It had it all: a torrential downpour, the biggest crash in F1 history, thrilling fights, controversy and a milestone win. The 1998 Belgian Grand Prix is considered by many as one of the best races in the history of the sport, although the word “crazy” may also come to mind.
By the time the teams reached the 13th round of the 1998 world championship, and with just four races to go, an exciting two-way battle between McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher was reaching its climax.
Behind, faithful tagalongs and team players Eddie Irvine and David Coulthard, left in the wake of their leaders, were all set to protect their team’s best interest as they started the final leg of the season.
Qualifying at the daunting Ardennes venue produced a familiar grid with the McLaren boys on pole, Schumacher fourth and Irvine fifth. The sole outsider was Damon Hill who had managed to slot his Jordan into third, although there was little hope the former world champion would keep it there once the lights would turn green.
With the dawn of race day came racing’s great leveler: rain. Of the torrential kind. Back in those days, there was no overcautious and restrained ‘Charlie Whiting’ to command a start behind the Safety Car. Drivers were forced to rely on full wets, instinct and aptitude, and sheer luck to navigate the torrents.
The furious rush down to La Source saw Hakkinen slightly break away from the field while Schumacher made a run towards a gap on the inside left by Coulthard. The McLaren and Ferrari plunged down towards Eau Rouge while havoc broke out behind. And chaos.
Coulthard had lost it on the exit of La Source, on a metal grille as he recalled. The McLaren speared across the track, hit the inside wall and rebounded into the way of coming traffic. Devastation, the scale of which had never been seen before in a Grand Prix, followed. Drivers covered in spray attempted in vain to take avoiding action, but each individual move only succeeded in extending the disastrous chain reaction.
In a little less than 15 seconds the Belgian GP grid had been decimated with a 13-car pile-up. A disorderly and joyless state of affairs which led to perhaps Murray Walker’s greatest quote: “This is the worst start of a Grand Prix that I have ever seen in the whole of my life !”
Eddie Irvine offered a glimpse into the harrowing experience of having an entire field of stricken cars barreling down on you: “I have to admit, it was a bit scary. I had no brakes, no steering, nothing was working. I was just sitting there hurtling down the track with wheels hitting me on the head and cars going all over the place. There was nothing I could do except sit there and think ‘S**t, where is this taking me?’ It was not pleasant…”
One hour later, a depleted filed was released for a second attempt in getting a proper motor race under way. But disaster struck the McLaren camp at the outset when championship leader Hakkinen tangled with Johnny Herbert’s Sauber, leaving both men out on the spot.
Damon Hill led for seven laps before Michael Schumacher took command and raced off into the distance at a blindingly fast pace despite the prevailing wet track. On lap 25, a little over the half-distance mark, as the Ferrari driver was making a joke of the elements and surpassing Hakkinen in the championship, more drama suddenly ensued.
On the run down to Pouhon, Schumacher encountered the lap-down, gremlin-infested McLaren of David Coulthard, who had been told by his team over the radio to slow and let the Ferrari pass. In the heavy spray, unbeknownst to Schumacher, Coulthard duly lifted but remained on the racing line.
The Ferrari violently rammed the rear of the McLaren, ripping off the scarlet red machine’s entire front right-wheel assembly. Miraculously, Schumacher managed to return to the pits, along with Coulthard. The German angrily climbed out of his car and stormed off to the McLaren pit to confront the Scot, furiously shouting “are you trying to f*****g kill me?”.
Back out on the race track, it was Damon Hill who was once again in the lead in front of his fast-approaching team mate Ralf Schumacher. The Safety Car was ordered out for four laps following another massive accident involving Giancarlo Fisichella’s Benetton and Shinji Nakano’s Minardi, which left just six cars running.
But quality supplanted quantity in the closing stages of the race when the Jordan pit wall ordered Hill to relinquish the lead to his faster young team. Hill would have none of it however, putting it to Eddie Jordan in no uncertain terms: “We have an opportunity to get a first and second here, or nothing at all!”
Wisely, Jordan instructed both drivers to maintain their positions, Damon Hill achieving his first win since his 1996 title season and the Jordan team finally clinching its long-awaited maiden Grand Prix triumph.
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Kevin Magnussen and rookie Jolyon Palmer have led the team on its return to F1 following Renault’s takeover of Lotus in December, with Magnussen scoring its only points so far this season in Russia. Vasseur says both drivers are improving as the year goes on while the team tries to rebuild following a number of years of financial difficulty.
“It’s not easy for them either,” he told the official Formula 1 website. “They have been used to winning in the past – and now they are cut off from that.
“I see both of them improving. Keep in mind that Jo is a rookie and Kevin did only one season [of F1] before – and that was two years ago.
“Jo has been improving a lot – true he spun in Hungary, but so far he did a good job. And that also goes for Kevin. Both have a very optimistic approach. They are a good support for the team.”
However, Vasseur believes future success for Renault will need to come with a lead driver as the focal point for the team.
“The question is regarding Max…”
Carlos Sainz faced a lot of questions when Max Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, with the Spaniard arriving at his home race having seemingly been overlooked for the seat being vacated by Daniil Kvyat. Nearly three months on, Sainz sat down with F1i and explained why he doesn’t see it that way.
“I think I showed it didn’t hurt me much,” Sainz says. “When I was in the press and everyone was asking me ‘Oh, but this is a big setback for you because you didn’t get the drive’, I said – and I was being fully honest – ‘No, for me it was never in paper or in my contract to go up to Red Bull’.
“No-one told me if I don’t go up to Red Bull after the fourth race of 2016 then it would be a really bad situation for me. No-one told me this and Helmut [Marko] kept it very clear to me also, and I showed it perfectly with results on track that I was totally right when I told you guys it was not a bad thing for me.”
Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Hungarian Grand Prix – Qualifying Day – Budapest, Hungary
Sainz has had a new lease of life since the driver swap, with his run of bad luck coming to an end and mistakes being ironed out. Perhaps it is after pressure was taken off him, but he sees very little to be disappointed with from this year so far.
“I think I can be very pleased with this first half of the season. To do more than we actually have done would have been very difficult. I think the first four races were quite unfortunate for us. We had the car to score a lot of points but we didn’t capitalise on it because it was almost like we had this black cat following us from 2015.
“From Barcelona this black cat went away and suddenly the results started to come together. We lost a podium in Monaco which was a big frustration but apart from that we’ve scored points in every race I’ve finished since then except for Baku. So I think we can be very pleased and I think we’ve done a big step forward, and me personally also.
“The start of the season was very tough for me because I knew I had the pace, I knew I was super-quick, I knew I had the race pace but there were very small things happening, very small situations that were not allowing me to show my true potential. Finally in Barcelona this went away and a lot less things started happening to me and I could show everyone what I’m capable of. What’s happened in the last seven or eight races looks like I’m a completely different driver when I’m not. I’m exactly the same guy as the first four races.”
Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – German Grand Prix – Race Day – Hockenheim, Germany
And Sainz insists his upturn in form is not driven by a desire to prove Red Bull wrong for fast-tracking Verstappen through the system.
“No I don’t think it’s my motivation. My main motivation has to be within the Toro Rosso team to extract the maximum potential of the car. Make sure every weekend I am the driver that is extracting the maximum out of the package I have.
“Recently I think that has been the case and that is why I am so happy but my intention is never to prove to Red Bull: ‘You got it wrong with Max, it’s me coming’. My intention is to be able one day whenever they have a chance again of promoting someone to make sure it’s me. That is my main target at the moment.
“People tend to compare always me with Max and I honestly don’t car about what he does or what is happening with him at Red Bull or what he was doing in Toro Rosso. I perfectly knew about my performance, I perfectly knew about my capability and I always said it was a matter of time until I could show it. Finally now I have been able to show it and many people have changed their opinion about me. As I said it was just a matter of time and finally it is happening now.”
Despite his self-confidence and positive outlook to his situation, Sainz admits there is a very clear downside to Verstappen being promoted alongside Daniel Ricciardo.
“The only frustration I can have at the moment is that even if I perform well I know there is not many space for me at a top team, like at Red Bull. That is the only thing that maybe is frustrating from that contract. For the rest, for me to get another year with Toro Rosso I think is a good situation, not a bad situation at all.
“Hopefully together with this team we can surprise many people next year and we can be that fourth or fifth team that we have been trying to be these last couple of years but for various issues we haven’t been. But I am confident that with better links with Red Bull, a good power unit and the car that James Key normally produces we can be there next year. It’s not a top team yet but it’s a decent situation.”
And as a result of the bottleneck in the Red Bull system, the 21-year-old says he will need to play a waiting game if he wants to be rewarded with a drive at the senior team in future.
“I feel ready, whenever this opportunity comes, to grab it. I just need to keep waiting. I’ve been very patient, throughout this last year with all the troubles that I had I stayed patient and the results came. Now I need to be patient in this other area and hopefully a top drive will come soon and I will be there to get it. Patience is probably the word I need to use more in my head nowadays!”
But patience isn’t a great word for a racing driver, is it?
“No! I am not that patient, but hopefully it will work and as long as I’m world champion one day…”
Interview by Chris Medland, via F1i.com