Mayhem. That’s what Spa 1998 was all about. On 30th August, 1998, one of the most chaotic races in F1 history took place. The extensive news coverage captured the attention of a young Mr. Wapojif – the events of the race dominated the BBC evening news programme and he caught up with the ITV highlights late that night. 20 years later, he’s not missed a race since. Want to know what all this F1 guff is about? Behold the drama!
The weekend got off to a flying start when 1997 World Champion, Canadian Jacques Villeneueve, stuffed himself into the barriers at the notorious Eau Rouge. Groovy Finnish driver Mika Salo also had an enormous accident at the same corner, but the drivers walked away unharmed (a major tribute to the safety advances made in the wake of Ayrton Senna‘s fatal accident in 1994).
Come race day, we had McLaren’s title content Mika Hakkinen on pole. The track was drenched in one of the region’s notorious downpours. In 1997 in similar conditions, the race was started behind the safety car due to safety concerns. A year on, the race director decided against that and away they blasted. The result, within 20 seconds, was the biggest pile-up in the sport’s history.
The incident that got the most attention in the news was a collision between Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and McLaren’s David Coulthard (DC). Schumacher was locked in an intense battle for the title with Hakkinen – the latter was swiped out of the race at the second start (which included a heavily depleted field, due to the above carnage), leaving the German with an incredible chance to advance in the Championship.
Few drivers could get close to him in normal conditions, but his ability in rain was exemplified further still. This had been typified at Monaco the year before, when in a wet/dry race in a pretty terrible Ferrari he was 20 seconds ahead of second place by the fifth lap. So it was with no surprise he was utterly dominating the race at Spa in 1998 – certain victory was his, as long as he kept out of trouble.
The incident was hotly debated, with Schumacher’s behaviour vilified in certain sects of the press (most notably the British one). Anyone condemning his behaviour does have to consider he was travelling at over 150 mph when he hit Coulthard – most road users fly into a rage the instant they’re aggrieved in the most trivial manner. With the added immense pressure of a title fight for a team that hadn’t won a World Championship since 1979, and his bad temper was understandable, although not justified.
Coulthard went on to claim responsibility in 2003 for slowing down dramatically on the racing line. If you follow F1, all the drivers talk about being unable to see anything ahead of them in rainy conditions due to the spray. With a slower car on the racing line, Schumacher had no chance of avoiding the McLaren (you can see this clearly at 1:50 minutes in the above clip).
With the top teams completely removed (Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine crashed out), this left Irish team Jordan in control. The eye-catching yellow cars were headed by 1996 World Champion Damon Hill, who requested team orders to keep Schumacher’s younger brother, Ralf, at bay. The result? Hill’s last ever win in F1, a memorable first win for Jordan.
20 Years On
All of the drivers in 1998 have since retired. Michael Schumacher was the superstar of his generation, a driver of unparalleled genius. At his peak, there really was no other driver remotely close to him except for Mika Hakkinen, but the Finnish double World Champion of ’98 and ’99 only had a brief spell at the very top (he retired at the end of 2001).
Schumacher retired in 2006, then had a largely unsuccessful return to F1 in 2010 (his competitive urge getting the better of him – he was just a bit too old to get away with it, but still managed a pole position at Monaco, the most difficult circuit in F1). Unfortunately, he suffered a severe head injury in late 2013 whilst skiing and has been attempting to recover since. He’s been out of the public eye in rehabilitation – his family and legion of fans continue to hope for a recovery.
Of the other top drivers, Damon Hill retired in 1999 and now supports Sky Sport’s TV coverage. The ever popular DC has proven to be a gifted and highly likeable presenter for the BBC and Channel 4 – he now commentates on the races for the latter. Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneueve have largely disappeared from the public eye, occasionally reappearing at races between business ventures.