One of the most controversial and incident packed races which involved the biggest ever crash in terms of the number of cars involved, the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix was the 13th race of the season. The race was won by Jordan driver Damon Hill. This race marked the first victory of the Irish team in 126 starts. This was also the last F1 win of Hill’s career.
McLaren dominated in those years and hence qualified on a one-two with Häkkinen clinching his ninth pole of the season followed by his teammate David Coulthard. Damon Hill qualified with a surprise third position for the Irish team Jordan on a wet track on Sunday morning. He was followed by the Ferrari cars of Michael Schumacher and Irvine.
The race day was very wet with heavy showers predicted during the race. But that did not deter the organizers to delay the race or start the race with a safety car. As one would imagine, with so much stagnant water on track and the spray the visibility of the chasing drivers was very poor. David Coulthard had a slow start and was overtaken by the Ferraris and the Jordan of Damon Hill.
On the second turn of the opening lap, his car spun and rebounded by the trackside wall into the way of coming traffic, which resulted in a major pile up. 11 cars were piled one after the other with wheels flying in and around the track on high speeds after the huge crash. All the 11 drivers escaped without being seriously hurt. The race was red flagged and stopped before the first lap could be completed so that all the debris could be removed from the track.
The rules at that time allowed the race to be restarted from the beginning(with the same laps and distance) if the race was stopped in the opening two laps. The implementation of this rule meant that all the cars which were involved in the crash would return to their positions on the grid at the restart. But since every team had one spare car, the teams which had both cars damaged beyond immediate reparation could only let one of their drivers race.
For three drivers it was the end of their weekend as Salo, Rosset, and Panis could not restart as their teams decided to provide the spare car to their team-mates. Irvine had Barrichello sustained minor injuries during the pileup. Irvine was cleared to race at the restart but Barichello was advised by the medical staff to not risk his injury. Hence, a total of four drivers did not start the race again.
The race was restarted an hour later, after the debris from the track were cleared. At the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix Take 2, Häkkinen, who had a perfect start and didn’t end up in one of the eleven crashed cars during the first lap, had a terrible start the second time. His car viciously spun at La Source corner and was hit by a Herbert’s Sauber prompting both the drivers to retire immediately.
The other McLaren driver also had a misfortunate collision on the first lap itself after the restart but later rejoined the pack in the last position. This led Damon Hill to lead the race until he was chased by the fastest car on the circuit i.e. of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari on lap 8. The experienced German was in a class of his own as he easily took lead from Damon Hill and began building a healthy lead over him in the first position. All seemed to be going very well for Schumacher till lap 25 where he had a massive lead of over 40 seconds.
Coulthard being a lap down to Schumacher didn’t give way to him to overtake initially. But, after being told by his team on the radio to let pass the Ferrari, he lifted off in heavy spray on the right side of the track which momentarily blinded Schumacher resulting in him ramming his Ferrari into the back of the McLaren. Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari’s front right wheel went off and he eventually retired after bringing his car into the pits. David Coulthard also returned to the pits at the same time with a broken rear wing.
After coming into the pits, Schumacher angrily got out of the car and stormed towards the McLaren garage to confront Coulthard before he was stopped and escorted by his team officials. Coulthard later revealed in an interview that Schumacher even threatened to kill him. Schumacher, later pleaded with the race stewards, but his appeal was rejected as the race officials saw it is a racing incident.
Meanwhile, after the Schumacher-Coulthard collision, Damon Hill got a free passage and led the race in front of his teammate Ralf Schumacher. He perfected his second pitstop when the safety car was deployed in the later stages of the race. Hill was instructed by the team to let pass the young German as he was faster but he vehemently opposed the team orders and told the team on the radio that either one of them will come first or both will retire indicating that he was not ready to give up his position without fighting. Left with no choice, both the drivers were instructed to maintain their positions by the Jordan team. As a result, Damon Hill won the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix. It was his first F1 win after his world title win in 1996.
This race had its own share of controversy of accidents, confrontation and defying of team orders. So it makes for a memorable Grand Prix.