Former world champion Damon Hill won a Formula 1 race for the 22nd and final time at Spa on August 30, 1998
This story first appeared on August 10, 2018.
“Oh it’s terrible, it’s pretty terrible, it’s the worst Grand Prix start I have ever seen in my life.”
Legendary commentator Murray Walker was rarely at a loss for words and true to form, they didn’t fail him when it came to calling out the incredible 1998 Belgian Grand Prix.
It was an exciting event that featured 13 car stacking, spectacular crashes, a furious pit lane collapse, appalling weather from start to finish and a first win for one of the sport’s underdogs.
BBC Sport recalls one of the most eventful races in the sport’s 71-year history, with analysis from BBC Formula 1 editor-in-chief Andrew Benson who was there that day.
“The memories are a bit hazy – that was over 20 years ago, after all,” Benson says.
“But they represent a mixture of shock, surprise, joy and most of all, a feeling of some kind of pervasive madness.”
Unlucky 13 – round one chaos sets the tone
The race was 13th of 16 this season, with McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen leading the drivers’ championship and chasing his first world title, seven points ahead of two-time champion Michael Schumacher of Ferrari.
The weekend was lively from the start with the fall of Hakkinen, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Salo in practice, before Hakkinen took pole with Schumacher fourth.
On Sunday, the skies opened wide, but the decision was taken to start the race on time without a safety car.
And it seemed like a wise move as the cars rolled off… for 15 seconds.
Hakkinen led the pack down the hill towards Eau Rouge, and then the drama began.
David Coulthard gets out of the first corner wrong and gets spit across the trackFuture race winner Damon Hill avoids being picked up, but others behind are less fortunateAs Coulthard’s battered McLaren rolls down the barriers, the crash brings together Eddie Irvine (Ferrari), Rubens Barrichello (Stewart), Olivier Panis, Jarno Trulli (both Prost), Johnny Herbert (Sauber) and Mika Salo (Arrows)Alexander Wurz (Benetton) and Jos Verstappen (Stewart) are also caught in chaos, while Ricardo Rosset’s Tyrrell is a straggler in trouble, crashing into cars ahead.Thirteen cars were ultimately damaged in the accident. Four are unable to take the reboot
So what was it like to be in the middle of it all?
In 2015, Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine told the official Formula 1 website external link that it had been “a little scary”.
“I had no brakes, no steering, nothing was working,” he said.
“I was just sitting there hurtling down the track with wheels hitting my head and cars going all over the place. There was nothing I could do but sit there and think ‘where. is that leading me? It was not pleasant … “
Jordan’s Ralf Schumacher was in the middle of it all – but he was extremely lucky.
“It was quite funny, because I had just spotted a McLaren on the side in front of me and saw the mess unfolding all around me,” Ralf Schumacher later recalled.
“I shifted my car to the left, parked it in neutral and waited, just in time to see an Arrows suddenly miss me by about four inches.
“Then when it was all settled, I just put on a gear and passed.”
But the start of the race is not what remains on Benson’s mind.
“Strangely enough, the massive pile-up at the start, involving a total of 13 cars or more than half the peloton, is not the most vivid memory. Most involve Michael Schumacher in one way or another, ”said the BBC’s F1 editor.
So what did Michael Schumacher do?
Michael Schumacher (right) collides with Coulthard, who had slowed down but was still on the running line
The rain was still heavy and the restart was also dramatic.
Hakkinen got off to a slow start and sped off before Johnny Herbert’s Sauber hit him, ending both of their races. Alexander Wurz of Benetton was another victim after a collision with David Coulthard, which left the Scotsman behind.
Soon the injured McLaren was being hunted down by leader Schumacher.
In the direct descent to the Pouhon turn at 150 mph, Coulthard, on the race line, backed up to let Schumacher pass. But caught off guard, the German’s car slammed into the back of the McLaren, tearing off the Ferrari’s right front wheel.
“Oh my God!” stammered Murray Walker, who was incredulous.
Back in the pits, Schumacher surmised that Coulthard had acted on purpose to hamper the German’s world title hopes to help Hakkinen – and the German headed for the McLaren garage.
“It was obvious that this was just one of those things”
Benson’s take on the incident
“Schumacher seemed to be on his way to a routine and dominant victory in the wet, until he shockingly hit the rear of Coulthard’s McLaren.
“It was obvious – to everyone except Schumacher – that this was just one of those things that can happen on a stinky and humid Ardennes day, when visibility on the race track was almost nonexistent.
“Schumacher, however, didn’t see it that way. He speculated that Coulthard had deliberately slowed down, in an attempt to ram the Ferrari into a ram, to help teammate Hakkinen in the title fight.
“Anyone who knows Coulthard knows this is nonsense, but Schumacher brought his three-wheeled car back to the pits, stormed out and rushed to face his rival in the McLaren pit.
“You tried to kill me! He yelled, trying to grab Coulthard’s throat, while being held back by Ferrari sporting director – and future team boss – Stefano Domenicali.
“There was a sort of rapprochement later, but then Schumacher objected to something else …”
‘I’m gonna put something on you, I think you better listen’
With just eight cars still in the race, the Jordan team, still winless after 125 Grands Prix, found themselves in first and second place, with 1996 world champion Damon Hill ahead of teammate Ralf Schumacher.
Conditions were still horrendous, but the German was the fastest man and defied Hill’s lead.
Fearing they would end up losing Jordan’s very first F1 win – not to mention a one-two – Hill called the team to say they could keep racing if they wanted to, but that it would make more sense to back down.
Hill’s message on team radio. Shortly after, Schumacher was told, “Ralf, you can’t get past Damon, okay? It’s a team order ‘
Team boss Eddie Jordan agreed and insisted that Ralf Schumacher, who was leaving the team at the end of the season, couldn’t get past Hill. The German, reluctantly and after a short period of radio silence, finally recognized the order.
Hill took the win, his 22nd and final victory of his career, while Jordan jumped into the pits to celebrate not only a first win, but a stunning brace as well.
“I looked like a complete idiot,” Jordan said years later. “The euphoria, the excitement she just took. It was a day that I will never forget. There was so much wrapped up in those few hours – intrigue, tension, not believing it could happen ”
Michael Schumacher, meanwhile, was still simmering after his previous crash and called on team boss Jordan – who had made his F1 debut at the German seven years earlier – to complain about the treatment of his younger brother.
Rain, champagne and Hill’s smile
View of Benson from the media library
“Jordan’s imposition of team orders made Eddie Jordan the new target of former Schumacher’s wrath, which was a bit of a jolt for the Irishman, who until then had been raving, swearing happily to everyone, as he celebrated his team’s victory to come of age.
“He wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe. Back in the media center, Hill was surrounded by a group of British journalists – this writer among them – after the official press conference ended. [things were a bit more informal in those days].
“Hill spoke as he tried to figure it out, as the smell of rain, sweat and champagne rose from his yellow overalls.
“Two decades later it might be, but Hill’s incomprehensible smile, huddle and the aroma that came with it is perhaps the clearest memory of all. “
Twists, turns and falls – images of an incredible race
Irvine’s Ferrari and Coulthard’s McLaren look distinctly used after first lap crashOn restart, championship leader Hakkinen fails – again exiting the first corner – and exitedHill and Schumacher storm past as Hakkinen’s McLaren is taken off the trackGiancarlo Fisichella’s race ended on lap 26 after this spectacular crash with Shinji Nakano, who – remarkably given the direction of movement of his rear wing – was able to continue after extensive repairsFisichella examines what’s left of her smoking BenettonCoulthard had a hectic afternoon behind the wheel of the McLarenThis race was the first of team Jordan’s four victories.
Quiz – name the starting grid for Spa 1998
Twenty-two drivers were on the grid for the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix. Inevitably, a few were mentioned in the previous analysis, but how many other engines can you name?
You have six minutes to find out.
1998 Belgian GP starting grid
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