If Sebastian Vettel is going to get his title challenge back on track after Ferrari’s Singapore nightmare, then he will need the number 2 Ferrari to provide cover and help take points off his rivals. Ferrari produced arguably the greatest display of number 2 driving in Malaysia back in 1999, when a certain Michael Schumacher showed he could also play the team game, and play it better than anyone else!
For those who think aggressive defensive driving and questionable blocking tactics were invented by Max Verstappen, then you are probably too young to recall the manner in which Michael Schumacher dominated his peers and the sport. The 1999 Formula One season was all set up to be a repeat of the duel between reigning champion Mika Hakkinen and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, with the 1998 season having going down to the wire. However we were robbed of that fight in 1999 when Schumacher broke his leg at the British Grand Prix, seemingly handing the championship on a plate to Hakkinen. Ferrari threw their support behind former number 2 Irvine, who stepped up to the challenge, and with a little help from new number 2 Ferrari man Mika Salo, who slowed and allowed Irvine to pass him for victory in Germany, and mistakes from McLaren and Hakkinen, Irvine arrived at the penultimate round in Malaysia just 2 points adrift of the flying Finn. While Salo had undoubtedly performed admirably filling in for Schumacher, Irvine’s cause was boosted when Ferrari announced that Schumacher would be returning for Malyasia to support his bid to be Ferrari’s first champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979 (although the level of enthusiasm Schumacher had for performing support duties for Irvine’s title bid is open to question).
In Malaysia Schumacher proved that whilst he was the dominant force in Formula One, he was also the best damned number 2 driver the sport had ever seen! Schumacher made his superiority known first, securing pole position by a whisker off a second faster than his title chasing teammate while the McLaren duo of David Coulthard and Hakkinen occupied the second row. When the lights went out the first four got away cleanly, Ferrari’s followed by McLaren’s, and Schumacher initially gave yet another reminder of his superiority by streaking into the distance, opening up a commanding lead of 3 seconds over his teammate within 2 laps, a truly remarkable performance given his long layoff, but, point proven, he now settled into his task as number 2 – not just mildly acquiescing and allowing a slower team mate by, but slowing and blocking his team mate’s title rival for all he was worth! Schumacher first allowed Irvine by on lap 3, slowing enough on the run out of Turn 8 to allow Irvine through whilst covering off Coulthard into Turn 9 and slowing up the McLarens. With no title at stake Coulthard could afford to be aggressive, and he barged Schumacher out of the way, diving late up the inside into turn 2, climbing the inside kerbs and pushing Schumacher wide at the start of lap 4. But Hakkkinen could not afford to risk colliding with Schumacher and crashing out, and over the next laps Schumacher bobbed and weaved as he kept Mika behind. Coulthard closed up on Irvine, and with the Scot looking to have race day pace advantage and nothing to lose it seemed only a matter of time before he pulled a move on the title contender. But on lap 15 Coulthard’s McLaren gave up the ghost, retiring with a loss of fuel pressure, and Irvine was clear in the lead, Schumacher and Hakkinen still circulating close behind, but Hakkinen unable to make a move on the canny German. Schumacher now began to back up Hakkinen prior to the first round of pitstops to give Irvine a buffer, with the gap between the two Ferrari’s suddenly going out to over 12 seconds prior to Irvines pitstop. Although Michael would claim damage from the early contact with Coulthard was responsible for his difficulties in driving the car, when he needed to ensure a gap to Hakkinen prior to his own stop he suddenly picked up his pace remarkably, putting in a string of fastest laps prior to disatance Hakkinen. With the gap back to Scumacher chopped to 8 seconds Irvine pitted on lap 25, with Hakkinen following two laps later, but despite being backed up by Schumacher Mika did not take on enough fuel to get to the end without stopping again. Schumacher came in on lap 28 for what would be his only stop of the race, and Hakkinen’s hopes were now gone as Schumacher returned to the track ahead of him, with Irvine out front. Schumacher backed Hakkinen up again prior to Irvine’s second stop on lap 41, and although Irvine would rejoin behind them, Hakkinen would have to stop again, and Schumacher calmly let Irvine through once Hakkinen pitted. Indeed, such was Schumacher’s slowing of Hakkinen that the McLaren returned to the track from his second stop on lap 47 behind the Stewart of Johnny Herbert, and had work to do to even return to the podium. Hakkinen would manage to get by Herbert to take a vital third place with a move into the final corner a few laps from the end, with Irvine taking the chequered flag closely followed by Schumacher.
There was no denying Schumacher’s dominance after the race, but there was doubt over Ferrari’s success, with the cars from the Scuderia disqualified after the race after their barge boards were deemed to be oversized, provisionally handing the championship to Hakkinen who inherited the win. But the FIA would re-instate Ferrari a few days later (apparently their cars were deemed not illegal enough to be penalised!), and Hakkinen would have to go on to beat Irvine and his number 2 in the final round Japan to take his second driver’s crown.