Flying Finn Hakkinen nets first drivers' title
The Formula One World Championship has always been about a clash of individuals, and 1998 will go down as one of the epic encounters as it was Mika Hakkinen versus Michael Schumacher and McLaren versus Ferrari. And no quarter was given.
To have a season-long battle for World Championship honours, one usually needs to have the likely protagonists squaring up to each other all year in evenly-matched cars. However, it didn't look as though there was a ghost of a chance of this happening in 1998 between Hakkinen and Schumacher after the opening race in Melbourne when the McLarens creamed the opposition, lapping the entire field. McLaren had responded best to the incoming regulations that insisted on narrower chassis and the use of grooved tyres.
Yet, on that day back in March an important thing happened: Hakkinen thought he'd been called into the pits after mishearing a radio message and made a stop that cost him the lead. However, Coulthard kept to a pre-race agreement that whichever of them led into the first corner on the first lap would win the race and so let Hakkinen past for victory. The difference between first and second is four points, and these would become truly crucial for the Finn. At the time, however, it looked as though they would only be useful in his fight against Coulthard.
The Brazilian Grand Prix came and went with Hakkinen followed home by Coulthard. Yet Schumacher made progress by not only finishing the race, but finishing it in third place. But still it was hard for the German to harbour any title aspirations.
Yet the arrival of a wider Goodyear front tyre, in conjunction with the first of a raft of aerodynamic changes from Ferrari, achieved the seemingly impossible in the Argentinian Grand Prix. Schumacher won after muscling Coulthard out of the lead. Hakkinen could only trail home second with Eddie Irvine making it a doubly good day for Ferrari by finishing third while Coulthard endured a further accident, with 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve's Williams, before finishing sixth.
This appeared to have been something of a false dawn however, when McLaren dominated at Imola. Certainly, Hakkinen dropped out, but Coulthard won, albeit cruising to the finish ahead of Schumacher. Lest Ferrari were thinking that Hakkinen's retirement at Imola showed a chink in McLaren's armour, Hakkinen and Coulthard dominated the Spanish Grand Prix.
Then Hakkinen won at Monaco after Coulthard's engine blew when right with him. Schumacher, though, had a disastrous time, losing laps in the pit for repairs after clashing with Alexander Wurz. Still, he came off better than the young Austrian whose Benetton later collapsed in the tunnel and he was fortunate to escape the ensuing ride along the barriers. At least Benetton had a smile at the end of the day, though, as Giancarlo Fisichella survived a spin to bring their other car home in second place.
However, when the circus headed for Canada, McLaren had looked set for another maximum haul of points, but then Hakkinen found himself without a drive at the second start, after Wurz had triggered a restart after a further aerobatic moment. Then Coulthard dropped out of the lead when his car also failed, leaving the way open for Schumacher to win, despite taking in a stop/go penalty for forcing Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Williams off the track.
When Schumacher and Irvine got ahead of the McLarens at the second start of the French Grand Prix they bottled them up there and finished first and second. Amazingly, Schumacher made it a hat-trick in the British Grand Prix after Hakkinen lost a 40 second lead when the safety car was deployed as the track was so wet that cars were aquaplaning. Hakkinen then spun and Schumacher took the lead. But he was called in for a stop/go penalty and this ought to have handed the win back to Hakkinen, although he somehow got around this by taking this penalty in the pits after passing the chequered flag. Amazingly, he was allowed to keep his win because of a procedural cock-up.
McLaren bounced back with Hakkinen and Coulthard finishing first and second in both Austria and Germany. They should have repeated this in Hungary, too, but Ferrari tactician Ross Brawn put Schumacher on a three-stop strategy that worked a treat for a famous win.
Schumacher should have won at Spa-Francorchamps as well, but he slammed into the back of a delayed Coulthard and ripped off a wheel, throwing away a 30-second lead over Damon Hill's Jordan which went on to the team's first win ahead of team-mate Ralf Schumacher and Jean Alesi's Sauber. He was gifted a win on home ground at Monza, though, when Coulthard dropped out of the lead and Hakkinen fell to fourth with brake problems. Amazingly, this brought him level on points with Hakkinen and although he led at the Nurburgring, Hakkinen came from behind to win and thus head for the last round in Japan four points ahead with momentum behind him.
Yes, those four gifted points from Australia had come home to roost. And this put the pressure on Schumacher, knowing that he had to win to be champion. And, even if he did, Hakkinen was going to have to finish third or lower. So he was relying heavily on team-mate Eddie Irvine. Then Schumacher stalled at the start and was forced to start the race from the back of the grid. The battle was over and Hakkinen raced off to his eighth win and the World Championship that had looked his right from his early days in racing.
And what of the rest? Well, 1998 marked a three-way shoot-out for third in the Constructors' Cup between Williams, Benetton and Jordan. Villeneuve and Frentzen struggled all year, finishing no higher than third, while Fisichella scored Benetton's best results with a pair of second place finishes.
But it was relative newcomers Jordan who hit the jackpot, with their day of days coming when they scored their famous one-two in the crash-torn Belgian Grand Prix. This, combined with a run of strong results, propelled the team that failed to score until the second half of the season past Benetton into fourth place overall.
Sauber had a lacklustre time in 1998 despite the arrival of Alesi, who got the better of Johnny Herbert. Arrows normally saw drivers Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz pulling off in a cloud of smoke, although they both finished in the points at Monaco. Stewart dropped Jan Magnussen to introduce Jos Verstappen alongside Rubens Barrichello with little effect. Minardi soldiered on to no real glory. While Tyrrell showed flashes of speed through mercurial Japanese driver Toranosuke Takagi, but had a dismal end to its 30-year career. From now on it will be effectively a completely new team: British American Racing.
Reproduced from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Formula One published by Carlton Books