F1 Rewind: Rain gives midfield teams their day in the sun

Changing conditions at the Nurburgring for the 1999 European Grand Prix produced a surprise winner, with midfield minnows upstaging the established runners and riders.

As the top teams floundered the likes of Stewart, Prost, Benetton, BAR and Minardi took centre stage in a race that was as much about strategy and attrition as it was on-track performance.

However, it also proved crucial in a hotly-contested drivers’ championship, with four drivers arriving in German in contention for the title led by McLaren’s reigning champion Mika Hakkinen. He was joint with Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine on 60 points with both drivers having struggled at the Italian Grand Prix a fortnight ago.

The Finn had failed to finish and Irvine had only picked up a point, allowing winner Heinz-Harald Frentzen to move within ten points and Coulthard, who finished fifth, to remain in contention a further two points back.

At the Nurburgring Frentzen started from pole, with Coulthard second and Hakkinen third. Irvine started 9th on the grid on the harder tyres in contrast to his title rivals; the only other team using the option compound were the two Stewart drivers, Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello who had qualified 14th and 15th.

There was drama even before lights out, as the lights didn’t go out within the mandatory period and Frentzen jumped into action causing the rest of the top five to set off as well before realising the error. Following a second formation lap the grid reformed in its original placings.

This time the grid got away successfully, with Frentzen leading into the first corner but Hakkinen overtaking Coulthard behind. Giancarlo Fisichella made up a place from sixth, passing the slow-starting Olivier Panis, whose his Prost teammate Jarno Trulli also made a poor getaway. 

The leaders navigated the first corner successfully but coming through there was a collision behind as cars looked to avoid the slow-moving Damon Hill, Alex Wurz clipped the Jordan and crashed into Pedro Denitz, whose Sauber somersaulted and came to rest upside-down with the Brazilian trapped inside, though unharmed.

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Eddie Irvine was up to seventh following the first sector action, before his charge was halted by the introduction of the safety car as marshalls cleared away Dinitz’s ruined Sauber (it later transpired the roll bar had failed).

The safety car pulled in at the end of lap five and Frentzen retained his lead through the restart, with second-placed Hakkinen preoccupied with holding off his teammate behind. His rival Irvine was attacking Panis and Fisichella, passing the Prost into turn 13.

Further back the other team starting on hard tyres, Stewart, had moved up to 11th and 13th for Barrichello and Herbert. Irvine was able to quickly close up to Fisichella in fifth, but the Italian frustrated him with strong defence as all the time Irvine was dropping back from the lead group.

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Back in that lead group the top four were separated by a second and a half, but no driver was able to get enough of an advantage to make an overtake. At the other end of the race Alessandro Zanardi’s afternoon came to a premature end after he spun attempting to overtake two cars into the final corner.

On lap 16 Irvine finally passed Fisichella, around the outside of Bit Kurve after the Italian had run wide on the exit of turn 10. The Ferrari driver was eight seconds down on the lead group and was starting to close down the gap as rain started to fall on parts of the circuit and umbrellas bloomed across the crowds.

A mistake by Coulthard on the final sector of lap 17 gave Schumacher a run on the Scot into the home straight although he wasn’t able to make the move stick; his Supertec engine unable to match the Mercedes powering Coulthard’s McLaren.

Further up the road Hakkinen was struggling in the changing conditions and dropped back dramatically from Frentzen. This backed up Coulthard and Schumacher behind and Schumacher made another move up the inside of the final corner, this time able to complete the move into the Castrol S and begin pressuring Hakkinen.

The rain briefly worsened and Hakkinen pitted, with Frentzen staying out despite a mistake on the Veedol chicane. Salo followed the McLaren into the pits to switch to wets, but spent 38 seconds in the pit box, ending his hopes of a competitive showing as he rejoined second last.

Irvine pitted the next lap to take another set of slicks, but it was a nightmare stop as the pit crew didn’t have a right rear tyre ready, and he was sat in the pit box for 28 seconds before the stop was completed.

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McLaren’s gamble of putting Hakkinen on the wets didn’t seem to have paid off as he was in 10th with the leaders still putting in competitive lap times on the slick tyres. That group had spread out with Frentzen leading Schumacher by nearly two seconds, and Coulthard over three seconds off first place. Behind him Barrichello, running the harder tyre, had moved up to fifth for Stewart with Trulli in sixth coming under pressure from Herbert and Alesi.

Irvine passed Hakkinen on lap 23, graphically illustrating that the wets were the wrong tyre for the conditions – a point Ferrari seemed to understand as they brought Salo in to put him back onto slicks. Hakkinen finally pitted a lap later and fell to 14th position, soon suffering the indignity of being lapped by Fisichella, who was running fourth.

Schumacher had closed up to within half a second of Frentzen after being the standout performer of the first stint, but the Williams pitted before he could make an overtake. Having boxed on lap 26 he looked primed for a two-stop race. His rivals for the lead were pursuing a one-stop strategy and Frentzen showed his tyres were beginning to fall away by running wide of the Veedol chicane, cutting it completely and allowing Coulthard to close right up to the Jordan.

They both pitted and rejoined ahead of Schumacher, but Frentzen’s Jordan packed up with the same problem as Hill soon after leaving the pits, leaving the German banging the steering wheel in frustration and staring forlornly at the leaders passing his stricken car. Coulthard, the only championship contender in the points, inherited the lead with 33 laps remaining. Stewart had also benefited as Barichello rose to third (although yet to make his first pit stop) and Herbert moving into the points.

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Another rain shower threw the race back in the air and Herbert and Trulli pitted from the midfield, but Coulthard and Schumacher stayed out initially, wary of repeating Hakkinen’s mistake. However, Coulthard paid for that decision moments later as he crashed at turn four to end his championship hopes and gift Schumacher the lead, with Fisichella in second, Herbert third (running five seconds a lap faster than the leaders) and Barrichello fourth. Jacques Villeneuve had inherited sixth and was in position to score BAR’s first ever points.

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Irvine pitted from seventh to move onto wets, the Ferrari pit crew this time pulling off a smooth stop, although as Irvine exited the pits the skies brightened again. There was still enough moisture to send Fisichella wide at the Veedol chicane though, allowing Herbert to close right up to the back of the Benetton. Schmacher made his second pit stop but dropped behind Fisichella and Herbert to third, before Tagaki slammed into the wall and was relieved of his front right tyre by the crash barrier. 

Schumacher closed up to Herbert as they passed the stricken Arrows and looked to repeat the move he’d made to get round Coulthard, up the inside of the final corner, but Herbert held on  for the rest of the lap before pitting. In the pitlane he passed Salo’s Ferrari as the Finn was retired. That meant Fisichella was now in the lead and he lapped Irvine, the driver he’d held up early in the race. But the Ferrari had the last laugh, as moments later Fisichella ran off the circuit and stalled the car, ending his race and Benetton’s hopes of a first win since the 1997 German Grand Prix.

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Schumacher inherited the lead for a second time but only briefly as he punctured on his right Bridgestone tyre, allowing Herbert into the lead on the Michelin straight. Irvine pitted for the third time being relieved of his wet tyres and Schumacher was able to survive to follow him into the pits, a lap ahead, and take on a scrubbed set of tyres.

Herbert was now coming under pressure from Hakkinen attempting to un-lap himself, and had a brief moment of panic when he lost control at turn 10, but fortunately stayed on track and let the McLaren past the next lap.

Luca Badoer suffered a heart-wrenching retirement from fourth place in his smoking Minardi, which would’ve been their first points of the season (and of Badoer’s career), and broke down in tears on the body of his stationary car as it rested next to the track. All was not lost for the team though as Marc Gene in the other Minardi took moved up to 6th in their other car, although he was vulnerable to attack Irvine.

With ten laps to go the Stewarts were first and third with Herbert leading and Barrichello third. The Prost of Trulli was splitting the pair but Barrichello was gaining on the Italian, ahead of Schumacher in fourth despite his puncture. Villenueve and Gene in fifth and sixth were on course to score the first points of the season for their outfits, although Irvine in seventh was bearing down on Spaniard with Hakkinen behind chasing the Ferrari hard. Zonta and Panis completed the only ten starters still running.

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Hakkinen caught his championship rival and looked to pass round the outside of Turn 13 into the Veedol chicane but ran wide, and lost the rear wing of the Ferrari, who was ten seconds behind Gene. Zonta ran wide at the Dunlop-Kehre while the other also-ran, Panis, was lapped by his Prost teammate Trulli and then held up Barrichello for a few corners.

With six laps to go Barrichello had lapped caught Trulli and attempted to pass with the same move that had forced Hakkinen off. While the battle for second continued the Finn finally passed Irvine, the Ferrari driver locking up at Turn 13 and running across the Veedol chicane, releasing Hakkinen to chase down Gene. The Minardi was now in fifth after Villeneuve had retired with a clutch problem, whilst Hakkinen’s move also meant the Finn would take the lead of the championship, with the pair being level on points going into the round.

Hakkinen gained another championship point when he passed Gene at the death, the Minardi now tasked with defending the final points position from Irvine’s Ferrari. But he was unable to do it, with Gene scoring Minardi’s first point in four years and Ferrari finishing pointless in the Grand Prix (the last time that would happen until the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix.

Those were the subplots though, with the main story happening at the front. Herbert crossed the line to take Stewart’s only Grand Prix win, while simultaneously his teammate had one final attack on Trulli, which came to nothing.

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Hakkinen went on to win the title by two points from Irvine, although the Brit could’ve finished level on points (with one fewer win) if Ferrari had employed team orders in the final race. Thus the two points Hakkinen stole at the Nurburgring proved crucial. Frentzen only scored four points from the final two races of the season to finish a distant third, but that was four more the Coulthard who retired didn’t finish either of them.

That was enough to help Ferrari take the constructors’ championship by four points from their Woking rivals, while the 14 points Stewart scored in Germany helped them to fourth. Barrichello and Herbert finished seventh and eighth in the drivers’ standings, the latter having only scored five points across the rest of the season.

By time of the European Grand Prix it had been confirmed that Stewart would become Jaguar Racing for the start of the 2000 season; the team would later become Red Bull and establish itself as a consistent frontrunner.

Pos No Driver Team Laps Time/Retired Grid Pts
1 17 Johnny Herbert Stewart-Ford 66 1:41’54.314 14 10
2 19 Jarno Trulli Prost-Peugeot 66 +22.619 10 6
3 16 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 66 +22.866 15 4
4 6 Ralf Schumacher Williams-Supertec 66 +39.508 4 3
5 1 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 66 +1’02.950 3 2
6 21 Marc Gene Minardi-Ford 66 +1’05.154 20 1
7 4 Eddie Irvine Ferrari 66 +1’06.683 9
8 23 Ricardo Zonta BAR-Supertec 65 +1 Lap 17
9 18 Olivier Panis Prost-Peugeot 65 +1 Lap 5
10 22 Jacques Villeneuve BAR-Supertec 61 Clutch 8
Ret 20 Luca Badoer Minardi-Ford 53 Gearbox 19
Ret 14 Pedro de la Rosa Arrows 52 Gearbox 22
Ret 9 Giancarlo Fisichella Benetton-Playlife 48 Spun off 6
Ret 3 Mika Salo Ferrari 44 Brakes 12
Ret 15 Toranosuke Takagi Arrows 42 Spun off 21
Ret 2 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 37 Spun off 2
Ret 11 Jean Alesi Sauber-Petronas 35 Halfshaft 16
Ret 8 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Jordan-Mugen-Honda 32 Electrical 1
Ret 5 Alessandro Zanardi Williams-Supertec 10 Collision 18
Ret 7 Damon Hill Jordan-Mugen-Honda 0 Electrical 7
Ret 10 Alexander Wurz Benetton-Playlife 0 Collision 11
Ret 12 Pedro Diniz Sauber-Petronas 0 Collision 13