1998 Belgian Grand Prix: How F1 Created The Blueprint for Open Lobby Starts in Sim Racing

1998 Belgian Grand Prix Rain Automobilista 2.png
Formula One at Spa-Francorchamps is always a special occasion. As the World Championship returns to the legendary Ardennes circuit this weekend once more, memories of the Belgian Grand Prix's history come flooding back, including the chaos of the rain-soaked 1998 edition - which kind of looked like your average race start in an open lobby in sim racing 25 years ago.

Granted, this did not happen exactly 25 years ago, as the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix took place in late August, but it is the Belgian GP weekend, so for the sake of this article, it is close enough. Two weeks after his superb performance at the Hungaroring, Michael Schumacher trailed Mika Häkkinen by seven points heading to Spa - remember, a win meant ten points back in the day, while second place scored just six points.

As the title battle was heating up between the German Ferrari pilot and the Flying Finn in the McLaren, Häkkinen had the upper hand in qualifying, putting his MP4/13 on pole while Schumacher only started in P4, with Häkkinen's teammate David Coulthard in second and Jordan's Damon Hill between the pair. The event saw two big crashes at Raidillon, with Mika Salo destroying his Arrows in Saturday practice after Jacques Villeneuve had done similar damage to his Williams the day before.

1998 Belgian Grand Prix Rain La Source Automobilista 2.png

Imagine a dozen excrutiatingly expensive racing cars being strewn about this spot in pieces and you get the picture of the first start of the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix.

No Sun on Sunday​

Once race day was upon the F1 circus, Spa was soaking wet, unlike the previous days. While the previous year's race had been started behind the Safety Car, it was decided to proceed as normal in 1998 - and it seemed like the correct decision, as the field made its way through La Source without problem.

In total, the assumption of everything going well lasted for about 15 seconds, as Coulthard spun coming out of La Source, hit the inside wall and got flung back across the circuit, which triggered multiple collisions in the span of mere seconds, eliminating 13 cars in total. The result looked like your average Turn 1 at Monza in a public lobby of a racing sim of your choice - the crash even had a car running into the carnage at full speed, completely disregarding what was happening, courtesy of Tyrrel's Ricardo Rosset.


Red Flag & Hour-Long Cleanup​

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the race was red-flagged to clean up the mess. Drivers got into their spare cars (which were still allowed back then) if they could, but as Prost, Arrows and Tyrrell had both of their drivers involved respectively, Olivier Panis, Salo and Rosset had to watch their teammates take the second start about an hour after the initial attempt.

While the chaos in front of the endurance pits had been cleared, the rain clouds had not, and drivers had to contend with a wet track for the second start as well. Luckily, it went better than the first attempt - relatively speaking, that is: Häkkinen made very slight contact with Schumacher, spinning as a result and facing Johnny Herbert's equally out-of-control Sauber, which ended the Finn's race on the spot. But at least the race could continue this time around.

There were more incidents caused by the adverse conditions, through which Schumacher kept his nose clean and pulling out a monumental lead after battling his old rival Hill for a while. Coulthard, on the other hand, was about to be lapped by the Ferrari driver, who could turn his points deficit into a three-point lead with a victory as a result of Häkkinen's retirement.


Coulthard and Schumacher Clash​

With just under half the race to go, Schumacher came up behind Coulthard as they approached Pouhon - and while the Scotsman lifted off the throttle while still on the racing line to let Michael past, the German did not see the McLaren in the spray until it was too late. After dragging their damaged cars back to the pits, Schumacher stormed to the McLaren pits, and had team personnel not intervened, a fight would have likely broken out.

This was not quite the end of the fireworks, though: Just a lap after Schumacher retired, Giancarlo Fisichella left most of his Benetton on the approach to the Bus Stop chicane after colliding with Minardi driver Shinji Nakano. Meanwhile, Hill and Schumacher's brother Ralf were heading towards a 1-2 finish for Jordan.

Could Ralf Have Won?​

Team orders famously prevented Ralf from potentially getting his first F1 victory, but Eddie Jordan wanted to make sure that both of his cars finished the race to secure the team's first victory since it entered the sport in 1991 - which worked and resulted in contrasting emotions on the podium between an overjoyed Jordan and a disappointed Schumacher. Jean Alesi's third place meant Sauber's only podium finish of the season.

With three races to go in the season, Michael Schumacher was fighting an uphill battle against Häkkinen but did manage to force the decision in the title race to be made in the final Grand Prix at Suzuka. Starting from pole, he stalled at the first start, then made his way back up through the field until eventually having to retire when a rear tire failed. This handed the championship to Häkkinen - and while the finale certainly was dramatic, the Belgian Grand Prix is arguably the most memorable race of 1998.

Your Thoughts​

Do you remember the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix? Have you only found out about it recently? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D

Comments

Those videos are absolutely epic!

Can’t imagine lando storming another garage, the racers back then were proper men
 
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I still can’t believe there were no injuries resulting from that crash at the start. Just look how the loose tyres were bouncing off the guard rails, launched back into the air and came back down into the piled up cars, missing every single driver and spectator. What a miracle!

God how I loved the battle between MSC and Häkkinen this season. Good times indeed! Thanks for the reminder. :)
 
Great race to watch live, I can't believe how long ago it was! Great era with amazing cars and the noise wow! The race would be cancelled these days.
 
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