You might have heard about the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, it has developed a kind of infamy amongst fans for being what those in official F1 circles call "a fucking corker".
Before I recap the race, did you know there was a bomb threat that almost cancelled the event? YEAH RIGHT! As if it wasn't dramatic enough, extra security measures were taken after an anonymous letter was received by Belgian newspaper 'Le Jour' stating that Bernie Ecclestone had to give 10 million Francs (around a quarter of a million dollars US) to the Sudanese chapter of Doctors without Borders. I'm sure tensions were running high before the race, and the start did nothing to dispell them.
I truly don't think I can sum up what happened at the start of the race, suffice it to say that as an eighteen year old watching at home late on a Sunday night... if I wasn't already hooked on F1, this race sealed the deal. The next morning at uni it was all anyone could talk about, I think I even made some new friends by bonding over how incredible it was.
Without further ado, if you haven't seen the start... here it is... (look away if the sight of expensive technology being destroyed makes you queasy).
Even watching it now, I am amazed that the crash didn't wipe out closer to sixteen or seventeen cars that day. Amongst the spray and the ping-ponging it's almost impossible to pick out too many who get away unscathed. It's not clear what happens at first, but it seems like Hakkinen and Schumacher get through ok, then everyone from Coulthard back is in serious trouble. Post-race Ralph Schumacher says that he survived by pulling over to the side of the road and letting everyone go past!
Somehow everyone emerges without serious injury and most jump the fence to get back into the pit lane to hop into their T-car. Amazingly within half an hour we were back on the grid for a restart with almost a full line-up. Perhaps they were gun-shy, it certainly wouldn't have been the first time, but the Mclarens had a terrible restart and not only were they split by Damon Hill who took the lead in the short run to La Source, on the exit Schumacher and Hakkinen make the slightest of contact and Mika is sent spinning, leaving him with no hope of scoring points and getting clouted by Johnny Herbert just for the fun of it.
To hold off the likes of Michael Schumacher is quite a feat at the best of times, but in the wet it's near impossible. Hill put a brave fight for the lead, but his car had nothing like horsepower required to keep the German at bay, and before too long it was looking like Schumi was going to have another Belgian Grand Prix trophy to add to his collection.
Spa-Francorchamps had always been kind to Michael. He'd made his debut there with Jordon, ironically, in 1991 - his only race that year. In 1992 he claimed his debut win in Formula One here in Spa, a solitary victory in a successful debut season with Benneton that saw him visit the podium no less than eight times.
A true champion, a once in a generation driver, had arrived.
In Belgium 1994 he crossed the line ahead of everyone else, but when the stewards noticed an irregularity with his floor following an off-track excursion he was disqualified, but it kick-started an unstoppable run of victories in Belgium through 1995, 1996 and 1997. Having survived two opening lap incidents, it now seemed ordained that he would win again in 1998 and, incredibly, take the lead in the championship!
Commentator Martin Brundle recounted a story from the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, which saw Schumacher leaving the track which allowed Brundle to pass his teammate for third position. Following Brundle, Schumacher was able to see that his adversary's tyres had almost depleted and figured if he could pit early for fresh boots then the race would be on. Not only did he beat Brundle, but he cruised past the two Williams drivers in the lead to claim the race victory.
From a psychological point of view, this is where things start to go a little bit wrong for Schumacher. Leading isn't enough, he has to win. Then. winning isn't enough, it has to be comprehensive. Every race. Every championship. Lap by lap, corner by corner, Schumacher was writing his legacy. With this insatiable appetite for success, he would test the limits of himself, his car and certainly the rules, even out-right breaking them on occasion all in the name of winning. It's hard not to think of the infamous collision in Adelaide 1995 where Schumacher seemed to deliberately drive into Damon Hill to secure the drivers' championship.
Watching Michael push so hard through the high-speed corners of Spa on that drizzly 1998 weekend, with a dry line only slowly emerging, there was a sense in the air that if he didn't reign himself in he'd end up off the track as so many others were all around him. He was quickly catching backmarkers like Pedro Diniz and impatiently pushing through, taking unnecessarily risky lines.
It was clear that nobody would catch Schumacher that day, and for him not to cross the finish line in P1 would take an act of self-sabotage.
Working through the backmarkers was such easy work, it wasn't long before Schumacher caught up to the rear of David Coulthard's car. A familiar message comes from the pitlane that Ferrari had visited Mclaren on the pitwall and asked them not to hold their stallion up.
Schumacher might have wished they had kept their mouths shut, because the message was received all too clearly by Coulthard and between braking zones he studiously eases off the accelerator and starts to veer off-line to let Schumacher pass, but he was so impatient to overtake that he slams into the back of DC's Mclaren, rips one of his front wheels completely off and both cars limp back to the pits with their tails between their legs.
The footage has become infamous, and the person I feel most sorry for is the Ferrari engineer who tries to close the garage door on Michael. Even if he had succeeded, Michael would have just torn through it like it was paper mache before storming down to the Mclaren garage.
There's no audio on the TV footage, but later Coulthard would report that Michael accused him of "trying to fucking kill him." It's a baseball-style melee of proportions i've never seen in Formula One, with both teams bursting from the dugouts and without exaggeration it takes nearly the entire Ferrari pitcrew to pull Michael away.
Replays show that Schumacher had been angrily gesticulating from his cockpit for Coulthard to move out of the way, so I don't now and have never bought the argument that Schumacher wasn't expecting anything to happen.
Attrition was such an issue in the race that, despite being five laps down, Coulthard was sent back out on the off-chance that a few more drivers forgot which way the track goes and wound up in the wall. Interestingly Minardi followed Mclarens advantage and sent Shinji Nakano out in one of their stricken cars out in the hope of finishing in the top six, which will bring to mind fond memories of Mark Webber's first race with the team in 2002.
Having inherited the lead, Damon Hill was leading the pack behind yet another safety car when the scenario for the end of the race clearly developed. We'd have a sprint to the end with a slightly dry line developing with Hill and Spare Schumacher instructed to hold station until the end with the Sauber of Jean Alesi holding on for third.
With the former Ferrari driver Alesi firmly focused on snatching a very well-earned second place from Schumacher, the final five laps could have been a fitting end to an already historic event for Formula One. Instead, some light drizzle gave a performance advantage to the Jordan drivers and without any further incident the Belgian Grand Prix delivering Jordan their first win after 126 starts and Damon's Hill 22nd career victory.
With only three races remaining in the 1998 season, Hakkinen remains the favourite for the championship albeit tenuously. Next time we're off to the Italian Grand Prix and hopefully a less exhausting race recap.