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F1 History 41

The farce of the 1999 title decider

Sepang, October 1999. Somewhat against his will – for he had little enthusiasm for helping another Ferrari driver to win the world championship – Michael Schumacher, fully recovered from the broken leg sustained at Silverstone, made his return to racing. With two races to go, McLaren’s Mika Häkkinen had 62 points, two ahead of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine.

To no one’s surprise, Schuey was instantly on it in Malaysia, beating Irvine to pole position by a clear second, with the McLarens of David Coulthard and Häkkinen third and fourth; in the race the Ferraris dominated, Michael dutifully giving up the lead – the victory, indeed – to Eddie.

history  The farce of the 1999 title decider

Häkkinen finished third, 10 seconds adrift, which meant that Irvine would go to Suzuka in the lead of the championship, 70 to 66. A celebratory Ferrari dinner that evening was ruined, though, when word came that, following post-race scrutineering, the cars had been disqualified, and Häkkinen – now promoted to first place and 10 points – thus declared World Champion of 1999.

Why were the Ferraris out? Because the scrutineers had found that the base plates of the cars’ bargeboards were a centimetre too short. When Ross Brawn said that his drivers would not have gained any performance advantage from this, few doubted him, but that was beside the point: rules were rules, and in this one the Ferraris didn’t comply.

“I remember talking to Ross at the airport the next day,” said Patrick Head. “Understandably he was pretty disconsolate, but he said to me, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. If the car is illegal, that’s a massive error in our design office – we’ve had the drawings sent out, and there’s no getting out of it…’”

history  The farce of the 1999 title decider

All in all, this was something of an anti-climactic end to the championship fight, and if Häkkinen and McLaren were well pleased, others were not. Suzuka, so often the scene of dramatic title deciders, looked like being a touch flat this time.

Then again… maybe not, for during the following week Bernie Ecclestone came forth with remarks about how it was “a nonsense” that the Ferraris had been disqualified, that the rules were too tight, that a showdown in Suzuka had been unnecessarily scuppered. Bargeboard, schmarge board…

Ferrari officially appealed against the disqualifications, and the FIA Court of Appeal convened the following Friday to discuss the matter. And guess what – the bargeboards that had been illegal in Sepang were found five days later to be legal in Paris! Irvine and Schumacher, a press release declared, were reinstated in first and second places in the Malaysian Grand Prix, and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo duly issued an unsurprisingly self-righteous statement.

Luca di Montezemolo’s statement

“This verdict reaffirms the values of the sport, which has inspired Ferrari over 50 years, and restores to us and our fans the great victory achieved on the track, which confirms the quality of our work.

“We worked quietly in order to demonstrate to the Court in a professional and incontrovertible manner the fundamental truth which led to the decision, which has put to rights so many unjust interpretations levelled against us these past few days, about which I was very unhappy.”

What was it Ross had said to Patrick?

“Ferrari appreciates the seriousness and high level of professionalism with which the FIA Court of Appeal has dealt with this case,” di Montezemolo concluded. “Now, all our energies are devoted to trying to win the final and decisive Japanese Grand Prix.”

history  The farce of the 1999 title decider

Why were the bargeboards now legal?

It was with some amazement that we learned of the grounds on which the bargeboards had been found kosher, after all, for now we were told that they had failed to conform, not by the 10mm originally measured by the FIA’s Technical Delegate at Sepang, but by an amount within the 5mm tolerance permitted by the regulations.

Was the FIA saying that its representative in Malaysia had not had at his disposal the means to take sufficiently accurate measurements?

More importantly, where had this ‘5mm tolerance’ come from? As a leading designer told me, it was mentioned nowhere in the regulations, save the one dealing with the car’s flat bottom. “It’s virtually impossible to build a completely flat ‘flat bottom’,” he said, “which is why that tolerance is allowed. But with regard to any other specified dimensions – including bargeboards – there is no mention of any tolerance at all. Our understanding has always been that if we have, say, a rear wing that’s .001 of a centimetre too high, we’re out.

“Now, however, it appears that this tolerance appertains across the board, and if that’s the case, we need clarification of the point, because quite obviously we’ve been building and racing our cars too conservatively, so as to be absolutely certain of not being the tiniest fraction outside the rules…”

The championship decider

Off we went to Japan, then, for Sunday afternoon at the Suzuka Palladium, and in the paddock irreverent jokes abounded. “So that’s what ‘FIA’ stands for,” someone murmured. “‘Ferrari Internal Affairs…”

Never can I recall a championship decider where there was such a common will to see one driver, rather than the other, succeed. It wasn’t a matter of being against Irvine as much as being for justice.

“Jesus, I hope Mika wins it,” said Jacques Villeneuve, “but I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes because in his mind he’s won it, you know – and now he finds he’s at the last race, and behind in the championship again. That’s a very difficult situation for him to be in – he’s bound to feel he’s been had. And Eddie, by contrast, is laughing…”

history  The farce of the 1999 title decider

Some of us had wondered, following the Court of Appeal’s decision, whether McLaren might take cynical advantage of this new ‘5mm tolerance’ – which now apparently applied to all dimensions – to improve its cars’ performance, by raising the wing heights, and so on.

Ron Dennis said not. “If I thought it would be productive to speak my mind, I would, but I think the correct approach is a dignified one, and that’s what we’ve been trying to bring to this weekend.

“I still think that the real loser in all this is our sport. And, whatever the outcome of the race, it won’t change the result of the world championship in my mind. I think a lot of people feel the same way…”

There was no doubt about that. How had Villeneuve felt about the FIA Court of Appeal’s decision? “Well,” he said, after giving it some thought, “you grow up, and you dream, you dream about racing, and about racing being a sport. And then one day the dream stops…”

Häkkinen, always at his absolute best under pressure, led Schumacher away from the grid, raising a huge cheer in the press room, and for an hour and a half we willed that McLaren not to fail. Mercifully neither car nor driver missed a beat, so that Mika was world champion – as he had rightly been at Sepang a fortnight earlier – and this time there was no opportunity to play fast and loose with the most important title in motor racing.

history  The farce of the 1999 title decider

Top ten in the 1999 World Championship
1 Mika Häkkinen 76
2 Eddie Irvine 74
3 Heinz-Harald Frentzen 54
4 David Coulthard 48
5 Michael Schumacher 44
6 Ralf Schumacher 35
7 Rubens Barrichello 21
8 Johnny Herbert 15
9 Giancarlo Fisichella 13
10 Mika Salo 10

What a performance, though, what a lot of time and effort – to say nothing of legal fees – had gone into somehow keeping the world championship alive to the end.

Much easier to award double points at the last race, isn’t it? So much simpler to have it written into the rules. Come November 2014 I’ll give them normal points in Abu Dhabi, and base my world championship on that. I suspect there may be others – as keen as I to minimise farce in Formula 1 – who will do the same.

More from Nigel Roebuck
Fangio: The morning I met the maestro
Roebuck’s legends: Brian Redman
Roebuck’s legends: Dallas 1984

history  The farce of the 1999 title decider

Add your comments

41 comments on The farce of the 1999 title decider

  1. Rob Christoph, 20 December 2013 12:01

    Great article Nigel
    Farce indeed!
    I’ve got an even better idea….don’t award any points until the very last race!!!
    Also, start the fastest qualifiers over the year at the back of the grid.
    The old way of deciding the Championship is starting to look decidedly dull.

  2. Serge Dubuc, 20 December 2013 12:10

    Just had an idea…if the F1 race in Abu Dhabi will award drivers double points, let’s have ten times the points for GPs in Spa, Suzuka, Interlagos, and Monza…and zero for Hungary and the majority of the GPs run on Tilke tracks (Austin, Texas being an exception).

  3. John, 20 December 2013 12:20

    Nigel, I remember reading about Ferrari deciding to give up on Irvine winning the championship to focus on Schumacher and the next season. Did Irvine not let slip that Ferrari had decided not bring a trick floor to the race?

  4. Terry Jacob, 20 December 2013 12:59

    Mika didn’t look like a champion at the finish of the Malaysia Grand Prix , he looked like an opponent of Muhammad Ali who’d been humiliated over fifteen rounds , Michael having completely broken his spirit by continually letting him work his way close enough for a pass then disappearing just out of reach .

  5. C C, 20 December 2013 13:28

    Great article that brings back memories.

    I have a lot of affection for the 97,98,99 & 00 F1 Champioships. They were all full of drama and went down to the wire. 2 Great drivers in Schumacher & Halkkinen, and both backed up by Coulthard and Irvine (except in 00 if i remember) who also used to be a match for each other. All 4 of them battling at the front, with the odd Jordan / Williams / Benetton in the mix.

    True the politics spoilt this year to a degree, but at least the racing was good. This is 15 years ago and yet if feels a world away. I remember Irvine been chased down by Coulthard at the A1 ring that year and the tension being unbelievable, nowadays that would be a simple press of the DRS button for Coulthard, job done, no drama, no excitement. I didn’t realise at the time that i was watching one of the last great seasons in F1 and that there would only be a few more in the next 15 years – you must remember? There were genuine overtaking moves, Gravel traps, tyres that lasted, mechanical failures, GP’s in countries with an F1 heritage (Malaysia excluded). Another World when you look back now.

    Credit to Mika for winning, for Irvine for taking it so well, and for Schumacher for playing number 2 for a couple of races. That must have hurt, but what goes around comes around.

    Lets hope next year, every team builds the DRS flap 10mm too wide and they have to ban the lot.

  6. David Whalley, 20 December 2013 13:49

    1999 was my first full season of wathcing F1 as a 10 year old. It was a great season & looking back with more mature (ish) eyes I can’t quite believe the farse of Ferrari being thrown out & then the decision being reversed. I do wonder if Ferrari did anything to stop Irvine become WC – he wasnt going to be carrying #1 in 2000 all in thanks to a Jaguar contract & Schumi would have been rather annoyed if Irvine had become the first driver since ’79 to become Ferrari World Drivers Champion!

    Great to bring back some great memories just before Christmas so many thanks Nigel.

    Merry Christmas all!

    P.S – Dear Santa, please please please please ban double points.

  7. David Whalley, 20 December 2013 14:33

    “Formula One’s new double points rule at the final race of the season could be dropped after just one year, according to Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo.”

    Wow, that was quick Santa.

  8. Archie Cheunda, 20 December 2013 14:46

    Phew, thank goodness for that, Nigel! I have been eagerly anticipating your trenchant rejection of double points, but the blurb introducing this column on the homepage rather misleadingly gave the impression that you might astonishingly be relaxed about it! I almost choked on my coffee, so it was a great relief when I got to the last paragraph and found your views are as one would expect.
    I will be one of the many joining you in mentally awarding normal points at Abu Dhabi and basing our championship thereupon. If – and pray God it doesn’t happen – this nonsense delivers the wrong champion, I hope Motor Sport will publish a cover hailing the real one.
    Imagine this scenario, though – Driver A goes to Yas Marina on 300 points, Driver B on 276. Toward the end of the race, Driver B is set to win, while Driver A lies 4th. On Planet Justice, Driver A would still be well ahead 312-301, but in the alternative double points universe Driver B is on course to snatch the “title” 326-324. Driver A desperately needs to catch the car in 3rd, but it’s just too much to ask. In the final laps, Driver A blows his engine/falls off his godforsaken “tyre cliff”/tangles with another car in a risky move/spins off on his own. He’s out of the race. Even with normal points, Driver B would now take the title by 301-300. But if normal points had really been at stake, Driver A would never have needed to take the risks which caused his DNF.
    In such a scenario, we may have to do more than simply count normal points to find the moral champion who has been denied justice by this absurd idea.

  9. Eric, 20 December 2013 15:36

    Thank goodness for Nigel’s memory, knowledge, spine, courage etc as a journalist – need more articles like this!

  10. Masta Kink, 20 December 2013 16:01 me the Wold Champion is the one with the most wins in a season…simple…! So whether it’s double points or not becomes irrelevant…mercifully…

  11. Feni, 20 December 2013 16:12

    I recall the outrage. My brother, a racing fan of 20 years at that stage, has not watched a Grand Prix since. Sports administrators who have no integrity leads to a sport without the sport. I simply smiled and ticked it as just another example…

  12. Trevor Pogue, 20 December 2013 16:38

    Excellent article, Nigel. As ever, you hit the nail on the head. Combined with your recent comments on ‘exuberance’ in F1 and MotoGP it just demonstrates how po-faced F1 has become. Too many rules and regulations, too little sport. This year I missed several of the F1 races on TV ‘cos I was watching MotoGP. Infinitely more entertaining, and damned good value. For the past couple of years I have attended the Jerez MotoGP meeting. €80 for all three days, with allocated grandstand seat, 111,000 spectators, and a commentator who sounds on the verge of cardiac arrest. Superb. F1 has lost another viewer.

  13. david Gordon, 20 December 2013 16:57

    Given that we already have DRS to liven up the show (note not the sport), double points really will mean that FIA now stands for Formula1 – It’s Artificiial !!

  14. SimonC, 20 December 2013 17:00

    At work we called them “Ferrari International Aid”; different title, same idea! To CC’s comment I would add that the 1996 season was also pretty special, although I doubt that Schumacher ever took playing #2 well!

  15. Keith Campbell, 20 December 2013 17:01

    Lock Bernie up right now, before he can do any more harm to a once great sport. I had followed F1 since 1970 getting my “fix” via MOTORSPORT,and thought it was brilliant when the Grand Prix’s were broadcasted by the BBC from 1978 onwards never missing a race. On the evening of my first date with the woman who was to become my wife, I called at her flat as arranged but insisted that we stayed in until after the San Marino GP had finished. It is a sad indication of the farce F1 has become that I only watched 3 or 4 races over the last few years and usually fell asleep.

  16. John Clarke, 20 December 2013 18:09

    Double points, single points-does it really matter. F1 is no longer a sport, it is a business. For motor SPORT follow historic racing.

  17. Johnnie Crean, 20 December 2013 18:21

    If the barge board made no difference in performance, then why whine about the race being decided on the track? And if you are going to declare your own champion based on your own unpublished rules, certainly Moss deserves a Championship. Make him 2014 World Champion! My, you are so important!
    Reality is that the 1999 title decider was a cliffhanger. I still recall the tension. What a rush! Too bad you missed it. Who in your mind won, anyway?

  18. Nigel Roebuck, 20 December 2013 18:50

    Sorry you missed my attempt at ironic humour, Johnnie. No, I’m not so important – my ‘unpublished rules’, as you put it, are the ones that have served F1 very well from 1950 on: in terms of points, every race is worth the same. Not too difficult, really

    As for the ’99 Suzuka race being a cliff-hanger, no, I didn’t miss it, thank you. I was there. Who – in my mind – won? The right man.

  19. David, 20 December 2013 19:19

    As an American, one who has followed F1 since 1962, I’ve always found it amazing that F1 is as willing as it is to change the outcome of an event after the fact. That kind of thing simply would not be tolerated in the US. The result that fans see in a sporting event either stands or the entire sport has its reputation damaged as a result since few if any here are willing to believe that reversing an outcome is not in itself a sign of corruption.

    Yet in F1 we’ve seen Senna denied a championship after a race he won, Hamilton nearly denied one (and Massa nearly handed one), Hunt nearly denied one, Schumacher black flagged from one race, banned from the next two and then pilloried for taking it into his own hands to win his first (as was Senna). Sorry, but this “sport” is a rule bound, politicized, bureaucratic mess.

  20. Johnnie Crean, 20 December 2013 19:39

    I am honored to get a response from you. We have been in same elevator twice.

    F1 Championship I’ve followed since the early 60s has changed rules on points often. Your claim all races counted the same is questionable at best. For a long time it was best results of some races, and each driver got to use his best results while discarding other race results. Total driver points were from different counted races, and so some races counted nothing for every driver! I just get excited when you proclaim something as fact which ain’t!

    The 1999 Japan race was no farce, either.

    All these rule changes try to deal with some issue. Letting drivers count only some races was to address reliability issues, I suppose. Dropping races allowed a point total to favor speed, while counting all results more rewards reliability. Over the decades, F1 has often moved to reward reliability over pace. Double points now is to cause excitement at end of season if Red Bull rolls on. By season end the cars should be really reliable and sorted, and there is an argument that a win of last race is worth double a win early when reliability, set up, and driver errors are more a factor.

    Luca made a reasonable decision not doing a veto and figuring trying it a year is OK.

    Thank you for response.

  21. Robbo, 20 December 2013 19:53

    “I suspect there may be others – as keen as I to minimise farce in Formula 1 – who will do the same”.

    Yes indeed. But what does winning the World Championship actually mean, in sporting terms, when you really think about it? One man can drive like a God and lead the championship all year long and yet be robbed of it by 1 point at the last round. Its happened before. There are plenty of years in which, had there been one less race, the outcome of the WDC would have been completely different. 1981 springs to mind.

    The Drivers’ Championship has in recent years become the ‘be all & end all’, which is an inevitable consequence of the increasing homogenisation of Grand Prix racing, meaning that individual Grand Prix have lost their special status as an event to be won in their own right and have just become another round in the championship and another potential 25 points. There are far too many races per year these days and far too many of them are held at boring, artificial circuits in parts of the world that don’t give a tuppenny cuss about motor racing. If double points are going to be awarded (which is obviously a ridiculous idea), lets award them at Monaco, Silverstone, Spa, Suzuka & Monza.

  22. Andrew Daley, 20 December 2013 20:31

    The old best 11 races didn’t always award the most reliable.
    Take 1988 as the example. Senna won 8, retired from a couple, disqualified in Brazil, 4th in Estoril etc. Yet Prost won 7, finished 2nd 7 times and only retired twice, Silverstone & Monza.
    On outright point Prost won the title, but due to the best 11, he lot by 3 I think.
    Yet if double points were available to him in final round at Adelaide, Prost would have been 1988 world champion….. And 84 for that matter too…

  23. Steven Roy, 20 December 2013 21:03

    The fantasy tolerance annoyed me at the time and it still annoys me now. It has always baffled me why the powers that be think that things like this are a good idea. Aside from the obvious Ferrari bias demonstrated by Bernie and Max I could never understand why they would allow a mockery to be made of their own rules.

    The invention of Ferrari International Assistance was a black day for F1.

  24. Piero Dessimone, 20 December 2013 21:57

    Excellent article Mr. Roebuck. You are one of the reason why I keep subscribing.
    Merry Christmas to you and your colleagues at MotorSport.

  25. David, 20 December 2013 22:18

    One further point to make re my earlier comments: public opinion, along with the opinions of TV networks and sponsors plays a large enough role in American sport that controversies like 1999 might happen once, but great, great pressure would be placed on a sport’s organizing body to see that it never happened again. In F1 it seems to happen in some form or another on a fairly routine basis. I suppose this is the case because only fans and journalists (and Bernie sometimes) seem to care that it does.

    As it is, some of the most important things in F1 happen out of sight, from the awarding of victories and on occasion the championship, to the engineering that creates ugly cars and unwatchable races. F1 is looking more and more like the banking industry pre-2008. It will work until all of the problems come to a head at once to destroy it. Unlike the banks however there won’t be any help from governments to save it, unless of course all the races can be held in the Persian Gulf with the teams financed by local hotels and broadcast on Al Jazeera.

  26. Guga, 21 December 2013 00:32

    ” F1 is looking more and more like the banking industry pre-2008. It will work until all of the problems come to a head at once to destroy it….”

    I’d never connected the dots myself until I read this, but i think you’re absolutely spot on David!

  27. David H, 21 December 2013 05:22

    Thank you Nigel, you and all the Motorsport writers are like a breath of fresh air “telling it as you see it”. Just y’day I see a tweet by Rosberg about a Pirelli tire blowout was deleted minutes later. Next will be permission to breath, humans do that, yes? May the old saying “Anything taken to its extreme seeds its opposite” blessedly come to pass in our lifetimes.

    And y’day I came upon your words in the Oct. issue, (written before the latest nonsense from the armchair bureaucrats), quoting Senna: “It seems to me ridiculous that I get the same number of points for both…” (i.e., same points for winning at the Hungaroring and at Spa). Wishing Senna and DJ et al who loved the sport were still here to comment.

    And if Vettel wins next year, what then? Double the points for the last two races? Last three? Ah, why not be consistent and just drop the gimmickry they hope will work and simply penalize whoever is leading (DRS does) in the latter half of the season so the last race HAS to be the decider.

  28. Scott Coe, 21 December 2013 06:48

    Great article, Mr Roebuck. I have to say that my interest in F1 is satisfied now only by the specialist Motorsport press than by watching the “races” themselves!

    Actually, I remember one great quote in your column at the time of that Grand Prix. After the FIA ruled in favour of Ferrari, “as one wag put it: “In Sepang, the Ferrari didn’t fit the regulations. In Paris, the regulations didn’t fit the Ferrari…”"

  29. Steve W, 21 December 2013 09:01

    Hey, Nigel… I still base my World Championships on the old 9-6-4-3-2-1 points system. So you can imagine how I feel about this double points gimmick…

  30. Nick Lawton, 21 December 2013 09:13

    Memories… I was a big fan of Irvine’s but that weekend he blew his great opportunity. At his favourite circuit he somehow didn’t perform as expected. Not quite Reutemann mind! I suppose the essence of the difference between a good and a great driver.

  31. David Goddard, 21 December 2013 10:39

    Thank you Nigel for your inspiring suggestion to notionally award the normal number of points for the final race, and identify the new champion accordingly.

    If, by gaining double points, the wrong driver takes the title, all we enthusiasts should make the loudest noise possible in the media, to remind the world at large who the true champion is. I still believe we can get this thing overturned.

  32. John B, 22 December 2013 09:45

    Thanks – a brilliant article yet again. If only more had the courage to call the current situation for what it is as you do. I think it will be too late to change it if the wrong driver takes the championship. We have to get this madness stopped now.

  33. Cliff Heathcote, 22 December 2013 22:49

    Formula One is rapidly becoming the Heidi Montag of the motor sports world. The double points are merely a 38 DDD boob job. “Hey everyone, look at me!!”

  34. Philip Senior, 23 December 2013 16:30

    Bernie is no doubt thinking he’ll just award enough points to whoever he wants to take the 2014 title, rather than who has actually gained the most …

    I see a time coming when all races will be no-poinrs scoring until the last race, which will be a one-race-winner-takes-all scenario…

  35. Dave Cubbedge, 23 December 2013 17:21

    Don’t forget, it was just a couple years ago that Bernie wanted to do away with ALL points and award the title to the pilot with the most gold medals….

  36. Morris Minor, 25 December 2013 02:55

    I think Senna was on the right wave-length, in suggesting the point rewards should be allocated according to the challenge of the particular track. Spa being more of a test than Hungary etc.

    So, rank the circuits, and there’s plenty of data to assist F1 in this task.

    $Abu Dhabi$ stands supreme.

  37. Brett, 25 December 2013 07:52

    If ‘yoll’ really were inspired to change Formula One, you would all create a movement which would snow ball to immediately, dramatically & drastically reduce the amount of people who watch the business on television.

    Then the little shit head vandal, Bernard Charles Ecclestone, would have to do something he obviously has never done; listen to what the fans want.

  38. Ben O'Driscoll, 10 January 2014 00:11

    I think they should have double points at all the races.

  39. Pedro Paiva, 16 January 2014 07:18

    Drivers could easily overule this nonsense by agreeing to finish the last race as per the championship standings. Effectively, the first in the penultimate race would be crowned the champion.

  40. Pedro Paiva, 16 January 2014 07:21

    I meant the first in the standings AFTER the penultimate race would be crowned champion.

  41. PraguePeter, 26 February 2014 11:33

    On Andrew Daley’s point, I thought Senna won in 88, so the ‘best 11′ results effectively gave us ‘most wins is champion’ which a lot of people seem to ask for.

    Per Nick Lawton’s point about Irvine at Suzuka not acing it at one of his favourite tracks, I’ve often wondered if Ferrari were tipped off or just decided internally that it was safer to lose it on track and avoid controversy, rather than lose it later in court and be exposed as cheats plus bring the sport into disrepute?

    That also avoided any conflict with the Chosen One not being champion and the departing ‘Swerve’ taking the Number 1 to Jaguar with him. Convenient all round.

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