There is little doubt in many people’s minds that Michael Schumacher was one of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula 1. His record of 7 world titles, 91 race wins and 68 pole positions stood for many years before Lewis Hamilton eclipsed the latter two and matched him on championships. With the aid of the Schumacher family, Netflix recently released an emotional new film on Schumacher that focuses on some of the most notable aspects of his career, and one thing it focuses on is the rivalry Schumacher had with McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen.
Hakkinen was potentially the only rival that Schumacher genuinely feared in his team racing in F1, and their dual really began in 1998 as the two battled it out for the world championship together. In 1998, McLaren held an edge on Ferrari but Schumacher and the team fought hard against the McLaren’s, and nowhere was this fighting spirit more evident than at that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix. At a Grand Prix where McLaren clearly had the upper hand pace-wise, Schumacher put a brilliant race strategy by Ross Brawn to good use and secured what is arguably the greatest win of his career.
Stuck Behind The Two McLarens
Ahead of the Grand Prix, things didn’t look so good for Ferrari and Schumacher. Hakkinen had taken pole position ahead of his teammate David Coulthard, and Schumacher was nearly four-tenths adrift of Hakkinen in third. The Hungaroring circuit is one at which it is notoriously hard to overtake on, even if you are a Hakkinen or Schumacher. The race was expected to be a two-stop affair, but Brawn decided to roll the dice and put Schumacher on a three-top race ahead of the first pitstops.
What was key for the race was not alerting McLaren that Ferrari was trying anything different. Schumacher pitted on lap 25, and everything seemed pretty normal as the Ferrari was fuelled for a regular second stint of the race. However, Schumacher got stuck behind Jaques Villeneuve in the much slower Williams, and the two McLaren’s naturally stayed ahead of the Ferrari after their own pitstops. Given that Villeneuve was costing Schumacher up to two seconds a lap to the leaders, this pretty much guaranteed that Schumacher was going to end up on the three-stop strategy. Eventually, Villeneuve pitted and Schumacher could show his full potential, and he started to rattle off fast laps that were over half a second quicker than the McLaren’s.
A Decisive Turning Point In The Race
The fact that Schumacher was able to put in such fast laps was music to Brawn’s ears. Brawn could now see that in race-trim, the Ferrari was quicker than the McLaren’s, as it was utilizing the Bridgestone tires better than its rivals. With extra pace now clearly in hand, it really looked like a three-stop might actually work. Some thirty-five laps into the race, Schumacher was right behind Coulthard and just over three seconds back from Hakkinen. It was now time for Ferrari to spring the surprise. On lap 43, in came the Ferrari with a pitstop of just 6.8 seconds. McLaren suddenly realized what was going on.
It was after this pitstop that Brawn came onto the radio and said “Michael, you have 19 laps to pull out 25 seconds. We need 19 qualifying laps from you.”. The response from Schumacher? “Ok. Thank you”. Perhaps inside the helmet, Schumacher didn’t believe it was possible to do that. But he still got his head down and went for it. McLaren kept Hakkinen on his two-stop strategy, believing Schumacher couldn’t make up those 25 seconds, and after both McLaren’s made their second and last pitstops, they emerged behind the blisteringly quick Ferrari.
Ferrari Take The Advantage
Unknown to anyone at the time, Hakkinen’s McLaren suddenly had some form of handling issue. A front anti-roll bar had become disconnected and was jamming the McLaren’s suspension pushrod, seemingly at random. As Hakkinen got slower, Coulthard caught up to him, and eventually, after a weirdly long time, Coulthard was ordered past Hakkinen as he was now the team’s main contender for victory. Could Coulthard keep the Ferrari in sight to ensure victory for McLaren? Remarkably, no he couldn’t. Thanks to having more fuel than the Ferrari, tires that weren’t working as well, and just less overall pace, Schumacher pulled the gap to emerge ahead of the McLaren after his third and final pit stop. This was despite an off-track moment costing Schumacher around 5 seconds! This was one of the most incredible races in a dramatic 1998 season.
A Sensational Victory For Schumacher And Ferrari
This could well have been the greatest victory of Schumacher’s career. While the issue Hakkinen suddenly suffered certainly helped Schumacher, he still had to get the work done to be able to pass the two McLaren’s earlier in the race and there was no guarantee that he would emerge from the pitstop ahead of Coulthard either. The strategy from Brawn was an absolute masterstroke, but it required his driver to be able to make it work on track. And Schumacher did so with some of the best driving we have ever seen in Formula 1, to take an absolutely incredible victory.
Sources: Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari Fans, Max F1, F1 History, Ferrari
Schumacher retired from F1 in 2006 while driving with Ferrari, but then returned to the sport in 2010 with the Mercedes team.
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