For a few days it even seemed to have settled the drivers’ championship in favour of Mika Hakkinen – before a swift intervention by the FIA meant the championship would be decided in Japan after all.
The 1999 World Championship bordered on the surreal at times. The European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was a classic example: none of the three championship contenders (Mika Hakkinen, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen) did especially well in a chaotic wet/dry event.
Hakkinen in particularly seemed hell-bent on losing the title to Irvine one way or another. But Ferrari’s shambolic performance at the Nurburgring took Irvine out of the equation with a fumbled tyre change.
There would be no room for such mistakes at the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix on October 17th though – because the boss was back.
Michael Schumacher’s championship challenge had ended when he broke his leg during the British Grand Prix three months earlier. He hadn’t been expected to return until 2000 and his re-appearance at Sepang apparently had a lot to do with Ferrari boss Luca Montezemolo calling the Schumacher residence and speaking to young Gina-Marie, who told Montezemolo that her daddy was, “just taking his football boots off”.
If Schumacher hadn’t shown an appetite for rushing back to the cockpit to support Irvine’s title bid, once their he did a consummate job.
He took pole position by almost a whole second from Irvine, a magnificent gesture of defiance that couldn’t have been any better had he arrived at the track and spray painted “MS #1 4 ever” on the virgin tarmac.
On race day he continued to bludgeon the field with his supremacy while deferring to Irvine. Within two laps of the start he had a 3.1s lead, which he quickly squandered to run second behind Irvine and baulk the McLarens.
His only mistake came on lap five when an inspired David Coulthard barged past him at turn two. Coulthard might have upset the Ferrari party had he not lost fuel pressure on the 14th lap and retired.
Schumacher’s one-stop strategy got him back ahead of Irvine in the dying stages and once again he had to let his team mate past. This was nothing new for Irvine, having already won the German Grand Prix thanks to Mika Salo’s deference. The Finn never would win a Grand Prix.
One can only imagine what the Malaysians new to F1 made of the spectacle of the best driver in the world apparently refusing to win their race. If that was comedy, what came next was farce.
At Sepang Ferrari were running the same barge boards they had used at the Nurburgring – only they hadn’t been through post-race scrutineering as neither car had finished in the points. When they FIA stewards examined the boards in Malaysia, they discovered a reference plane demanded by the regulations measuring 100mm wide was missing.
Irvine and Schumacher were both thrown out of the race and Hakkinen gained a mathematically insurmountable lead in the championship.
Ferrari quickly lodged an appeal and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone made loud noises about it being, “bad for the sport,” claiming, “the public wants to see a great finish to a great championship.”
McLaren were believed to have protested the barge boards but, amid the furore, few took note of the fact that they had also complained about the near-bald state of the Ferraris’ ‘grooved’ tyres.
Not too many people were surprised when Ferrari’s appeal was upheld, their confiscated points reinstated, and a last-race championship showdown set up for Suzuka. But at that race, Schumacher was apparently unable to stop Hakkinen’s runaway McLaren, and the Finn retained the drivers’ title.
It was an awkward beginning for F1’s relationship with Malaysia. That the race has persisted has not come from any great local passion for the sport, rather the government’s desire to project a positive image internationally.