No race in Formula One history finished in the way the 1999 Canadian Grand Prix did. It proved to be an incident packed day, during which the great and the good made some costly errors. In addition a turn of phrase was coined that remains in Grand Prix folklore to this day.
Championship leader Michael Schumacher engaged in a fierce duel with Mika Hakkinen during Saturday’s qualifying hour. Schumacher gained the upper hand on McLaren’s Flying Finn to snatch pole by just 0.029s.
Behind the warring title rivals sat the sister cars of Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) and David Coulthard (McLaren). Rounding out the top six were Rubens Barrichello (Stewart) and Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Jordan).
Schumacher got off to a sluggish start but a well deployed ‘Schumi Chop’ was enough to hold Hakkinen off as they thundered down to T3. Further down the field the Prost of Jarno Trulli bolted off the line and immediately began to hound Frentzen. A misjudged move saw Trulli spin across T1, he then collected the Sauber of Jean Alesi and hampered Barrichello. Trulli and Alesi retired on the spot, bringing out the safety car.
The race got back underway on lap three. Almost immediately the safety car made it’s second appearance of the afternoon; reigning FIA GT world champion Ricardo Zonta had slammed his BAR into the wall at T13. He would be the first of four to hit concrete at the final chicane.
Zonta’s battered BAR was recovered and the race got back underway a few laps later. Schumacher immediately set about re-establishing the advantage he had successfully built up over Hakkinen prior to the safety car. On lap fifteen, just as the field seemed to be settling into a rhythm, a second car twitched into the wall at T13.
This time it was the Jordan of 1996 champion Damon Hill. The Brit had been struggling to get to grips with his car all season so perhaps the accident was indeed inevitable. Hill managed to drag his terminally damaged Jordan to safety without the need for the race to be neutralised again.
Almost unnoticed during the chaos of Hill’s accident was the retirement of Barrichello. Steering failure after a brush with another of Montreal’s walls put an end to the Brazilian’s day. Little else happened until lap thirty. As he approached the final chicane, Schumacher was approaching the final turn far too fast, and impacted the T13 wall with a great deal of force. Remarkably the double world champion hopped out of his Ferrari physically unharmed. His ego undoubtedly did not. Schumacher went on to say;
“I lost control of the car because I went off the racing line and got on the dirt and ended up in the wall. This was clearly my mistake. I usually make one mistake a year. I hope that this incident was the last for the season.”
Schumacher’s shock exit left Hakkinen in charge at the head of the field. Just eleven laps after Schumacher’s crash at T13 the third safety car of the afternoon was called upon. This time the other BAR of Jacques Villeneuve had crashed in the exact same place that had claimed Zonta, Hill and Schumacher. 1997 champion Villeneuve clambered out of his badly damaged car with a pronounced limp, but thankfully with no other injuries.
The race restarted on lap forty-one, with Coulthard and Irvine engaging in a rough battle through turns one and two. Both drivers ended up spinning off with Coulthard’s McLaren coming off worst and in need of a new nosecone.
Sudden brake failure on Frentzen’s Jordan pitched the car into a terrifying accident on lap sixty-six. The impact with the tyre barrier was so severe the German was left with a slight brain haemorrhage. A three day stay in hospital followed but miraculously Frentzen would make the following race in France just two weeks later – a race he would go on to win.
The crash forced the fourth and final showing of the day for the safety car. Never had the safety car been used a frequently during a grand prix. It was also the first time in history the race had ended under neutralised conditions as Hakkinen followed the pace car home for his third win of the year. Schumacher’s retirement saw the ‘Flying Finn’ leap to the top of the world championship.
Benetton’s Giancarlo Fisichella followed Hakkinen home for a fantastic second with Irvine’s Ferrari recovering to the final podium place. The points were rounded off by Ralf Schumacher (Williams), Johnny Herbert (Stewart) and Pedro Diniz (Sauber).
It was truly astonishing to see three former world champions crash at the same corner within the space of just twenty laps. The spate of incidents caused the wall to be christened the ‘Wall of Champions’ for the first time in 1999. It’s since became a name that has stuck and led to a crash there almost being like a badge of honour.
In recent years both Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel added their names to the list of champions who have clipped F1’s most infamous wall. It’s safe to say they won’t be the last.