Modern Classics: 1998 Canadian Grand Prix

There are many great races in the history of motorsport, but very few can claim to be genuine landmarks that changed the sport forever. The 1998 Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal is one of those events – it’s often forgotten that this race would prove to be one of the most decisive in the history of Formula One, a rare moment where you can divide it into ‘before’ and ‘after’.

Here are some of the key talking points from a thrilling contest that saw crashes, controversy and plenty of hard racing.

Wurz’s world turns upside down

Alexander Wurz arrived in Montreal a year on from his F1 debut as one of the hottest properties in the sport. In the previous race at Monaco, the Austrian had gone wheel-to-wheel with Michael Schumacher, proving he was one of the few drivers on the grid with the mettle to stand up to the then-two-time world champion. Unfortunately his race ended in a spectacular crash coming out of the tunnel, but he remained fifth in the standings, the best of the rest behind the Ferrari and McLaren drivers.

However, his Canadian Grand Prix would prove to be just as memorable. On the run to the first corner, he misjudged his braking, slid up the inside of the turn and clipped the Sauber of Jean Alesi, which flicked the Benetton into a violent roll through the gravel trap. Several other cars went off the track in avoidance and the race was quickly brought to a halt while the marshals set to work.

Thankfully, Wurz was unharmed, and ran back to the pits to take the restart in his spare car. Despite this, he went on to finish an impressive fourth place, just three seconds behind Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine in third, although both drivers found themselves somewhat overshadowed by their team mates…

McLaren show their vulnerability

Mika Hakkinen had taken a dominant win in Monaco to extend his championship lead to 17 points over team mate David Coulthard, and was increasingly looking like the next world champion. However, the Scot pipped him to pole in Montreal by six hundredths of a second, and then on the restart, the Finn’s McLaren slowed to a crawl with terminal gearbox issues. It was his second retirement in seven races that season.

This opened the door to Coulthard, who now had a huge opportunity to close to within striking distance of his team mate. However, he quickly found the Ferrari of Schumacher swarming all over his gearbox. The pair pulled clear of the rest of the field, but on lap 19, the remaining McLaren slowed with throttle problems and headed for the garage. Both Silver Arrows were out, leaving Schumacher in a comfortable lead in the race.

The race underlined McLaren’s main weakness in the late 1990s. Their cars were frequently the fastest in the field, having won five of the first six races and taking pole in 12 of the first 13. However, reliability let them down at key moments, and they soon found Ferrari snapping at their heels, ready to take full advantage of days like this. While it ultimately wouldn’t cost them the 1998 titles, it was a problem that never quite went away during their years with Adrian Newey at the helm of their technical department.

The start of a new era for F1 stewarding

The reason this race marks a turning point in F1 history is because of what happened on lap 21 – and in response to it. Mika Salo and Johnny Herbert both crashing out the lap before had brought out the safety car for the third time in the race, and Ferrari shrewdly brought Schumacher in for his first scheduled pit stop. However, on leaving the pit lane, Michael came out alongside the red Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen – this was back in the days when the pit lane exit came in the right-hand kink leading into the first corner, rather than bypassing it altogether. Schumacher came across the track and – either without seeing his compatriot, or to deliberately squeeze him to keep him behind – forced Frentzen onto the grass and into a spin. He was soon beached, and out of the race.

This was at a time where Michael’s reputation for aggressive driving was at the forefront of everyone’s minds – just a few months earlier, he had been disqualified from the 1997 championship for colliding with Frentzen’s team mate Jacques Villeneuve at the European Grand Prix at Jerez while battling for the title – so it proved to be difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he later insisted it was unintentional and that he simply hadn’t seen the Williams or even realised Frentzen had spun out as a result. Patrick Head saw things differently, and complained to both Ferrari team boss Jean Todt and the race stewards in a bid to get Schumacher disqualified.

What happened was something that had never been seen before in F1 up to that point: Michael was awarded a 10-second stop-go penalty for the collision, the first on-track penalty of this kind for reckless driving in the history of the championship. Up until 1998, this had been reserved for more benign incidents like jump-starts and speeding in the pit lane – this was a more radical change of direction for the sport, and it’s never looked back since. It’s from this point that we can trace the time penalties that are regularly handed out in F1 today.

Hill and Schumacher renew their rivalry

The stop-go put Schumacher down to the third place just after half-distance, leaving him behind his former title rival Damon Hill in the Jordan. Hill and Schumacher had rarely occupied the same part of the track since Hill left Williams at the end of 1996, and this was set to be a confrontation that would live in the memory.

The Jordan 198 was still a struggling midfield car at this point, and Michael closed Hill down with ease. But when he attempted to make a move on the back straight on lap 38, Damon weaved across the track in front of him, first to block him on the inside and then on the outside. Schumacher swerved back to the inside again, nearly losing control of the car in the process and missing his braking point for the chicane, leaving him to cut the second apex to avoid crashing into what would later become known as the ‘Wall of Champions’. He quickly disappeared up the road, while Hill retired five laps later with electrical problems, costing him his first solid result in a Jordan.

Michael vented his frustration at Hill’s driving in the post-race press conference, saying “I was so angry with that situation that I wonder why he doesn’t get a penalty for doing things like that… That’s completely impossible for such an experienced man to do such things.” In hindsight, he was spot on – it’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with driving like that today without receiving a penalty. Seeing Hill drive in such an uncharacteristically aggressive manner was another insight into the mind of a man who was probably still not over the confrontations of 1994 and 1995.

Fisichella shows glimpses of his potential

Giancarlo Fisichella had scored his first F1 podium at Montreal in 1997 while driving for Jordan. One year on, he was now the second half of a pair of exciting young drivers in a Benetton team that had slipped into the midfield battle. However, he once again starred on the Île Notre-Dame, qualifying fourth behind the McLarens and Schumacher, and when Michael made his first pit stop, he took over the lead of the race ahead of home town hero Villeneuve.

At the restart, Jacques made a brilliant restart, leaving the Williams glued to the Benetton’s rear wing. Sensing his opportunity, he attempted an audacious late-braking manoeuvre around the outside of Fisichella, only to lock his brakes, slide straight into the gravel on the outside of turn 1, and then rejoin the track into the path of the luckless Esteban Tuero in the Minardi. With Villeneuve out of contention and Schumacher taking his stop-go, Fisichella was left in a commanding position, with both he and Michael both stopping only one more time through the rest of the race.

Fisichella drove a calm, mature race at the front, but the B198 was no match for Schumacher’s Ferrari F300. When Fisi stopped on lap 44, Michael retook the lead, and immediately began lapping around two seconds a lap faster than the Italian. When he emerged from his stop six laps later, he’d just about done enough to hold the lead, going on to win by over 16 seconds.

Much as Lewis Hamilton did at the British Grand Prix 23 years later, Schumacher had battled through to take a remarkable win despite a hefty penalty, putting himself firmly back in championship contention. But Fisichella was the Charles Leclerc of the story, delivering a brilliant performance in mediocre machinery to underline his potential. Back in 1998, many observers believed he was a future world champion – based on the evidence at the time, it was hard to disagree. However, he wasn’t the only driver in the race who would never fulfil his potential…

Magnussen scores but gets the boot

After a promising but inconsistent debut year in 1997, Stewart had endured a miserable start to 1998, with little progress having been made. Rubens Barrichello had scored the team’s only points of the first six races with fifth place at the Spanish Grand Prix, but the SF2 wasn’t showing the glimpses of pace that the SF1 had the year before.

Montreal would be somewhat different, with Barrichello working his way up from 13th on the grid to lie fourth by lap 10 on a slightly lower fuel load than those around him, only to lock up approaching the Pits Hairpin, slide off and drop down the order. However, he soon slowly worked his way back up the order, and would eventually finish fifth, just staying on the lead lap.

One position behind him was team mate Jan Magnussen, scoring his first points finish in his 24th start in F1. The Dane had been under increasing pressure in the team for erratic performances and a perceived lack of commitment, undermining his reputation as a one-time hot prospect who had dominated British Formula Three and been tipped to be “the next Senna”. He seemed to be on the brink of losing his drive with the team, and needed a good performance in Canada to retain it.

Matters seemed to be coming to a head, with Magnussen qualifying 20th, 3.4 seconds off the pace, around 1.7 seconds behind his team mate and ahead only of Tuero and Tyrrell’s Ricardo Rosset. However, in the race he worked his way through the field to finish sixth and claim that first points finish. Alas, even this was not all it seemed, as he spent the latter part of the race fending off the Minardi of Shinji Nakano, himself enjoying his best drive of the season. The sixth place finish owed a lot to a race of high attrition, with just ten cars classified as finishers out of the 22 that started, including neither of the McLarens, Jordans, Saubers and Prosts.

It would prove to be a pyrrhic victory for Magnussen. His dismissal would be confirmed in the days after the race, with Stewart drafting in Jos Verstappen to replace him from the next race at Magny-Cours. Ironically, the Dutchman failed to score a point for the rest of the season. However, this was no consolation for Magnussen, who never drove in F1 again, becoming one of the great unfulfilled talents in the sport’s history.

Race results

13Michael SchumacherFERRARI691:40:57.35510
25Giancarlo FisichellaBENETTON PLAYLIFE69+16.662s6
34Eddie IrvineFERRARI69+60.058s4
46Alexander WurzBENETTON PLAYLIFE69+63.232s3
518Rubens BarrichelloSTEWART FORD69+81.512s2
619Jan MagnussenSTEWART FORD68+1 lap1
722Shinji NakanoMINARDI FORD68+1 lap0
820Ricardo RossetTYRRELL FORD68+1 lap0
916Pedro DinizARROWS68+1 lap0
101Jacques VilleneuveWILLIAMS MECACHROME63+6 laps0
NC21Toranosuke TakagiTYRRELL FORD0DNF0
James Bennett
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