The 1998 Formula 1 season was one of many memorable and slightly controversial moments, such as McLaren’s team orders during the opening round in Melbourne and Michael Schumacher’s collision with David Coulthard at Spa. However, one of the most controversial moments of the year occurred at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix.
Only several weeks after Ferrari’s dominant performance at the French Grand Prix around Magny-Cours, the sport reconvened at Silverstone for the ninth round of the season. After a strong start to the season, McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen sat 14 points clear of Michael Schumacher at the top of the Drivers’ Championship. However, after several strong victories for the then two-time Champion, Mika Hakkinen’s dominance at the top was starting to wane. Although qualifying was run in overcast weather conditions, race day dawned with typical British weather over the legendary Silverstone circuit.
Heavy rain had fallen overnight, presenting the drivers with a treacherously wet circuit at the start. Unsurprisingly Mika Hakkinen had stormed to his sixth pole position of the season, alongside Championship rival Michael Schumacher with reigning Champion Jacques Villeneuve 3rd alongside a frustrated David Coulthard in 4th. At the start Mika Hakkinen scampered into a confident lead, whereas the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine plummeted through the order after a bad getaway off of the line from 5th to 10th. David Coulthard managed to progress to 3rd on the opening lap, as the field tip-toed around the drying Silverstone circuit on intermediate tyres.
Mika Hakkinen proceeded to produce the fastest lap of the race on the opening lap, as Eddie Irvine began his resurgence through the top ten by progressing to 8th on the third lap. After mistakingly electing for a dry setup on his Ferrari, Michael Schumacher unsurprisingly struggled throughout the opening few laps. This allowed the McLaren of David Coulthard to catch the German and eventually storm up the inside into 2nd position, as light rain once again began to fall.
As David Coulthard set his sights on catching race leader and team-mate Mika Hakkinen, Eddie Irvine scythed his way around Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen to rise to 5th position. Mika Hakkinen, on the other hand, was now lapping the Minardi duo of Shinji Nakano and Esteban Tuero, looking in full command of proceedings at the front. By Lap 11 the rain had increased in severity over the Silverstone circuit, as the first scheduled pit-stops were carried out. Despite the rainfall overhead, Michael Schumacher managed to produce the fastest lap of the race, as ‘Der Regenmeister’ came alive behind the wheel of his Ferrari.
Damon Hill became the first retirement of the race as the weather worsened, after the 1996 World Champion spun in his Jordan. Heinz-Harald Frentzen joined the Briton in retirement several laps later, as the drivers quickly began to greatly struggle on the intermediate tyres in the conditions. After initially electing to start the race on slick tyres, Jos Verstappen finally pitted for full wet tyres on Lap 17 as the Dutchman naturally struggled towards the rear of the order. He was followed into the pits throughout the next few laps by many other drivers, including the Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella and Stewart team-mate Rubens Barrichello.
Despite the increasingly tricky weather conditions, Michael Schumacher pitted for a new set of intermediate tyres on Lap 19 from 3rd position, momentarily dropping back to 5th. Jacques Villeneuve, Alexander Wurz, Ricardo Rosset and David Coulthard all pitted as the race continued, with the latter retaining his 2nd position behind race leader and team-mate Mika Hakkinen who eventually pitted on Lap 23. Not only did the Finn retain his lead at the front, he was issued a set of full wet tyres by his McLaren mechanics, contrary to David Coulthard who remained on the intermediate tyres.
After starting from 21st on the grid after failing to set a timed lap during qualifying, Ralf Schumacher had managed to rise through the order to 6th by Lap 27, as the Jordan outfit searched for their elusive first points of the season. As David Coulthard began to visibly catch Mika Hakkinen for the lead, many more drivers spun into retirement including the likes of Johnny Herbert, Mika Salo, Ricardo Rosset and Esteban Tuero. Despite the treacherous weather conditions, the race still remained under green flag conditions. The almost undriveable weather conditions failed to deter Ralf Schumacher, who pitted for a second time for intermediate tyres on Lap 35.
In his quest to catch and overtake Mika Hakkinen for the lead of the race, David Coulthard simply aquaplaned off of the the circuit and into a demoralizing retirement. This enabled Michael Schumacher to rise up to 2nd position, with the German still circulating on the intermediate tyres despite the woeful weather conditions. After rising steadily through the order to 3rd in the second Ferrari, Eddie Irvine elected to pit for full wet tyres on Lap 39 before Mika Hakkinen did likewise a lap later and retained his enormous advantage at the front. Michael Schumacher also pitted on Lap 40, as Jarno Trulli joined the amounting list of retirees after a spin a lap later.
After a combination of errors throughout the race, Jos Verstappen was eventually forced into retirement with an engine-related issue on his Stewart. As the Dutchman peeled off of the Silverstone circuit, the treacherous conditions caught him out and tipped him into a spin. The extent of the rainfall became dangerously apparent on Lap 42 when Mika Hakkinen simply lost control of his McLaren at Bridge corner and spun through the grass. Luckily the Finn managed to avoid slamming into the wall, however minor damage was made to his Mercedes-powered machine which would ultimately lead to his downfall.
Despite Mika Hakkinen’s spin into the unknown at Bridge corner, the Championship leader managed to maintain his dominant lead over Michael Schumacher back in 2nd. However, after yet another flurry of spills and thrills which led to the retirements of both Rubens Barrichello and Olivier Panis, the safety car was eventually deployed thus obliterating Mika Hakkinen’s monumental lead. Despite loosing his huge advantage at the front, Mika Hakkinen still had the lapped Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella between himself and Michael Schumacher at the restart on Lap 50. Michael Schumacher made short work of overtaking the Italian driver upon the restart, before setting his sights on the rear of Hakkinen’s McLaren.
As Michael Schumacher gradually caught Mika Hakkinen at the front, Pedro Diniz became the 12th retirement of the afternoon after spinning in his Arrows. Shinji Nakano nearly joined the Brazilian in retirement, however the Minardi driver managed to rejoin the circuit after his minor spin. As the crazy proceedings drew to a climactic conclusion, Mika Hakkinen ran wide at Becketts and gifted the lead of the race to Michael Schumacher. With the German now simply cruising in the lead of the race, Mika Hakkinen now came under serious pressure from the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine.
After over 50 laps run in dreary weather conditions, there was momentary amusement during the closing stages of the race as the sun finally broke through the cloud cover and a rogue umbrella blew across the still wet circuit. With Mika Hakkinen and McLaren resigned to the fact that Michael Schumacher was on course to his third successive victory, rumors began to emerge from the pit-lane that the German was under investigation for overtaking Alexander Wurz under the earlier safety car period. With only a handful of laps remaining, the Ferrari mechanics were spotted in the pit-lane clearly awaiting to receive Schumacher for what could only be a stop/go penalty.
Amid ongoing confusion between Ferrari and the race stewards as to which penalty would be issued to Michael Schumacher, the Italian outfit eventually elected to call him into the pits to serve a stop/go penalty on the final lap. This accounted for the German’s increased pace on the final lap, before he caused utter outrage by plunging into the pits instead of crossing the finish line and taking the checkered flag. As he served his controversial penalty, the two-time Champion also crossed the finish line, and in doing so won the British Grand Prix ahead of a perplexed Mika Hakkinen and team-mate Eddie Irvine.
During the immediate aftermath, no-one was entirely sure who had won the British Grand Prix before Michael Schumacher eventually took to the top step of the podium despite an utterly baffled look on his face after removing himself from his Ferrari in parc ferme. Once the podium ceremonies had drawn to a conclusion the politics rumbled on within the paddock, with McLaren naturally protesting the result of the race. After the race itself, the stewards deducted an additional ten seconds from the German’s race time, however because he won the race by just over 22 seconds it made no change to the overall classification. McLaren’s protest failed to alter the stewards decision, ending what had been yet another miserable race for the Woking-based outfit.
Although Michael Schumacher had scuppered Mika Hakkinen’s Championship lead to a meager two points, the German was eventually unable to beat the Finn to the Championship Crown after a memorable title showdown in Suzuka. Regardless of the overall Championship result, the British Grand Prix of 1998 will certainly be remembered by many as one of the most controversial races of the year with a conclusion which has since become an iconic moment in the history of Formula 1 at Silverstone.