|German Grand Prix Review|
|Hockenheim, Heildelberg, Germany|
July 31st - August 2nd 1998
|by Ian Burley, England|
Hockenheim is a circuit which generates mixed feelings. Some drivers think it's a long (6.8km) boring circuit with its four long straights punctuated by three chicanes. The majority of the circuit is also out of site of the spectators in thick forest. The amphitheatre of the twisty stadium section is a complete contrast to the rest of the track, the cars emerging from the trees and braking for the Agip Kurve from well over 330kph, heading for the hairpin Sachs curve and then a short esse to the Sudkurve, looping around onto the start-finish straight and on around the Nordkurve out into the forest once more.
Horsepower is all important here and it was clear that the custome Ford teams and Arrows were going to struggle. But a good compromise between straight line speed for the long straights needs to be balanced with enough grip and traction for the slow turns in the stadium. During qualifying the McLarens were nudging 360kph - over 220mph, slightly faster than last year because the cars are now ten percent narrower. Engine power is also up and it was perhaps unsurprising that for the first time this season a pole set last year, by Gerhard Berger in the Benetton Renault, was beaten - this time by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren Mercedes.
While there was little surprise that the McLarens were on top - Coulthard was second, half a second adrift after an electrical problem left his race car parked in the forest - there were plenty of surprises at the front of the grid. Ferrari was nowhere, for once, and in a magnificent third place was none other than the reigning World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve - underlining his announced departure from Williams with a performance which only just failed to dislodge Coulthard from the front row. Even more surprising was a Jordan fourth, and to the delight of the home crowd it was the much maligned Ralf Schumacher, who made up for his brother's appalling situation some five places further back in ninth. The Jordan performance, boosted by further aerodynamic tweaks plus an extra ten or so horsepower from their Mugen Honda V10s - for qualifying at least - was no fluke with Damon Hill a very comfortable 5th. "I am very pleased with the performance today". Hill said later. "Part of me had hoped for more, but I think we have to be pleased with what we got. To see both cars right up there in the top six, well in touch with the class of the field (McLaren) is great. The new Honda E spec engine really helped and the car ran very well."
So what had happened to Ferrari? Irvine was less than a hundredth behind Hill in sixth, but whereas the Jordans looked smooth and well balanced the Ferraris were all over the place. Several offs meant Michael Schumacher's setting-up program was never really achieved, but that said, the Ferraris didn't look like McLaren challengers this weekend. Schumacher summed his frustration in front of his countrymen by saying: "Of course I am disappointed with my grid position. It is definitely the wrong time and the wrong place to have my worst qualifying of the season. Even without my problems in this morning's free practice, I would have only been a couple of tenths quicker. As can be seen from Eddie's time, our performance level was not good enough." Some cynics speculated that behind the scenes threats from McLaren's Ron Dennis had forced Ferrari to re-program their engine mapping system which allegedly hid a form of outlawed traction control.
While Villeneuve was eyeing the front row, the other Williams car piloted by Frentzen was not doing the business."By trying the new front wing we lost so much time", explained Heinz Harald Frentzen. "We changed back to the old one which was without doubt faster. But it was impossible to get the balance of the car right in qualifying. I had a lot of oversteer." Meanwhile, Alesi in the Sauber shone in the un-timed sessions, but couldn't get it together during the hour that counted and ended up 11th, just in front of his Sauber team mate, Herbert. The Benettons of Wurz and Fisichella were finding things difficult. Fisichella's pole in damp conditions at the A-Ring in Austria the week before seemed a long time ago. Goodyear was deemed to have the edge over Bridgestone this weekend and Benetton was ample proof. More proof came from Tyrrell - Takagi managed a creditable 15th, splitting the two much more powerful Prosts of Trulli and Panis. The Bridgestone-shod Stewarts were doing well in the straights, near the top of the speed-trap lists, but the cars were very difficult in the stadium section - Barrichello was 13th and Verstappen 19th. The lack of power from Arrows' own-brand V10 was just one of their problems and neither Diniz nor Salo could claw back the disadvantage in the slow sections and were 18th and 17th respectively. Bringing up the rear were the Minardis of Nakano (20th) and Tuero (21st), with the final place vacant as Rosset missed qualifying after suffering concussion in a crash the previous day.
As race day dawned, it was clear that rain would be a threat. However, as the grid was formed there were a few spits of rain, but it never got any worse than that, probably to the relief of everyone but the Arrows and Michael Schumacher, along with the red army of his fans who packed the stands. Fisichella's Benetton developed a leak on the grid and his car was hastily replaced with the spare which was set up for Wurz. But all eyes were on Irvine. Could he make a blinder of a start and somehow help team mate Schumacher?
As the lights blinked to green it seemed that Wurz didn't see them. His Benetton crawled off its line, dropping him down to 17th and causing Schumacher's Ferrari to make a lurid dart right around the tardy Benetton. Despite this drama, the start was clean. Villeneuve made a poor start from third and was passed by Hill's Jordan into the Nordkurve. Hill defended the inside line into the first chicane, but Villeneuve neatly went around the outside to slot in behind Ralf Schumacher's Jordan which was now in third. The yellow tail to the silver steamroller refused to be left behind and indeed, Ralf was gaining on Coulthard, with Hakkinen sitting on a 1-2 second cushion in the lead. Michael Schumacher had recovered well from his 9th place start and was past Fisichella and up behind Irvine in 6th. The number two Ferrari over-cooked it in one of the chicanes and let a grateful Michael Schumacher through. If this was covert teamwork, Irvine deserved an Oscar for all the tyre smoke and gravel he managed to dislodge. Meanwhile, a 10 second stop/go penalty was imposed on Panis back in 14th for jumping the start. Wurz, was recovering well from his hesitant start and by lap 10 was up to 14th from 17th. Long before that, Diniz had retired on just the second lap, but it wasn't until half distance that the next car went out - Verstappen's Stewart suffering a failure to its carbon fibre gearbox. Three laps later, team mate Barrichello, who was having a good battle with the two Saubers, was called in too when the telemetry indicated his Stewart was also suffering gearbox over-heating.
Ralf Schumacher's challenge to the leading McLarens refused to fade and speculation began to grow that the Jordan had something in hand. Could Ralf have begged Eddie Jordan for the new E-spec. Mugen-Honda engine which was supposed to be only for qualifying this weekend? In fact Eddie later revealed that Ralf's impressive warm up on low fuel, when he split the McLarens, prompted the German to go for it with a two-stop strategy and possibly challenge the McLarens for the lead. After all, it worked for Berger last year. In the end, it soon transpired that Ralf's gamble hadn't paid off as he got stuck behind Villeneuve after his first pit stop early on lap 14. The Williams was flying down the straights practically devoid of any wing and Villeneuve was doing a great job of keeping it on the road in the twisty bits.
The gap between the two McLarens was yo-yoing with Coulthard quicker in the mid-sections and Hakkinen better in the stadium section. Irvine and Herbert were forced to straight-line chicanes, but neither profited and so neither were penalised. As the two McLarens headed for their stops - the two were less than a second apart - the lead would hinge on the stops. As Hakkinen dived in for his stop, Coulthard saw that his last lap had been slightly slower than he'd have liked, though the gap to Hakkinen wasn't changed. If he could make a great in-lap, he might have a chance. Unfortunately, a pair of backmarkers frustrated him and to cap it all he over-shot the pit stop by over a metre, undoubtedly delaying him for crucial fractions of a second. As he re-joined the track, Hakkinen was less than a car's length ahead. Coulthard later revealed that he considered that an opportunity lost. He had already decided that, as the championship stood, on-track heroics to wrest the lead away from his team mate was not on. He'd have gladly accepted the lead if he found himself there, but he wasn't going to risk a collision in the process. The pit stops were his best chance.
After the stops were over, the order was Hakkinen, Coulthard, Villeneuve, Hill, Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Fisichella and Irvine and that's the way it would stay until the end. But that's not to say it was a boring procession. The order was static, but the gaps and the tension were not. Ralf's race strategy had backfired, but at least he had a taste of the McLarens' glory. Hill could do nothing about Villeneuve, whose ultra low wing settings were paying dividends - both Jordans were running a relatively large level of wing. Michael Schumacher had steadily lost ground on his old enemy, Damon Hill, before the stops but in the second half of the race he was edging back on the Jordan, which Damon admitted was a bit alarming at first. However, he was able to respond and the gap stabilised at 5-6 seconds. Behind, there was a huge tyre-smoking battle between Irvine and Fisichella for seventh place, the latter losing out in the pit stops.
Meanwhile, Hakkinen was under pressure. Clearly there was a problem with the car. The pit board read 'MAP2' - suggesting that Hakkinen was going to have to lean off the fuel mixture to reduce consumption. Had too little fuel gone in during his stop? Was Coulthard going to set aside his team loyalty and fight for a win? With a leaned mixture, was Hakkinen's Mercedes V10 going to expire spectacularly down one of the long straights? Villeneuve was gaining on Coulthard and Hakkinen at almost a second a lap. However, his stirring attack on the McLarens was blunted by back markers and then the Williams pit crew came out causing speculation that Villeneuve too had a problem. This news must have made Damon Hill's heart miss a beat - not only was he going to score his first points of the season, but a podium place was beckoning, the first for almost a year. But then the Williams crew went back in their garage after Villeneuve successfully made some adjustments to counter, what Patrick Head later described as an electrical problem.
Just as the drama concerning the leading trio had died down and Hakkinen was in site of his sixth win of the season, his main championship rival nearly threw it all away. Schumacher's Ferrari snapped into wild oversteer as he lapped Takagi's Tyrrell in the stadium. That twitch summoned a good deal of Schumacher's legendary reflexes but ended any chance of pressurising Hill for 4th.
Coulthard was a strong second and Villeneuve was relieved to stand on the podium for only the first time this year - so much for defending his world championship. Hill was an elated 4th, though he must have eyed the third podium step with some frustration. So Hakkinen took an important victory, Michael Schumacher was disappointed but relieved not to have crashed out of fifth and Ralf was very buoyant despite only netting a single point; after all, it was his and Jordan's third points finish in a row. Back in 7th, Fisichella, undoubtedly slower than Irvine's Ferrari in 8th, survived a major battle. Frentzen, Alesi and Wurz were the last three on the same lap as the winner.
Ferrari fans must have been wondering what went wrong for them this weekend - even McLaren must have pondered on the sudden lack of competitiveness from Ferrari. The indecision over whether to run the new long wheelbase chassis - they opted to stick with the shorter version in the end - plus Schumacher's two offs in practice did not help matters, but Irvine was well off the pace as well. The Ferrari engine is certainly not a laggard and straight line speed did not seem to be the problem. It was in the twisty bits where the Ferrari looked bad. Had Ferrari really given up some sort of traction control advantage? If so, McLaren seem to have been vindicated at just the right point in the season. McLaren's second one-two in succession has put the team and Hakkinen back in control of the championship.
CLASSIFIED POS DRIVER NATION TEAM TIME LAP 1 Mika Hakkinen FIN McLaren Mercedes 1:20:47.984 45 2 David Coulthard GB McLaren Mercedes + 0:00.427 45 3 Jacques Villeneuve CAN Williams Mecachrome + 0:02.578 45 4 Damon Hill GB Jordan Mugen-Honda + 0:07.185 45 5 Michael Schumacher GER Ferrari + 0:12.613 45 6 Ralf Schumacher GER Jordan Mugen-Honda + 0:29.739 45 7 Giancarlo Fisichella ITA Benetton Playlife + 0:31.027 45 8 Eddie Irvine GB Ferrari + 0:31.650 45 9 Heinz-Harald Frentzen GER Williams Mecachrome + 0:32.785 45 10 Jean Alesi FRA Sauber Petronas + 0:48.372 45 11 Alexander Wurz AUT Benetton Playlife + 0:57.995 45 12 Jarno Trulli ITA Prost Peugeot + 1 LAP 44 13 Toranosuke Takagi JAP Tyrrell Ford + 1 LAP 44 14 Mika Salo FIN Arrows TWR + 1 LAP 44 15 Olivier Panis FRA Prost Peugeot + 1 LAP 44 16 Esteban Tuero ARG Minardi Ford + 2 LAPS 43 NOT CLASSIFIED DRIVER NATION TEAM REASON LAP Johnny Herbert GB Sauber Petronas mechanical 37 Sinji Nakano JAP Minardi Ford mechanical 30 Rubens Barrichello BRA Stewart Ford gearbox 27 Jos Verstappen HOL Stewart Ford gearbox 24 Pedro Diniz BRA Arrows TWR oil pump 2 FL David Coulthard GB McLaren Mercedes 1:46.116 All Times Unofficial