1998Mika Hakkinen beat the strongest rival, Michael Schumacher, by his own ability to take his first Championship title at Suzuka
Hakkinen, praised for his Championship title by Irvine (left) and Coulthard (right) during the podium ceremony
The golden age of Williams had ended with the withdrawal of Renault as the engine supplier. So, the 1998 season featured a Championship contest between Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes. While the Drivers’ Championship title competition appeared to be a one-on-one contest between Michael Schumacher of Ferrari and Mika Hakkinen of McLaren. Hakkinen led at the beginning of the season with two wins from the season opener, followed by Schumacher. Hakkinen had 90 points while Schumacher had 86 before coming to the Japanese Grand Prix, the last round of the Championship. In order to take the Championship by winning the race, Hakkinen drove with all his might during the qualifying. But he went off the track in his last qualifying lap and the pole position went to Schumacher. If Hakkinen could finish the race in this same order, he would be able to win the Championship title. But there was also Eddie Irvine, teammate of Schumacher, sitting two cars behind on the grid that he would have to contend with too. If Hakkinen finished third after being passed by Irvine, the McLaren driver would lose the title and allow Schumacher to win it. Mika Hakkinen went into the race in that difficult situation.
Start of the race. Hakkinen took the lead followed by Irvine
At the start, however, something unexpected happened. The starting procedure had to be aborted because Schumacher’s engine had stopped on the starting grid after having completed formation lap. According to regulation, he had to start from the back of the grid. At the re-start, Hakkinen made a good start to keep the lead into the first turn. David Coulthard, who should have followed Hakkinen to provide assistance, made a poor start and fell back his position. Irvine in the Ferrari followed behind Hakkinen. Eddie Irvine drove with all his might to carry out a strategy of taking the lead and holding Hakkinen off to wait for Schumacher. But the British driver could not close on Hakkinen. Schumacher managed to climb up to third place and it seemed as if the two Ferrari drivers were ready to chase Hakkinen. But, the Finnish driver then began re-setting the fastest lap time of the race repeatedly to lose Irvine and Schumacher as they tried to chase him from behind. On lap 31, Schumacher suffered a burst tire on the main straight, causing him to retire from the race.
Hakkinen took the Championship by winning the race
In this way, Hakkinen captured his first Championship title. But, even with Schumacher out of the race, he did not ease up on his pace even in the last part of the race, because he was determined to take his first Championship title with a win. He took the checkered flag with a large six-second lead over Irvine. Mika Hakkinen, after holding off the charges of Irvine and Schumacher, won the champion deciding race. His stunning race is still talked about even today. Ever since the 1990 F3 Macau Grand Prix where Hakkinen lost to Schumacher, the German driver had always been in front of him. Now the Finnish driver could not hold back the tears on his victory lap after having taken his first title by decisively beating his strongest rival.