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DECEMBER 19, 1998

The Top 10 Moments of the Formula 1 Year


Choosing 10 moments from the F1 season is not easy because as usual there were many significant and dramatic events. It would have been nice to include the moment at Monaco when Mika Hakkinen bounced his McLaren off the wall at Ste Devote and got away with the error; it would have been nice to include the moment when Benetton youngster Alexander Wurz stood up to a bullying Michael Schumacher at Monaco, showing that while this generation of drivers may be overawed by the German's skill, there are new men out there who intend to tip him from his pedestal. But with only 10 choices, these are what I think were the most significant moments of the year:

10: While the temptation is to search out dramatic moments amongst the frontrunners in their battle for the World Championship, there were also significant and dramatic moments which encompassed bigger issues. Mika Salo's accident at Spa was one highpoint of the F1 season as the Finn walked away from an appalling accident at one of the most dangerous corners in Grand Prix racing. It showed just how safe the Formula 1 cars of today have become. The Finn suffered a suspension failure and half spun before hitting the wall but it is a testament to the work of Professor Sid Watkins's Advisory Experts Group that cars now have to have extraordinary levels of safety.

9: One of the most significant moments of the year - which set the tone for much of the season - was the decision by the FIA Stewards in Brazil that the FIA technical department was wrong about McLaren's brake-steer system and should be overruled and they declared the system illegal. This controversial decision did much to create the belief in the F1 paddock that the governing body was favoring Ferrari and resulted in bad feeling and suspicion between the two top teams which was to continue throughout the year. On the race tracks the removal of the system made little difference. McLaren took the brake-steer off the cars and still trounced the Ferraris. It was the best possible response to a very dubious decision.

8: When David Coulthard moved over and let Mika Hakkinen take the lead in the closing laps of the Australian Grand Prix we discovered that McLaren was a number one driver and that Hakkinen was being backed in the title race. There was nothing wrong with this - despite the rather silly comments made later by Melbourne's Ron Walker and the idiotic response of the FIA a few days later, declaring that team orders were illegal. This went against a long-established tradition in motor sport and made no sense at all. Later in the year the governing body was forced to accept that team orders are acceptable.

The decision to support Hakkinen to the title was most significant because of the pace shown by the silver cars in Melbourne, where they ran away from the field at a rate of three seconds per lap. Initially Hakkinen had been ahead but a communication problem between the engineers and Hakkinen resulted in a unnecessary visit to the pits. The Finn was waved through by the team but by then David Coulthard was in the lead. In the final laps of the race the McLaren pit radioed Coulthard and ordered him to move over and let Hakkinen through. David was not happy about it but put a brave face on it.

7: One of the most significant and dramatic moments of the season was Michael Schumacher's incredible drive during his third stint in Hungary. This resulted in him beating David Coulthard and reviving his flagging World Championship hopes. The race had been expected to be dominated by McLaren and when the two cars qualified 1-2 on the grid there was little hope for anyone else. In the early laps of the race, as Hakkinen ran away at the front, Coulthard battled with Schumacher for second place. This suggested that the Ferrari driver was running a light fuel-load. The McLaren strategists spotted this and prepared to bring Hakkinen and Coulthard in as soon as Schumacher made a move in order to keep him bottled up in the vital laps when he needed to be lapping quickly. Schumacher's second stop came on lap 43 and immediately the McLarens were called in. Schumacher's pace in those vital laps was so fast, however, that he was ahead of both McLarens when he re-emerged.

But the race was not yet won as the Ferrari star had to push incredibly hard to build up sufficient of an advantage to stay ahead of the McLarens during his third pit stop. It was a close-run thing and Coulthard lost several seconds when he was stuck behind a fading Hakkinen. Schumacher was pushing so hard that at one point he went off the road but fortunately did no damage to his car.

When Schumacher pitted he was able to get out just ahead of Coulthard and so was able to pull off one of the most remarkable victories of his career and close the gap in the World Championship to just seven points.

6: The collision between David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher in Buenos Aires gave the Ferrari driver the chance to score his first victory of the year and left the McLaren driver furious.

Although Goodyear had a new wide front tyre in Argentina the McLarens were still ahead on speed although both McLaren drivers made mistakes in qualifying which gave Schumacher an unexpected pole position. Michael decided to adopt a two-stop strategy to beat the McLarens in the race but he made a bad start and let Coulthard and Hakkinen get ahead. It was imperative that he repass them in the early laps if there was to be any chance of victory. He hustled quickly past Hakkinen and went after Coulthard. The McLaren driver had a downchange problem which meant that he was drifting slightly wide at one corner. Schumacher saw this and on the fifth lap went for the gap - which was not really there - and barged Coulthard into a spin and out of his way. It was typically aggressive Schumacher behavior but he got away with it.

Once in the lead Schumacher was able to build a lead thanks to his light fuel load and ran away to win the race. Late in the race he even went off at one point but Hakkinen, who had settled for second place, had drifted back so far that he was not able to take advantage of Schumacher's error.

5: David Coulthard's engine failure at Monza was a significant moment in the World Championship. At the time Coulthard was leading a troubled Hakkinen and Schumacher. The Scotsman was in total control of the race and had built a 10secs advantage without trouble but suddenly his Mercedes-Benz V10 blew up dramatically. His race was over. To compound the disaster moments later the duelling Hakkinen and Schumacher arrived at the scene. There was a cloud of oil smoke and both drivers had to lift off because they could not see the road ahead. It was a scramble to get back on the power and Schumacher managed to get ahead. At Monza overtaking is so hard that it proved to be the decisive moment of the race. Schumacher stayed ahead and when Hakkinen faded away with brake trouble Eddie Irvine moved to second to score a dramatic and popular Ferrari 1-2.

4: The start of the French Grand Prix provided high drama and a significant moment in the title race. Michael Schumacher had surprised everyone by qualifying only two-tenths slower than pole man Mika Hakkinen. There was a suspicion that the Finn was not entirely happy with the car as David Coulthard, who qualified third, admitted that he could not get his car to handle well. Ferrari's progress was underlined by the fact that Eddie Irvine qualified fourth.

The start at Magny-Cours has always been a critical moment because overtaking at the track is not easy and any move to pass another car is a big risk if the rival driver refuses to give way. This was in the minds of the McLaren men as they lined up on the grid. The one thing they had to avoid was Schumacher and Irvine getting ahead. That would be a disaster.

As the lights were about to go out Jos Verstappen stalled his Stewart and Race Director Charlie Whiting hit the button to abort the start but the FIA software was too slow and the lights went out as normal, to be followed by the start-abort signal. By then the field was gone with both McLarens getting away ahead of the Ferraris. The red flags would save the day for Ferrari. At the second start the two McLarens both got away slowly and in a flash Schumacher was in the lead with Irvine behind him. McLaren's nightmare scenario had happened. As Irvine kept Hakkinen and Coulthard behind him Schumacher disappeared up the road at a rate of a second a lap and in those early laps the race was won...

3: When Mika Hakkinen skated off the road at Bridge Corner during the rain-drenched British Grand Prix it looked as though he would get away with the mistake. He had a 40 second lead over Michael Schumacher and although the ride across the grass damaged the front wings of the McLaren Hakkinen was able to keep going at a slightly slower pace. And then the Safety Car was sent out. It could not have worked out better for Schumacher. Hakkinen's advantage was wiped out and at the restart Schumacher had no trouble passing the McLaren, who went off again trying to keep the Ferrari behind him. Schumacher pulled away. He would later receive a controversial signal that he had been given a 10-second penalty for overtaking under yellow flags during the Safety Car period. This was bungled by the Stewards and the Ferrari tacticians took advantage, ignoring the order and bringing Michael into the pitlane on the very last lap. He won the race in the pitlane but by doing so made it impossible for the stewards to take away the win - because they had been to blame. The stewards had to withdraw the penalty - and make fools of themselves.

2: The 1998 Belgian Grand Prix will be remembered for many years for its destructive multiple accidents at the start. The second crash resulted in a safety car and with Mika Hakkinen out of the race and David Coulthard at the back Damon Hill found himself leading the race in his Jordan Mugen Honda. But Michael Schumacher was behind him and challenging hard. In damp conditions at Spa there is no-one who can touch Schumacher and he quickly took the lead and raced away from the field at three seconds a lap. Schumacher's lead was up to nearly 40secs when he came up to lap Coulthard. It was the ultimate insult for McLaren.

But in the spray Michael Schumacher misjudged the manoeuvre and made probably the worst mistake of his career and smashed into the back of the McLaren. Without his right front wheel Schumacher drove to the pits and then stormed down to the McLaren pit to scream abuse at Coulthard, who reacted angrily to the suggest that he would consider driving the Ferrari off the track.

While all this was happening Eddie Jordan's team enjoyed the luck of the Irish and Damon Hill came home ahead of Ralf Schumacher giving EJ his first F1 victory and a 1-2 finish to make it the perfect weekend for the team.

1: There is little doubt that the most dramatic moment of the 1998 Formula 1 season was the instant in which Michael Schumacher's pole-sitting Ferrari stalled at Suzuka. Everyone was very edgy at the start with Trulli stalling as they waited for the lights to go out. The start was aborted and at the second attempt Schumacher stalled. He would have to start at the back. Suddenly the pressure was off Hakkinen. He was on pole and there were 20 cars between him and Schumacher. The German could not be blamed for the stall but perhaps it could have been avoided if the Ferrari mechanics had loaded the radiators with dry ice after Trulli's stall - as the McLaren men did for Hakkinen. This they failed to do. And with the clutch clearances being tiny these days at the next attempt Schumacher's overheated and caused the stall. It signalled the end of his World Championship chances and although he would drive an inspired race from the back of the grid, his hopes would end when he suffered a right rear tyre explosion after running over debris from a crash between Esteban Tuero's Minardi and Tora Takagi's Tyrrell. From the moment of the stall, however, the title was lost because not only did Michael need to win the race, he needed Hakkinen to finish third and once Mika was ahead there was no hope as Eddie Irvine could not get ahead of the Finn.