British GP 1998: You can't end a race with a pause

It's great to be writing about a controversial British Grand Prix while the most recent race is still fresh in our memories: what is it about that place, huh? It was another race that I clearly remember watching and reading about for days afterward, Formula 1 was definitely getting its hooks into my soft flesh.


Following his problems with refuelling at the French GP, Bernie Ecclestone had an antique fuel pump delivered to David Coulthard's garage as a joke. I know Bernie doesn't always have his fans, but he is clearly a man who is before his time; these days startups are falling over each other to the be the first one that allows users to mail glitter, or prank candles, or even a giant cardboard dick to someone.

DCs hopes of a reversal of fortune on home soil didn't get off to a fabulous start after being kept off the front row by his teammate and emerging championship rival Michael Schumacher. Even DC's legendary starting prowess was nullified by the damp conditions that preceded the start of the race. In fact, the rain didn’t relent all day during the “English summer”.

Despite qualifying well, Schumacher was slow off the line and Mika Hakkinen took an easy lead on the opening lap. The biggest losers (figuratively speaking, this isn’t a weight loss competition, at least that I know about) were Villeneuve in the Williams and Eddie Irvine who dropped from 5th to 8th. 

With all cars starting on Intermediate tyres a dry line quickly emerged and it wasn’t long before the drivers were caught in no-mans-land. The drying track meant the tyres were burning up faster than a Sauna attendant with a fever, and the cars looked a real handful through Silverstone’s high speed corners.

As the conditions continued to favour the Mclarens, Schumacher went from the hunter to the hunted and was easy prey for Coulthard. The Ferrari / Mclaren dance took a few corners to complete, but DC put his car in the right position at every step of the way and left Michael no options. 

Frentzen became the first retirement of the day, while Jos “the boss” Verstappen braved the conditions for slicks but, as often happens, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off and he returned shortly after for another set of wets.

Irvine was the man beneficiary from the early round of stops jumping the Sauber of Jean Alesi. Coulthard and Schumacher both elected for Intermediates but Hakkinen held out a little bit longer and decided conditions warranted full wets. This gave Mclaren the upper hand by splitting their strategy in unpredictable conditions. It was quickly apparent that the Intermediates were performing better, then the gap shunk as commentators and spectators alike turned to each other with the same phrase on their lips… the gentleman's agreement!

It was hearts-in-mouths time at Sauber as Johnny Herbert spun right in front of teammate Jean Alesi as the conditions claimed another victim. It looked like a clumsy incident, but to be honest the conditions must have been atrocious. At times visibility was minimal, and it’s no surprise that so many cars visited the grass and / or barriers. 

In fact... just to hammer the point home, here's most of them.

(🔊 Warning: you may want some accompanying music...)

As DC chews up his inters, Hakkinen suddenly comes into his own and not only puts a gap on his teammate but skilfully dispatches three back-markers in as many corners. In attempting to keep pace with Mika, Coulthard lines up a couple of drivers but slides across some standing water, flies across the grass with less grip than a greased up car salesman holding two bars of soap [pause for applause] and bogs himself near the tyre wall, throwing away any chance of points.

One by one drivers continue to drop off as sheets of water continue to sweep across the track, and as the lap times tumble the safety car finally emerges to calm everyone down.

I wondered whether they were waiting until "full points" race distance before abandoning the race altogether, but luckily they didn't because there was plenty of action still come. 

With only 11 of the 22 cars still running Hakkinen looked to be fighting the car uncessarily. Mika is a pretty cool customer, but having lost two on the trot he must have been desperate to put a gap on Schumacher after the safety car restart. In the end it was his undoing, and on the approach to Maggots he lost traction and slipped across the grass to rejoin only metres behind a delighted M. Schumacher. 

Arriving quite late to the party (presumably because it asked the taxi driver to pull into a servo so it could pick up a Vienetta... or is that just me?) the sun decided to rock up to the race, just so that the punters could truly say that the race had everything.

While his brother was leading the race, Ralph "Spare" Schumacher was battling the Benetton of Alexander Wurz for the final points paying position. Joy for the Schumacher family would quickly turn to anguish as word spread that Michael had been served a 10 second Stop-and-Go penalty for passing behind the safety car.

Now... this is where things get interesting / confusing / absurd. If you're not a Schumacher fan, and I'm certainly not his biggest, you'll think of what he did next as just another underhanded, borderline illegal move that isn't in any way in keeping with the regulations nor the spirit of the sport.

Being given the penalty with only three laps to go, and needing to be served in the final three laps, you'd think Schumacher would pull straight into the pits and get the penalty out of the way OR cross the finish line and have the time added to his race. Instead, before rounding the final corner, he peeled off into the pitlane and crossed the finish line before pulling calmly into his pitbox to "serve" his penalty!

If you're anything like me, these are the kind of plays that stop you from sleeping at night. You can't serve a pitlane penalty as you cross the finish line - you just can't! Even as the drivers took to the podium they weren't completely sure what had happened, and although Michael was declared the winner the issue obviously wasn't over.

So what happened in the end?

As it turns out it took the stewards quite a while to sort the whole mess out and it cost three of them their jobs. 

Ferrari argued that any penalty for the safety car infringement needed to be issued within 25 mins of the offence, and in this case the decision had been made more than half an hour later, plus the Stewards' note wasn't clear whether they had to make the stop or have the time added to the race total. 

To make matters worse, they then decided the 10 seconds did have to be added to Schumacher's race time, however Ferrari again pointed out that this can only be done when an infringement occurs in the final 12 laps of a Grand Prix. 

In the end, Schumacher walked away scot-free! I know it's one of Bundle's favourite sayings that "you'd rather be born lucky than rich" but far out this Schumacher guy gets a pretty good share of both.

For their sins the three stewards handed in their credentials and formed a Spinal Tap cover band that still play in dingy bars around Durham and Lancashire.

Not really... wouldn't that be amazing though!

Next race... the Austrian GP at the (now reasonably familiar) A1 Ring (aka the Red Bull Ring).