Widely regarded as one of the finest circuits on the F1 calendar, Spa-Francorchamps has given fans many memorable races through the years. From Senna’s masterful wet drive in 1985, through to more modern classics like 2000’s Schumacher-Hakkinen battle, 2008’s Hamilton v Raikkonen nail-biter, and 2009’s heroics from Giancarlo Fisichella, Spa is a track that tests drivers to their limits while often providing fans with some of the best entertainment on the calendar.
A lot of Spa’s entertainment factor comes not only from the excellent circuit itself but from the unpredictability of its surrounding climate. Situated in the Ardennes Forest, the circuit often feels the effects of the diverse microclimate that comes with such surroundings. Rain showers are often the order of the day throughout race weekends, creating havoc both for the drivers out on track and for the strategists on the pit wall.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that our selection for our ‘Belgian Grand Prix Classic’ is none other than 1998’s offering, a race that literally had everything!
Yes, it’s that start. At a soaking wet Spa, and in an era before safety car starts under such awful track conditions became written into the rules, 1998’s race got underway. Pole sitter Mika Hakkinen got away well, as did the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve. Once round turn 1 though, the chaos really started. Having started second on the grid, David Coulthard had endured a disappointing start, but things were about to get much worse for the Scotsman.
As the television shots showed Villeneuve getting ready for a bold run at Hakkinen up through Eau Rouge with Schumacher in hot pursuit, Coulthard was seen spearing off the racing line and impacting the wall on the right-hand side of the track. With most of the field still behind him, Coulthard came back across the track and vanished into the wall of spray created by the leading cars, leading to one of the most spectacular crashes F1 has ever seen.
As Coulthard disappeared into the spray, there was almost a brief pause for breath before we saw tyres and other debris emerge from the mist, followed shortly by a front-wheelless Coulthard, and then by most of the rest of the field, who had been unable to see the carnage unfolding in front of them due to the awful weather conditions. Multi car pileups aren’t something we usually see in motorsport in general, never mind F1, but the lack of visibility and scale of the initial accident meant that the drivers kept coming down from turn 1 at racing speeds, only adding to the explosion of tyres and carbon fiber once they arrived unsighted at the scene of the accident.
Fortunately, due to the relatively slow speed nature of what was an otherwise spectacular crash, no one was seriously injured, a tribute to the battle for improving safety standards which had gripped the sport in the mid to late '90s.
At this time in Formula 1, teams were permitted to bring a spare, or ‘T’ car to events. Unlike these days where a team can bring a spare chassis that can be built up into a replacement, the T car was a ready-made backup car that a driver could just hop into if their original car had issues. These would certainly be put to good use on that day, with three drivers (Miko Salo, Olivier Panis, and Ricardo Rosset) being unable to take part in the restart because both cars had been taken out at the start and the team decided to give the spare car to their teammates.
The McLarens once again started on the front row, but it was Damon Hill, now driving for Jordan, who made the most of the restart to take the lead into the first corner. Sadly, Mika Hakkinen’s race didn’t go much further as he was tagged first by Schumacher, then by Johnny Herbert at La Source, taking him out of the race. McLaren’s day got even worse when Coulthard tangled with Alex Wurtz, which dropped him to the back of the field.
The safety car was deployed to allow for a cleanup of Hakkinen’s car, and when the race restarted Hill led Schumacher for several laps before the German got past at the final corner on the eighth lap. From here Schumacher would go on to build up a massive gap over the rest of the field as he looked likely to take a valuable win as his championship rivals faltered.
It all goes wrong for Michael
Things were looking rosy for Ferrari and Schumacher until he came up to lap the McLaren of David Coulthard. Ferrari team principal Jean Todt had already been down to the McLaren pit wall to ensure they got Coulthard out of the way of the race leader, but things didn’t exactly pan out that way.
Having become agitated at Coulthard's resistance to letting him through earlier in the lap at Bruxelles, Schumacher tried again around the back of the circuit at Pouhon. At this point though, Coulthard decided to lift off but didn’t get off the racing line, leading to one of F1 most enduring images: that of Schumacher's Ferrari ploughing into the back of the McLaren, taking the Ferrari driver out of the race.
Coulthard would rejoin the race after his rear wing was replaced, but the German was out, and incredibly angry. Before McLaren could make moves to get Coulthard back out, Schumacher had marched down the pit lane to have it out with DC in the garage, allegedly accusing the Scotsman of trying to kill him, and threatening to do the same to him. It took both team’s mechanics to separate the two, and Schumacher stormed off to lodge an ultimately unsuccessful appeal with the race stewards.
At the time, the stewards found nothing wrong with Coulthard’s driving, and Schumacher was forced to admit that he had done nothing wrong. Later though, Coulthard would admit to being at fault for the incident, stating in 2003 that, “the reality is that I lifted to let him pass me, but I lifted in heavy spray on the racing line. You should never do that. I would never do that now.”
Hill plays hardball
Schumacher’s sudden retirement from the race gave the lead back to Damon Hill, and with the retirement of Eddie Irvine, Jordan were on for a surprise 1-2, with Ralf Schumacher in the other Jordan sitting 2nd. A late crash between Fisichella and Nakano brought out the safety car again, but Hill retained his lead while making an opportunistic pit stop. Towards the end of the race though, things would get interesting.
As Schumacher closed up to his teammate, with both receiving messages from the pit wall that Schumacher was faster, Hill called the pit wall with a message:
“I'm going to put something to you here, and I think you'd better listen to this. If we race, if we two race, we could end up with nothing, so it's up to Eddie (Jordan). If we don't race each other, we've got an opportunity to get a first and second, it's your choice.”
Hill was pointing out the obvious with this, but the message could also be interpreted as a threat: if Ralf tries to pass me, I will fight him for it, probably to the detriment of both of us. Whether Hill meant it like this or not is still the subject of debate, but either way, it worked and Schumacher was given a team order to not attack Hill for the lead.
The Jordan boys hung on for the last few laps to take a memorable win for the popular independent team, one of only four that they achieved in their Formula 1 existence. This was also the final win of Damon Hill's F1 career.
One of the best
Spa '98 really was one for the ages, and is a race that is often voted as the best Belgian Grand Prix, if not the best F1 race, of all time. While I can surely agree on the former, the latter is probably up for debate.
Which is your favourite Belgian Grand Prix? Is Spa '98 a contender for best F1 race ever?Let us know in the comments below!
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