My Classic Belgian GP: 1998

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My Classic Belgian GP: 1998

Regular B/R readers might have heard me allude to the fact that I am, these days, primarily a Renault fan. It was not always thus.

Back when I began watching F1, in the late-1990s, it was the Jordan team that was my favorite. It certainly helped that, in 1998, my first F1 hero Damon Hill moved to the team, but even before then I had admired Eddie Jordan and his gaggle of young talents, which included Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, and Giancarlo Fisichella.

So, when it comes to picking my classic Belgian Grand Prix, there is only one possible contender: 1998.

Coming into the Grand Prix, the world championship race was being fought to the bitter end, primarily between McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. Hakkinen was seven points clear of his German rival with four races to go.

Hakkinen duly qualified on pole alongside teammate David Coulthard, with Hill a surprising third. Jordan had endured a tough season so far, neither car having scored for the first eight rounds of the season, and Hill having been without points until the German Grand Prix two races previously.

It had been raining for hours when the race started, Hill immediately making a poor start and dropping down the field. Hakkinen led around the first corner, and Jacques Villeneuve made an excellent getaway in his Williams to take second from sixth on the grid. He was even challenging the McLaren for the lead as they approached Eau Rouge, though this turn of events was overshadowed by what happened next.

Unsighted by the spray generated by the cars ahead of him, Coulthard lost control of his McLaren and spun right, hitting the concrete wall and bouncing back across the track. This caused all hell to break loose behind him, with impact following impact and wheels bouncing down the hill towards Eau Rouge.

In the end, thirteen cars were damaged in the wreck, and the race—unsurprisingly—red-flagged. Despite the apparent severity of the collisions, everyone thankfully escaped unharmed, save for Barrichello who reportedly hurt his knee while clambering out of the cockpit.

It took nearly an hour for the race to be restarted, and when it was four cars failed to line up on the grid, teams only having one spare car. This time Hill made a superb getaway to lead into the first corner.

Hakkinen was less fortunate, being tipped into a spin by Michael Schumacher. The stationary Finn was then collected by Johnny Herbert in his Sauber, who had been involved in the original collision and thus failed to complete a racing lap at either start.

The same was true of Alexander Wurz, who came together with Coulthard halfway through the first lap and had to retire his Benetton. The Scot, however, rejoined at the back of the pack, an event that would have a significant impact on the outcome of the race.

The race was neutralized behind the safety car as Hakkinen's car was removed from the track, and when it restarted, Schumacher was quick to take the lead away from Hill.

Showing the same level of wet-weather skill and finesse that had given him victory in similar conditions twelve months earlier, Schumacher proceeded to pull away while teammate Eddie Irvine held station in third, until the Irishman fell off the track and damaged his front wing. Villeneuve, who had also been in contention for a podium placing, spun out after the first round of pit stops.

Schumacher was over half a minute ahead of Hill by lap 25, when he came up to lap David Coulthard. However, in what should have been a simple passing move, the German misjudged the position of the McLaren and ran into the back of it, ripping off his front suspension and ending his race.

Coulthard's rear wing had also been lost in the impact, though both drivers were able to recover to the pits. Schumacher was under no illusions as to who he felt was responsible for the collision—immediately after he exited his car, he stormed to the McLaren garage and angrily accused the Scotsman of trying to kill him.

Coulthard would, in 2003, accept that his decision to back off on the racing line may have contributed to the collision, but Schumacher was not without his share of the blame. Indeed, the race stewards dismissed a complaint by the German as being baseless.

Whatever the cause of the coming together, it left Hill with a commanding lead. His advantage was further secured almost immediately, as Irvine spun out of the race. However, a collision between Fisichella and Shinji Nakano—remarkably similar to the one that had just occurred between Schumacher and Coulthard—brought out the safety car, eroding Hill's lead.

In the final stages of the race, Hill's Jordan teammate Ralf Schumacher was running second, with the Sauber of Jean Alesi third, largely through attrition than through any superior skill. Schumacher, however, was lapping much quicker than Hill and wanted the opportunity to pass, in order to secure his first Grand Prix victory.

Hill, however, argued over the radio that in attempting to overtake, Ralf—who had gained something of a reputation in his first season and a half of F1 for crashing regularly—could easily take out both Jordans and leave the team with nothing. Eddie Jordan concurred, ordering Ralf to hold station in second.

Thus Hill won the Belgian Grand Prix, his 22nd and last race victory, leaving a disappointed Ralf second. The sight of Eddie Jordan, skipping down the pit lane in celebration of his team's first win and one-two finish, was one that would remain in the minds of fans for many years.

With neither Hakkinen nor Michael Schumacher finishing the race, the championship battle was put on hold for a race, allowing Hill and Jordan to have their moment of glory in a season otherwise dominated by Ferrari and McLaren. Jordan's popularity up and down the pit lane made this an exceptionally well-received result, though a dejected Michael Schumacher undoubtedly felt that this race had been taken from him.

Nonetheless, on a miserable, wet day in the Ardennes, the sun shone on Eddie Jordan and his team, paving the way for the much more successful year that was to come.

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