Thursday, 26 August 2010

Race Rewind: Spa 1998

With crashes, controversy, rain and death threats, the 1998 Belgium Grand Prix was one of the most memorable in history...

The weekend began with Jacques Villeneuve having a huge accident at Eau Rouge on Friday before Mika Salo followed suit in Saturday practice. Despite this, both men were ok to race. Championship leader Mika Hakkinen took pole position. The Finn was having his best season to date and was up against two time champion Michael Schumacher who qualified 4th and also had a qualifying time deleted because he failed to slow under yellow flags. Damon Hill impressed with third position.

The Grid:

1 Mika Hakkinen
2 David Coulthard
3 Damon Hill
4 Michael Schumacher
5 Eddie Irvine
6 Jacques Villeneuve
7 Giancarlo Fisichella
8 Ralf Schumacher
9 Heinz-Harald Frentzen
10 Jean Alesi
11 Alexander Wurz
12 Johnny Herbert
13 Jarno Trulli
14 Rubens Barrichello
15 Olivier Panis
16 Pedro Diniz
17 Jos Verstappen
18 Mika Salo
19 Toranosuke Takagi
20 Ricardo Rosset
21 Shinji Nakano
22 Esteban Tuero

Race day dawned wet, cold and misty and it was not for shifting. Before the start the officials had to decide whether to start the race behind the safety car like in 1997 but they opted against this. The track was wet but the bigger issue was visibility. Pole sitter Hakkinen made a good start while Villeneuve swept around the outside of La Source into second. What followed was carnage.

David Coulthard dropped his car on the exit and slid across the track. He was hit several times before coming to rest back on the side of the track where he began to lose it. The Scottish driver later revealed that his accident was caused by hitting a metal grille. With so much spray cars behind didn't slow and just kept colliding at high speed, spreading debris far and high. It was such a lucky escape for drivers, spectators and marshalls. Only Rubens Barichello and Eddie Irvine suffered minor injuries.

The race was stopped and the clear up operation took nearly an hour. Some teams had both cars damaged and with only one spare car available, some people had to miss the restart. Barrichello, Salo, Rosset and Panis were now all out. For the other drivers it was a lengthy wait as they tried to remain focused and calm on the job ahead.

The second start saw Damon Hill make a brilliant start to lead. Hakkinen was squeezed to the inside and on the exit made slight contact with rival Schumacher before he was clouted by Johnny Herbert. Both men were out on the spot and the safety car deployed. When the race resumed, Hill was on the defensive from Schumacher. The German eventually made his move into the Bus Stop chicane and began to pull away. Behind cars were sliding off all over the place. Eddie Irvine lost his front wing at Les Combes while Jacques Villeneuve aquaplaned off approaching Kemmel straight as the rain got heavier. This seen the drivers take to the pits for the full wet tyres.

Schumacher now had a comfortable lead of almost 30 seconds but what really surprised me when watching the race back was how hard he continued to push. Lapping Pedro Diniz almost resulted in contact and as he approached the McLaren of Coulthard he was gesturing for him to get out of the way, a move you'd expect from someone struggling or battling for position rather than someone comfortably leading the race. As the drivers went downhill towards Pouhon Coulthard lifted but stayed on the racing line. Schumacher was caught out in the spray and smashed into the back of the McLaren.

Things didn't finish there. Both men dragged their damaged cars back to the pits. Schumacher was enraged at seeing a potential championship lead slip away and went to the McLaren garage to confront Coulthard. The German had to be dragged away by team personnel, including Jean Todt who had spoke to Ron Dennis seconds before the incident. Coulthard would later admit that he should have got off the racing line. More drama would follow when Giancarlo Fisichella had a huge impact into the rear of Shinji Nakano in a collision which brought out the safety car. Many drivers, including new race leader Hill took the opportunity to make their final stops.

Jordan were now 1-2 and looking set for a maiden victory in Formula 1. As the safety car pitted and the final phase of the race began there were only 8 cars running. Behind the Jordan cars were Jean Alesi, Heinz Harald Frentzen, Pedro Diniz and Jarno Trulli. Meanwhile Coulthard and Nakano had both got new rear wings and rejoined the track, albeit many laps down. Jordan had the pace to hold off Alesi but he was close behind and at this stage of the race it was Ralf Schumacher who was the faster Jordan. Hill recognised this and in a move that was revealed years after the race pleaded with Eddie Jordan to use team orders and tell Schumacher to hold station. The message was given to Ralf who was asked to reply. Only after several attempts did he finally conform to the teams instruction.

The pair stayed close. Meanwhile Trulli was limping home with a sick engine. His slow speed almost caught out Hill when he lapped the Prost coming through Eau Rouge. However the Englishman would go on to take what would prove to be his final win in the sport in what was arguably the finest moment in the history of the Jordan team. Ralf Schumacher took second place but was clearly frustrated at being held back from taking a first win. Alesi gave Sauber a joyful podium in third.

The championship battle would go to the wire but Mika Hakkinen would take his first title in Japan after Schumacher stalled on the grid before suffering a puncture. Jordan would build upon their strong finish to 1998 with two wins in 1999 courtesy of Frentzen who moved from Williams to the team. Hill would retire at the end of 1999.

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