Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Carlo Carluccio
– 1998: Mika Hakkinen – The Perfect Storm for an over-rated champion
Following the 1993 Portugese Grand Prix Murray Walker repeated – ad nauseum – for several years how Mika Hakkinen was greater than Ayrton Senna. This corrupted view owed much to Hakkinen having beaten Senna in qualifying once – something that De Angelis, Prost and Berger also achieved but without the associated fanfare.
The point that’s often forgotten is for the first time in his life Senna was seriously demoralised.
Having failed to join Williams for free due to Prost’s cowardice and his initial high pressure race by race contract Senna spent the majority of the 1993 season watching the might of Renault powering his nemesis out of view whilst he laboured on with second generation Ford engines. Even three, exceptional, early season victories did little to lift the gloom.
Then again maybe we should be grateful for Hakkinen beating Senna – by a mere 4/100ths of a second in Portugal – because it galvanised the brilliant Brazilian to wins in Japan and Australia.
By 1998 people began to believe that Hakkinen deserved to be included in the pantheon of World Champions and yet I’d argue that if it wasn’t for the convergence of different factors – creating the perfect storm – he would have remained just a race winner until retirement.
1) With the FIA introducing grooved tyres to slow down the cars, Goodyear confirmed over the winter of 1997 that the 1998 season would be their final year of Formula One competition. Mclaren realised this declaration meant that Goodyear were effectively in breach of contract as the terms lasted for some additional years. Of the three lead teams they alone signed with the superior Japanese rubber; leaving Ferrari and Williams handicapped on the American products.
2) Adrian Newey had left Williams to join Mclaren in 1997 and designed the 1998 chassis – whilst on gardening leave – to the new narrower track regulations which made the most of this late switch to the superior grooved Bridgestone tyres.
3) Williams – the dominant reigning champions – had lost their star designer and perhaps more crucially Renault withdrew from the sport. The team had began the downward spiral from elite to also-runs.
4) Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne had joined Ferrari during 1997 and immediately began relocating the design offices back to Maranello – hardly the work of a moment. They had originally been situated in Surrey – under the command of John Barnard – but it was quickly established that this hampered the team merely to appease a designer who’s best years were definitely passed.
5) David Coulthard had been nullified by Mclaren in the last race of 1997 at Jerez by being ordered to gift Hakkinen his first victory.
Hakkinen had qualified four hundredths of a second faster than Coulthard and nearly a second ahead of Schumacher’s Ferrari. By the end of the race the Mclarens were over a lap ahead of the competition and Hakkinen had been gifted his second Grand Prix victory.
From the start, the Mclarens had flown off the grid and when Scumacher’s Ferrari retired on lap 6; they were without competition. The race continued in monotonous fashion – until with all pitstops completed – Hakkinen dove into the pits on lap 36 after apparently “hearing” a call over the radio. He drove straight through the pitlane and rejoined behind DC.
Hakkinen raced after Coulthard and unleashed the full potential of the Mclaren for the first time that weekend and then followed closely for the remainder of the race. At least that is what the press, TV and public believed.
As they completed the 55th lap, DC – who’s encrypted radio was transmitting and receiving perfectly – slowed and allowed Hakkinen past into the lead because they had made a pre-race agreement that whoever led into the first corner would take the win… (Hadn’t Mclaren been here before?)
Criticism poured in from around the world and the FIA presented the matter to the World Motorsport Council after Ron Walker the Australian Grand Prix Corporation chairman lodged an official complaint. Their verdict would be that “any future act prejudicial to the interests of competition should be severely punished in accordance with article 151c of International Sporting Code.”
However nine years later, whilst responding to a question regarding team-orders between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso – Ron Dennis stated: “We do not and have not manipulated grands 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…”
As to my original summation that I don’t believe he was a deserving World Champion; Schumacher in an inferior Ferrari shod with tyres that were not equivalent to the best of Bridgestone was almost crowned World Driver Champion.
I do not believe it an exaggeration to suggest that if Coulthard had not stayed on the racing line in the extremely wet conditions of the Belgian Grand Prix – thereby causing a collision with Schumacher who was lapping him – the title would have had a very different outcome.