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A review of the year

THE most remarkable thing about the 1998 Formula 1 World Championship was that it was not decided until the final round of the series in Suzuka in November. It should have been over by September. McLaren produced a remarkable car which destroyed the opposition in the early races. At Melbourne the cars had a three second advantage each lap over the opposition. But then a combination of dubious decisions by the FIA, McLaren errors, intense development work from Goodyear and Ferrari, and great driving and opportunism from Michael Schumacher pulled the Italian team back into the hunt.

It was settled in a anti-climax at Suzuka with Michael Schumacher's Ferrari stalling on the grid. He drove a mighty race after that but there was no way he was going to beat Mika Hakkinen to the title. And so Mika, who nearly died in a McLaren in an accident in Adelaide in 1995, won his first World Championship and Ron Dennis showed that he has not lost his touch as McLaren boss. Times had been hard for the team between 1993 and 1998 with even longtime sponsor Marlboro deserting the McLaren ship but Dennis and his crew had held the team together where others might have collapsed and the result was success. There are still plenty of rough edges to be smoothed over in the next few years but McLaren is winning again.

Dennis is fond of saying that miracles do not happen in motor racing and that success is achieved by a combination of hard work and checking that every detail is correct. Thus it was that he was fairly outspoken during the year when Ferrari pulled off what looked like a miracle with the F300. It looked nice at the launch and everyone at Maranello talked about this being the year in which Ferrari would have no excuses and then, for the next six weeks, the F300 refused to run properly, its exhaust pipes frazzling the electronics and making the gearbox selection like a lottery draw. Eventually a botch-job made it possible for the car to run and Ferrari embarked on what seemed like endless tests - trying to make the resulting car into a reliable beast, working on the principle that if the car is not going to be the fastest, it needs to be the most reliable.

Eventually a new rear end was produced and after that the team was able to make some rapid progress. The car was still not great but at least it could be developed. Ferrari placed some of the blame for its poor early-season performance on Goodyear, which was not really fair.

As Ferrari improved so did suggestions that the team - and the FIA - was not playing straight. After the drubbing received in Melbourne Ferrari protested McLaren's individual rear-wheel braking system in Brazil. This had been cleared by the FIA before the season began but the FIA stewards decided that this was not correct and threw it out. It was a troubling decision.

McLaren was angered but took the system off the cars and still dominated in Brazil. At the same time the team went onto the offensive against Ferrari, suggesting with little subtlety that the Italian team had some engine management tricks which were not legal. The FIA said this was not possible.

The suspicions, however, remained in the F1 paddock even after Ferrari hit back, saying that McLaren was being malicious and unsporting to make such suggestions. There was much bitterness between the two teams. Who can really say what was happening?

If Ferrari came under suspicion this year there was one simple explanation: the important people involved - Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and electronics ace Tad Czapski - all had one thing in common. They had worked together at Benetton in 1994 when there were similar allegations. These were not proven but, rightly or wrongly, there will always be suspicions when this group works together and achieves amazing things. That is their fate. They may be whiter than snow but you will never get everyone in the F1 paddock to believe it...

One other important point about the controversies was that the FIA created the rod with which it was beaten by creating rules which were deliberately vague. No-one knew what was right and what was wrong and after the FIA Technical Department was over-ruled by FIA Stewards no-one was quite sure who to ask and who to trust. Having rules which can be interpreted in different ways is useful for the governing body. It can decide what it wishes to decide. But the vagueness has a down side and this is what we saw.

Rules or no rules, the McLaren MP4/13 was a spectacularly good car. One can give Adrian Newey - who had taken six months off after falling out with Williams - a lot of the credit, he had profited from months of clear-thinking about F1 design. But one must not overlook the other designers at McLaren. It was not a one-man effort. It was good in all respects and more impressive given the team's late switch to Bridgestone tires. One major factor was the clever "contractive" suspension system which made the car handle so well over the bumps - although the team never admitted that it was using the idea - while the Ilmor-designed Mercedes-Benz engine was busting with horsepower. And the cars were well driven.

Odd though it may not seem, at the start of the year we were still wondering if Mika Hakkinen could actually win a race on his own, without help from his team-mate David Coulthard. In Australia Coulthard was told to move over yet again for Hakkinen and so from the outset we knew that the team was behind the Finn. This was a bad knock for David's confidence. Trying to focus on winning when you know you are not allowed to is not an easy thing to do and David made a lot of mistakes in the course of the year.

You can condemn the team for not supporting the driver but when you look at the way McLaren has supported Hakkinen since his near-fatal crash in 1995 you can see the problem faced by Ron Dennis. Hakkinen's loyalty has now been rewarded and one must assume that now it is David's turn to have the team behind him. This year the Hakkinen-Coulthard relationship worked well. Next year may be a different story.

Hakkinen matured greatly as a driver in the course of the year. He made costly mistakes in the races at Silverstone, Magny-Cours and Monza and several times he made a mess of qualifying. He learned from each error and by the end of the year was a much better driver. Perhaps his most impressive showing was at the Nurburgring where he beat Schumacher fair and square, using Schumacher-like skills. It was a mighty performance. His drive in Hungary - where the McLaren had a roll-bar problem - was remarkable as well. He drove a completely unpredictable car and scored points. As so often happens a really great drive was obscured by a poor result.

The team made mistakes as well and McLaren's famed reliability was not as it should have been. Hakkinen lost points with broken transmissions in Imola and Montreal; and Coulthard lost engines in Monaco, Montreal and Monza. McLaren also threw away a good result for Hakkinen at the Italian GP by fitting the wrong brake pads which ultimately led to Mika's spin.

There were tactical mistakes as well, notably in Hungary where Coulthard was held behind a fading Hakkinen for too long and Schumacher was able to take advantage to win. The team knows that it could have done better and it will in 1999.

Love him or hate him, Schumacher is the best driver in F1; the only man who can produce the kind of fireworks which one recalls from the likes of Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. Give him an impossible task and he will achieve it; give him a sniff of victory and he will chase it. And he works as hard, if not harder, than all his rivals. His constant testing helped Ferrari to produce a marvellous run of reliability - so often a key element in a championship - and although McLaren had a better chassis and engine package he still managed to win. His drive in Hungary - particularly in the middle stint - was astounding as was his performance at Spa before his accident.

The Belgian GP highlighted the great and the bad side of Michael. He drove an inspired race and then made a mistake. One can forgive him for losing control in the heat of the moment but his refusal to accept that he had been at fault and his insistence on stirring up trouble for Coulthard afterwards was a sign that he believes in victory at any price - even if it has to be psychological warfare. He has always been a flawed genius and probably he always will be. Some say that these things do not matter in the modern world, but fans will always love sportsmen more than they love winners.

Eddie Irvine did a good job as tail-end-Charlie for Schumacher. He has never shown himself capable of beating Michael on equal terms and accepted the position as well-paid number two with a little too much ease. As a result, in the cynical world of F1, Eddie is unlikely ever to become a number one driver with a top team. He does not seem to want victory enough to be taken seriously.

Aside from Hakkinen, Schumacher and Coulthard the only man to win a race in 1998 was Damon Hill and that was a fluke. It does not matter because in F1 the only thing that counts is the man left standing at the end and on that miserable day at Spa, Damon was there at the finish to pick up the pieces.

In the first part of the year, the 1996 World Champion looked like a man who should have retired but as the Jordan Mugen Honda package began to look better his interest was aroused rather more and he became much more competitive. For Damon it was vindication of a special kind. The critics all said that he would never win a race after leaving Williams and he did. And that inevitably bumps up his status. He is a great driver when he wants to be...

Damon's team-mate Ralf Schumacher looked like a man going nowhere in the early part of the year but he also seemed to flourish when the Jordan began to improve. A combination of speed and good fortune sees him transferring to a Williams drive next year. He is showing signs of increasing maturity but he still has some way to go as Ralf still tends to throw the car at the wall but while it is a risk for Williams you never know, it might work out.

The 1998 season was the first since 1988 that Williams went through without a win. It hurt. The FW20 was not good enough to challenge the frontrunners - even after it had a new rear end - but the most significant point was that the Mecachrome engines were just not good enough to compete with the Ferraris and Mercedes V10s. And they were struggling against the Hondas. You can listen to all the talk about how Supertech is going to make things better in 1999 but it will get worse. Supertech is merely a cash-cow for sharp folk who have seen an opportunity to make a lot of money.

Jacques Villeneuve drove well in 1998 - as one would expect from a World Champion - and did not lose hope when the car was bad. He is a fighter and he hates to lose. The most important thing about winning in F1 is to be in the right place at the right time. Jacques did it with Williams in 1997 and had little choice for 1999 but one has to question the logic of switching to the new British American Racing. If everything goes well - and it rarely does with new teams - BAR should be mid-grid next year and that is going to do nothing for Jacques's career. Staying at Williams - while not as comfortable an environment for Jacques - would have been a much more sensible step. Still, Jacques is a wild card and does what he wants to do. Let us hope that he will not regret it.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen seldom looked very competitive. Faced by the Williams school of driver psychology - which consists of Patrick Head screaming at the driver over the radio - he did not respond well. The team has always believed that if a driver needs mothering they will never be a star and Frentzen did not respond well. He is quick but winning races is about being tough and intelligent as well as being fast.

The Benetton team made little impact in 1998. The package was never really competitive: the Mecachrome engine meaning that often Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz were often struggling to compete. The Bridgestone tires did not help and the lack of experience of the drivers did nothing to help things develop. One wonders if the team might not have benefited a little from a good test driver. Clearly both Fisichella and Wurz have good potential and things should improve next year. It is doubtful that Benetton will be winning in 1999 and the most important thing now is for Rocco Benetton to put together a package for the future. One can only hope that he is the right man for the job. Team owners without F1 experience generally do not do well...

The Sauber team continued on it path with the Ferrari-based Petronas engines and while these excelled on occasion they are never going to be winners. It is not in Ferrari's interest to let that happen. They have, however, established the Swiss team as a solid team and it is now a question of finding a manufacturer for the future. The team suffered somewhat this year from the lack of Max Welti, who had previously acted as a shock absorber between the drivers and Peter Sauber - there being a difficult language barrier. As a result neither driver felt truly at home and the volatile Jean Alesi ended up loosing his temper on several occasions. Johnny Herbert was also miserable and things were not helped with a string of stupid mistakes by the mechanics, including leaving a wrench in the cockpit before one race. Johnny left at the end of the year and the fact that Pedro Diniz was hired underlines the need for the team to find more money - or more success - if it wishes to bridge the gap to the top teams.

Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team ended up seventh in the Constructors' title ahead of the Ford and Peugeot factory teams. This was quite an achievement when you consider the funding which the Arrows V10 engine was given in comparison to the millions poured into Stewart and Prost.

Going it alone was a brave move for Walkinshaw but his quest to become the Enzo Ferrari of Scotland and the lack of a better option saw Tom employ John Barnard and funding his own engine program. It was no great surprise when Walkinshaw and Barnard fell out over money. Barnard is not a man to hire unless you have a very big bucket of cash and soon Tom was hurting as the Barnard bills came crashing in. It was a dramatic piece of spending by the man who uses neatly written-out budgets to light fires. This is probably not the best course of action to take with a penny-pinching Scotsman...

Once the team was in the red, there was not much that could be done. The financial hemorrhage had to be stopped but in doing so the team dropped behind because there was no money for testing. It did not help that virtually the entire Arrows fleet was demolished in the rain at Spa.

It seems that the team will soon be sold and Tom will regroup for a fourth attempt at F1 (having already run Benetton, Ligier and Arrows). It is hard to imagine that he will fail in F1. He is successful in most things in life, but one does get the feeling that if he wants to win Grand Prix races he needs to spend more of his valuable time getting the team to work.

Mika Salo did a good job and was not deterred by such frightening concepts as a collapsing suspension in Eau Rouge Corner at Spa. He's is a tough cookie and deserves a better drive. Pedro Diniz did a lot better than many people thought he would. He is not a Michael Schumacher but when you come to a team with a $10m budget and you can match Mika Salo on occasion you are an useful asset to have.

If it was a difficult year for Walkinshaw he at least had the satisfaction of finishing ahead of his bitter rival Jackie Stewart in the Constructors' title.

No matter how you look at it, Stewart Grand Prix was a huge disappointment in 1998. The nice neat car of last year which was plagued by engine problem in 1997 was replaced by a nice neat car which was powered by increasingly good V10s. Every now and again Rubens Barrichello would pop in a really good showing but usually something broke or the team screwed up. These things are inevitable with a young F1 team and if Ford is not happy now it has only itself to blame. Starting out in F1 with a new team was a recipe for disaster.

One can feel some sympathy for Stewart & Son because of this. Coming into F1 - like most teams - they had an expanded idea of what is possible. They were clever to convince Ford to go with them and they hired some good people. But that does not make a great team. It takes time. The current structure does not look right and one often gets the feeling that the team is too busy talking about how good the future will be to consider what is happening in the present. The best way to convince people in F1 is by action not words.

Rubens Barrichello is wasting his career at the moment while poor Jan Magnussen was thrown onto the bonfire and replaced by Jos Verstappen. The Dutchman arrived with a burst of speed which then faded away as it became clear that the team was not really capable of running two cars. After a while Jos even gave up being polite about the team. He was duly replaced by Johnny Herbert.

Ford has made a big effort to appear young, thrusting and ambitious in its F1 plans. If Ford really wants success it is going to have to make some hard decisions in the next few months.

The Prost-Peugeot team was a big disappointment as well but it had more excuses than Stewart Grand Prix. This really was a new team with a massive recruitment drive and a lot of young untrained engineers coming in. This coincided with a move halfway across France and with a major gearbox problem which was not spotted until too late by an overworked designer. One needs to question the structure of the team because this should have been picked up sooner by the technical director, but as he was too busy doing other things one can see the problem.

The result was that the AP01 was a car with too much weight at the back end and the handling was pretty awful. Olivier Panis was not back to 100% no matter what he said at the time and his morale suffered early on when Jarno Trulli emerged as the faster of the two drivers. To give him credit, Olivier fought back and did not let Trulli's speed destroy him. He is tough.

For Trulli it was a frustrating time after his exciting early days with the team in the summer of 1997. Jarno, however, is a remarkable young man and seemed happy to learn, knowing that he must go through this process before he can emerge as a star. Like many great drivers he seemed to be working to his own agenda. Watch out for him in the future.

The Minardi team benefited from the arrival - and the investment of Gabriele Rumi - who spent around $20m of his own money to begin the process of knocking the Italian team into shape. That work will be seen more next year when the new technical team under Gustav Brunner produces its first car. This year was very much an interim year - the favorite excuse of F1 teams. Neither Shinji Nakano nor Esteban Tuero did anything truly outstanding.

Tyrrell had a miserable year but was always going to. When the Tyrrell Family sold the team to British American Racing but agreed to stay on to run it, the arrangement was bound to be difficult. It did not even survive until the start of the year with Ken and his son Bob getting out when BAR insisted that Ricardo Rosset be hired. The rump of the team - led by Harvey Postlethwaite - did what they could. The chassis was not bad and Tora Takagi showed well on occasion while Rosset was never happy and the team was never happy with him. It was a crazy way to run a racing team because while Rosset is not a Grand Prix winner, he can do a lot better than he showed this year and could have done if he had been handled in a more sensible fashion.

As the year progressed it became increasingly clear that the old Tyrrell team and the new BAR people were not getting on very well and everyone was waiting for the season to finish so that they could get on with something more interesting. Harvey and most of the old team will be moving to Honda and the BAR boys will be doing their own thing. One can only hope that the management of the all-singing, all-dancing new team will be more intelligent than was the case with Tyrrell in 1998.

And so ends 1998 and everyone here at INSIDE F1 would like to wish all our readers a successful 1999. We hope that you will continue to support us so that we can improve our service in the year ahead.

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Stories: DECEMBER 28, 1998
A REVIEW OF THE YEAR