The Belgian Grand Prix of 1998 provided high drama from start to finish. With one of the biggest first-lap shunts in F1 history, Michael Schumacher in fist-fighting mood and a maiden win for the Jordan team, it was a hugely memorable race.
Qualifying suggested a McLaren walkover with Mika Hakkinen on pole from David Coulthard. Damon Hill took a season-best third but found himself over a second shy of pole position. It was going to take something out of the ordinary for anyone but a McLaren driver to claim victory. When the paddock woke up to a rain soaked raceday there was promise of an upset, but what transpired was beyond anyone’s imagination.
At the start Hakkinen led away, but Coulthard struggled and lost positions to Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and Giancarlo Fisichella. The first few cars made their way towards Eau Rouge, but when Coulthard spun across the track exiting La Source chaos ensued for the rest of the pack. DC’s mistake sparked a chain reaction, with everyone hitting everyone- and everything- as several million dollars worth of F1 cars were destroyed. Apart from the first few drivers only Minardi’s Esteban Tuero managed to avoid the carnage, a feat that probably ranks as the most impressive of his F1 career.
The feeling was that someone must have been hurt- this couldn’t possibly end with everyone intact. But through some miracle none of the dozen or so wheels bouncing about connected with any of the drivers or found their way in to the grandstand that runs alongside the track. It was a Belgian miracle, which, much like the waffles, everyone can enjoy.
Irvine and Barrichello picked up minor injuries, but Eddie was able to take the restart in the spare car. However Barrichello didn’t get underway again, parlty because teammate Jos Verstappen had also suffered damage, leaving the team with a decision as to who got the spare car. Being as Rubens had picked up a knock he sat the race out. Also sidelined were Mika Salo (Arrows), Ricardo Rosset (not that he was missed in the Tyrrell) and Oliver Panis (Prost), all of whom had to look on as their teammates took the spare car. Eighteen drivers therefore took the restart.
This came half an hour later, and Damon Hill got a great start to lead the race. Behind him Hakkinen lost control of his car and was collected by Johnny Herbert’s Sauber. Both men were elimintated from the race. Another coming together brought out the safety car, after which Hill retained the lead from Schumacher. But after 8 laps the inevitable happened, and Michael passed Damon at the Bus Stop chicane.
And that’s how it stayed, with Spa specialist Schumacher building a hefty lead over his old rival. But on lap 25 everything changed.
Now nearly 40 seconds clear of Hill, Schumacher came up to lap David Coulthard’s McLaren. Michael swept left, but judged his move wrong in the heavy spray. He slammed in to the back of Coulthard’s car, destroying the Scotsman’s rear wing and sending his own front-right wheel flying in to the forest. Both made their way back to the pitlane- the Ferrari now resembling a Reliant Robin- where a gentlemanly chat was on the cards. It was a Belgian disaster, which, much like the chocolate, can result in sticky situations.
With a face more thunderous than the skies above the circuit Michael marched down the pitlane, throwing off Ferrari team members in his pursuit of Coulthard. DC still had his helmet on, which was a wise move. Michael threw a few angry words in David’s direction but the fight never happened. Still, it’s an enduring image of nineties F1.
This dramatic turn of events put the race within the Jordan team’s grasp, with Hill now leading from teammate Ralf Schumacher. But Ralf was quicker than Damon, certainly quick enough to get racy with his stablemate, and so Damon got on the radio. He had a suggestion for his team.
“I’m going to put something to you here, and I think you’d better listen to this. If we two [Jordan cars] race, we could end up with nothing, so it’s up to Eddie. If we don’t race each other, we’ve got an opportunity to get a first and second, it’s your choice.”
Now that is what you call a poorly coded message.
But it had the intended effect, for Hill at least, as Ralf was ordered to hold station behind his teammate (and there we were thinking EJ hated team orders). As such the Jordan’s crossed the line less than a second apart for the team’s first Formula One win. They’d done it in some style, achieving a one-two finish to boot.
Completing the podium was Sauber’s Jean Alesi, notching up what was only the team’s fourth top-three finish in the sport. It was also Jean’s last podium in Formula One, and coincidentally he’d score his final points at the same circuit three years later- in a Jordan.
So Hill was a race winner again, and for the first (and only) time he’d done it away from the Williams team. “I think this is a greatly deserved victory,” he said afterwards. “I am going to have a party tonight to celebrate this. This result is due to some incredibly hard work by everyone at Jordan. Now we have achieved it let’s go on to even greater things!” Okay, he never did, but it was still a great win.
And the Coulthard-Schumacher saga rumbled on. Michael’s take on it? “Obviously lifting on the straight like [Coulthard] did when I hit him is very dangerous. He has the experience to know that you do not slow down on a straight like that without giving any warning. So one could think he did it deliberately…”
And DC’s rebuttal: “At the exit of turn nine I kept right to let him go and the next thing I know he is running into the back of me”.
But five years later David gave a slightly more rueful response when asked about the shunt. “I lifted to let him pass me, but I lifted in heavy spray on the racing line. You should never do that, and I wouldn’t do it now,” he said in 2003. But the stewards ruled on the day that it was a racing incident. Even Ferrari can’t convince the FIA to punish people retrospectively for an incident that occurred five years ago.
And that was the Belgian Grand Prix of 1998. Well, there were actually quite a few other noteworthy incidents that day, but we can’t be expected to fit it all in- it could probably fill a book.