Feature image: formula1.com
When looking at the legends of the sporting world, you can argue that there is always someone behind them in the management team who pushes them to achieve greatness. In Basketball, for example, you have Michael Jordan who won six NBA championships in eight years under Phil Jackson’s management of the Chicago Bulls. In the world of football, you have Pep Guardiola who won fourteen trophies with Barcelona over four years and inspired Lionel Messi to play some of the best football of his career.
In the worldwide sport of Formula One, you have the duo of Michael Schumacher and technical director Ross Brawn, who was with Schumacher for all seven of his record-breaking championships. Round twelve of the 1998 season is the perfect example of this.
Heading into the race weekend in Budapest, Mika Häkkinen and his Mercedes-powered MP4/13 were the firm favourites. The Flying Finn was in top form, winning the last two races in Spielberg and Hockenheim, adding to the other four victories earlier in the season. He had a sixteen-point lead over his championship rival, Schumacher, which was a decent gap considering the points system in 1998 meant the race winner took home ten points with second and third taking six and four respectively.
To no surprise, the two McLaren’s of Häkkinen and Coulthard locked out the front row on a warm Saturday afternoon with Schumacher right behind in third. When it came to Sunday, no one really knew if Ferrari could do anything to stop the Finn from taking a third win in a row, but it had been going around the paddock that the Ferrari technical director, Ross Brawn, had something up his sleeve. Later on in the afternoon, the cars lined up on the 908m long straight with a grandstand filled with Finnish flags, and the V10 engines roared as the lights began to light up.
From the drop of the lights, the McLaren’s sped off into the distance as many thought they would. In fact, what shocked people most was how well Schumacher managed to stay right behind Coulthard as the trio bolted away from the rest of the grid. By lap eleven, commentators Murray Walker and Martin Brundle even joked that the race was over and it was a sure one-two victory for the McLaren’s. Oh, how wrong they were…
On the twenty first lap of seventy-seven, Ferrari made the first move and brought Michael in. McLaren responded a lap later, bringing in David Coulthard which benefited them after he came out in front of Schumacher who was caught behind the previous year’s World Champion of Jacque Villeneuve.
After Villeneuve pitted six laps later, Schumacher started to thrive in the clean air by setting consecutive purple laps as he hunted the McLaren’s back down. These purple laps were all Ross Brawn needed as confidence that his proposed plan would work. In four laps, Schumacher had closed back up to Coulthard and slashed the time between him and the Flying Finn in half, from nearly eight seconds down to three and a half. Ferrari’s plan had come to light after Schumacher’s second pit stop on lap 43, meaning they were trying a bold three-stop strategy.
Queue the Theatrics
As he left the pit lane, Ross Brawn came onto the radio with a tough request for the German, ‘Michael, you have 19 laps to pull out 25 seconds. We need 19 qualifying laps from you’. He replied with an ‘ok, thank you’ and got to work. The realisation of Ferrari’s three-stop didn’t stop McLaren from continuing with their proposed two-stop by bringing in Coulthard the lap after Schumacher. Due to the extra time taken to refuel the MP4/13 so it could go the distance, Coulthard left the pitlane and re-joined behind the Ferrari.
With clean air and a fresh set of boots, Schumacher proceeded to fulfil Brawn’s request of qualifying lap after qualifying lap by doing exactly that. Häkkinen pitted two laps after his team-mate, and Schumacher took the lead of the race as the Finn re-joined. The Finn also began to experience suspension problems, which started to cost him time and led to him letting Coulthard past to attack. Advantage Ferrari.
Schumacher now had his mind set on getting those 25 seconds that he needed to be able to pit again so he could refuel to take the car to the end. The two McLaren’s behind him were loaded with an extra 30kg of fuel which slowed them by around a second every lap. On lap 52, Schumacher briefly left the track which cost him around five seconds but he more than made up for it on the next nine laps which saw him take a 27 second lead on Coulthard in P2, lapping around three seconds faster than him every lap.
The German was called into the pits on lap 62 and stayed in P1 as he re-emerged and took the chequered flag for the 32nd time in a race which stands out as one of his best out of his 91 victories. Michael had the electrifying race pace and with a little bit of help from a strategic power play by Ross Brawn, they managed to upset the McLaren’s and take the victory. The legendary Murray Walker came out with one of his famous ‘Murrayisms’, describing Schumacher’s performance as ‘an absolutely scintillatingly brilliant drive’ and he certainly wasn’t wrong.
Mika Häkkinen went on to win his first of two consecutive drivers world championships in 1998, but for Ferrari duo of Brawn and Schumacher, their period of domination was slowly coming to fruition.
[This was originally posted in December 2020 on DriveTribe.com]