I won’t lie to you – I am one of the many who sees Schumacher only as the guy who cheated his way to several world titles, and doesn’t deserve to be mentioned with real F1 heroes like Fangio, [Gilles] Villeneuve, Clark and Ascari. Thankfully the 1998 running of the British Grand Prix helps me prove my point.
It was another race typical of the 1998 F1 season – a straight fight between Hakkinen and Schumacher. Hakkinen had dominated qualifying – taking pole by almost half a second ahead of Schumacher, while Jacques Villeneuve was alongside David Coulthard on the second row of the grid.
The changeable conditions would keep everyone on their toes – there were different amount of surface water across the track, but everyone except the Stewarts had gone for intermediates – while Verstappen and Barrichello gambled on dry tyres.
While both Villeneuve and Eddie Irvine had a torrid start, Jean Alesi had an electrifying run off the grid, shooting up to 4th place behind Coulthard. However over the next 10 laps Irvine corrected his mistake by carving back through the field, passing Johnny Herbert, Damon Hill, Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen by lap 15. There was a unanimous groan of disappointment from the crowd when Hill retired after spinning out trying to pass Villeneuve on Lap 13.
Coulthard meanwhile was putting pressure on Schumacher, and eventually found a way past the German at Vale corner, and started to chase down Hakkinen. When the first round of pitstops came, Hakkinen went for full wets, while Coulthard gambled by sticking with inters. At first it worked out well for the Scot – he quickly closed in on his team-mate – that was until the heavens opened again.
As the rain started to lash down Coulthard started to lose grip and Hakkinen pulled away with ease, with Schumacher still stuck in no-mans land in 3rd, and Irvine had moved up to 4th after leapfrogging Alesi during the first round of pitstops.
Further down the field the other Schumacher was making good progress – Ralf had started on the last row of the grid alongside Olivier Panis, but after Johnny Herbert spun out at Woodcote on lap 28, he found himself in a points-paying position.
Coulthard was under pressure to win to keep his own title hopes alive – and while he was relentlessly chasing down Hakkinen on worn inters, he hit some standing water off the racing line and spun off into the Abbey gravel trap, while trying to lap Toranosuke Takagi’s Tyrrell. The conditions were becoming treacherous, and it showed when Hakkinen nearly made the McLaren pit-wall wet themselves by spinning out at Bridge – pirouetting through the gravel trap and emerging on the other side, at the entry to Brooklands.
After Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, Mika Salo and Shinji Nakano had all aquaplaned off the road, the safety car was finally called into action to neutralise the chaos that was emerging because of the now torrential rain. By now only 4 cars were on the lead lap – Hakkinen, M Schumacher, Irvine, and Alesi. The first man a lap down was Giancarlo Fisichella – and little did he know that he would be involved in one of the most controversial events of the year.
As Hakkinen cruised along behind the safety car, Schumacher weaved impatiently – behind Fisichella. The Finn had the advantage of having a cushion of lapped traffic at the restart, so there would be little pressure from behind to begin with.
What he didn’t count on however was his own pace.
His detour through the Bridge gravel trap left questions marks over the state of the front wing of his McLaren – and they would quickly be answered as the race got underway once again. After dispatching Fisichella, Schumacher quickly closed in on Hakkinen over the next lap, and couldn’t believe his luck when he saw this happen…
Hakkinen hands Schumacher victory on a plate
With only a handful of laps left however, there were frantic scenes on the Ferrari pit-wall – Schumacher had been handed a 10 second stop-go penalty for passing Fisichella before he had crossed the start-finish line at the earlier restart. If he pitted to serve his penalty he would inevitably surrender the lead to Hakkinen – so he decided not to pit.
Shades of 1994 were present – where he was disqualified from the race for ignoring a penalty – so he did eventually serve it. However the manner in which he did was a questionable one.
As he rounded Luffield for the final time Schumacher finally headed for the pits – however the finish line at Silverstone is before the pit garages so he crossed the line before driving into his pit box to serve his penalty. Hakkinen eventually took the checkered flag, but he had lost the race. On the road at least.
Schumacher wins in the pit-lane
As the drivers headed to the podium, Jean Todt briefed his two drivers on the situation – Schumacher’s response was far from positive, but he took to the top step of the podium regardless. McLaren duly appealed – but it came to nothing as Ferrari outlawyered the FIA once again. The race stewards had failed to notify the Ferrari pit of the penalty within the time limit for doing so – which meant the penalty was rescinded – as were the licenses of the stewards involved.
Ferrari and Schumacher had done it again – winning a race at the World Council rather than on the racetrack. I’m sure most of you will agree Schumacher was out of line – again – however Schumacher fans will be quick to point out Hakkinen made two crucial mistakes that lost him victory. One thing is for sure – he won’t be in a position to start with those shenanigans again this year.