Japanese GP - Suzuka 31 October 1999
Hakkinen burned M. Schumacher at the start of the Japanese GP to take the lead ahead of the German. Other title contender Irvine made a very good start to the race after his disappointing qualifying session by overtaking Coulthard and Frentzen. Panis took advantage of the confusion of the start to fly along the outside and position himself in front of Irvine. When the positions settled Hakkinen was in the lead and getting away from M. Schumacher in second position. Panis, in third, was holding up the rest of the pack with Irvine in fourth position, Coulthard in fifth and Frentzen in sixth. Williams driver Zanardi parked his car by the side halfway through the first lap and retired with an electrical problem. Hakkinen showed that he was determined to take the Championship by immediately starting to put in fastest lap after fastest lap, building up a gap between himself and M. Schumacher, who had declared before the start of the race that he intended to win the GP to help his team mate win the Drivers Championship. On lap four Coulthard, who had been on Irvine's tail up to that point, started letting go a bit, as Panis was doing a great job of holding up the Irishman, exactly what Coulthard wanted to achieve in order to help Hakkinen. On the same lap Trulli stopped by the side of the track and retired, concluding his racing career with Prost. By lap eight Hakkinen was almost five seconds ahead of M. Schumacher and still getting away. On lap 15 Hill, on his retirement GP, went out at the Spoon, kept the engine running and followed the tyre wall keeping out of the gravel as much as possible, then rejoined the track in 19th position behind Fisichella's Benetton. On the following lap the Jordan driver went back to the pits for new tyres and a quick check-up and rejoined in last position one lap down from all the other drivers.
Shortly afterwards, on lap 17, Panis stopped for his first pit stop (6.8 seconds), leaving Irvine in third position. Herbert and Villeneuve went into the pits at the same time, but Herbert was fastest out and took the place ahead of the BAR. De La Rosa had his pit stop on the following lap and finally race leader Hakkinen pitted on lap 20 (8.8 seconds), temporarily giving the lead to M. Schumacher. Frentzen, caught in the pack with Coulthard and Irvine, had his pit stop (8.1 seconds) and rejoined down in the field. Panis went back to the pits driving slowly, took a short detour to the side to make way for Zonta who was coming in for his pit stop, then drove to the Prost garage and retired. Hakkinen in the meantime had started pushing hard to reduce his gap with M. Schumacher in order to regain the lead when the German went for his pit stop. On lap 21 R. Schumacher pitted from fourth position (7.6 seconds) and on the following lap his older brother had his pit stop too (6.3 seconds). Sure enough, Hakkinen had reduced the gap enough and retook the lead as M. Schumacher rejoined behind him. McLaren smartly called in Coulthard (7.1 seconds) when they realised that M. Schumacher was coming in, knowing that Ferrari could not call Irvine in at the same time. Coulthard managed to rejoin in front of Frentzen. On lap 23 Irvine went for his pit stop (7.1 seconds) and came out of the pit straight just as Coulthard was approaching. Coulthard had more speed than the Ferrari and the Scot went ahead of Irvine. Hill drove back to the Jordan pits and retired. Interviewed afterwards he said that he was running last and had no chance of improving his position, so he had decided to retire from the race. After the first bout of pit stops Hakkinen was in the lead followed by M. Schumacher, Coulthard, Irvine, Frentzen and R. Schumacher. On lap 31 Gené retired. On the same lap Frentzen had his second pit stop (7.7 seconds), followed one lap later by Irvine (6.3 seconds) who was being seriously held up by Coulthard. Irvine managed to rejoin in front of Frentzen, who had already stopped, and behind Herbert who still had to stop. On lap 35 Coulthard made a mistake on a bend, lost control of the car and went into a spin, going across the track and hitting the front of his car against the wall damaging his nosecone. The Scot had to go back to the McLaren pits for a new nosecone, which put him out of the competition for points and lost McLaren the Constructors Championship.
McLaren was lucky in their misfortune though, as Coulthard rejoined the race just in front on M. Schumacher, whom the Scot managed to hold up long enough to double his gap with Hakkinen, before he was blue-flagged and had to let the German through. After the race M. Schumacher had very strong words against Coulthard's behaviour, but the Scot had not done anything that M. Schumacher himself had not done in the Malaysian GP. On lap 38 M. Schumacher had his second pit stop (7.5 seconds), shortly followed by Hakkinen (7.4 seconds), who retained the lead of the race. With 13 laps to go Coulthard went back to the pits and retired, his car damaged from his earlier accident, having completed his team task of holding up M. Schumacher to allow Hakkinen to build up an unchallenged lead. With only four laps to go Fisichella, who had run an uninspired race, parked his car by the side with smoke pouring out of the engine and retired. Nothing else happened until the end of the race, with Hakkinen taking the highest step on the podium and the Drivers Championship title. The two Ferrari of M. Schumacher and Irvine were second and third to bring home the Constructor Championship for Ferrari after 16 years. Frentzen brought three more points to Jordan by finishing fourth in front of R. Schumacher and Alesi.
There has been plenty of discussion this year as to whether either Hakkinen or Irvine would be a "worthy" champion. Hakkinen has often been painted as an undeserving champion because of his several mistakes this year and the crying in the woods episode during the Italy GP, which some people have used to claim that the Finn does not have the spine to be a champion. Irvine was not seen as a worthy champion because of his acceptance of official second driver role for the last four years. After the Malaysian GP this attitude was reinforced by claims that M. Schumacher had come back to win the Drivers Championship for his team mate because Irvine could not possibly do it with his own means. This sort of arguments makes no sense whatsoever because F1 competition happens at the highest level, it is a team sport and can be extremely nerve-wrecking for the drivers.
At the end Hakkinen was the one who won the Drivers Championship. The Finn knew exactly what to do at Suzuka and did it from the word "go" without fail, never being even remotely bothered by M. Schumacher. Coulthard did hold up M. Schumacher for a short while, but it is doubtful that the German would have been in the position to take the lead off Hakkinen, even without Coulthard's intervention. Irvine made a brilliant start in the race passing two drivers the like of Coulthard and Frentzen. Throughout the season the Irishman brought points back in each race he finished this season but one, including three wins, and though he missed the Drivers Championship by two points he was instrumental in winning the Constructors Championship for Ferrari especially when considering M. Schumacher's long absence from the track. Had M. Schumacher not lost his pole lead to Hakkinen at the start of the Japanese GP, now Irvine would probably be the champion. M. Schumacher did not race in Suzuka to the level he had shown in other GPs. He made a bad start which basically gave Hakkinen the Championship, because it was obvious during the race that the Ferrari did not have the speed to keep up with the McLaren and M. Schumacher's only chance would have been to start in front of Hakkinen and keep the Finn at bay throughout the whole race. Still, the German had managed to return to racing in style at the Malaysian GP despite his long forced stay away from the track.
Frentzen closed off his, and Jordan's, best F1 season so far by finishing fourth to bring another three points to his team. Frentzen's performance this season brought third position for himself in the Drivers table and for Jordan in the Constructors table. Frentzen's performance is even more significant if compared to that of his team mate Hill, who finally retired from F1 after announcing that he was going to do so and then changing his mind several times throughout the season. Frentzen is promising to be a major player in next year's Championship and he is definitely one to keep an eye on. R. Schumacher proved this season to be a driver in his own right and not just Michael's little brother. He finished sixth in the Drivers' table and won all the points Williams got this year (just one less than Stewart) since his team mate Zanardi never finished in the points. Alesi had a best forgotten season, only managing to clench his secend point of the season in the very last race. He will drive for Prost next year and will be able to show whether he still has got it.
Coulthard was plagued by bad luck in 1999, coupled with a few of his own mistakes. It often seemed like all the technical problems with McLaren, of which there were many, would happen to him and not to Hakkinen, with a couple of exceptions. He managed to finish the season in fourth position in the Drivers' table, just ahead of M. Schumacher. Barrichello, Ferrari's official second driver next year, started the season well then he sort of "got lost" later in the season, but showed what he is capable of. It is to be hoped that he will be more consistent next year. Benetton's Fisichella had a few good races, intermixed with rather mediocre ones, but still managed to do remarkably better than his team mate Wurz.
New team British American Tobacco had a disastrous first season, the only team bringing home no points whatsoever and suffering from a bout of mechanical problems which meant either car rarely went the whole distance.
The 1999 season was marred by the episode of the disqualification and then full reinstatement of Ferrari after the Malaysian GP, which only succeeded in bringing shame to FIA and the sport in general. Whether one believes the "conspiracy" theory that FIA wanted the Championship to go to the last race, or the official explanation that the FIA regulations are confusing and misleading, the episode was very bad for the image of the sport as a whole. So ends the last F1 season of the millennium. The appointment is provisionally scheduled for the 12th of March 2000 at Melbourne, where the Australian GP will be the first F1 GP of the new millennium.
|Images from La Gazzetta dello Sport Online and Raisport|
Last updated on by Federica Massagrande