging Wurz grabbed P3 from him only to spin off and hand the position back, ultimately gifting Ferrari their second driver on the podium.
At 1.87m tall Wurz stands out in the 1998 drivers' photo, and after a handful of races in 1997 he finally caught our attention for the right reasons this weekend. Looking ahead in his career he keeps a seat warm at Benetton only until 2001 when a young speedster with a goofy smile named Jenson Button joins the team and [cue sprinkle of fairy dust] the rest is history.
"It's better to be born lucky than good," quipped Martin Brundle from the commentary box, "but Schumacher is good and lucky." He could easily be describing any number of driver pairings up and down the grid today, none more-so than Ferrari and Mclaren.
Up next, we're off to Imola for another race that's vanished from the modern calendar and one that a lot of drivers rank among their favourites. With the action on-track heating up a little the road ahead looks very positive indeed.