Brazilian Grand Prix, 1998: The Doorman

We begin this week's look back at the Brazilian GP with a strikingly accurate computer simulation of Interlagos prepared by Ubi Soft. Our presenters, Darryl Eastlake and former F1 Drivers' Champion Alan Jones assure us that it's so accurate that the drivers can not only learn the track, but the team can send data back to their home base for analysis between sessions.

"Marvelous what we can do nowadays! Ahhh, I see that you have the machine that goes *PING*, that's my favourite."

Mika and David were quick off the line, as expected. Schumacher had a terrible getaway, dropping a handful of places and leaving himself plenty of work to do. Speaking of, I'm not sure what the cleaners were doing that day but the main straight was littered with paper and various junk. Come on, Brazil! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I know sometimes we have to get Warnie down to Bay 13 to ask the punters not to throw rubbish on the field, but I assure you that's an isolated incident.

Ralph Schumacher lost control on T4, making things a little less confusing for the audience and especially Murray Walker and Martin Brundle in the com-box. Again, as they did in Melbourne, the two Mclaren's scampered off into the distance, Hakkinen a full second ahead of DC after the first lap. All this without their special braking system, which it turned out Williams and Jordan were also using during the previous race. 

Apparently Ron Denis was fuming (big surprise) that the FIA had approved the braking system, yet the stewards for the weekend had sided with Ferrari's protest and banned it. As this weekend showed, however, it didn't make a lick of difference and with or without it those Mclarens were greased lightning.

With Formula 1's "spare" Schumacher out of the race, it was up to Michael to make a fist of it, leaping over "Beans means Heinz"-Harald Frentzen during the pitstops then cruising up behind his teammate Irvine. Given the furor over the race outcome in Melbourne, surely Ferrari weren't about to show favour to their prodigal son?

Eddie "The Doorman" Irvine found something very interesting on the outside of Turn 1 and decided to slow down and move out of Michael's way to take a closer look. It mustn't have been too important, because once Michael had gone past his pace returned.

Schumacher's job wasn't finished yet though, and his good fortune in the first round of pitstops was undone at the second, losing valuable track time with the engineers struggling to get his rear right tyre on and the engine stalling while still on the jacks. With absolutely no hope of victory, he rejoined the grid and did an admirable job to avoid being lapped by the leaders. 

Rubens Barrichello retired from his home race, which always disappoints me. Nothing promotes Formula 1 better than a decent result for a hometown hero. A few other cars were lost to attrition, some smaller battles fizzled out and from then on the race settled in to a holding pattern.

A young and distressed looking Adrian Newey, who was sporting a particularly fashionable mullet, haunted the pitlane. He was either very concerned about something on the cars or he'd been listening to the new Smashing Pumpkins album. Pit boards (remember those?) were displayed for DC and Mika telling them to "Cool" their tyres. Either that or it was shorthand for, "How bloody cool is winning by this much!" I'm sure Brazil is a hell of a place to win a Grand Prix, let alone your third in a row.

Post race the Australian coverage ran an interview conducted in Melbourne with Mclaren boss Ron Denis where he discussed a particular photo of their multiple brake pedals. He alleged that a photographer was paid by one of the teams to snatch a pelfie (a pedal selfie... trademark! Trademark!) that had done the rounds and had been shown to the stewards as evidence of their "illegal" system.

Not content with taking Ron's word for it, the broadcaster also interviewed the actual photographer, Darren Heath from "F1 Racing" magazine, who assured them the photo was not taken at the request of any team - in fact they were trying to keep it a secret until they ran their next issue! 

Next up we're off the Argentina. Murray Walker tells us that Schumacher is confident he'll be competitive against the Mclarens a fortnight later. I couldn't help but think to myself, "he might stand a fighting chance if he starts right now!"

^ Rod

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...