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After back-to-back victories at Canada and France, Ferrari would have been hoping for a win at Britain too. For the first time in the season there appeared to be a title rival to the unbeatable McLarens. Schumacher had closed the gap with Mika to just six points. Another victory would do well to reduce the deficit even further.
The Ferrari package was better going into the British GP, but McLarens would be as good as ever. McLarens would have taken note of Schumacher's daredevil driving and the Ferrari's immaculate strategies. It meant that they had to not only be ready with their great car and driver combination but also work out their plan during critical points in the race.
McLaren, a team which was way ahead of the competition even around the half-way mark, would now be burning the midnight oil for the British GP. The McLarens still had the fastest car, which was a plus point, and the Ferrari still had to match the pace. However, Ferrari for once wouldn't mind the underdog tag, as it was for the McLarens to prove themselves.
It would be another nothing-to-lose race for the Ferraris, while a getting-it-right race for the McLarens. Which team would be under pressure, would be anyone's guess.
Let's find out how the race developed.
The 1998 British GP Qualifying
The qualifying session was a battle between Mika in the McLarens and a rejuvenated Ferrari driven by Michael Schumacher. For once neither of the second cars of McLaren or Ferrari were in contention for the front row. It was an outright war between Mika and Michael as they traded pole after pole. However, the McLarens had the last laugh as Mika bolted ahead of Michael by nearly half a second. That gap was too much even for the master to catch up, and that's how it stayed.
The surprise of the session was the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve qualifying third overall. That put David Coulthard in the other McLaren and Eddie Irvine in the Ferrari at the fourth and fifth spot. The sixth spot was taken up by Heinz Harald Frentzen in the second Williams. After a long time, the defending constructors' champion, Williams, was seen at the front of the grid. That also meant that both Mika and Schumacher had to watch out for the Williams.
So, how would the battle be on race day?
Let get to the race day to find out.
The 1998 British GP – Race Day
The circuit witnessed heavy rainfall even before the race began, but it stopped, and the track started drying. The course was still wet in certain parts, causing all cars to start the race on intermediates. Mika had a rocking start and raced ahead of Michael. There was hardly any catching-up between the two as it appeared to be McLaren’s race.
However, around lap 15, rain caused all cars to go for wet-weather tires. Despite the in and out of pits, Mika had a firm grip on the race. He led the race and started to pull away from Schumacher. For once, the role of rainmaster was Mika’s as he opened up a massive lead of 49 seconds over Michael.
Take a look at the race summary until the Safety Car comes out on lap 44.
It was clear that the rain wasn't going to stop, but what wasn't clear was the difficulty of driving in those conditions. A good part of the track remained inundated, and the rain continued to lash. Mika, who was on a spectacular run, lost control around lap 42, spun out completely, and miraculously joined back through the gravel trap. That episode and many more car spins and retirement were enough to bring in the safety car.
With the safety car in, the 38-second lead that Mika had was reduced to nothing. The safety car stayed on till lap 50, after which Mika and Michael renewed their battle. But just two laps after the safety car, Mika made a mistake which allowed Michael to take the lead. So aggressive was Michael's race from then on that in just the remaining eight laps, he opened up a lead of 23 seconds on Mika. So, the rain king was back at his best.
But surprises did not end. At lap 58, Michael was awarded a 10-second stop-go penalty for passing Alexander Wurz during the safety car deployment. Now, the problem was that Michael was supposed to take the penalty in the next three laps, which also included the last lap of the race. That's where Ferrari's strategy came into play, which riled the McLarens.
Saw that? Well, the Ferrari team made Michael come in on the last lap of the race. However, Michael finished the last lap in the pits before taking his penalty. Effectively, Michael took the penalty and yet won the race.
It was a third back-to-back victory for Michael and the Ferrari team!
Michael’s Stop-Go Penalty Controversy
All's not well that ends well for the McLarens, as they believed that Michael had, technically, not taken the penalty. According to the McLaren team, the race ended before the penalty, so it wasn't a stop-go at all. They wanted Mika to be classified as the winner with Michael second, through the addition of 10-seconds to Schumacher's time.
However, it was the stewards' error on many counts. The first one is that no team is given a stop-go penalty so late in the race. The written circular did not mention if a ten-second would be added to Michael's time after the race or should he take the stop-go. From the team's perspective, they are supposed to comply with the penalty within three laps of the penalty being issued. So, that made it lap 58, 59 and 60, lap 60 being the last lap of the race.
Ferrari, therefore, took the penalty on the available last lap, which incidentally, fell beyond the start-finish line. This strategy meant that Michael went into the pits on the final lap to comply with the penalty, but finished the race as the start-finish line was passed, and then stopped at the garage to take the penalty. So, little could be faulted in the strategy, though it appeared controversial.
The FIA too ruled in Ferrari's favour and quashed McLarens' plea. At the same time, the stewards were reprimanded for the error in the procedure that they effected.
Back to the Pits
For a team which had no challenger for the first half of the season, McLarens would have started to be wary of the Ferrari’s onslaught. Michael Schumacher was looking good, and if the victories continued, then Mika would see the world championship hope slide away.
It was an excellent race for Ferrari, but it meant a lot of work and strategizing for the McLarens.
The Next Win...
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