Saturday, 5 May 2012

Modern Classics - Belgium 1998

The Belgian Grand Prix - Spa-Francorchamps 1998

In this column we’ll take a look at the epic races of the modern era. Races that were so unforgettable that they deserve to be retold and re-lived,  and what better place to start than with the Granddaddy of them all.

The Story so Far

It’s August 1998. Armageddon is top of the box office and Steve Tyler’s band Aerosmith have a smash hit from the soundtrack with a love song about his own daughter. You know the one. The Formula One season is heading towards a thrilling conclusion with four races to go with Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher locked in a vicious battle for the ultimate prize.

This was a year of sweeping technical regulation changes aimed at improving overtaking and slowing the cars down (Sound familiar?), so they were now narrower and ran on hideous grooved tyres. One team, or rather, one man had adapted to the changes better than anyone else.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

After leaving Williams at the end of 96, Adrian Newey, aka the smartest man on the planet, ensured McLaren finished 1997 with a very fast car, but it had all the reliability of an Amy Winehouse stint in rehab (and frequently died just as often). The MP4-13 that McLaren raced in 1998 was Newey’s first full effort for the Woking team, and boy did it show as it decimated everything before it in winter testing. Reigning champ Jacques Villeneuve bet his Williams team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen before the opening race in Melbourne that it would lap the field. Frentzen disagreed, then lost the bet, but still managed to be best-of-the-rest with a credible, though very distant, lapped third place.

It was slightly better in Brazil, the two McLarens only managed to lap up to fourth place. In both races Mika Hakkinen took pole, fastest lap and the victory. Ominous times for the paddock, but Michael Schumacher kick started the resistance with a brilliantly judged wet weather win for Ferrari in Argentina. Three more victories for McLaren (One for David Coulthard and two more for Hakkinen) over the next three races served to show Ferrari that its Argentine win was a flash in the pan, but as many have felt over the years, you underestimate Schumacher at your peril.

Barrichello underestimating Schumacher’s blind his peril.

Schumacher won the next three races in a row including Montreal and Silverstone, that were so incredible they might make this column themselves one day, and he left English shores trailing Hakkinen by only 2 points. A stunning turnaround of form for Ferrari who had worked hard on developing their car, but even harder on getting Goodyear to adapt to the grooved tyres which was where the major gains were made.

At the other end of the field, Jordan Grand Prix had suffered a shocking start to 1998 and left Silverstone with their first point of the season thanks to Ralf Schumacher’s distant sixth place. The Jordan 198 initially proved very unreliable, but they were just starting to turn their season around with a myriad of car developments, and as they also ran on Goodyears, were benefiting from all Ferrari’s influence in improving the tyres.

Mika Hakkinen again squashed Schumacher's latest resurgence with two commanding wins in Austria and Germany before Schumacher once again pulled a metaphorical rabbit out of his sphincter to win in Hungary, in a race so tactically brilliant it grew a moustache and proceeded to reunite Mongolia. Coupled with Hakkinen's struggling sixth place due to gearbox woes the Championship was, once again, looking finely poised with Hakkinen on 77 points and Schumacher on 70.

Very finely poised indeed, if you know what I mean!

The Build Up

So onto Round 13 and the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Almost 7 kilometres of the most feared, respected and loved track anywhere in the world. Nestled deep in the Ardennes, it combines epic, undulating, flowing corners with postcard scenery and a storied history that makes it many drivers favourite circuit, ever! Indeed, if a heaven exists for racing drivers, this is the track they’d be lapping in the clouds, as God himself would struggle to come up with something so special.

Truly epic epicness

As the practice sessions wore on it became apparent that McLaren had truly rebounded from their Hungarian disappointment and had arrived with the fastest car once again. Damon Hill also showed flashes of true pace and legitimately ran towards the front, dicing with the Ferrari’s and appearing to have the legs over his team mate Ralf Schumacher, who had already signed a contract with Williams for the 1999 season. But at the time it was only rumour.

Jacques Villeneuve, who was already out of the Championship reckoning, had turned up at Spa on a mission. He wanted to take the most feared corner on the circuit, Eau rouge, flat. That is, without lifting his foot off the throttle, even to fart a squeaker. If it was easy though, everyone would be doing it, and predictably enough towards the end of the second practice session Villeneuve lost control of his Williams as he exited Eau Rouge attempting a flat run and slammed into the tyre barriers. (I know, I know. Technically it was Raidillon, but bear with me uber geeks, I’m just trying to keep it easy to follow) It was, in his own words, his “Best accident in Formula One so far”.

Funnily enough, it was a personal record that would only last for a year as at the exact same race 12 months later Jacques had a bigger accident at the same corner in his infamous zipper liveried BAR. Though this time I presume he threw it off the road because it was so damn ugly.

You ain't got no alibi!

Come qualifying and the two McLarens were trading fastest laps, each driver pushing the other to the absolute limit and beyond. In the end it took something pretty special from Mika to beat Coulthards time on his final attempt. How special? In Mika’s words - “I still can't explain it one hundred per cent....I knew I would have to do something unbelievable because I had been on the limit on the run before”. Especially impressive considering it must have cost him a bit of time dragging his massive balls around, but he still magic-ed a couple tenths from somewhere to bang it on pole for the 9th time of the year.

So big, Stephen Hawking has published a theory about them

Hill and Schumacher were busy reminiscing over past times together, but this time only for third fastest which Damon managed to take by 3 tenths of a second, albeit over a full second slower than Hakkinen's ball busting lap. Schumacher was relegated to fourth and with it all to do tomorrow to stay in the Championship fight.

What about Villeneuve? Well he succeeded in his mission, took Eau Rouge flat, and was rewarded with a respectable sixth place on the starting grid. Though the combined gravitational pull of his and Hakkinens testicals must have played havoc with the local weather the following day.

Race Day

The forecast for Sunday said warm and dry, but it was wrong. It wasn’t just wet, it was biblically wet, with the rain coming down hard and early on race day and not letting up until everyone had long left the circuit that evening.

The warm up session (yes recent F1 fans, they used to have them) was run on wets, with the drivers all taking the opportunity to tweak their car setup (yep, they could do that too!) so the cars would work submerged. A very different competitive picture emerged, with the Ferraris now leading the pack by over a second, with Michael Schumacher fastest. The biggest difference to the day before - tyres. Goodyear’s wet weather offerings (both the intermediate and full wet tyres) were incredible and the Bridgestone shod McLarens struggled to keep pace.

Though it is preferable they’re touching the road

The inclement Belgian weather had opened the Championship door a crack for Schumacher, after all, he wasn’t known as ‘die Regenmeister’ for nothing. The grid was set and they picked their way around the track for the formation lap in conditions that were, well, pretty slippery to say the least. Damon Hill reported to his team over the radio that he thought he saw “something” fall off one of the McLarens. This may be of significance, it may not, but just bear it in mind when you read what came next.

There were discussions before the race about whether it might be appropriate to start behind the safety car, as the same race had done the previous year. Certainly if a race is run today in those conditions then the decision is a no-brainer, but the very reason for present day caution was lying, literally, just around the corner.

They formed up and the lights went out to Murray Walker’s frenzied cries. The spray was immediately so intense you couldn’t see past the leading couple cars on the short run to turn 1, La Source Hairpin. Damon Hill got an awful start and fell back towards the midfield, while Villeneuve took off like a rocket from his 6th place grid slot and tucked into 2nd place behind Hakkinen as they turned into La Source.

The field was roaring towards Eau Rouge when David Coulthard’s McLaren suddenly veered right and speared into the inside wall, before bouncing back into the path of a grid-full of blinded drivers. The intensity of the spray makes it impossible to see what actually triggered it, but the most common held belief is that Coulthard was helped around by Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari, or did Damon really see something fall off a McLaren, Coulthard’s McLaren, that may have contributed? Either way, the end result was pure carnage, as car after unsighted car poured into a growing ball of wreckage.

Very, very expensive carnage.

In total there were 15 cars involved from 22 starters, and if you’ve watched the video above you’ve seen the two Jordans had the biggest escapes. Damon Hill somehow managed to avoid Coulthards car as it rebounded from the initial impact and Ralf Schumacher, the one driver with a reputation for being reckless at Grand Prix starts did the only sensible thing. He reigned his Jordan to a slithering halt on the grass and actually put it in neutral as the bad kind of hell opened up all around him. You know, the kind without the smell of napalm.

DC’s wrecked McLaren, after being pounded harder than your Mum

Obviously the race was red flagged and it took nearly an hour to clean away the devastation. Because Barrichello had injured his arm in the smash he couldn’t restart, plus a lack of working spares meant another three drivers, Rosset, Panis and Salo, also missed out.

At the second start, still without a safety car, Damon Hill made up for his awful first effort and blasted past both McLarens into the lead. Hakkinen and Schumacher made light contact on the exit of La Source as the German tried the outside, but it was enough to tip the Finn into a spin, and Johnny Herbert could not avoid making heavy contact and wiped a front corner off the McLaren. Hakkinen, the championship leader, was out of the race!

Bugger, unless you’re German, then weeeee!

McLarens luck turned from bad to worse when Coulthard then went off after tangling with Alexander Wurz, but after backing out of the gravel trap he managed to rejoin at the back of the field. After a quick safety car period (finally!) to clear away Hakkinen’s broken car, Hill led and led well. Together with Schumacher they comfortably pulled away from the rest, but because Germans don’t share the English obsession with queueing, Schumacher barged his way past at the end of the 8th lap at the Bus Stop chicane. He then proceeded to thoroughly demoralized the Englishman by pulling out 4.5 seconds in the next circuit alone! The door was well and truly ajar now, with Hakkinen already out of the race, a Schumacher victory meant he would lead the championship for the first time all year.

Just like the good old days, but with a lot less crashing into each other.

The race then entered a fairly stable phase. Verstappen, Takagi and Tuero dropped out, while Villeneuve spun off taking his worn tyres one lap too far in worsening conditions. By lap 25, Ralf Schumacher had moved into third place and was gaining on his teammate, while Shuey’s lead over Hill had grown to a ridiculous 37 seconds, but he was also coming up to lap the unfortunate David Coulthard, whose day was about to go from bad to Cthulhu.

Yup, about as bad as it gets!

Ferrari team principal, le petit Frenchman Jean Todt, took a walk down the pitlane to pay McLaren a visit, to ensure DC wasn’t a hindrance in letting his driver through. Because Hakkinen was already out and Coulthard was cruising around out of the points, McLaren radioed DC and asked him to let Schuey through nicely. Then I guess because Coulthard was having a stupid day, he slowed on the racing line in the pouring rain and blinding spray to let the Ferrari past, and then this happened;


So far as dramatic F1 moments go, this pretty much had it all. I mean, just listen to Murray Walker’s blasphemy at the point of impact! The three wheeled Ferrari showed a good turn of pace heading back to the pits into retirement and Coulthard at least made one right call on the day and dutifully followed, tail between his legs. Now we knew Shuey would be pissed, but I don’t think anyone expected him to go start a fight in the McLaren garage while accusing Coulthard of attempted murder, least of all his own engineers who he was pushing aside as he stalked down the pitlane with a face like thunder. It was absolutely brilliant drama, but just like that, the first chance Schumacher had to lead the Championship all year, was gone.

Bugger, unless you’re Finnish, then weeeee!

Now Jordan were first and second in the race! In 126 previous starts they’d never won a Grand Prix before, but to break their duck they still needed to finish the last 19 laps in continuing torrential rain, and we still needed to put up with 19 laps of unabashed Hill-thusiasm from Murray Walker. (That’s Hill enthusiasm, but snappier!)

We didn’t get too much time to dwell though, because almost at the same time, just to top the day off nicely for the Italian team, Eddie Irvine was busy beaching his Ferrari in the gravel trap from 6th place. Then on the very next lap there was another massive accident. Giancarlo Fisichella was pitting from 5th place, but because the Spa pitlane bypassed the Bus Stop Chicane the entry was considerably faster than the normal racing line, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the drivers could see where they were going, but Minardi driver Shinji Nakano was dawdling around the circuit (As Minardi’s were prone to do), completely obscured in the spray to the rapidly approaching Benetton. The impact was immense, Fisichella probably still had no idea what he’d just hit as he slid uncontrolled down the Bus Stop escape road and back onto the main straight.

Another casualty of the most expensive Grand Prix ever.

Both drivers were ok, but the safety car was inevitable, and though they got Fisichella's mess cleared away fairly quickly, race control had finally seen sense and kept it circulating in the hope the weather, and hence visibility, improved. The order at this stage was Hill, Ralf Schumacher, Alesi, Frentzen, Diniz and Trulli who was 2 laps down. Only 6 of the 22 that started were left, so McLaren and Minardi used the safety car period to repair Coulthard and Nakano’s cars and they rejoined 5 laps down, but with the chance of scoring a point or two if anyone else retired, and because DC just needed some more punishment.

Just look at that jaw! Don’t you think he’s been punished enough?

The safety car came in at the end of lap 32 and off they set again. Immediately Hill ran wide at turn 1 and Ralf looked like getting a run at him but couldn’t get the power down on the sodden track. It appeared as though we were in for a barnstorming finish, but for the next 12 laps Hill did just enough to stay in front of Ralf, who in turn did just enough to stay in front of Alesi’s Sauber. In fact, disappointingly, there wasn’t a single change of position at all from this point, which was remarkable considering the insanity the race had produced so far.

Damon Hill took the chequered flag and celebrated with a Shuey style leap on the podium (as you do). He was followed home by Ralf to make it a Jordan 1-2 and Alesi scored a sensational podium place for the Sauber team, the last for a Frenchman until Bahrain 2012! But the last laps were not as drama-free as they appeared, and as Ralf’s slapped-arse face on the podium attested there was more going on that met the eye.

Pick your lip up Junior!

The Aftermath

Damon sat in the press conference grinning like a goon, and was asked directly about the end of the race and having his team mate so close behind;

“....was Ralf ever going to challenge you or were you settled on a 1-2 finish at that stage?”

He reeled off an answer that any politician would have been proud of, that is, no bloody answer at all. He brought up the safety car and how hard he was pushing, then he talked about his tyres and the weather before finally summing up with;

“....I was under pressure the whole way.”

Now I respect Damon, he was a very deserving champion in 1996 and what he was able to do in an Arrows in 1997 was nothing short of miraculous, but couldn’t he just have answered the question? Under pressure! No shit! You’re driving a twitchy, prototype Formula One machine in the torrential rain for a team that has never won before. You’re in the twilight of your career, going through the longest F1 winless streak you’ve ever had, and supposedly on a contract that pays you big money for every championship point you win, so yeah, I’d already guessed you were under a bit of goddamn pressure.

Damon soaking it up

Not surprisingly, Ralf was a little more forthcoming,

“....after the Safety Car made its second appearance we just settled. Us as one and two”

And then just to make sure there were no doubts, quickly added;

“Damon - one and me - two”

Indeed, despite just earning his career best finish to that point with 2nd place, he didn’t crack a smile until asked about his amazing escape on the first start.

So there had been team orders imposed, this was pre-Austria 2002 so they weren’t illegal, but still frowned upon. If I was in team owner Eddie Jordan’s shoes I can’t say I would have done anything differently and I’d defy anyone to say differently and mean it, but as a viewer, I’d love to know if Ralf could have got past had he been allowed to try.

10 foot tall team owner celebrates

It wasn’t until a little later that the radio transmissions became public and we all heard that the team order was actually ‘suggested’ by Damon Hill, which may explain his shyness in the press conference. His exact words during the race;

“I'm going to put something to you here, and I think you'd better listen to this. If we race, if we two race, we could end up with nothing, so it's up to Eddie (Jordan). If we don't race each other, we've got an opportunity to get a first and second, it's your choice.”

Did you notice the mocking single quotations around the word ‘suggested’ above? Damon’s use of the phrase “It’s your choice” makes it sound as though he was downright threatening the team, albeit delivered very cleverly and subtly. Though there has never been any question about Damon’s smarts has there....

Though I’m pretty sure I know what he’s thinking here

You can hear the transmissions here and make up your own mind about Damon’s tone of voice. The best bit is how long it took Ralf to respond once the order was issued. Weighing up the choice of going for his first win with the chances of an accident must have been difficult, especially as he had a Williams contract in his back pocket anyway.

It ended up being a truly historic day for the Silverstone based team and they rode the momentum all the way into 1999, when Ralf’s replacement Heinz Harald Frentzen, won another two races and had a sniff at taking the championship that no one else seemed to want.

As for Damon Hill, Spa 98 turned out to be his last win in a truly remarkable career, and after being thoroughly overshadowed by Frentzen the following season, he retired.

David Coulthard eventually admitted in an interview to being at fault in the clash with Michael Schumacher, a full 5 years later in 2003, and the championship fight between Hakkinen and Schumacher did go all the way down to the wire. Hakkinen prevailed in a final race showdown to claim his maiden World Drivers Title and complete a thrilling, unpredictable season. 

But of all the races there were in 1998, indeed of all the races there have ever been, perhaps there are none so thrilling and unpredictable as Spa 98.

Want more?



5 Reasons Why I Love Formula One
By - David Galton-Fenzi

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