Japanese GP 1998: Losing the battle, if not the war

1998 was the first season that I started watching Formula One, and by the end of the season it well and truly had its hooks in me. Re-watching Schumacher and Hakkinen line up on the front row in the last race of the season gave me flashbacks to watching a replay of the race in 1998 after taking painstaking efforts to avoid hearing the result. I knew Schumacher had to win, or Hakkinen had to finish second or higher to claim the championship…. then my brother walked into the room.

“Oh you’re watching F1?”

“Shhhhh, please. I don’t want to know what happens, I haven’t seen it.”

“Oh ok,” my brother said, cracking a cheesy grin, “All I’ll say is, Schumacher stalls on the grid and has to start the race from the back.” I had to bite my lip hold back my annoyance. “But that’s all I’ll say, I don’t want to spoil it for you.”

Geez, thanks mate.

So the pre-race tension about whether Hakkinen would simply follow Schumacher around happy to finish in second place, or challenge for the lead, was instantly unwound and now with an all Mclaren front row it looked like Mika would be doing it easy.

After the first lap Coulthard had fallen to fourth position and Schumacher had made his way back up to P12, an impressive effort. At this stage, with Irvine following Hakkinen, Michael’s only hope was to get up to third place - a tough ask with the considerable speed of the midfielders like Williams, Jordan and Benneton to contend with - and hope that Mika either broke down or got "tangled up" with the sister Ferrari.

Frentzen continued to impress in the Williams, holding P3 in the early phase of the race and dampening the threat from Coulthard. Further back it was the old foes Schumacher and Hill battling it out with Villienueve ahead and Spare Schumahcer behind the lot of them. With seemingly no other option to clear the pack, pulling in to the pits was looking like a good idea for Michael before Hill pulled in to take service, Spare Schumacher’s engine exploded and Michael found a way past Jacques to claim P5.

Schumacher then started pushing his car to the limits, smashing through the infamous Senna/Prost chicane like a man possessed hoping that he could chase down Coulthard through the next round of pitstops. Post race he reported that he locked up his tyres so badly that the vibrations meant he couldn’t see his rears in the mirrors, and perhaps this contributed to his downfall (as it has a number of times this year) or perhaps he picked up some debris from when the two Japanese drivers, Takagi and Tuero collided and took each other - at their home race no less!

Either way, despite the pleas from the commentators that “anything could still happen”, the sight of Schumacher pulling over and hoping out of his car meant that Hakkinen would be sleeping with the championship trophy under his bed that night.

After finally dispatching with Frentzen, Coulthard set off after Eddie Irvine, but the finish line beat him to it. It couldn’t come fast enough for Heinz-Harald though who was pipped by Hill for P4 in the final corners, who ended up finishing only one point behind reigning-champion Villienueve in the drivers'  tally while the cameras were following the triumphant Mclaren drivers on their parade lap. 

Schumacher lamented that they hadn’t lost the title that day, but earlier in the season and was proud of the efforts of the team but he simply was not supposed to be champion that year. 

In the official post-race presser Hakkinen was asked if he felt an enormous release of pressure when Schumacher stalled and had to start from the rear of the grid, effectively securing the championship before the race had even started.

“Yes, I did,” he solemnly answered before cracking into a broad smile. His responses might have the ruthlessly efficiency that countryman Kimi Raikkonen has come to be known for, but Mika certainly set the benchmark of minimal verbiage for quite a few years.

So that’s it - I’ve recapped the entire season! I know everyone has their favourite years, but so much of how feel I still feel about the sport was formulated watching this season; my understand of what is fair racing, what it means to truly earn the championship, and how personal drama informs the excitement on track. 

It was all there.

I toyed with turning this into a podcast series with interviews, race clips, etc. Perhaps one day… but I wouldn’t hold my breath, loyal reader. Thanks for following along for all sixteen race recaps (if, indeed you did!) and hope you’ll join me on whatever the next series will be!