Review of Malaysia 1999
It all goes down to the wire after all... (Revised report)Article is written by and copyright (c) 1999 David Cunliffe, Warrington, UK - all rights reserved.
by David Cunliffe
Ferrari appeared to do everything right at the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix, taking an emphatic 1-2. But two hours later, both drivers were disqualified by the race stewards for using barge boards which they measured at just 10mm too narrow. The team immediately appealed. That appeal was heard by a five man council of the FIA in Paris on the Friday following the race. Ferrari's appeal was successful and the stewards' decision was overturned. Although any decision made by the FIA in such circumstances was bound to be controversial and this one will undoubtedly have many critics, the fact is that, once again, the World Championship will now go down to the last race at Suzuka...
Michael Schumacher's comeback at Sepang confounded the sceptics. He took pole by one second on Saturday, and then was the consummate team player in the race, conceding the lead to Eddie Irvine not once but twice. The first time, after only a few laps, was the biggest surprise. Schumacher led from the fading of the lights and proceeded to stamp his authority on the race, pulling away from his team-mate and the McLarens at over a second a lap. Then he slowed dramatically. Point made. The race was the German's for the taking, but he showed in the most emphatic manner possible that he truly is the team player he has claimed to be by moving over for Irvine.
Coulthard, who retained his third on the grid at the start, was anxious to be off after Irvine and, in a reversal of their more customary roles, quickly muscled his way past Schumacher (to avoid confusion, all references to "Schumacher" in this report are to Michael, not younger brother Ralf, whose Williams was for once uncompetitive and went out early). Hakkinen was unable to repeat the feat and was then baulked, for lap after lap, by the returning Ferrari team leader. Some, including McLaren's team boss, Ron Dennis, questioned whether this was sporting but Mika Hakkinen later had no complaints. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Schumacher's blocking tactics, Irvine was happy to be sailing serenely away out in front. Ferrari team plans were at that stage well on course to give them the lead in both title races.
Meanwhile, the Stewart-Ford team, surprise heroes of the European GP, had both cars inside the top six. This was a truly impressive performance on a track never before visited by the GP circus. Barrichello, who had snatched a place from his team-mate, Herbert, on the start, was well on the pace of the leaders. Johnny began to drop back slowly, the result of differing strategies. The European GP winner was on a one-stopper and had a heavier fuel load, team-mate Rubens chose two stops. One proved to be the way to go - at the chequered flag, the tactic gave Johnny fourth, and Rubens ended up one place behind. If only Johnny had been able to keep Mika Hakkinen behind for a few more laps, he would have taken his second podium in a row. As it was, the team's points were enough to take the team past Williams up into fourth in the Constructors' Championship, an incredible result for a team in only its third season.
Malaysia was disastrous for Jordan. The team didn't cope as well as the Stewarts with the new location, qualifying badly on Saturday. Hill was ahead of his team-mate on the grid, but went out on the first lap after Fisichella punted him from behind. Frentzen ran out of the points for most of the race but, with attrition and disqualifications, made it up to fourth in the end. After the non-finish in Europe, HH's title challenge was over and done. But at least his boss, Eddie Jordan, can celebrate achieving the target of third place in the teams' title race, neither Stewart nor Williams now being close enough to take it away.
This was a tense race to watch. There were some good close dices, but few overtaking moves by the leading contenders, who were anxious not to throw away points. In the middle of the race, there was some doubt about Hakkinen's pitstop strategy and, for a few laps, it looked as though McLaren may have sold Ferrari a dummy. Could Mika have started with a full tank (that would have explained his early slow pace) and topped it up again on his stop? It proved not to be the case - when he stopped a second time, returning to the track in fourth behind Herbert, it was clear that the Ferraris would get to the flag first. It was also clear that Schumacher, who had come out ahead of his team-mate when the pitstops unwound, would again let the Ulsterman through to finish first and take the Championship win. Hakkinen's body language on the podium said it all - the dejected Finn thought all was lost. It must have been an up and down few days for him after the race too. The burning question now is: can he get his head back together in time for Suzuka and take his second Championship in a row?
Immediately after the race, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis muttered darkly about Ferrari's "unsporting" behaviour and the baldness of their tyres. "Sour grapes," retorted Ferrari's Ross Brawn. But was Ron considering a protest? If so, he decided not to bother after the stewards declared Ferrari's barge boards illegal and (subject to appeal) threw them both out of the race. The unlikely happened, the appeal succeeded and the Championship battle will, in fact, now go down to the wire at Suzuka in two weeks time. If Hakkinen and McLaren do now take that race and one or both of the titles, at least they won't have won on a technicality...
David Cunliffe has been following F1 for over twenty years and is a fan of any skillful and sporting driver who's a true racer. He produces a number of F1 related websites.