LWOS takes a look back at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, as the “luck of the Irish” reigned in the rain for Eddie Jordan’s eponymous outfit.
The 1998 Belgian Grand Prix had enough metaphorical twists and turns to match the ones on the grand old Spa-Francorchamps circuit. The chances of such a race ever happening again are low, but the modern, more careful approach to rain in F1 would render it absolutely impossible to be repeated.
That year’s World Championship was delicately poised between McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher. Hakkinen had the best car all season, but the tactical and strategic genius of Ferrari (a sentence which belies reality in the present day), coupled with his awesome talent, had kept the German in touch with the Flying Finn as the pair arrived in Belgium, with Hakkinen a mere seven points clear.
The powerful Mercedes-Benz engines helped McLaren lock out the front row, with Hakkinen on pole position, and team-mate David Coulthard second. The surprise of the session was Jordan’s Damon Hill, who headed up the second row, three-tenths-of-a-second quicker than 4th-placed Schumacher.
On race day, the drier weather from qualifying was replaced by heavy rain, which, as the Elton John song says, was “just like Belgium.” Hakkinen motored away after starting from pole position, with Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve jumping from 6th to 2nd. As the field continued, a mistake by Coulthard set off a domino effect, resulting in one of the most chaotic pile-ups in F1 history. Many of the cars were caught up in the carnage, with the shower of carbon fibre that whistled through the mist barely having time to land before the red flags were shown.
The restart saw a new fast-starter, but this time it was Hill. From 3rd, he nipped past both McLarens to lead into La Source, with Hakkinen’s race ending there-and-then after a spin pointed his car into the path of Johnny Hebert’s Sauber, which prompted a cameo appearance from the Safety Car. Schumacher, who was now 2nd, could not believe his luck, and quickly dispatched Hill for the lead, looking set to leave the Ardennes with a three-point lead in the Championship. But on lap 25, he was out.
An earlier spin left Coulthard well down in the running, and Schumacher was readying to lap him as they approached the fast right-hand Pouhon bend. Coulthard significantly slowed to allow the Ferrari to overtake, but the drastic reduction in speed, coupled with the spray from the rain, resulted in an unsighted Schumacher careering into the back of the McLaren. Incandescent with rage, Schumacher stormed down to the McLaren garage to confront Coulthard, with personnel from both teams needing to separate the two men.
This left Hill back in the lead, with his team-mate (and Michael’s brother) Ralf Schumacher in 2nd, who was catching the 1996 World Champion fast. With a grandstand finish between the two Jordan drivers highly likely, the team, prompted by Hill’s radio message that “we could end up with nothing” should they be allowed to race each other, enforced Ralf to hold his position. Hill would take the chequered flag to claim the final win of his career, the first for the Jordan team, with Ralf Schumacher securing its only ever 1-2 finish. With some delightfully sardonic humour, an ecstatic Hill performed a Schumacher-style victory jump on the podium, as the Union and tricolour flags of Britain and Ireland waved in unison by the Jordan team, who were well-and-truly singing in the rain.
- Damon Hill (Jordan Mugen-Honda)
- Ralf Schumacher (Jordan Mugen-Honda)
- Jean Alesi (Sauber-Petronas)
- Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Williams-Mecachrome)
- Pedro Diniz (Arrows)
- Jarno Trulli (Prost-Peugeot)