David Coulthard

Belgian GP 1998: "He tried to f*cking kill me"

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.

Australian Grand Prix, 1998: The Gentleman's Agreement

I’ve been wanting to revisit the 1998 Formula 1 season for a long time now. Even seeing photos of the silver Mclaren from that era gets me feeling all the feels and daydreaming about late nights and F1 talk with mates during my early uni days. I’ve avoided researching the year in too much detail to make sure rewatching the races still have an impact.

As their pre-season form had suggested, Mclaren set a high benchmark that left the rest of the field eating their dust. Their secret weapon was a dual braking system, calibrated such that one pedal could be used when approaching a left handed corner and another one for right handers.

This allowed the car to fly through the corners with incredible speed, a subtle braking differential from the left side of the car to the right launching the car through the corners while keeping it stuck firmly to the asphalt. It was, naturally, the brainchild of Adrian “you didn’t explicitly say I couldn’t do that” Newey.

Hakkinen was quick off the line, but under pressure heading into turn 1. With the race outcome on the line (more on this later) he took a slightly tighter line than usual and assured his position in the lead. Coulthard in P2 must have been furious with himself. Renowned for his clean get aways (and not just with the ladies) his rhythm through turns 2 - 4 were less metronomic, giving Schumacher a sniff at splitting the two.

The Ferrari F300 was simply no match for the MP4/13 that day, and had he his engine not let go after a few laps of Albert Park Schumacher would have reached the final step of the podium at best. Clearly steering wheels where not as valuable as they are now, as Michael threw his at the wall with disgust - even the driver tantrums were better back then!

It goes without saying that there were a number of differences between racing now and racing then. They were still refueling the cars during the stops, so it was jarring to watch pitstops where the wheel men are in no particular hurry. Tobacco sponsorship is also rife; after watching the replay I needed to wash my clothes and air out the livingroom for a bit.

Some of the old liveries still hold up thanks to their classic minimalism. Mclaren’s beautiful black and silver looks stunning, as does the bold blue of the Prost-Peugeots. Ironically, before the race Murray Walker lamented the Williams design suggesting they had loaded up a cannon with names and logos and aimed it at the car, how far we’ve come!

To hear Murray Walker back in the commentary box was a pure joy. He’s not always the sharpest, and he can identify a constructor without issue, but I’m always listening out for Brundle’s call of which driver we’re looking at as Murray’s skills in this department as a bit of a coin toss. Although he’s a likable character, Ted Kravitz could learn a few things from James Allen on how to report from the pitlane, and back then he did it amidst a dizzying fog of fuel vapours.

Lapping the entire field twice was a very real prospect, however behind the scenes another game was playing out. Before the race a deal had been struck between the Mclaren drivers and team management that whoever lead the race after the first corner could proceed to the end of the race without any threat from the other driver.

DC had always been pretty quick off the line during his junior career, and fancied his chances of taking Mika at the start, even lining up his car at an angle off the line. Having missed his opportunity, he must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when, on lap 36, Mika pulled into the pits, found his team unprepared for a stop, and continued through handing the lead to his teammate.

Just as we had all resigned ourselves to a famous Scottish victory that day, with three laps remaining Coulthard yielded heavily (and obviously) on the main straight giving Hakkinen a hollow victory. Third place went to Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Williams, besting his teammate and reigning champion Villeneuve in fourth place.

Team orders were a major talking point after the race that permeated all forms of media, the first time I remember Formula 1 bleeding into the rest of my daily life. Although I’m not a huge fan of his, I vividly remember Wil Anderson quipping on Good News Week about the incident. “Ladies love David Coulthard, finally they’ve found a guy who doesn’t mind coming second.”

In the face of heavy, and deserved, criticism the two were dragged off to the World Motorsport Council and warned that the punishment for any future incident orchestrating a racing result would make them wish they’d never been born. Team orders were formally banned in 2002, although as we all know it did little to curb the practice that will always play a supporting role to the theatre of Formula 1.

DC wrote (or, at least dictated to his ghost writer) in his autobiography that it seemed like a good idea at the time, but later regretted the move. Looking back at the careers of Michael Schumacher and even Sebastian Vettel, it became apparent to him that World Champions were unrelentless, and never gave up the opportunity for a victory, no matter who they pissed off in the process.

Similarly, he couldn’t fathom why Mika was crying on the podium considering the race was served up to him on a platter. I have more sympathy for Mika than this given that the previous year his car let go a number of times with victory in sight. not to mention the fact that he nearly lost his life after an accident during the 1995 Australian Grand Prix.

Incredibly in 2007 Ron Dennis claimed that during this race, “someone had tapped into our radio and instructed Mika to enter the pits.” Whether the message was an act of sabotage, given in error or simply misheard remains is unclear. The fact that politics would determine the outcome of this season was however clearer than Andrea de Cesaris’ trophy cabinet.

Despite this there’s plenty of on-track action to come this year. I vaguely remember it but I am reliably informed that the ‘98 race at Spa is a cracker!

Up next, however, we're off to Interlagos, Brazil...

Rod is throwing a year-long, parallel retro F1 season revisitation party!

You're probably confused right now. Don't panic, that is a baffling article title and it could happen to anyone - just take a sip of water and think about puppies for a minute.

It's occurred to me a few times since Zach and I started the podcast that I've been watching Formula One for a heck of a long time. Over the years though the details have drifted from my immediate recall. I started watching in 1998, and pre-season form suggested that the Mclaren's were the hotness, and the ying-yang balance of personalities between Hakkinen and Coulthard and the shrill, exuberant commentary of Murray Walker brought the sport to life for me.

If memory serves me correctly the '98/'99 seasons were the last competitive era ahead of the Schumacher domination of the 2000s.

Well, I don't want to rely on memory anymore. Throughout the 2015 season - in the gaps between the current F1 schedule - I'll be watching the 1998 season to relive the tension, the fashions and a third other thing that will probably become apparent at a later date.

And you can too!

So, we can watch the races at the same time you do?

Sure, why not? Satisfying everybody in every time zone poses quite a problem, however. I'll probably work to a rough schedule (weeks when there are two successive F1 races will be tough, for example) so keep an eye on twitter for a clue as to when I'll be watching and what race we're up to.

How on earth did you get the race footage anyway?

Nice try, Narc! Footage of the races exists on the murky interwebs, however I'll have to leave it up to you to source them if you want to watch along - which is completely optional by the way! 

Oh, and it's worth pointing out that the races I'll be watching originate from the Australian broadcast, so expect at least some passing commentary on presenters Alan Jones and Darrell Eastlake.

So... you just watch the races? What's the big deal?

I'll post a recap and my thoughts on this very website, perhaps with some gifs etc to bring it to life for anyone that can't watch along.

It'll be similar to my normal recaps for The Roar, except with more humour and actual insights ;p.

More info on this soon, but rest assured it's going to be super-radballs!

^ Rod