The LXIII Qantas Australian Grand Prix was the opening race of the 1998 Formula One Season. The weekend was dominated by the McLaren-Mercedes cars of Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard. The race was not without controversy and there were allegations of team orders being employed by the McLaren team after Coulthard let through teammate Häkkinen to take the lead of the race in the closing stages, conceding the win to his teammate after a pre-race agreement between the two drivers on whoever made it to the first corner in front of the other car would be the driver to take the race win.
New Regulations Edit
The new regulations were designed from the perspective of ITV's Martin Brundle to see "the drivers fighting the car a lot more and sliding around". Nonetheless FIA President, Max Mosley had promised safety reform for 1998 and this indeed was the regulation overhaul's true purpose.
The cat flap was made mandatory on all cars for 1998. The device designed to be a protective shield that will open when the car requires fuel. Designed to assist against refuelling mishaps such as Jos Verstappen's fiery pitstop at Hockenheim, 1994. The cockpit was also redesigned, now much wider and bigger, designed not only to provide more comfort to the driver but also so that the driver is able to enter and exit his car, whilst also attaching or detaching the steering wheel within twenty seconds. The mirrors had also been widened by 20mm to provide more visibility for the drivers. Brundle noting that "very few of the drivers actually use them properly."
In order to slow the cars down and reduce the grip to the circuit, the front of the cars has been narrowed, three grooved lines mark the tyres to reduce grip to the circuit. As a consequence, the drivers were concerned for more on track incidents in the race. Johnny Herbert called the new cars "twitchy" and noting "we have to concentrate more".
The Arrival Edit
As the Grand Prix week began, the drivers quickly began to arrive in the city of Melbourne, Australia. "Bit like London in someways, the weather is a bit better" noted Damon Hill upon arrival.
Giancarlo Fisichella was a bit more enthusiastic to comment on Melbourne, exclaiming "The people are fantastic, there are a lot of women". Expanding on this, David Coulthard noted "A lot of them know about the grand prix and they are especially nice to the drivers which is always helpful". Johnny Herbert simply stated "the restaurants are nice, there is a big variety on what you wanna do". The Germanic drivers, Michael Schumacher and Alexander Wurz both concluded that the "atmosphere" was Melbourne's best quality.
Finnish driver Mika Salo noted "I hadn't seen sun for three months so its really nice". Whilst Salo enjoyed "rollerblading" and the sun his Arrows teammate, Pedro Diniz meanwhile was waterboarding down the Yarra River at the behest of a PR stunt orchestrated by Ann Bradshaw.
However perhaps Melbourne's greatest fan was Eddie Irvine who happily noted "I love Australia, I have a ball every time we come here."
Albert Park Track Guide Edit
World champion Damon Hill was asked to teach ITV commentator Murray Walker how to drive the Albert Park circuit. A task that was described by ITV co-commentator, Martin Brundle, to be a "driving instructor's nightmare". Hill exclaimed his friend to mind the wandering people as they exited the pits in a bright yellow sportscar. Walker exclaiming "Damon, this is a bit of a voyage of discovery for the both of us, I'm new to the car and I've never driven around the track before. I'm very conscious of the fact that I have got the 1996 world champion and the man who won in Melbourne  riding beside me".
Entering the first corner, Hill simply stated "I'm too nervous to talk". Nonetheless, Hill expressed surprise when Walker took the racing driver's line through the first corner. "You've done this before haven't you" exclaimed Hill as the 75 year old former military tank commander turned racing commentator made himself at home behind the wheel. Hill continued to describe the circuit until the approach to Whiteford where Walker interrupts to shout "we are coming up to where Martin Brundle went off!". Walker continued to accelerate through Whiteford in which a concerned Hill noted "You're going a little bit too fast there Murray!". However exiting the third corner, once again a surprised Hill noted "Actually no, fantastic" before once again repeating, "you've done this before". Walker simply chuckled in response.
Hill continued to explain the circuit, entering turn 5 he outlined the new modification to the circuit which had turned it into a right hand fast kink. Hill expressed concerns that the corner would be very difficult with the new regulations due to the lack of grip with the grooved tyres. Barely paying attention, a nervous Murray Walker exclaimed loudly "I don't know what's coming, thats my problem!". He slowed his pace on the track as he approached a group of marshalls and a pick-up truck approaching turn 6. Hill reminding his driver once again to remember his brakes, noting that to be successful in Melbourne you have to "brake hard and get on the power early to get on the long straights." Pointing at the outside opposing concrete wall at turn 10, Hill noted "we get right up against the wall there", pointing at the opposing wall to Walker's very inside line. Thereafter Murray Walker decided to back off and instead began to turn his mind to questioning Damon Hill.
As a result of Walker's questioning, Hill revealed that "he liked Melbourne and Australia is a fantastic country", however he kept his opinions quiet on the Albert Park race circuit. He revealed he was excited to be working for Eddie Jordan, however admitted he would liked to have more testing. However he was assured that the team did as much as testing as possible and he remained confident in the Mugen-Honda engine which proved to be very reliable in testing. However looking at the team's race goals, Hill simply stated "they had a good chance to be running at the finish, that always puts you in good stead". At the end of the drive, Walker commended his friend Damon Hill for being a "very tolerant and understanding passenger."
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Pre-season testing had left the paddock quite clear that McLaren-Mercedes held the measure over the rest of the field. Qualifying was expected to be a straight battle between Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard. Coulthard set the initial pace on track whilst Häkkinen waited in the pits.
. ITV reporter James Allen noting that "he gave a sharp lesson to how twitchy these grooved tyres can be". When Häkkinen entered the track, he quickly claimed the provisional pole time with a 1:30.596.
When Michael Schumacher entered the track, he quickly found that his Ferrari F300 was not as quick as his rival McLaren MP4/13. He would push hard, even managing an off track moment at turn 12, however despite his best efforts he could only manage third. Nonetheless this was a significant margin to his teammate Eddie Irvine who was described by James Allen to have "bullied his way to eighth place on the grid".
Coulthard underlined the strength of the MP4/13, however whilst he ran close to teammate Häkkinen's best, he was that small bit slower. ITV's Martin Brundle commenting "total walk in the park as he takes provisional pole, no he didn't quite make it. Stunning lap time, I hope somebody is going to break that time." However it seemed only Häkkinen was capable of besting his own times, before the end of the session he had reduced his own benchmark down to a 1:30.010.
Meanwhile further down the field, Alexander Wurz had a dramatic spin at the Whiteford corner. ITV reporter James Allen noting that "he gave a sharp lesson to how twitchy these grooved tyres can be". A short time later, Olivier Panis lost control of his Prost at turn 4 and stalled his engine whilst stricken in the middle of the circuit. Panis exited the car to run back to the pits, the session being red flagged whilst his abandoned car was removed.
After the restart, Johnny Herbert in the Sauber performed one of the more impressive performances of the day. ITV analyst Martin Brundle was left stunned when his former racing rival moved up into fourth on the grid. Brundle exclaimed "This will be a good lap for Herbert, should move him up to third row, maybe second row. Second row!". His commentating colleague Murray Walker exclaiming "Wow! Fantastic!" as Herbert made a surprise return among the top drivers. However in the dying seconds of the session, Jacques Villeneuve put in a fast lap for Williams to snatch fourth place from Herbert at the last possible point.
Despite the safety regulations being designed to reduce the speed of the cars in 1998, Mika Häkkinen's pole position time of 1:30.010 is only six tenths off Jacques Villeneuve's 1997 pole time of 1:29.369. In doing so, Häkkinen took his second career pole position, three races following his first at Luxembourg, 1997. Commenting on his pole lap, Häkkinen stated "I wouldn't say it is harder work here than my first pole position, but its a different time of the year, we are just starting the season and everything seems to be very good now. It's going to be hard here certainly."
With Coulthard's second position, the result marked the first time McLaren had locked out the front row since Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger achieved this at the 1991 edition of the Australian Grand Prix. For the first time since the time of Senna, McLaren were looking like championship cotenders once again. Coulthard stating "It's one thing to be at the front row but the key area is obviously going to be reliability and consistency in the race. And I think Ferrari are very strong so there is a lot of work still to be done."
Ferrari and Michael Schumacher had pushed hard to beat the McLaren's, however despite Schumacher's efforts they were unable to unseat the McLaren's. Nonetheless, Schumacher remained optimistic "I'm pretty happy with the third position, we are still in distance. And if I can finish in this position for the start of the season, it would be quite good". Eddie Irvine remained jovial despite only qualifying eighth, noting "hopefully I make as good a start as I did last year and hopefully Villeneuve doesn't cut my front tyre.", he simply said.
Irvine had been taken out of the race the previous year when he clashed with Villeneuve and Herbert at the first corner. In 1998, both Villeneuve and Herbert would be starting ahead of him on the grid. Herbert had performed excellently until Villeneuve took the position away in the last minutes of the session. However despite managing fourth, the weekend at Albert Park had been difficult for the Williams camp. Villeneuve commenting "After the first run we had to change the car because we had a mechanical problem on the car. That lost us a lot in qualifying and just got the car working properly on the last run. But we could not have beaten McLaren today."
After his impressive performance in qualifying, Johnny Herbert was invited to discuss the session with analyst and former rival Martin Brundle. Brundle expressed surprise at his result, noting that he had earlier wrote Herbert off as a contender during pre-season. "I'm very much aware of that, Martin" responded Herbert, however even he acknowledged that "problems in Barcelona" during pre-season had set to write Sauber off as being in competitive shape. On discussing his qualifying lap, Herbert noted "we changed a lot of things this morning. And each time we changed it, it improved more and more and it just got better and better. We are very fortunate we have the right set-up to play with."
Herbert's most surprising feat according to Brundle was to have "blown the socks off a world class driver who is highly regarded" in qualifying a full two seconds faster than new teammate, Jean Alesi. Alesi, in his debut for Sauber had managed to qualify in only twelfth position. "I think I am like a very good wine that just seems to mature over the years" smirked Herbert on his accomplishment.
At the end of qualifying, Damon Hill was languishing in tenth position, behind his teammate. Having been brought before the stewards earlier in the day for speeding in the pit lane, tenth position confounded Hill's problems.ITV's James Allen noting "what does he have to do to get a break". After a miserable season with Arrows, Britain's world champion was looking to be on course to a similar path with Jordan. After qualifying, Hill noted to ITV's Louise Goodman "the result is not where I'd like to be, it has to be said. Really, both cars ninth and tenth is an indication that we have a lot of work to do".
At the start of the race, the two McLaren cars made the best start with Mika Häkkinen leading teammate David Coulthard into the first corner. As the cars approached turn three, the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher made a lunge at Coulthard around the outside, yet was unsuccessful in his attempt to pass and was forced wide onto the grass. As the race neared the end of the first lap, it was evident of the pace of the McLaren's as Häkkinen and Coulthard began to pull away from the rest of the field, Schumacher's Ferrari struggling to keep up with the McLaren's pace.
The race turned out to be a disaster for the Stewart-Ford team with Rubens Barrichello retiring on the opening lap with gearbox failure and then teammate Jan Magnussen was forced to retire after a collision with Ralf Schumacher's Jordan on the second lap. Schumacher had made a poor start and had dropped to the mid-field, on the second lap he made a poor exit through turn five and Magnussen made an over-ambitious move through the inside, colliding with the Jordan and sending them into the gravel trap. In an attempt to avoid the accident, the Tyrrell of Toranosuke Takagi lost control of his car and spun into the gravel trap colliding with the stationary Schumacher and Magnussen. All three drivers were eliminated from the race.
On the fifth lap, Michael Schumacher retired from the race with engine failure, eliminating the McLaren drivers only external challenge to the team. Jacques Villeneuve inherited third place but was significantly behind the two McLaren drivers. Villeneuve was to begin suffering from tyre degradation and came under significant pressure from the Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella and the Sauber of Johnny Herbert. Whilst both Fisichella and Herbert were quicker than Villeneuve, neither car could find a way through until the first round of pitstops. In the pit-stop phase both Fisichella and Herbert were able to make it ahead of the slower Villeneuve, yet the second Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine were able to make it ahead of Herbert's Sauber for fourth and fifth position. Villeneuve proved to be well off the pace dropping drastically down to seventh position.
A surprise contender was that of the Arrows of Mika Salo who had climbed his way from sixteenth on the grid to eighth position and was challenging Jacques Villeneuve. Salo was quicker than all cars on track with the exception of the McLaren's, yet unfortunately for him his gearbox failed on lap 23.
At the front of the field, both Häkkinen and Coulthard were dominating in which they were both able to lap the entire field of cars on track. Giancarlo Fisichella whilst a lap down from the McLarens was performing well in his Benetton in third position, maintaining a solid gap to Frentzen in fourth position. Unfortunately for the Benetton driver, a structural failure on the rear wing would force the Italian into retirement on lap 43. Teammate Alexander Wurz who would finish the race in seventh would be found to have similar issues with his own rear wing.
As the race entered the closing stages, the two McLaren drivers were leading comfortably without issue until a bizarre incident in which Mika Häkkinen entered the pits much to the surprise of the McLaren team who had not scheduled Häkkinen for a pit-stop. Due to the miscommunication between the team and Häkkinen, the Finn had lost a significant amount of time to teammate David Coulthard who was now leading the race.
As the race drew to a close, Häkkinen was baring down upon Coulthard yet much to the surprise of everyone, Coulthard conceded the race lead to Häkkinen with two laps to go. Häkkinen would go on to win the race with teammate Coulthard second. One lap down, Frentzen would finish third with Eddie Irvine fourth and Jacques Villeneuve finishing in fifth position, who had come under significant pressure from Johnny Herbert in the closing laps of the race.
The result of the Australian Grand Prix and how David Coulthard allowed teammate Mika Häkkinen through to take the race win would prove to be highly controversial. It was initially believed to be a case of team orders in which Coulthard was told by McLaren management to allow Häkkinen through. Coulthard however revealed after the race that a pre-race agreement between himself and Häkkinen in which the McLaren driver who went around the first corner first would be the driver who would be supported to win the race. As Häkkinen beat Coulthard to the first corner, Coulthard felt obliged to let Häkkinen back through into the lead at the end of the race in order to uphold the agreement. Coulthard was praised for his actions due to the sportsmanship in conceding the race win to his teammate, yet also came under significant criticism, especially from the Australian Grand Prix race organisers who accused Coulthard and McLaren of race fixing.
Nevertheless, the pace of the McLaren cars was unquestioned. McLaren were able to set a significant advantage over their opponents in both the Drivers and Constructors Championship. However there were questions over the legality of the McLaren car, particularly the use of an extra brake pedal that was found to be in use on the McLaren. This debate would hold much more significance over the following race weekend at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Standings after raceEdit
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