A new season, a new generation of Formula 1 cars, and a routing of the opposition. This year’s Australian Grand Prix had much in common with the 1998 race. F1 Fanatic guest writer Andrew Tsvyk tells the story.
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1998 was the year McLaren returned to their winning ways. The seeds of the team’s recovery after three win-less season were sown when Dennis succeeded in tempting Mercedes-Benz away from Sauber, and Adrian Newey away from Williams.
McLaren-Mercedes got their third season together off to a winning start as David Coulthard produced arguably the biggest sensation of 1997 by winning the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. The West-sponsored McLarens won two more races that season, signalling that the outfit from Woking was heading in the right direction.
Things improved for the silver arrows the following year, as Newey built the blindingly fast MP4/13, adapting it perfectly to the sweeping rule changes (such as the reduction of the car’s width and the introduction of grooved tyres). Newey’s creation dominated pre-season testing. McLaren’s performance of the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix left few people surprised. Nevertheless, the race itself was far from trouble-free for the team.
Qualifying produced the widely expected all-McLaren front row, with Mika Hakkinen ahead of David Coulthard by 0.043s, while third place went to Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari.
Schumacher’s 1997 championship campaign had ended in disgrace when he clashed with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez. But the reigning champion’s Williams team, now racing in unfamiliar red colours, had lost Renault works backing and was no longer the benchmark.
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When the red lights went off the McLaren drivers had a strong get away and were able to keep their positions. Schumacher stayed third, made a bid to pass Coulthard when the McLaren clipped the grass exiting turn two but fell back.
Hakkinen completed the opening lap 1.5s ahead of Coulthard, with Schumacher and Villeneuve 2.8 and 4.2 sec adrift respectively. In the laps that followed the running order remained unchanged, while the gap to the McLaren drivers kept growing. It seemed that only Schumacher could threaten them, but on lap five his race came to a premature end as a result of engine failure.
Schumacher’s demise left McLaren in the league of their own as Villeneuve, the best of the chasers, fell back at a rate of up to three seconds per lap. It was clear that, unless mechanical problems intervened, only the McLaren drivers would have a chance to dispute the victory.
The phantom pit stop
Coulthard never really troubled Hakkinen despite the small gap between them. But in a sudden twist on lap 36 the order was swapped, with Coulthard hitting the front. The most peculiar thing was that Coulthard inherited the lead when Hakkinen inexplicably turned into the pits and drove past the McLaren garage where nobody was waiting for him. It transpired the race leader had misunderstood his engineer warning him about upcoming traffic.
Hakkinen’s excursion down the pit-lane cost his around thirty seconds. But even after having lost so much time he was able to rejoin the race in second position – such was the advantage that the McLaren drivers were enjoying over the opposition on that day. After a few laps he began to catch Coulthard.
The new leader did little to hold Hakkinen back. He was informed by the team that a mistake had occurred and that it was up to him to correct it. Being a true gentleman as well as a team player he let Hakkinen through with fewer than three laps to go.
So what made Coulthard relinquish the lead of the race? The answer to this question became available only after the end of the Grand Prix. Arriving in Melbourne Dennis was aware that his drivers had the fastest car in the field at their disposal. However, unreliability threatened to be the MP4-13’s Achilles’ heel and Dennis decided to intervene.
He asked his drivers not to push each other to the limit, urging them to decide the outcome of the race off the track. The two agreed, reaching a consensus that the one to arrive at turn one first would clinch the victory. Having started from pole-position, Hakkinen won the sprint to the first bend. Ironically, had it been not for the Finn’s mistake, the public would not have known anything about the drivers’ pre-race agreement.
Hakkinen’s victory proved his first step towards the 1998 world championship crown. Coulthard crossed the finishing line in second, with Williams’ Heinz-Harald Frentzen third, ahead of Eddie Irvine (Ferrari), Jacques Villenueve (Williams) and Johnny Herbert (Sauber).
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