After a controversial Belgian Grand Prix we come to Monza this weekend in the midst of a dramatic title battle between Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Monza, steeped in history, has seen its fair share of title fights down the years, but has it ever witnessed one quite like this? Dan Paddock looks back to the 1998 season as title rivals Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher took the drivers’ championship down to the wire after a thrilling Italian Grand Prix.
The 1998 Italian Grand Prix – Round 14 of that year’s world championship – came fresh off the back of an unforgettable Belgian Grand Prix, a rain soaked crash-fest won by Damon Hill in a surprise Jordan 1-2, the team’s first win in Formula 1 after eight years of trying.
With both title contenders failing to finish at Spa, Hakkinen collected by Johnny Herbert after a spin at La Source on the second start, and Schumacher forced into retirement after his famous collision with David Coulthard, the battle for the drivers’ championship remained tightly poised between the pair, who arrived in Monza separated by just seven points – in the Finn’s favour – with three races still to run.
McLaren had dominated qualifying all year long, but a downpour ahead of the hour-long session on Saturday saw Schumacher take pole from outgoing champion Jacques Villeneuve. It was Williams’ best qualifying position of the season and Schumacher’s first pole in over a year. Quite the surprise after Ferrari had struggled so badly on the long straights of the Hockenheimring just a month earlier.
Remarkably it was the first time a McLaren had not been on the front row all season long, Hakkinen and Coulthard confined to just third and fourth after the pair failed to time their runs on the rapidly drying Monza track.
Ex-Ferrari favourite Jean Alesi briefly topped the session for Sauber before slumping to eighth, the French-Sicilian displaced late on by Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari, Jordan’s Ralf Schumacher and the Austrian Alexander Wurz in the Benetton.
Come race day it was an electrifying start, with Hakkinen scything his way straight through Schumacher and Villeneuve, the pair both slow away from the front row, the Finn followed into Retifilio by Coulthard in the sister McLaren.
While the McLarens stretched into an early lead out front Schumacher found himself relegated down to fifth, behind not only old rival Villeneuve but also Ferrari team-mate Irvine. The German was past the Williams at the Roggia chicane, clearing Irvine a lap later, the Ulsterman freeing Schumacher to give chase to the runaway McLarens.
Further down the field Belgian Grand Prix winner Damon Hill had started just 14th but the 1996 champion made steady progress in the early part of the race, up to seventh behind his former team-mate Villeneuve after just seven laps.
Lap seven saw a change for the lead, with Coulthard passing his visibly struggling team-mate for first on the run down to the first chicane. The Scot, who had won the Italian Grand Prix just a year earlier, was in fine form, quickly stretching a lead of over 10 seconds to Hakkinen, who was slowly falling into the grips of the recovering Schumacher.
Shinji Nakano exited the Italian Grand Prix in dramatic fashion on lap 14, his Minardi in flames after a spectacular Ford engine failure out of the Curva Grande, with smoke trailing across the race track.
Just three laps later and the still struggling Hakkinen, followed by the pursuing Schumacher, was greeted by a wall of smoke as he rounded the same corner. Coulthard’s engine had exploded in the exact same place as Nakano’s, the luckless Scot pulling his McLaren to a halt. Hakkinen, with smoke billowing across the track, was forced to slow, giving Schumacher a chance to muscle his way through at La Roggia, before cutting under the McLaren to take the lead of the Italian Grand Prix into the first Lesmo. The lead changing twice in the space of 400 yards.
Schumacher, now in control of the race, was in for his one and only scheduled stop on lap 31, followed in just two laps later by Hakkinen, his paced having faded badly towards the end of the opening stint. The Finn rejoined well behind the German, but ahead of Irvine, now third in the second Ferrari.
Down in fourth Jacques Villeneuve was enjoying one of his most fruitful races of the year, thanks to the grunt of the Mechachrome badged Renault engine in the back of the Williams. The French-Canadian looked odds on for three solid points with just 16 laps to go, only to throw his car off the road down at the second Lesmo on lap 38.
Out front, Hakkinen, now on fresh rubber, was starting to reel in Schumacher for the lead, only for the Finn to suffer one final twist of drama for the weekend. On lap 47 and just 2.7 seconds behind his title rival, the Finn, losing control under braking, spun at high-speed at the entry to the second chicane, the McLaren skating across the kerbs and the gravel, rolling backwards before coming to a halt facing the wrong way. Quite remarkably, Hakkinen had managed to select reverse gear, keeping the engine running before righting the car, his lead to Irvine in the second Ferrari slashed.
The Finn, struggling with fading brakes, straight-lined the first chicane just a lap later, losing second to Irvine at Ascari on lap 49, before ultimately slipping down to fourth at the finish, passed by Ralf Schumacher with just a lap remaining.
With the two McLarens having fallen by the wayside, there was no stopping Michael Schumacher from marauding to his sixth win of the season and the 33rd victory of his career, some 40 seconds clear of his Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine, while Ralf Schumacher came home a fine third, his second consecutive podium finish, for Jordan to make history. The Schumacher brothers becoming the first siblings to ever share a Formula 1 podium.
It was the Scuderia’s second 1-2 of the season, and its first at Monza since Gerhard Berger led home Michele Alboreto in the emotional 1988 race. Not only that, Schumacher’s win proved to be the record 368th and final race victory for tyre supplier Goodyear, which left Formula 1 at the end of the 1998 season after 39 years in the sport.
In terms of the ongoing championship battles, a maximum haul of 16 points for Ferrari saw the Scuderia close to within just 10 points of McLaren at the top of the constructors’ standings, while Schumacher moved level on points with Hakkinen after the Finn limped home a distant fourth, the pair locked on 80 points with just two rounds of the season remaining.
Fan favourite Jean Alesi came home fifth to claim two points for Sauber, his second points finish on the bounce, while Damon Hill, the only one of the frontrunners to stop twice, made it a good day for Jordan, collecting the last point on offer for sixth, moving the Irish team to within a single point of Benetton, and just two shy of defending champions Williams in the constructors’ championship.
While Italy went down as a memorable win for Schumacher, the German would ultimately lose out on a third drivers’ title for the second year of asking, beaten by Hakkinen at the Nurburgring, before a stall on the grid followed by an eventual puncture saw him retire from the season ending Japanese Grand Prix. Instead the Finn took his first drivers’ crown, while McLaren won the constructors’ championship for the first time since 1991.
While Hakkinen would repeat the feat again the following year, Schumacher would have to wait until 2000 to add to his two world titles. The German adding a third Italian Grand Prix victory to his tally that year.
Images courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari and Wikimedia Commons