Unhappy with the spiralling cornering speeds of the cars in 1997 owing to the tyre war and general technical development, FIA President Max Mosley ushered in some of his most controversial changes for 1998. The cars would be made narrower and run on grooved tyres.
Reigning champion Jacques Villeneuve abhorred the changes – but he was probably equally unhappy with the pace of his Williams. Renault had departed and the team were left with second rate ‘customer’ Supertec units.
Over the winter it emerged that McLaren’s Ron Dennis now held all the cars. He lured Adrian Newey away from Williams because he was unhappy with the team’s treatment of Damon Hill. Mercedes had produced a powerful and reliable engine and he made the astute move of switching to Bridgestone tyres.
The car was wickedly fast out of the box and the team dominated Melbourne, Mika Hakkinen won after being let through by David Coulthard – as in the previous race – this time because Hakkinen had pitted unnecessarily and he and the Scot ha a pre-race agreement about who should win. There were dark mutterings in the press abut race-fixing.
Controversy was to be a major theme of the year and Ron Dennis complained loudly on several occasions when he felt McLaren weren’t getting fair treatment.
At Interlagos F1 Racing magazine uncovered photographs of an independent rear brake pedal on the McLaren which the FIA swiftly banned.
Michael Schumacher won the British Grand Prix under very odd circumstances when he served a stop/go penalty after the race had finished – yet the result still stood due to errors by the race stewards.
This was one of a trio of wins for Schumacher in the middle of the season that brought him into contention for the championship.
The advantage in the championship swung back and forth over the remaining races. Finally Hakkinen seized the initiative at the Nürburgring, passing both Ferraris on the way to a vital win.
It set up a championship showdown at Suzuka, which Hakkinen won after Schumacher stalled on the grid and then picked up a puncture. McLaren also won the constructors’ championship, putting them back on top for the first time since 1991.