As the European leg of the Formula One season brings along the start of the second half of the season with the Belgian Grand Prix, the weather is always a defining factor in the strategies and action that fill the weekend with a lot of dramatic moments.
In August of 1998, the track, based in the Ardenne forest, was to bear witness to a start-line incident of gargantuan proportions. As Spa-Francorchamps has shown its properties, it comes to having its own weather micro-climate over the years, making for some very dramatic moments. That race was no exception as it put a major spanner in the works on a very wet Sunday afternoon for many drivers.
As the cars lined up on the grid, the race would not be started under Safety Car conditions in the monsoon-laden atmosphere, as well as at the scheduled time, unlike the previous year. The race was to see no real change in the rain coming down hard, as the lights went out just before chaos reigned supreme within the first few kilometres. McLaren’s David Coulthard was the man that was unfortunate enough to start a chain-reaction unlike any other, as carnage was clearly unavoidable after the Scotsman spun in the torrential downpour, thus hitting the barrier.
He was first to emerge from the plumes of spray that led to him dropping a wheel on the metal grilles, that caused him to veer off course, and take out the likes of Rubens Barrichello, Johnny Herbert, Alex Wurz, Jarno Trulli and Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine as a result of what happened. Some drivers were able to avoid the carnage, like Jordan’s Damon Hill, who was ahead of the melee, with the likes of Ralf Schumacher and others coming to a complete standstill.
Due to the regulations at that time stating that the race would be restarted completely if a stoppage was to occur within the first two laps, all bar four of the drivers, who ended up not having a spare car or suffering injuries, as a result of the amount of damage caused to those cars. Those omitted were Mika Salo, Riccardo Rosset and Shinji Nakano, who were not able to take advantage of the spare car rule in those days, as their teammates had already got themselves back on track. Barrichello decided to not contest the race in the restart, as a result of his injuries, whereas Irvine did go out.
The clear-up operation on the track itself took the marshals the best part of an hour, as wheels, suspension components and carbon-fibre galore had to be cleared, after the race was stopped before the first lap was even completed by Mika Häkkinen.
After the cars lined up an hour later, Hill took the lead in the Jordan, as Michael Schumacher and Häkkinen fought hard going into the first corner, battling for position. The Flying Finn would unfortunately spin out, and collect Herbert, whose bad luck continued for a second time, with both drivers heading back for an early shower.
Coulthard was to suffer not one, but two further accidents that weekend, as both himself and Wurz came together, with the Austrian retiring. Schumacher had passed Hill for the lead, before coming up to lap the McLaren driver on Lap 25.
Scuderia Ferrari’s Team Principal and current FIA President, Jean Todt, had already been down to see McLaren to ask them to radio Coulthard to let Michael through But in a bizarre twist, it all went downhill rather quickly, as David lifted off and slowed, so as to enable the German to overtake and maintain his lead.
But shortly after, the Kerpen native ploughed hard into the back of the West-livered McLaren, losing his right front wheel, suspension and front wing in the process, ending his race and forcing him to creep back to the pits and retire. The red mist suddenly descended as he threw his steering wheel out of his forlorn F300, and stormed his way to the McLaren garage, looking for the other party involved in this dramatic and dangerous incident.
As the television crews captured the action live, as Schumacher tore off his helmet and balaclava, the intent in his eyes were clear to see, as pandemonium ensued, as both parties were trying to keep the drivers from exchanging blows, as Coulthard kept his helmet on. The German driver was clearly unhappy with what had transpired, knowing that a cruel twist of fate had taken away a victory that was his for the taking, as tears were welling up in his eyes, as he walked back to the Ferrari garage.
But these events were to provide a fairytale ending for the Jordan squad, as Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher were the leading pair of just 8 out of 22 drivers that remained, as Eddie Jordan was ecstatic that the Mugen-powered cars gave the Irishman’s outfit a welcome 1-2 finish that weekend.
The decision to keep both Hill and Schumacher where they were, after the Briton’s insistence on the radio, meant the German was not happy about it, as he felt he could have won. It made for some interesting debate, when Jordan’s TV biography, “An Independent Man”, shed light on the matter during recent times.
So over the years, we have seen many action-packed incidents but this one will be one that will be talked about for many more years to come…
Featured image credit: (c) bbc.co.uk