It’s been a long, long season. Three thousand miles of racing. Untold days of testing, untold nights of preparation. Nine unrelenting months of sheer hard work across five continents. In the end, for Michael Schumacher it all came down to the single tiny moment at Suzuka when, on pole position in the Ferrari and fired up to do a champion’s job, he selected first gear. And felt the lurch, through his frame but also in the pit of his stomach, which told him that one of the myriad electronic veins between his fingers and the clutch had malfunctioned. The car had stalled.
That really was the moment when 1998’s capricious pendulum finally moved away from Maranello for good, and swung inevitably towards Woking. The rules dictate that the man who causes an aborted start be consigned to the back of the grid for the restart, and this if nothing else produced some memorable Schumacher when the race finally got under way. By Turn One he had passed at least half a dozen cars; by the end of 2 he was 10th. His incredible progress up the field continued apace, spurred on by the knowledge that the man who mattered most to him, race leader Mika Hakkinen, was less than 12 seconds up the road. Perhaps the title wasn’t lost yet.
Then, having swept past his brother in one of the Jordans, he found Damon Hill in front of him in the other. It was a piquant situation: Hill, stuck behind Villeneuve’s fifth-placed Williams, was intent on earning enough points to move Jordan up in the Constructors’ Championship. As the last three World Champions stormed round Suzuka’s magnificent high-speed sweeps a few feet apart, no-one needed reminding that in the final deciding race of 1994 Schumacher hit Hill; in the 1997 decider Schumacher hit Villeneuve. Quite a bit of history there, and for the time being Schumacher’s progress was stymied. No doubt his shattering early speed had taken the best out of his tyres, but by the time the first round of pitstops broke up this group, the gap between Michael and Mika had ballooned to 29 seconds.
Nevertheless he continued, as he always will, to stay on the limit everywhere. By half distance he was in a solid third place, ahead of Coulthard’s McLaren and behind his team-mate Irvine. It had been a stunning recovery: having started dead last, second place looked likely, with the title beckoning if Hakkinen had a problem.
But as we all know, Mika didn’t, and Michael did. He’d already had one trip over the chicane kerbs and onto the grass. Then a Minardi ran into a Tyrrell, two cars in another race and, perhaps, on another planet. There were shards of carbon-fibre and sundry debris all over the road, and some of this must have been responsible for the exploding rear tyre that put Schumacher out for good soon after. Michael was philosophical as he walked back to the pits, to shake hands in good-humoured resignation with his team, and you realised that the puncture hadn’t been his worst moment of the day: it was that little jerk on the grid, the disbelieving shake of his crash-helmeted head, that had really spelt the end of his season.
Inevitably, the what-ifs crowded in. What if it had been Mika who ran over the debris and got the puncture? That would have left a Ferrari 1-2 and, whether or not Irvine had waved him by, Michael would have done it.
But for the biggest what-if we have to go back almost exactly three years, to November 1995. What if the medics in Adelaide hadn’t been so quick, and so skilful, as they tended the dreadfully injured Hakkinen on that Friday afternoon, performing an emergency tracheotomy at the trackside? As the ambulance drove slowy away we all feared the worst and indeed, while I waited to voice a live bulletin into the BBC News back in Britain, word ran up and down the pit lane, happily totally misguided, which did tell us the worst.
When next I saw Mika, back in Australia four months later for the first race in Melbourne, he looked thin and drawn: but he finished a brave fifth. And, as the season wore on, it became clear that his speed and fire were undiminished – the same speed and fire that had gob-smacked Ayrton Senna into silence in Portugal in 1993, when in his first drive for McLaren, Mika out-qualified his team leader.
Hakkinen is unpopular with some members of the media, because he’s never comfortable in a press conference. Confronted by a microphone, a large audience and TV cameras, he finds it hard to come up with a quotable bon mot in a foreign language. Before the Japanese Grand Prix one newspaperman told me he wanted Schumacher to win the title, because Hakkinen wouldn’t make a good World Champion – he meant as a public figure, a speech-maker, an opener of supermarkets (all of which Schumacher, the supreme professional, does very well).
My tabloid friend was wrong. Mika Hakkinen makes the very best sort of World Champion, because of all the F1 front runners he is an old-fashioned sportsman. In Japan it was typical of the man that, as the tension built before the start and after the TV cameras had left the grid, he walked over to the Ferrari just ahead of him and shook hands with Schumacher (a compliment that Schumacher was the first to return after the race, breaking the rules by going into parc ferme to congratulate the new champion).
You never hear stories of dodgy moves or questionable tactics about Hakkinen: only that he is devastatingly fast. No doubt he makes only a fraction of the merchandising money and spin-off deals garnered by the likes of Schumacher and Villeneuve. You feel that’s not quite such a high priority for Mika. He may not be the life and soul of a post-race press conference: but talk to him one-to-one, and you find a thoughtful, coherent individual with a quiet sense of humour, and not a trace of arrogance.
It’s hard to remember now that until the last race of last year Mika Hakkinen had never won a Grand Prix. In fact you could say that his first unaided victory was in Brazil this year. But no-one has ever doubted his speed. And this is a championship he fought hard for, and won fair and square with season-long brilliance. If Japan was where Schumacher lost the title, the race where Hakkinen won it was undoubtedly the Nurburgring, the best head-to-head we saw all year.
Other championships have ended in back-biting, accusation, acrimony and, yes, collisions. But this, apart from those mid-season mumblings about traction control, was pretty much a lair fight between two great teams and two great drivers – and, of course, two great tyre companies. It was a sad and undeserved footnote to the simply immeasurable contribution Goodyear have made to Formula One since 1965 that, in their last Grand Prix, Schumacher’s championship ended so publicly in a tyre failure.
And this was also a season that taught everyone who didn’t already know, or had forgotten, that Grand Prix racing is a team sport. The title was won by the single-minded Focus of McLaren, Ilmor, Mercedes, Bridgestone – and two drivers. David Coulthard may have had difficulty matching Hakkinen ‘s ever-rising game in the latter part of the season, but he out-qualified and out-raced him on occasion earlier on – and of course handed him that Melbourne win at the start of the year. In the end it didn’t affect the final outcome, but it might well have done.
Eddie Irvine, too, did an increasingly strong and unselfish job supporting Schumacher’s title challenge. His tremendous consistency brought eight podium finishes and kept the Constructors’ Championship alive to the final race. Out-qualifying the McLarens at the Nurburgring was a sweet moment for him.
Most impressive of all was the pace of Ferrari’s development as the season went on, From being merely the best of the rest in Melbourne to fighting from the front by mid-year. Goodyear must take a lot of credit for that. Next year, Tyre Wars will be a thing of the past and everyone will run whatever Bridgestone gives them. But by my reckoning Ferrari, and of course Schumacher, have to start favourites. If it’s as close-fought as this season, we’re in for another vintage year.