SL98

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!

Italian GP 1998: All squared away

I was thinking of combining this race with the next one and doing a double-header recap, but considering the result I’m really glad I didn’t do that because in the context of the 1998 season… the Italian Grand Prix might be the most influential race so far. 

Not the most controversial, or memorable, but influential.

Right from the starting line, where both Schumacher AND Villeneuve squeezed ahead of the Mclarens to fill out the front row, you knew the atmosphere on the track would have been electric. 

When the five lights went out both Mclarens bit into the tarmac and tore past Schumacher like he was standing still to the dismay of Tifosi and the delight of Ron Dennis (and probably others). By lap 3, Mika and DC had built a four second gap over Schumacher in P3 and it was starting to look like finishing on the podium would be the best the German could achieve.

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Ahead of him, a very different story was playing out. 

Seemingly due to their qualifying position, Mclaren had split strategies across the Mclarens and, with a lighter fuel load, Hakkinen was now slowing down his lighter, faster teammate and hurting his chances in the race. What happened next was almost unthinkable, but Hakkinen pulled over and let Coulthard through. 

It was hard not to be reminded of Coulthard yielding to Hakkinen in Australia as part of their “gentlemans’ agreement”, but with three races to go Mclaren had the chance to wrap up the constructors’ championship if they could score nine points more than Ferrari for the race. It would be their first since partnering with Mercedes, it would justify four years of hard work and development between the two camps and (although they didn’t know it at the time) cement a working partnership that lasted in total almost twenty years that only ended last year when they switched back to Honda's power units.

Just as the marshals were extinguishing the flaming chassis of Shinji Nakano’s stricken Minardi, a very frustrated and fed-up Scotsman was retiring his car by the side of track with a “grenaded” engine.

If that wasn’t enough encouragement for the Italian fans to stand up and cheer, the sight of Hakkinen running wide and Michael Schumacher dancing past him to take the lead had them jumping wildly into the air and cheering as he passed under the old embankment and along the grandstands on the back straight and around the parabolica to start his first lap as leader of the race. 

Finally it looked like Schumacher would take the victory that he felt he deserved in Spa, and this time DC wasn’t around the stuff it all up for him. From here the race was coming down to does Mika have a mechanical issue, and if not when will the front runners pit.

Behind them running in 7th, 8th and 9th were Fisichella, Frentzen and Hill, the later dueling and dicing not only for track position but supremacy heading in to 1999. This came after the announcement that Spare Schumacher and Frentzen would be swapping seats meaning the Jordan team would become the Hill-Frentzen show (a pairing that I remember very fondly and a team that ended up becoming my “second favourite” after Mclaren for the years to follow).

When Fisichella and Frentzen both had stops to forget, Damon cruised in to take service and emerged ahead of both of them on his way to claiming sixth place. 

Most pit stops that day saw the cars throw up huge, black clouds of brake dust, and it’s tempting to draw a metaphorical parallel with Schumacher’s situation as he pitted with everything to lose. In reality the Ferrari engineers pulled off a trademark display of precision and put the pressure on Hakkinen to chase down their main man in clear air - however needing to make up almost eight full seconds it was always going to be a tall ask.

My mind started to wonder off during the mid-race lull, and I noticed strange little details in the coverage like how many times they used Soundgarden were used when throwing to commercials, or how you could hear the sound of the helicopter when they cut to the overhead shot - as if they were worried that the audience wouldn’t understand how a camera was floating magically in the sky.

Then a few things grabbed my attention. The first, Villenueve flying off the track at one of the Lesmos, and secondly a report that Johnny Herbert had to retire his car after an engineer dropped a spanner into the cockpit that rattled around throughout the race and eventually lodged itself under his pedals. I’m sure F1 is full of stories like this, and as inconsequential as it might seem, I really get a kick out of these kind of them.

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After catching Schumacher at a slow and steady rate, Hakkinen’s car went in to a violent spin and sent his car through a corner backwards and destined for the barriers. Without missing a beat Hakkinen checked his mirrors and steered his car away from the barriers and back toward the road WHILE SLIDING BACKWARDS for a few hundred metres. As someone who can’t even reverse a trailer into a driveway, I was suitably impressed.

At that stage Hakkinen was 30 seconds ahead of third place man Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari, and he managed to hang on to P2 momentarily, but Irvine quickly caught and passed him right and made sure to do it right in front of the Tifosi at the entry to the Ascari chicane. 

Mika wasn’t struggling for top speed, but looked vulnerable under breaking and lost a few more places before eventually finishing fourth after being overtaken by Spare Schumacher in the Jordan for the final podium position.

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This brought the drivers’ championship to a very interesting position in that M. Schumacher and M. Hakkinen left Monza with the exact same number of points with only two races remaining. Regardless of whether you know the result of the championship this year or not, that’s mental.

Having won the race, it was easy for Schumacher to laugh about his terrible start by joking, “It looked like I wanted to go for a walk rather than a race,” but it was clear that whichever driver was at the top of their game would claim the title this year, and it was going to go down to the wire.

One other thing was for sure, momentum was now on Michael’s side. Bring on Luxembourg!

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.

Hungarian GP 1998: The last of the late breakers

So I've really enjoyed revisiting the 1998 season, and I know the batshit crazy Belgian Grand Prix is up next, so to some degree I thought this race would just be something to tolerate, to plough through so that I can get to the "good one" but it turned out I was wrong! And what's more, the best performance of the race came from one of the drivers I admire the least. 

Coulthard was asked on the grid whether his championship push was over and if he was mostly playing "rear gunner" for Hakkinen, to which he laughingly admitted he was. Locking out the front row it was looking like a repeat of so many races we've seen already from this season at the usually lacklustre Hungaroring. 

Early on there was some talk that Eddie Irvine might have been one-stopping in the race, with the idea of holding up the Mclaren drivers after their first pitstop and pushing them back to within striking range of Michael Schumacher, although this theory proved futile when Irvine not only pitted early, but was the first of the front runners to take service. It was also thought that a discussion between Ron Dennis and the Jordan pitwall was to ensure Ralph Schumacher wasn't going to be used as a pawn in the battle between his brother and Mika, but it wouldn't have been the first time someone in the F1 media circle floated a paranoid theory.

Strangely, Damon Hill predicted that Ferrari may have the edge at this race considering the weather conditions and their superior tyre performance. Not only this but Hungary had always treated Damon very well, the former world champion having finished on the podium at every previous visit (and only missing out this time because of that pesky Candian, you know the one).

Backmarkers were playing a huge part in keeping the front runners close, DC would bravely battle through as if his face was painted blue and white, meanwhile Schumacher would just muscle his way through behind him without losing any time. Despite his best efforts, Schumacher couldn't find a way past DC and with 60 laps to go inspiration struck at Scuderia.

Ferrari strategist Ross Brawn, who would go on to win the constructors' championship with a car of his namesake, pulled Schumacher in for an early second stop and found some clear air for primary car and switched Michael to a three stop strategy. Mclaren were completely perplexed about what was happening and stopped both of their cars shortly after as a precautionary measure, but Schumacher was able to put in some blistering laps on a lighter fuel load and with fresh tyres to easily take the lead and stop again without too much trouble.

In Mclaren-land, Mika suddenly started losing speed and the fact that Coulthard was given strict orders to support his wingman at all costs became apparent when he too slowed down. Realising that Schumacher was romping toward a likely race win, Mika pulled over and unleashed DC to no avail. In the end, Coulthard was fortunate to hang on to 2nd place, most likely the best result he was going to get that day, while Mika struggled to keep his car in the points eventually hanging on to 6th place.

Not only did Ralph Schumacher unlap himself against Hakkinen in the end, but big brother Michael lapped the Mclaren in the dying moments of the race to add insult to injury. 

So that was the podium, in the end, was not unlike the 1997 race with Schumacher, Coulthard and Villenueve receiving trophies from a chicken... so that's fun.

Post-race Schumacher admitted that it was tough to pull off the strategy and it required 60 laps of qualifying pace. Perhaps I found it so exciting because it illustrated the advantages of giving drivers the freedom to push like crazy and drive the wheels off their car to make something magical happen in the race - it goes without saying that we don't see that in the modern era.

We leave Hungary with only 7 points separating championship leaders Hakkinen and Schumacher. "You've seen how the scene can change in Formula One," says Murray Walker, prophetically, "it's changed today and could change again in two week's time in Belgium."

I can't wait.

1998 German GP: Suddenly a wild Jacques Villeneuve

There was a shake up on the grid ahead of this week’s recap race, with both the Williams and Ferrari introducing cars with a longer wheelbase. It seemed to suit the reigning champion Jacques Villeneuve who qualified his car in P3 behind the Mclarens. 

Ralph “Spare” Schumacher also shone in qualifying to get himself onto the second row. After spinning out in practice Schumacher declared that the longer wheelbase was “complete dogshit” (or so I assume) and reverted back to his old car only to spin it as well and suffer an engine problem. P9 for the German was the best he could manage on Saturday in front of his home crowd.

In front of Michael on the start grid was Alexander Wurz who was slow away, causing Schumacher to swerve violently to avoid him. It probably wasn’t the ideal start from a man looking to make up places at the start. Shortly after the sister Ferrari of Eddie Irvine left the track and Schumacher gained the position, if you were more sceptical than myself you’d suspect it was an intentional move, but it looked fairly innocuous and, as Irvine would demonstrate a number of times this weekend, keeping the Ferraris on the black stuff seemed harder than it looked.

At the front Coulthard was hanging on to the back of Hakkinen but surprisingly neither could pull out a gap on Spare Schumacher who’s Jordan seemed to have come to life. His early pace was explained by an early pitstop during which the Jordan team essentially filled his tank suggesting his car was practically running on fumes off the start line. It highlights the kind of strategy that teams could pull if refuelling were introduced, but frankly I've always felt that it’s a huge additional cost, promotes the sport as eco-unfriendly and it's downright dangerous.

Off the pace and out of position it seemed that there was little the Ferraris could do to claw their way back through the field, especially on the straights. Wurz, on the other hand, had no problem cruising up behind his advisories and picking them off, albeit for the minor placings and after a mishap as the lights went off. Wurz outbraking and snapping up Jarno Trulli was one of the rare highlights from the mid-field (that got televised at least) along with Jos “the boss” Verstappen who made life very difficult for his Stewart Ford teammate Rubens Barrichello, wasting some of the Brazilian’s new tyre advantage. Clearly Max inherited some of his old man’s tenacity and self-entitlement!

Of the main championship contenders, it was Schumacher who pitted first (probably because like his brother, he was running light for fuel at the start in the hope of gaining places). Ahead of their pitstop DC was also closing the gap on Hakkinen at the front, and it looked like whichever driver had the cleanest pitstop would end up winning the race.

In the end it was Hakkinen that emerged in front of DC, but it wouldn’t but the last time DC’s massive jawline filled Mika’s mirrors. Some tense conversations played out on the Mclaren pitwall and the whisper was that Mika’s car was borderline on fuel to finish the race, perhaps they’d calculated wrong or under-filled him to ensure his maintained his lead? Furthermore, the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve was closing in fast as we cut to commercial.

“So don’t go anywhere, we’ll be back right after this.”

Sometimes in Formula 1 you return from a commercial break and everything has changed. So it was here, with the Mclaren’s holding station (presumably after informing their drivers to hold station) and the threat from Jacques was all but extinguished (presumably after Williams informed him that if he did anything to screw up their only podium finish so far this season they’d take him to the nearest tree and hang him up by his nuts). 

And so they cruised across the line without issue and the Germans in the grandstands who hoped to see one of their own on the podium in person started booking tickets to Hungary for the next race!