|Argentine Grand Prix Review|
Circuit Oscar Galvez, Argentina
10th - 12th March 1998
|by Max Galvin, England|
Considering the Circuit Oscar Galvez is one of the least liked circuits in F1 the Argentine Grand Prix proved to be the most entertaining of the year so far. The expected order was changed (although Ferrari fans will say, "I told you so") and it looked, for the first time, that we may have something other than a McLaren walkover to look forward to in 1998.
Before the race
Once again, the new rules proved to be disastrous in the wet and, as in Brazil, a surprising number of drivers had spins or accidents in the wet. A combination of harder tyres and less rubber in contact with the track has produced cars that seem to be almost impossible to drive on the edge.
It seemed right from the start that Mika Hakkinen was going to have difficulty emulating his performance of the last 2 races. Mika was eclipsed by both his team mate David Coulthard and the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher in free practice sessions and qualifying and didn't really look to be at ease on the twisty track.
Biggest surprise of qualifying (other than Schumacher beating Hakkinen) was the position of Tora Takagi. The young Japanese driver has proved that his position on the grid in Australia was no fluke and confidently stuck his Tyrrell in 13th place, ahead of all the Prost and Stewart team cars, both works supported outfits.
For the first time this year the Jordan team were closer to the pace than they have been previously (no doubt at least partly down to the new Goodyear tyres) with Ralf Schumacher dominating Damon Hill and beating him by 0.6 seconds and 4 grid positions.
Also of note is that Jean Alesi outqualified Johnny Herbert for the first time. Although this was only by 0.2 seconds, Alesi looked a lot more at ease on the track than his team mate (except for when he crashed into Herbert on his opening lap on Friday) and a lot happier with the car.
All the Goodyear teams seemed to have a performance boost, but that was not only down to the new Goodyear front tyre. Bridgestone, expecting a hot race, took harder compounds than normal to Argentina and most teams chose the harder of the two options available. This meant that while the tyre didn't wear a great deal, there was insufficient grip to get the best out of their cars. While many point to this as the reason Ferrari were so competitive, my opinion is that this is all part of racing and shouldn't be thought of any differently to engine or chassis issues.
With the clouds threatening rain there seemed to be a good chance of seeing our first wet start of 1998, but as usual, the rain stayed in the clouds and merely hovered above the grid looking menacing.
As the lights went out, David Coulthard made a great start and made the run down to the first corner untroubled. Behind him, Mika Hakkinen passed Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen passed both Eddie Irvine and Ralf Schumacher to slot into fourth place.
Ralf Schumacher had more problems than just slipping back one place, as his terrible start eventually left him back in 13th, having lost an amazing 8 places.
Immediately it seemed that Michael Schumacher was much faster as he started to pressure Mika Hakkinen for second place. While the Finn was able to keep him at bay for the first lap, it was obvious that the Ferrari would get past before too long and sure enough, on lap 1 Michael hustled his car past and gave chase to David Coulthard who was already 3 seconds ahead.
Behind this battle, the second Ferrari, driven by Eddie Irvine, was pressuring the Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen for fourth place, with Jacques Villeneuve not too far behind.
Over the next two laps Frentzen was passed first by Irvine then by team mate Villeneuve. A lap leter Jean Alesi's Sauber slipped by the #2 Williams-Mecachrome and set off after the #1 car.
Over this period Michael Schumacher had been chasing David Coulthard knowing that both McLarens would be on a one-stop strategy where he was planning two. If Schumacher were going to win, he would need to be ahead of the second place driver by over 20 seconds when he came into the pits and this meant passing Coulthard as quickly as possible.
It became apparent that although Schumacher didn't seem able to catch Coulthard too quickly, the Scots driver felt under pressure. On lap 4 the Ferrari driver was able to close to within a second after David braked too late approaching the hairpin before the esses.
Coulthard repeated this manoeuvre on lap 5 and Schumacher decided to take this opportunity to take the lead of a race for the first time in 1998. What happened next seems to differ depending on whether you are a Schumacher fan, a Coulthard fan or impartial but the facts are set in stone.
As Coulthard fought to recover from his mistake Schumacher tried to pass him on the inside of the hairpin. With the track relatively narrow on the exit and both drivers trying to keep the lead and line up for the next corner unless one driver backed off there was sure to be an accident. Predictably neither driver did, and the McLaren moved towards the Ferrari until contact was made, spinning Coulthard off track.
Having watched the incident on video several times, it is clear that either driver could have avoided the incident but it would have cost Coulthard the lead and Schumacher his best chance of passing. With the Ferrari barely level with the rear wheels of the McLaren when the collision occurred, there is no way that it can be argued that the corner "belonged" to Schumacher. To say that this compares with the Villeneuve-Schumacher Jerez incident is stretching the truth, as Schumacher was not past Coulthard in any way, shape or form.
Regardless of your opinion on which driver (if any) was to blame, the end result was that Michael Schumacher ended up in the lead and David Coulthard ended up back in sixth behind Jean Alesi.
This left Schumacher over 7 seconds ahead of second placed Hakkinen who was clearly unable to match the pace of the Ferrari at this point. Part of Hakkinen's problem was that Eddie Irvine was now within a second of the McLaren and doing his best to make it a Ferrari 1-2.
Amazingly the entire field was still running by this point, a rarity in contemporary Formula One, especially with the "innovative" cars being run by Arrows and Stewart.
At the front, Michael Schumacher was pulling away from Mika Hakkinen at the rate of about 1-second per lap. Hakkinen was able to maintain a lead of around 1.5 seconds over third placed Irvine. The two, in turn, were getting away from Jacques Villeneuve at approximately 0.5 seconds a lap. Villeneuve was clearly holding up the cars behind him, with both Jean Alesi and David Coulthard within 1 second of the Williams.
All this meant that on lap 10 the top 6 looked like this:
M.Schumacher -> 10.6s -> Hakkinen -> 1.7s -> Irvine -> 4.1s -> Villeneuve ->0.3s -> Alesi -> 0.8s -> Coulthard
On lap 13 we saw the first retirement, with Pedro Diniz continuing his run of retirements when his gearbox gave up.
By lap 14 it was becoming clear that Hakkinen had got into his stride and was able to match the lap times of the Ferrari that was by now 12.5 seconds ahead of him. Whether this was down to the tyres starting to work, the lighter fuel load or just because it had suddenly dawned on the Finn that he could win the race is beyond me, but whatever it was meant that the first Ferrari win of '98 was not yet assured.
Further back, the nothing was changing fast, with Irvine running well but losing ground on the leading pair and the three way battle for fifth dropping slowly further behind the Ferrari driver. The trio of drivers scrapping over fifth were still in the same order and still only separated by just over a second and there seemed little end in sight with Villeneuve faster down the straights than Alesi and Coulthard unable to close on the Sauber in the infield section.
On lap 17, the Stewart-Ford of Jan Magnussen retired, yet again because of gearbox failure. Also on lap 17, Ralf Schumacher blotted his copybook for the second race in a row by spinning off track while running in 13th, 4 places behind his team mate Damon Hill. Following the spin, Ralf pitted as he felt there was something wrong with the car but the team sent him out after fitting new tyres.
By now Mika Hakkinen had actually started to gain on Schumacher, taking on average 0.5 seconds a lap out of the lead that the former World Champion had built up. However, a reasonable amount of this was down to the Ferrari encountering traffic and soon the McLaren was also trying to pass lapped cars and some of the lost time was regained.
The second Arrows of Mika Salo dropped off the timing sheets on lap 18 when it suffered terminal gearbox failure making it a clean sweep of 6 DNF's from 6 starts for Tom Walkinshaw's leading racing team. Luckily for Tom, his trip to see the Volvo BTCC team the following day resulted in a much more successful outcome.
On lap 22 Ralf Schumacher ended his afternoon with a final spin across the grass and into an escape road. Afterwards he said that his rear wishbone was broken hence the double spin, but 3 retirements from 3 races may suggest something else.
All this time the leading pair were trading fastest race lap between them and keeping the gap relatively stable at a little over 11 seconds and Irvine was still falling behind those in front and putting more space between himself and those behind him. That Jacques Villeneuve was still able to keep himself ahead of the obviously faster cars of Jean Alesi and David Coulthard shows that the new regulations have done nothing to "improve the spectacle" or "make the racing closer".
On lap 27, Sauber and Jean Alesi obviously tired of waiting for an opportunity to pass and pulled the #14 car into the pits for fuel and tyres, in an attempt to get out ahead of Villeneuve and Coulthard.
Lap 29 and 30 saw both Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine respectively stop for fuel and fresh rubber with Schumacher rejoining in third (and back up to second when Irvine stopped) and Irvine in fifth place.
Three laps later, lap 32, David Coulthard also made an attempt to dispose of Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi by way of a pit stop. With McLaren looking for a 1-stop strategy for the Scots driver, they needed to put more fuel in the car than Sauber had needed for the 2-stopping Alesi. This and the time lost behind the Williams cost the team valuable time, and ultimately track position as Coulthard rejoined in 8th well behind Jean Alesi's Sauber (7th).
After this first round of stops, on lap 33 the top 6 looked like this:
Hakkinen -> 12.4s -> M.Schumacher -> 27.6s -> Villeneuve -> 1.6s -> Irvine -> 6.8s -> Frentzen -> 0.4s -> Wurz
Again neither Hakkinen nor Schumacher could do anything about the gap between them, the only real changes coming when one of the drivers encountered traffic.
Lap 37 saw Jacques Villeneuve come in for tyres and fuel and despite his relatively slow on track pace, the Williams pit crew were able to get him out between Johnny Herbert (7th) and David Coulthard. This effectively ruined the chances for the McLaren driver to achieve much success in the race.
One lap later Heinz-Harald Frentzen stopped and was followed a lap later by Johnny Herbert, both drivers getting back underway without any problems, or so it seemed.
Almost as soon as Frentzen was back on track, he was awarded a 10-second penalty for speeding in the pitlane. If the weekend hadn't been ruined for the Williams driver before this, the 25 or so seconds lost in coming in, stopping and getting back onto the track certainly did.
Lap 40 saw Alex Wurz visit the pits for his first and last stop of the race, emerging in fifth between Alesi and Villeneuve. So far in the race Wurz had not seemed to be doing a great deal, but as in Brazil a one-stop strategy and consistently fast lap times had left him within reach of a podium finish.
Race leader Mika Hakkinen stopped on lap 43 emerging over 9 seconds behind Michael Schumacher but a massive 26 seconds ahead of Eddie Irvine. This was the period that would surely decide the race. If Schumacher could put around 22 seconds between himself and the Finn before he stopped, he was fairly sure to get out ahead of the McLaren and then have a straight race to the flag as leader rather than second place man.
So on lap 44, the top 6 looked like this:
M.Schumacher -> 13.8s -> Hakkinen -> 22.8s -> Irvine -> 22.8s -> Alesi -> 6.7s -> Wurz -> 6.0s -> Villeneuve
With Schumacher running with low fuel, it was really a case of damage limitation for Hakkinen so he was having to lose as little time as possible as opposed to catch the Ferrari sitting at the front of the field. Sadly for his legion of fans, Schumacher was as much as a second a lap faster then the Flying Finn, and with the German due in somewhere around lap 50 it would take a massive effort for Mika to regain the lead.
On lap 46 Damon Hill made a desperate and, truth be told, ill judged lunge down the inside of Johnny Herbert at the start of the Senna-S. Naturally both drivers have differing opinions about the incident. Hill said Herbert chopped across him and Herbert replied that his compatriot should have been far too experienced to try such a silly move at a corner that offered as little opportunity for passing as that.
Whilst it seems that the Sauber driver was in the right, he was the one whose car was too badly damaged to continue (puncture leading to suspension damage) whilst Hill only needed to pit for a new nose to continue as before (albeit a little further down the field).
Lap 51 saw the start of the front runners second stops with Jean Alesi stopping and getting back underway in fifth ahead of Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard who were, by now, fighting hard over sixth place.
The very next lap, this close fighting came to a head as Coulthard tried to pass Villeneuve on the outside on the way into the Senna-S. As with the previous attempt there was contact, and Jacques Villeneuve was spun around and promptly stalled his engine, ending his race. David Coulthard ended up on the grass but was able to continue having only lost on place, to the Benetton-Playlife of Giancarlo Fisichella.
On lap 53, the battle for the lead came to a head as Michael Schumacher came into the pits for his second stop. Before the stop the German had a 21.2 second lead over McLaren and it seemed that it would be touch and go as to whether he could emerge in the lead. Surprisingly, as he emerged after a flawless stop, Mika was only just coming into view down the pit straight and unless the Finn had something left in reserve it looked like he would have to settle for second place.
The gap between the Ferrari and the McLaren lap 54 was 2.7 seconds, 2 laps later it was 4.8 seconds and another lap later it was up to 6.2 seconds. Regardless of whether he could catch the leader, Hakkinen seemed to have settled for second place and 6 World Championship points and appeared content to maintain his gap to third place.
The last of the important stops came on lap 56 when Eddie Irvine stopped and got underway still in third place, but only just ahead of a charging Alex Wurz.
As he showed in Brazil, Wurz is not one to be happy with his place if there is a better one on offer and he immediately set about looking for a way past the car in front. By lap 59, the Benetton was within 0.5 seconds of the Ferrari and 2 laps later he had his first real chance.
By now the rain had started to fall a little and the slight change in grip caught Eddie Irvine out a little and he ran wide into the Senna-S. Wurz, sensing his opportunity tried to pass on the inside, but at such a narrow corner there was never going to be a great deal of opportunity for this to come off. Unlike the previous attempts at this corner, although the two cars bumped, neither was spun and neither were damaged sufficiently to cause any problems for the driver (although Wurz said his developed a push in right hand corners after this).
Further back, Jean Alesi was having his own battle with Giancarlo Fisichella who, like his team mate, had driven a steady race rather than an exciting one and now looked to be in a position to reap the rewards.
On lap 63 Esteban Tuero broke the hearts of his home fans as well as his car when he crashed heavily in turn one.
Alex Wurz finally got his chance on lap 64 when for the second time Irvine got caught out, but this time it was at the hairpin before the esses and the track was wide enough for his to get by without crashing. For Irvine this seemed to the the end of his podium chances as Wurz immediately started to put daylight between himself and the Ferrari, gaining over 4 seconds before the end of lap 56.
That wasn't the end of matter, however, as both Benetton drivers contrived to spin on lap 66, Wurz rejoining behind Irvine and Fisichella behind David Coulthard who was yet again recovering relatively well from his collision. Regardless of how fast the McLarens are, they certainly seem built like tanks with Coulthard's mount sustaining 2 heavy bangs without suffering in the slightest.
Lap 66 also saw an unexpected off-track excursion for Michael Schumacher, the Ferrari drive having outbraked himself on the slippery track on the entry to turn one. Showing tremendous presence of mind, he didn't break or gun the throttle, rather he kept the car running in a straight line until he was over the gravel and onto the escape road. From here it was a simple trip back onto the track (almost collecting Shinji Nakano when he rejoined) to continue untroubled in the lead.
If Mika Hakkinen hadn't apparently given up earlier, the race would more than likely have been his at that moment, but all Schumacher had to show for the detour was a red face and the loss of 9 seconds from his lead.
This left the top 6 like this on lap 67:
M.Schumacher -> 4.3s -> Hakkinen -> 57.1s -> Irvine -> 11.4s -> Wurz -> 8.4 -> Alesi -> 0.5s -> Coulthard
With the track growing ever more slippery thanks to the rain, drivers were now lapping around 10 seconds slower than they had been before the shower. David Coulthard it seemed wasn't going slow enough and had his third trip off the track of the afternoon on lap 68 when he bounced across the gravel and got back underway without losing a place (although this definitely cost him fifth place).
The field circulated like this until the end, all the top 6 drivers save Alesi and Coulthard having nothing to worry about from anything other than their own mistakes.
In a few weeks this race will only be remembered as a "another Schumacher victory against the odds" but although this was certainly an intelligent drive, Michael himself has admitted that without that incident at the hairpin he feels David Coulthard would have won the race. This, in my opinion, throws into doubt his actions at that point of the race. Despite all of this, I am positive that McLaren will have a little more trouble than I, for one, expected them to and that the race shows you can never count Schumacher out until the fat lady has well and truly finished singing.
The Times (72 Lap Race)
M. Schumacher (Ferrari) G|
Hakkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) B
Irvine (Ferrari) G
Wurz (Benetton-Mecachrome) B
Alesi (Sauber-Petronas) G
Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes) B
Fisichella (Benetton-Mecachrome) B
Hill (Jordan-Mugen) G
Frentzen (Winfield-Williams) G
Barrichello (Stewart-Ford) B
Trulli (Prost-Peugeot) B
Takagi (Tyrrell-Ford) G
Nakano (Minardi-Ford) B
Panis (Prost-Peugeot) B
Tuero (Minardi-Ford) B
B: Bridgestone G: Goodyear
1h 48m 36.175s|
+ 0m 22.899s
+ 0m 57.745s
+ 1m 08.134s
+ 1m 18.286s
+ 1m 19.751s
+ 1m 28.538s
7 laps: engine
9 laps: crash