Mika Hakkinen

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!

Austrian GP 1998: Resting bitch face

We're back into another retro race and this week it's Austria, a track that has recently returned to the F1 calendar but was a prominent fixture for quite a few decades. After a wet qualifying session the cars were pretty scrambled as they lined up on the grid, promising an interesting race whatever the result.

Having Fisichella and Alesi on the front row and Coulthard staring from P16 meant there was always going to be fireworks on the first lap, and we weren't disappointed. Olivier Panis stalled on the grid, and Rosset got it way too into the first corner and smacked into Johnny Herbert and the Minardis. 

As Salo tried to plant his foot and swing his car around he unceremoniously slammed it into the front wing of the stranded David Coulthard who was starting to wish he hadn't bothered getting out of bed that morning. Meanwhile, expertly avoiding the chaos, Hakkinen and Schumacher had taken control and were making a fist of things for the lead.

Ferrari had their tyres working beautifully and Schumacher held a noticeable performance delta over Mika, but an impatient move on the outside of the Finn saw him come off second best and falling behind Fisichella and into third place. By the time Schumacher recovered P2, Hakkinen had his tyres up to temperature and it appeared that Schumacher's chance of victory was fading.

One of the main differences between the modern era and the refuelling era is that speed differential at the start of a race is not always truly indicative of race pace. It appeared that Schumacher had elected for a low-downforce setup, but even more likely he had decided to run light at the start in the hopes of making up some places before loading up with fuel and slugging away during the middle phase of the race. Although I'm not especially keen to see refuelling return to F1 it's a dynamic element that we are currently lacking. 

Whatever his race strategy was, an uncharacteristic mistake saw him understeer off the track and a random pile of turf saw his car leap into the air which prompted the team to call him in for a closer investigation. 

Meanwhile back on track Fisi and Alesi were still comparing dicks, and when the latter firmly closed the door on the former they were both either shrivelled or mangled depending on whether I took this dicks metaphor too far. Fisichella insisted on holding the inside line when he clearly should have yielded to Alesi, rounding out the ways in which Fisi can be overtaken whilst causing a collision

Alesi retired and promptly abandoned his car in the middle of the corner, i'm sure that he was looking for any excuse to rule a line under this miserable year he's having.

You'd be forgiven for not paying too much attention to David Coulthard's race this week, but as it turned out he achieved the maximum possible from where he started. After pitting early to replace his nose and front wing, he cut through the field and even momentarily took the lead when Hakkinen came in to the pits. It was enough to bring a smile to his girlfriend's face, and the TV crew took every opportunity to cut to her - although from what I can remember from DC's autobiography they both survive a plane crash before he trades her in for a younger model. Sorry, Heidi, these are the brakes.

Speaking of... [what I did there, did you see it?]

After being momentarily held up by his brother, Ralph "Spare" Schumacher, the next victim on Michael's (s)hit-list was team mate Eddie Irvine.

"I wonder if Irvine is going to start going slow," pondered Murray Walker, "for some reason."

Martin Brundle suggested a few ways that a team could legitimately claim their driver needed to slow down, remember this was during a period where racing orders were banned, which included claiming that the brakes were overheating.

As Schumacher cruised up behind his teammate pitlane reporter James Allen confirmed that a source inside the team had told him they were indeed going to use the "brake defence". Post race Michael was asked how it was that he so easily dispensed with the sister Ferrari to which he replied, "Well, we were marginal on brakes, both of us, and the team asked us to slow down."

He punctuated his reply with his trademark"aww-shucks" resting bitch face and everyone got on with their lives, because if you can't prevent team orders you may as well get rid of the ban, right?

Up next is the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.. not to be confused with the Luxembourg Grand Prix which is at the Nurburgring. Yeah I know, it's confusing. 

Monaco GP 1998: From bad to Wurz

In reviewing the '98 season there were always going to be a few tentpole races; Spa, Monaco, even Hungary. I've tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but a race diary from Mika Hakkinen on the official Mclaren blog at this years' Monaco Grand Prix got a lot of traction and was difficult to avoid. Reading it now and watching the 1998 race it's easy to see why Mika was so keen to return to that weekend, where he took pole and won without incident when those around him were losing their heads.

It's known as the jewel in F1's crown and the race every driver wants to win. As usual the pitlane was full of celebrities, and none other than Liz Hurley appeared on the broadcast to declare her affections for, "the Irish guy". The track is renown for being unforgiving, and to quote a Hakkinen-ism, it looked just as "narrow, tight, sinuous, tortuous, bumpy, yumpy" that day as it ever has.

Despite the boffins predicting that only half to field would finish the actual start of the race was uneventful, and again it seemed that Coulthard's starting prowess had abandoned him. Giancarlo Fisichella showed that his qualifying pace was genuine, bravely defending against the charging Schumacher amidst rumours that the Ferrari's were heavy with fuel allowing them to go long on race strategy and pull in for a splash and dash when required. 

On lap 18 Coulthard suffered a spontenous and catastrophic engine failure that saw him drop out of the race. Big points were on offer, and if Schumacher was going to reign in the Mclarens he needed the blessing of the Monegasque Yacht-Gods that day. 

Eddie "ladies man" Irvine tank slapped Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the hairpin, shoving the German into the barriers. (Eww, what a bully!) The mean streets of Monaco are truly the wild west of F1, and today overtaking at the hairpin is like walking a tightrope. After an early pitstop Schumacher found himself behind the Benetton of Alexander Wurz and, needing to overtake to salvage his chances of a podium, he threw his car up the inside only to lose the inside line on the following corner as Wurz made a contest of things.

Switching back on the approach to Portier Schumacher demanded the inside line and commanded the racing line in what would have been the overtake of the season had it not resulted in damage to his rear suspension. Confusion reigned as Michael pulled into the pits, and eventually he rejoined the track... albeit three laps behind the leaders.

Wurz wasn't quite out of the woods, and a mysterious excursion through the tunnel saw him emerge without either of his front wheels. A replay from his on-board camera showed him bursting into the light only to crash into the barriers, slide straight across the harbour chicane and into the wall on the other side. I don't think I'm exceeding my authority as a humble observer to say that Wurz's efforts to steer through the chicane without his front wheels redefines the word futile.

With the final phase approaching and most of the field looking to consolidate their position, the commentary turns to another pressing issue in the sport during that era... the Tyre War. At its best a tyre war introduces unpredictability and pushes innovation, at worst it unfairly disadvantage genuinely credible outfits with no course for remedy. I wouldn't mind seeing it return to the sport, however the current approach to tyre wear would thus need to be reconsidered, as two companies producing degrading tyres seems too difficult to regulate, and too easy to circumvent.

In P5 and with the finish line in sight, light plumes of smoke emerging from Jean Alesi's car was probably the very last thing he wanted to see. A few laps later he retired his car (on the racing line, for what it's worth) and for a moment he looked poised to leap into the harbour. With Alesi out of the race the final world championship point was handed to none other than Pedro Diniz, the son of a Brazilian Supermarket owner who grew up dreaming of showbiz.

As the chequered flag flew wildly through the air, so to did Mika's hands with a fever that only a Monaco winner can summon. Following him home was Fisichella who capped off a brilliant weekend and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine having bullied his way to a podium that he'll never forget, and the first of three trips to those auspicious stairs in four years.

After the race, Mika writes in his recap, he thought to himself, "Mika, you're won the Monaco Grand Prix. Not every driver can do that. So you're good enough to win the World Championship. You are. You really are. Now go and win it, Goddammit!"

The next step on Mika's road to glory is the Canadian Grand Prix where I will, presumably, take far less screenshots...

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