This was the second year since the introduction of the grooved tyre regulations, but there would now be only one tyre supplier. Goodyear, unhappy with the new rules, left Bridgestone to supply tyres to the entire grid. Wishing to reduce cornering speeds even further, the FIA added a fourth groove to the front tyres.
The line-up among the top two teams remained the same: champion Mika Hakkinen and David Coutlhard at McLaren, Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine in their fourth season together at Ferrari.
Elsewhere Alessandro Zanardi returned from his foray into CART racing in America (where he had won the championship twice) to pair up with Ralf Schumacher at Williams, who had failed to win a single race in 1998. The younger Schumacher had left Jordan in a swap with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who joined Damon Hill at the Irish team.
Stewart Grand Prix retained Rubens Barrichello and took Johnny Herbert from Sauber. Tyrrell was no more, and 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve joined the new team that had bought them, BAR.
They made bold promises about winning their first race, and immediately ran afoul of the FIA by trying to run each of their cars in a different colour. When they were prevented from doing that a controversial split livery was used instead. As the year was to prove, they should have spent more time developing the car.
The opening races were a resumption of the battle of 1998 – Hakkinen versus Schumacher, McLaren versus Ferrari. Schumacher seized the early initiative as McLaren struggled with unreliability. But McLaren hit back and Hakkinen began to press Schumacher hard – at Montreal the German hit the wall hard while Hakkinen went on to win.
A wet French Grand Prix produced a hectic race which Frentzen won brilliantly for Jordan ahead of Hakkinen. But the next round, at Silverstone, would be the turning point in the championship. Schumacher crashed heavily at Stowe on the first lap and broke his leg. He would be out of the cockpit for several races.
But it was not the end of the championship as McLaren continued to struggle with their car. Couthard won at Silverstone after Hakkinen’s wheel fell off. At the Hockenheimring Hakkinen suffered a tyre failure that caused a big crash. Schumacher’s replacement Mika Salo let Irvine through to win the race.
Coulthard took more points off him at Spa-Francorchamps but, even worse, the Briton nudged his team mate out of the race at the A1-Ring and then lost the race to Irvine. The Ulsterman, who had only won his first race at the season opener at Melbourne, was rapidly becoming a championship contender.
Hakkinen lost more points when he crashed out at Monza. Frentzen won that race and now he, too, had a shot at the championship – but it evaporated when his car broke down at the Nurburgring. In the race, Herbert gave Stewart its first Grand Prix success after timing his pit stop for wet tyres perfectly.
As the championship reached its climax Ferrari persuaded Schumacher to return to help Irvine’s championship cause. He did so brilliantly at the first Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, taking pole position, delaying Hakkinen’s McLaren, and twice letting Irvine past to win.
But the sport was plunged into scandal when the Ferrari were disqualified for using illegal bargeboards. Hakkinen was therefore champion, but an appeal hearing re-instated Ferrari, amid cynical whispers that a last race championship showdown was being engineered.
The final race, at Suzuka, was a one-sided affair. Hakkinen shot off and Schumacher was barely able to keep up with him, and Irvine was nowhere. Hakkinen sealed his second title, but Ferrari took the constructors’ championship.
Hill had fallen out of love with F1 and retired after a poor season. Also out was Zanardi, who would return to CART in 2001 but lose both his legs in a horrific accident at the Lausitzring in Germany. BAR failed to score even a single point.