Sunday 31 May 2015


Michael Schumacher was one of the three world champions to crash the wall, thereby got its name "Wall of the champions"
Hitting the wall! There is a huge difference using that term in running and motor racing. While it is a case of mental block in running and have all the time to get out of it, which is contrary to what happens in motor racing. In recent times, Formula One has done away with heavy banked roads, and thereby there is a decline in number of cars hitting the wall. However, there are tracks like the one in Montreal, where the 'wall' at the end of turn 13 has gained reputation for being a 'breaker' if a car hits it. Since 1978, a lot of cars have hit the wall, cars were removed or safely parked and race moved on. However, in 1999, 'the wall' got all the attention.

On that day, the wall which had 'Bievenue au Québec' (Welcome to Quebec) written on it had four hits, three of them driven by the world champions and gave birth to the term 'Wall of the champions'.

13 June 1999, sixth round of F1, Canadian Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher took his first pole position of the 1999 season. That race had four world champions - Mika Hakkinen (1999), Damon Hill (1996), Jacques Villeneuve (1997) and two-time world champion Michael Schumacher (1994 &1995). It will go down as one of the unique races in the history of Canadian Grand Prix as all four drivers made headlines though only one of them ended up finishing the race.

Prior to the 1999 race, the wall at the end of the final chicane and located opposite to the entry of the pit-lane was just another part of the track. Each year, one saw many drivers shaving their cars to the wall, just enough to avoid a crash. However, many drivers in a bid to make up time or extend a lead have crashed owing to imbalance of the car after exiting the final chicane.

The race was an attrition and at the end of it, it had more number of retirements (12) than the finishers (10). On the very first lap, there were three casualties - Alexander Wurz retired due to transmission problems while Jean Alesi and Jarno Trulli collided with each other and took each other out of the race. Safety car!

Lap three, the first of the wall hitters, Ricardo Zonta, got his BAR-Supertec sideways in an awkward position which caused him to hit the wall. Zonta's car was parked next to the wall and this made the stewards to call the safety car back on the track.

The race resumed its normalcy on lap seven and there was no drama up until lap fourteen when the first of the three world champions, Damon Hill spun-off the track and hit the wall. He was not having a good season with Jordan and his woes continued as he had his third retirement out of six races. When asked about it, Hill replied - "Basically, I lost the control of the car and I hit it. There is nothing more to it, really!".

Then came the surprise, Michael Schumacher having led the race was beginning to up his pace in order to build a suitable gap as he was nearing his pit stop window. Each lap, from lap 25 was three-tenths faster than Hakkinen and with each lap, he was pushing his Ferrari really hard. On lap 29, just few metres away from starting the next lap, bang!. Schumacher lost control of his car coming out of the chicane and he was off the racing line, thereby the car was on the dirty part of the circuit, which is always slippery. The car slewed and before he could react, the car had hit the wall which wiped out his front and rear suspension. He shook his fists in frustration as he knew, he had thrown away this race! - "I lost control of the car because I went off the racing line and got on the dirt and ended up in the wall. This was clearly my mistake. I usually make one mistake a year. I hope that this incident was the last for the season".

Now that Schumacher was out of the race, this was now Hakkinen's race to lose. The first round of pit stops was not far away. While the teams and few drivers were getting ready for their fresh tyres and fuel, Jacques Villeneuve on lap 35 became the third world champion to hit the wall. Safety car for the third time on the track. "It was my mistake - I was simply going a little bit too fast. There was a lot dirt down on the track at that point, it was easy to make a mistake".

While the safety car was about to be called on-track, a lot of teams executed their pit stop and the cars were back on track without any significant changes. Lap 40, the safety car came in and within seconds, David Coulthard and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine both push each other out of the track, no damage done, and rejoin the track. All this meant, Mika Hakkinen was on his own now with no one to challenge him from the top runners. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the last casualty of this race. He was running in second position before brakes failed and his car crashed a barrier. This incident put Giancarlo Fisichella to second place and Eddie Irvine third. With just three laps to go, safety car was called on to the track for the fourth time! In the penultimate lap, just before the final chicane, all cars had lined up behind one other. 

If safety car went in, that would have made a spectacular last lap, especially with the proximity of cars at the first and second turns and at the hair pin! Sense prevailed and safety car was not called in and race culminated with all cars finishing behind the safety car - making this the first instance of a race in Formula One completing under safety car regulations. Irony! as it was at the Canadian Grand Prix (1973), the safety car was first deployed in a F1 race.

Sixteen years hence, the circuit remains one of the most demanding for the cars and drivers. 'Wall of champions' still continues to play a significant role and it remains to be seen, if it has any impact on the outcome of this year's Canadian Grand Prix. 

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