1999 Belgian Grand Prix flashback

Ralf Schumacher, Williams, Spa-Francorchamps, 1999 | Williams F1 MediaKeeping two ruthless, competitive and fast team mates happy is something both McLaren and Ferrari have to manage this year.

For an example of how one team has quite a bit more experience in the matter than the other, turn the clock back eight years to the Belgian Grand Prix of 1999.

The McLaren drivers fought over the win – and it was the man with the number two on his car came out on top – while Ferrari were forced to use team orders to shuffle its principal title contender into a lowly fourth place.

Schumacher refuses return

Ferrari had been thrown into disarray by Michael Schumacher’s crash at the British Grand Prix in July. Twenty years had passed since their last drivers’ champion – Jody Scheckter – and Schumacher had been runner-up for the past two years.

Hopes were raised before the Belgian Grand Prix that he might be about to return to the cockpit. He limped around the car at the pre-race test at Mugello, climbed in, and lapped 0.2s slower than team mate Eddie Irvine on his first flying lap. After a day’s testing – 65 laps – he was 0.3s quicker than Irvine.

But he made it clear that although his broken leg – which still contained a 25cm pin – did not impede his performance, he would not race at Spa. He targetted a return at the following round, Monza in Italy, but missed that and the European Grand Prix, finally returning at the Malaysian round.

Title battle

That left Ferrari fielding Irvine – championship leader by two points ahead of McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen – alongside Mika Salo. The weakness of the pairing had been underlined two weeks earlier at the Hungaroring, when Hakkinen had taken a commanding win, Irvine had slithered off the track and finished third, and Salo finished 12th, lapped twice, having started a miserable 18th.

Irvine was Ferrari’s only hope for the title, and Salo was there to support him. That much was clear when Salo had sacrificed what would have been his first Grand Prix win to Irvine at the Hockenheimring.

At McLaren things were different but, in common with today, there were rumours of discontent between the drivers and preference being shown to one over the other.

Hakkinen was in his sixth full season with the team, Coulthard his fourth, and Hakkinen had clearly had the beating of Coulthard when the Finn had taken the title the year before.

Nonetheless, just as today, Dennis pledged equal treatment for both drivers. Even if that meant the occasional horror show, such as at the A1-Ring one month earlier, when Coulthard spun Hakkinen at the start and then lost the win to Irvine.

Team mates crash

McLaren dominated qualifying. Before the nonsense of race-fuel qualifying was invented there was a simply measure of how much quicker the McLaren was over a 7km lap of Spa-Francorchamps than anything else – Hakkinen’s 0.909s advantage over third placed Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the German an outsider for the title. Irvine, sixth, was 1.5s down.

Salo, ninth, was just a tenth quicker than Jacques Villeneuve, despite the Canadian’s best efforts to destroy both himself and his BAR. Just as in 1998, he had tried to take the fast Eau Rouge sweep flat-out, and lost control and had an accident of similar gigantic proportions to the one he managed at Williams the previous year.

Villeneuve pointed out that since the barrier on the inside of the right-hand bend at Eau Rouge had been removed this year the psychological challenge had been lessened. Team mate Ricardo Zonta accepted his challenge of taking the bend without lifting – and had an even bigger crash. Thankfully, both were uninjured, but you had to pity their poor mechanics.

Team mates clash

Race day dawned bright, sunny and dry – a relief for those hoping not to see a repeat of last year’s dismal weather which prompted an enormous crash at the start.

As the drivers sat on the grid Hakkinen’s car twitched forward momentarily, then stopped. At the same moment the lights changed and Coulthard was immediately alongside his team mate, pinching his car against the barrier at the inside of the La Source hairpin.

The two made the briefest of contact – just like Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa did at Monza on Sunday – and Coulthard took the lead.

That decisive and controversial move on Coulthard’s part – a highly controversial one given what happened at the A1-Ring – won him the race. Hakkinen couldn’t get on terms with his team mate that day.

Team mates conspire

Further back Ferrari were using team orders to minimise the damage. Salo was running behind Irvine and keeping Ralf Schumacher back, slowing the German’s Williams by up to three seconds per lap, while Patrick Head fumed with rage. It bought Irvine enough time to exit the pits just ahead of the younger Schumacher following his second stop – although he inadvertently put Salo onto the grass in doing so.

That bought Irvine fourth, but there was nothing he could do about Frentzen’s third-placed Jordan. He could console himself with the thought that on a day when Ferrari’s policy of backing one driver had got him an extra point, McLaren’s policy of equality had cost Hakkinen four.

It was days like that which made you think that, even though Hakkinen had a faster car for much of the season, he was surely a more deserving champion than Irvine would have been.

Photo: Williams F1 Media

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1 comment on 1999 Belgian Grand Prix flashback

  1. Robert McKay said on 13th September 2007, 15:13

    Funny how I remember this GP like it was last week, but I can’t remember what happened in most of the races this season.

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