When some 21st century motorsport historian looks back for a window in time to frame what 1990s Formula One was all about, you can point him towards the second half of August 1998. In two short weeks hell find accusations of cheating, miraculous escapes from dreadful accidents, a driver taking his team to court, an ex-World Champion claiming another top driver was deliberately trying to kill him – and two great motor races. All, in fact, that is best, and worst, in this whole strange business.
The high melodrama of Spa tended to overshadow the Hungarian GP two weeks earlier. This was a modem motor race by which I mean it took place on an artificial little circuit where overtaking is for today’s F1 cars almost impossible. Nowadays Grands Prix are all about strategy, with key overtaking moves happening during pitstops. Hungary was one of the best of these, an enthralling contest of wits and opportunism a sort of billion-pound computer game, brought to life on the track by the best racing driver in the current world.
After the woes of Hockenheim, Ferrari were going to have to dream up something special to do battle with the McLarens. They did it by opting for a third pitstop, in a race where two stops seemed to be the logical choice for everyone. What takes the time during a stop is not changing the wheels, which can be done in little more than five seconds: it’s pumping in the fuel, at a regulated 12 litres a second. The more often you stop, the shorter those stops can be – and the lighter, and thus faster, the car will be for most of its time on the track, and the fresher its tyres. But in Hungary a perfect stop, including time driving down the speed-limited pitlane, will still add 25 seconds to a driver’s race time. For the plan to work, Ferrari needed all Schumacher’s relentless speed – and the element of surprise.
They achieved that by bringing Schumacher in for his first and second stops only just before one-third and two-thirds distance, so it looked as if he was on a two-stop like everyone else. But the second stop was so quick – 6.8 seconds stationary – that the sharpest eyes in the pitlane guessed he’d taken on little fuel, and would need to come in again.
After the leading McLarens made their second stops, with Häkkinen already troubled by the handling problem that would drop him to sixth, the Ferrari pit crew did their calculations, and then technical director Ross Brawn got on the radio to Schumacher. “You’ve got 19 laps to build up a 25-second lead.” From the constricted heat and noise of the F300’s cockpit came back the clipped message: “I’ll do my best”
Michael Schumacher’s best is, of course, better than anything. For the next 20 minutes he drove as well as he has ever driven. At one point the car got away from him on the long third-gear right-hander onto the main straight, and snapped sideways across the grass, but miraculously he gathered it up again. When, with 15 laps to go, he came in for his last splash of fuel, his lead over Coulthard was 29 seconds. The pitstop took 7.7 seconds –good but not great by Ferrari standards – and he rejoined still in the lead. The job was done.
The ongoing McLaren/Ferrari fight had been given an unattractive twist by the battle of words between them in the paddock Back in March McLaren’s braking system, which allowed the driver to stabilise the car near the limit of traction by braking each rear wheel individually, was declared illegal by the FIA following a protest from Ferrari. Now McLaren boss Ron Dennis was telling Ferrari he believed their braking system was illegal by the same token, and that he intended to protest. Ross Brawn said McLaren’s complaints were “nasty and malicious”, and hoped Dennis would protest officially rather than just threatening to do so. “If someone says you have a system that is so well hidden that it’s undetectable, how can you defend yourself?” The FIA’s boffins must find an answer to that.
It would be hard to find a sharper contrast between the dusty bowl of the Hungaroring and Spa-Francorchamps. Spa has dubious facilities, dreadful access, perennial rain and mud and is indubitably the finest racing circuit in the calendar. Every F1 driver worth his millions gets a glint in his eye when he talks about Spa. The wonder is that this is a circuit which was totally remodelled in the 1980s, and yet all the atmosphere and challenge of the original has been retained, and even enhanced. The narrow section of public road down to the village of Stavelot, where the Masta Kink took cars at over 180 mph between two rural cottages, could not live on as part of a modem Grand Prix circuit; but the new downhill section through Pouhon and Les Fagnes contains some of the most demanding comers on the calendar. Then, of course, there is Eau Rouge, that terrifying sixth gear plunge left and steep lurch right which remains the supreme test of machine and of man. As increasing speeds made it more and more hazardous, the circuit authorities, to their great credit, declined to by-pass it or chicane it (apart from an unhappy temporary expedient in 1994): instead they enlarged the run-off areas and tyre barriers, and left the road as it was.
Last year, with wide cars and slicks, Eau Rouge was what The Boys call Easy Flat – which meant that, if you and your car were up to snuff, there was no question of lifting. Now we’re in the era of narrow cars and grooved tyres, it was a different story. By the end of qualifying at least three of the drivers had their cars and themselves set up to do it, although another said the aster lap came from running less wing angle: you needed a tiny confidence lift to get through Eau Rouge unscathed, but then had more steam on the 195mph drag up to Les Combes. But on Friday Jacques Villeneuve had an immense and horrifying accident trying to take the Williams flat through Eau Rouge, producing rather unpleasant stories in the tabloids the next day which drew analogies with the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, when his father was killed. The next day Mika Salo did the same in his Arrows.
The astonishing, and cheering, thing about both these accidents is that the drivers were unscathed. Not only did the tyre walls do their job (although the gravel trap didn’t seem to slow the Williams much before it hit the barrier the cars themselves are now immeasurably stronger since 1982, or 1994 for that matter. In particular the cockpit side protection must have saved several lives already. I’ve always believed the way to make motor racing safer is to control the design of the cars and not emasculate the tracks. Eau Rouge and the modem F1 car are examples of that.
Another is that heart-stopping accident at the start of the race. Whether or not the mild bump between Irvine’s Ferrari and Coulthard’s McLaren had anything to do with David’s midpack lunge into the wall, 13 cars were involved, several utterly destroyed and the human cost was one bruised knee and one banged elbow. Miraculous. While the track was cleared the rain eased, and everyone opted for intermediate tyres for the restart – whereupon the second of three collisions that afternoon between a McLaren and a Ferrari instantly put paid to Häkkinen’s points chances.
Thus we were left with the joyous sight of Damon Hill’s Jordan leading the field, including Schumacher M, until the rain became torrential again, and, the German’s superhuman ability to control an intermediate-shod car on a flooded surface came into play. Significantly, when the rain was at its worst, Schumacher was two seconds a lap faster than Hill – but four seconds a lap faster than everyone else.
In fact the reinvigorated Hill and the vastly improved Jordan were a class act all weekend. Damon outqualified all but the McLarens, and his unruffled consistency and speed in the dreadful conditions was masterly. Even though he acknowledges that luck played its part, it was a great day both for him and for Eddie Jordan’s team, which has struggled through so many ups and downs to score its first win in the firm of a resounding one-two. There could have been no more popular or merited victory. The only straight face on the podium was Ralf Schumacher’s, both because he rightly wasn’t allowed to jeopardise Jordan’s great day by challenging his teammate for the lead, and also because he is taking Jordan to court in his efforts to escape to Williams next year.
Which, in the Spa story, leaves the much-publicised collision between Schumacher and Coulthard. My views are quickly summarised.
One, David Coulthard – he, of all of the F1 drivers – would never, under any circumstances, deliberately endanger another driver’s life, let alone his own as well. Two, Michael Schumacher had an unthreatened lead of over half a minute at the time of the accident and, with Hakkinen out of the race and visibility treacherously poor, had every reason to lap slower cars with extreme care. Yet, a couple of laps earlier, he almost hit Diniz under similar circumstances.
Three, best driver in the world he may be, but his uncontrolled rage in the pits and his verbal attack on Coulthard were an embarrassing and belittling display which left him, and motor racing, poorer – as do his and Ferrari’s insinuations that there was more to this incident than met the eye. Four, one might guess that, consciously or subconsciously, he felt foolish for having thrown away 10 points when the championship was finely poised, and his automatic reaction was to attack. As Damon Hill says, “Blaming others is a tactic Michael uses when he has made a mistake, targeting an innocent party to deflect from his own error.”
Five, David Coulthard’s reaction to Schumacher’s race rage was typically controlled, sensible and dignified. And six, there always have to be lessons learned. The visibility was for a time impossible – Fisichella running into the back of Nakano was the most worrying of several incidents and near-misses and, as at Silverstone, one must wonder whether the decision-making procedure for deploying the pace car needs to be re-examined.
One way and another, it was quite a fortnight. As for Schumacher, his huge talent netted him 10 points in Hungary, while his own error netted him none in Spa. I’m afraid that is pretty much as it should be.