On this day in F1 08 March, is brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: Bart De Pauw
– 1998: Yet again McLaren team orders in favor of Häkkinen
1998: After two seasons of Williams-Renault supremacy, McLaren drivers Mika Häkkinen and David Couthard lived up to their pre-season favorite role by overwhelmingly dominating the 1998 season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Häkkinen took pole with only a four-hundredths of a second advantage over Coulthard, with Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari a distant third at more than seven tenths. As it turned out victory was decided at the first corner when Häkkinen made the better start to lead his Scottish teammate into the 58 laps around Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit. Both McLarens pulled away from the field at a staggering rate of three seconds per lap on an afternoon that would see them double all other cars. But despite all this dominance the inevitable McLaren win was not free from controversy.
On lap 36 race leader Häkkinen – confused by a radio communication – unaccountably came into the pits for what he thought would be his second refueling stop. But with still 22 laps to go his Mclaren MP 4/13 wouldn’t make it to the finish, and the team waved him straight back into the race, now in second place behind Coulthard. That was still the order after both McLaren men had made their actual second refueling stop, Häkkinen on lap 40 and Coulthard on lap 42. With two laps to go Coulthard then pulled over on the start/finish straight and let Häkkinen past to abide to a pre-race agreement that was mediated by the team for the event that both McLarens were to dominate the race and that determined that whoever reached the first corner in the lead should take the win.
In the post race interview Häkkinen was most laudatory for Couthard, saying that what he did was really remarkable and had not been seen very often in the history of F1, while the Scot defended his actions and acceptance of the team orders by referring to the high likelihood of reliability issues in case the two McLarens would have been challenging each other and by revealing that despite being second on the grid he still felt confident to beat Häkkinen to the first corner. A lot of people were less understanding though, and the matter was eventually investigated by the World Motorsport Council with the verdict that ‘any future act prejudicial to the interests of competition should be severely punished’. This race fixing conviction was a bitter and indigestible pill to swallow for Ron Dennis, and almost ten years later – on the occasion of an investigation into identical and at that time by the FIA explicitly forbidden team orders given to Alonso and Hamilton during the 2007 Monaco Grand Prix – he would finally come up with his shady justification of what happened in lap 36 of the 1998 Australian Grand Prix: ‘Team orders are what you bring to bear to manipulate a grand prix. We do not and have not manipulated grand prix, unless there were some exceptional circumstances, which occurred in Australia  when someone had tapped into our radio and instructed Mika Häkkinen to enter the pits’.
The McLaren team orders during the first grand prix of 1998 also revived the controversial end of the 1997 season with Michael Schumacher’s most notorious and unsuccessful attempt to win himself a World Championship by taking Jacques Villeneuve out of the closing European Grand Prix in Jerez de la Frontera. Somewhat less remembered is the fact that Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 WDC well in the bag, in a radio message was asked to hand victory in that 1997 European Grand Prix to the McLarens as ‘they had been very helpful’ during the early stages of the grand prix when they gave apparent tacit help to the Canadian by delaying their pitstops to hold Schumacher. An obedient Villeneuve surrendered the race win, but even in those unworthy but definitely not very ‘exceptional’ circumstances the McLaren management deemed it necessary to explain to Coulthard that he should drop back behind Häkkinen as the Fin had made more sacrifices to Villeneuve. So for two races in succession McLaren flagrantly influenced the top podium step in favor of Mika Häkkinen. Knowing that helps to put McLaren’s still often heard and self-declared race ethics of ‘letting their drivers race’ into some better perspective…