Saturday 15 March 2014

Gentlemen's Agreement or Team Orders - McLaren at the 1998 Australian Grand Prix

In sporting context, one of the exciting parts of any year is the first weekend leading up to the F1 race. Like every year in the recent past, Australia is the destination that gets to host the F1 circus led by Bernie Ecclestone. A lot of incidents have engulfed the initial race - though none would have the drama which the final races are usually associated with. However, the first race often indicates what to expect and how teams are placed with their competitiveness. More than anything none can beat the excitement of a season opener.  

The year 1998 was one such scenario. The team of Mika Hakkinen and the Scot David Coulthard recorded stunning lap times in the pre-season testing and the MP4/13 was tipped to be the 'best' car on circuit. This was McLaren's year on paper and the only way it was going to be achieved is when their drivers do not take out each other in the heat of the battle.

In view of this, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen made a pre-race pact whereby "whichever of the two was ahead taking the turn to the first corner would be allowed to stay at number one for the rest of the Grand Prix unless there were to be any mishaps."

As predicted the two McLarens dominated the qualifying session with Mika Hakkinen taking the pole and his team mate coming in second. The fiercely fought rivals in the previous season Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve were in 3rd and 4th respectively. The silver-arrows duo were 0.7 seconds clear of the rest of the cars and certainly looked to be racing on another planet. Anything less than 1-2 to McLaren would have been a unhappy weekend. A first one-two pole for McLaren since Adelaide 1991 when Senna and Berger had put the two cars on the front row was anything but surprise.

The five red lights went off and race began - Mika Hakkinen ahead of Coulthard coming into turn one. Unless there were to be any incidents, the race was firmly decided in Mika's favour. With Coulthard not willing to try harder to make an attempt to pass Hakkinen, it was clear how the race would finish as per the pre-race pact. The only driver that could match Hakkinen's pace was his teammate while rest of the field were off the pace. Michael Schumacher unsuccessfully made attempts to overtake the Scotsman and eventually retired on lap six owing to engine trouble. It would have been an uphill task even if he were to be racing.

With none of the other drivers able to stay with the McLarens, it seemed like the Hakkinen and Coulthard would coast to victory without having to look at their rear-view mirrors. On lap 36 when Hakkinen was just  about to lap Eddie Irvine, he heard blurred messages on his radio. Mika chasing Eddie Irvine was close to the pit- lane entry and without thinking and confirming with the team he dashed into the pits (he was nearing his pit stop schedule). While rest of the field were going flat-out, the race leader cruising in pit lane speed limits found no mechanics in the garage and he simply drove straight on and rejoined rest of the cars. It was an misjudgement on the part of Mika.

This unplanned diversion cost Mika the lead and he was now behind his team mate by 13 seconds. On lap 41, this time Mika came in for his scheduled and final pit stop of the race. Mika known to be ice cool was anxious and in that nervous moment made an error. He dropped his clutch while one of his mechanics was working on his left rear wheel. It didn't cost much time. He came out and still was in second position - 41 seconds behind. That huge lead was short-lived as Coulthard dashed his way in for his final stop of the race. With fifteen laps to go, it was 1-2 McLaren and it was a mere formality for the rest of the race. Drivers barring McLaren duo were battling the race of attrition. By this time only nine cars out of twenty-two were on track and a lap down.

McLaren crew took some time, close to eight laps after that detour from Hakkinen to inform David Coulthard about Hakkinen losing his lead owing to a misunderstanding. 

Towards the fag end of the race, Hakkinen was racing a second quicker than Coulthard and on lap 53 he took 3 seconds out of Coulthard's lead - the next lap add another two seconds. With just three laps remaining Coulthard's car was within striking distance to Mika's. Next moment Mika takes the lead in a manner quite strange and unsatisfactory!

'It was a very difficult decision to take. But I was alone in front without any pressure, which allowed me to think about it calmly and to reach the decision that this was Mika's race by right.' This was the explanation given by Coulthard post-race when asked about this bizarre move. McLaren and David Coulthard were criticised and the matter went to World Motorsports Council. The verdict went this way - "Any future act prejudicial to the interests of the competition should be severely punished in accordance with the article 151c of the International Sporting Code."

In 2007 at the Monaco Grand Prix,  McLaren were criticised for ordering their cars not to race each other after the first round of pit stops, when it was clearly established McLaren duo of Alonso and Hamilton were much superior to the rest of the pack. To add to Hamilton's frustration, he was told not to race Alonso.
The above matter again raised the question of possible violation of article 151c. Ron Dennis defended the move by stating - "Team strategy is what you bring to bear to win a grand prix. Team orders are what you bring to bear to manipulate a grand prix. We do not and have not manipulated grands prix, unless there were some exceptional circumstances, which occurred in Australia (1998), when someone had tapped into our radio and instructed Mika Hakkinen to enter the pits." 

He went on to add - "He entered the pits and I reversed that, because that was unfair, that was an outside influence on the outcome of the race. That is one of the rare occasions that there's been a team order. I have a clear conscience, both on that particular race - and this race today."

The 1998 Australian GP was Mika Hakkinen's second victory and both times under controversial circumstances. Was it a team order or Coulthard's gentlemanly gesture? I would say it had good proportions of both. In the end, the result didn't matter - Hakkinen was much superior and went on to win his maiden World championship title. 

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