There have been some extraordinary races in this 1999 season, but at the neue Nurburgring - not traditionally a track which lends itself to drama - the events on Sunday beggared belief. Try this: the man who won the European Grand Prix was running 13th at the end of the opening lap.
That man was Johnny Herbert, and his victory was the first for the Stewart-Ford team. Add in that Herbert's team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, was a close third, on the heels of Jarno Trulli's Prost-Peugeot, and you can see that this was an unusual podium. Yes, there was some luck involved, but there was also some brilliant driving, and the Stewart and Prost teams stage-managed their Sunday afternoons considerably better than McLaren-Mercedes or Ferrari, the heavyweights of the moment.
Although these latter two have scrapped over the championship from the first race on, you really begin to wonder if either truly wants it. A dispassionate observer couldn't help but see moments of high comedy on Sunday afternoon.
Terror, too. Pedro Diniz was involved in a horrifying accident at the first corner, and was more than fortunate to escape with bruises after his Sauber somersaulted off the road, its roll bar torn away in the process.
After some time behind the safety car, the pack got on its way, led by poleman Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan, then the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, the Williams of Ralf Schumacher, the Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella and the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine.
As the afternoon wore on, most had the opportunity to win the race, but each time it was tossed away, either by driving error, operational mistake or unfathomable decision. When the chequered flag came down, only one of the championship contenders - Hakkinen - had taken anything from the race, and that only two points.
Through the practice and qualifying days, there was endless talk of 'team orders' at McLaren. With three races to go, and Hakkinen level on points with Irvine, would team boss Ron Dennis be asking Coulthard to come to the Finn's aid? The drivers flatly refused to discuss the matter. "I think," DC said in response to the question, "you're asking the wrong person."
The right person - Dennis - put it this way. "For 15 years our contracts have allowed the drivers to get on with it. We feel competent at assessing a situation in the race, and taking a view on it. In certain circumstances, we would ask one driver to allow another past; if these circumstances arise, we will do it."
Given that qualifying was run in wet to drying conditions, a greater measure of luck - good or otherwise - was involved than usual. That being so, the McLaren drivers said they were happy enough to be second and third on the grid.
The surprise was that Hakkinen, utterly dominant throughout practice, was beaten by Coulthard.
They had Frentzen, who had timed his run perfectly, ahead of them, with Ralf Schumacher right behind.
Given that the first corner at the Nurburgring almost always produces a coming together somewhere in the pack, many recalled that, two years ago, Schuey Jr triggered the accident which took his own brother out. The older Schumacher was very amused...
"Hmmm," murmured one McLaren team member. "There's that first corner, and we're sandwiched between two German drivers - in Germany."
The race morning warm-up was run in conditions very similar to those of qualifying; a wet track, drying. In the course of the 30 minutes, virtually every driver had the fastest time, but in the end Fisichella had the best of it from Coulthard, Frentzen, Schumacher, Olivier Panis and Hakkinen.
As usual, Bridgestone had two compounds on offer. Both - by 1999 standards, anyway, were soft. All but Ferrari and Stewart opted for 'extra-softs,' and that seemed the right choice, for the weather on Sunday was cool and grey.
The forecast, too, was patchy rain, so the chances were high of a 'wildcard' race at this crucial stage of the campaign. It was to be that, and more.
David Coulthard congratulates Heinz-Harald Frentzen on pole-position © LAT
Despite severely limited running during the free practice sessions, the German was right on the pace when it came to qualifying. This was not a pole achieved by luck.
There was a hint of what Frentzen might be able to achieve at the end of Saturday morning's practice. Before it, his first session on Friday had been wasted with gearbox problems, which left him only the afternoon to check the car's set-up.
Then, on Saturday morning, he suffered an air pressure loss after just 12 laps. That meant Jordan had to change the engine, but after it started up the new one, the oil tank broke. The V10 had to be taken off again, the repairs made and everything put back together.
It was all done in double-quick time - the engine was effectively changed twice in just an hour and 10 minutes. However, by the time the mechanics had finished, there was not even time for one flying lap before the chequered flag came out.
Frentzen, though, needed to get a feel for the car on the limit, so did an out-lap followed by an in-lap. He drove the in-lap flat-out, and his first two sectors, before pulling into the pits, matched Mika Hakkinen's McLaren. That made people sit up.
Jordan arrived at the Nurburgring full of quiet confidence. They had not wanted to brag, but a promising test at Magny-Cours had left the engineers confident they could get on to the front row. That time proved it was possible - all Frentzen had to do was deliver in qualifying.
The weather made it difficult, as it often does in the Eifel mountains. Rain started to fall just after 11am, and although it stopped before qualifying, the track was wet. Teams were confused. Should they set a banker in case it rained again, a strategy that had proved successful at the French Grand Prix, or wait and hope the rain would hold off?
In the Jordan garage, things were getting heated. "I have to apologise to my team," said Frentzen. "We had some friction deciding when to go out; we were shouting at each other. I was waiting; people wanted to send me out. I was saying 'No, wait. It's not going to rain.' Now we can look back and laugh, but at the time it was not really funny. In circumstances like this, no one knows what's going to happen."
Although the German went out later than most, he did still put in a lap. It was done on a totally dry set-up, and put him only 10th. Stewart driver Rubens Barrichello, always excellent in the wet, was fastest, followed by Ferrari's Mika Salo and McLaren number one Hakkinen, the early pace-setter.
The sky began to brighten, and everyone waited for 20 minutes or so before a frantic burst of action in the last 15 minutes.
The times tumbled. Frentzen's first run on dry tyres put him fastest, but he was soon ousted by team-mate Damon Hill and a whole host of others.
With a couple of minutes left, Hakkinen took pole with a time of 1m20.276s, only for team-mate David Coulthard to beat him just a few seconds later with 1m20.176s.
Frentzen, meanwhile, was just starting his crucial flying lap. At the first split, he was up, and he maintained it all around the lap to cross the line in 1m19.910s. The press room cheered; while the driver was a little nonplussed by the whole affair. "When the circumstances are so difficult outside, it's very hard to find the right decision. We changed the set-up so much through the session, and at the end I had enough fuel for five laps. I was going to do a longer run, but I wanted to come in and get new tyres. But I guess it was the same for everyone. It was chaotic, but at the end I am at the top. Great. I can't believe it."
Coulthard and Hakkinen were generous in defeat. "I had a bit of traffic," said the Finn. "But in the end I doubt I could have done that time." Perhaps his mind was on Eddie Irvine, down in ninth place.
Pedro Diniz flips the Sauber C18 at the start © LAT
Then there was mayhem. Damon Hill, who had qualified seventh, slowed abruptly - "I had no power and couldn't get out of the way," - in the second part of the corner.
Behind him, the Ferraris of Irvine and Mika Salo had to take avoiding action, as also did Alex Wurz, who swerved right to miss the Jordan. As he did so, he hit Diniz's Sauber, which flew into the air and came down upside down.
A most unpleasant accident it looked, and rescuers were astonished to find that the entire rollover bar was gone from the car. After a time, Diniz, his neck in a brace, was stretchered to an ambulance, and from there to the track hospital, where a thorough examination revealed nothing more than bruises to a shoulder and knee. He will never be luckier.
The safety car led the pack for half a dozen laps before pulling off, whereupon Frentzen took up where he had left off, with the McLaren boys, Schumacher, Fisichella, Panis and Irvine behind him. The Irishman at once got by Panis, and with surprising ease, but Fisichella was to prove a tougher opponent; for many laps he weaved around in front of the Ferrari, and to a degree that many thought unacceptable. It was not until lap 17, when Fisichella made a mistake at the last chicane, that Irvine was able to get past, and by then his championship rivals had disappeared up the road.
By then, too, it had begun to rain - but only on the far side of the circuit. As the track became treacherous, Frentzen began to stretch his lead over the McLarens, while Schumacher moved up to threaten Coulthard for third place. As has become almost the norm this season, the German was having an inspired afternoon.
The shape of the race was set on lap 20, when someone in the McLaren team made the astonishing decision to bring Hakkinen in for wet tyres. True, he had been struggling a little on the slippery parts of the circuit, but, although the rain had been briefly torrential, there was every chance it would not continue indefinitely.
A lap earlier, Panis, too, had been in for wets, and the Prost team suggested to Trulli that he should do the same. The driver decided otherwise: "When it started to rain, most of the drivers decided to come in - and even my team called me in," he said. "But I decided to stay out - I raced here a lot in German Formula 3, so I knew how it could rain on one side of the track, but not the other. That's why I carried on."
Second when he stopped, Hakkinen was back in 10th when he rejoined - and immediately the rain began to ease off. On lap 24, he was back in again, for dry tyres, and now was a lapped 14th.
Fortunatley for him, Ferrari has managed to screw up Irvine's first stop, and in some major way too. It wasn't that the Irishman made the mistake of going for wets, but that there weren't enough dry tyres on hand for him.
"My crew were ready for me," he said. "But then Salo came in first (his Ferrari's nose shredded following an excursion), and so the mechanics got rid of my tyres to put his on. Then, when I came in, they couldn't find one of my tyres."
Eddie Irvine, Ferrari F399 © LAT
So here were the joint world championship leaders quite out of the game, and through no fault of their own. For Frentzen the day could hardly have looked better.
He could not, though, afford to relax. By lap 25 Schumacher Jr's Williams had closed to within half a second - and Coulthard was only a second or so behind the German.
By now a firm dry line had taken shape, and when Schumacher made his first stop, on lap 27, DC quickly closed up on Frentzen, to the point that, three laps later, H-HF made his only mistake of the day, going straight on at the final chicane, albeit without losing the lead.
The Jordan and the McLaren rushed around, separated by only half a second or so, and on lap 32 they came in for their first stops together. Down the years, many a place has been lost to McLaren in these circumstances, but the Jordan mechanics did their work superbly. Frentzen was on his way after only seven seconds, gaining another four tenths on Coulthard.
Tragically for the German, that was as far as he was going. Immediately beyond the pit lane, the yellow Jordan crawled to a stop. No one would have beaten him this day and he knew it. "Everything had gone so well in the first half of the race," he said. "I got out of the pits just ahead of David - and then everything just died. It seems to have been an electrics problem, and we need to analyse it. Still, these things happen in motor racing, and what is important is that Pedro [Diniz] was not hurt today. This is the only thing that really matters."
Frentzen deserved this race. Had he won it, he would have been as good as on level terms with Hakkinen and Irvine, at the top of the points standings. Now, with but two races to go, his shot at the championship is a long one indeed.
His departure left Coulthard in what looked to be a handy lead, six seconds ahead of Schumacher. And, over the next few laps - when again rain began to fall on the far side of the track - DC extended his advantage by as much as two seconds a lap. Given Schumacher is hardly tardy in treacherous conditions, it was clear that the leader was indeed pressing on.
Perhaps too much so. On lap 38, he looped off the road, and nudged into a tyre barrier, having thrown away a serious tilt at the world championship. 12 points behind the leaders, 10 here - with Hakkinen and Irvine effectively out of it - would have put him in very serious contention. "It's the first time this year I've gone off in a race," Coulthard said. "But this is little consolation."
So now Schumacher led, and it looked like a first Williams win for two years, for the German had 20 seconds over second man Fisichella, who had a similar gap over Trulli. At this stage of the game, the Stewart-Fords of Herbert and Barrichello were running fourth and fifth.
Giancarlo Fisichella (Benetton B199 Playlife) leads race winner Johnny Herbert (Stewart SF3 Ford) © LAT
"We'd started way back on the grid," Herbert said. "And, as well as that, we'd also opted for the harder of the two 'dry' compounds. Because of that, it was looking pretty tough in the early part of the race. As the stops approached, I decided to go for wets, and that was pretty marginal - there was a bit of guesswork involved.
"At the end of the circuit, it rained on the lap I was coming in. There was a black cloud dead in front of me, and I just guessed that it would come straight over the track - and it did. Therefore I chose wets, and it was very fortunate that I had them in that section of the race. There was a short shower after the first lot of rain, and then it rained again, which helped me."
Barrichello went the other way. "As for the stops, Johnny guessed it right and I guessed it wrong. The team said 'dries or wets?' First I said 'we go for wets,' but right in front of me was a clear sky, not the sky that Johnny saw. I thought the rain was going to go away faster than it did. I went for dry tyres in the end, and they were the harder ones, of course, which made it quite difficult to drive in the wet. I was losing five or more seconds a lap; really. I was just trying to survive."
At the front, meantime, Schumacher looked very secure - and even more so after lap 42, for Fisichella went off the road and lost another nine seconds to him. Two laps later, Schuey was in for his second stop, rejoining in third place, but still looking good.
He took over second on lap 47 when - the track now drying fast - Herbert came in for what used to be called slicks. On lap 49, he was back in the lead. Fisichella - like Coulthard - slung it off the road, the Italian flinging his steering wheel out of the cockpit almost before the Benetton had come to rest, and then slumping against the barriers in tears. "My mistake," he admitted. "I would have won the race, and I threw away a unique opportunity. I'm really sorry for the team." After more than two seasons without a victory the Benetton mechanics could scarcely believe what had happened.
So who was going to win? Surely it had to be Schumacher Jr - but, no, for on lap 50 his right rear tyre let go, and he had to run almost a complete lap on three wheels before making it back to his pit, then rejoining in fifth place.
"Ralf was brilliant today," said Williams' technical director Patrick Head. "No mistakes when he was on dry tyres on a very wet track; in the lead, and not due to stop again. He didn't put a foot wrong."
Now Herbert was in front, the fifth leader of the afternoon, with Trulli in second and Barrichello third - and the Minardi of Luca Badoer fourth, ahead of Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, who was perhaps - perhaps - going to bring the beleaguered British American Racing team its first championship point.
The luckless Badoer retired (gearbox) on lap 54, with but a dozen to the flag, but not all was lost for Minardi, for his departure elevated Marc Gene's sister car to sixth place, chased by - Irvine and Hakkinen! Gene, on being given the signal to push, was a bit nonplussed to learn the identity of his pursuers. In the closing stages, as he chased Irvine for what might turn out to be a decisive championship point, Hakkinen began to lap at incredible speed, only a second or so from his qualifying time.
On lap 62, very close to the end, the Ferrari driver locked up at the chicane, slid straight on, and allowed his rival through. Once past, the world champion quickly caught - and passed - Gene, but Irvine was unable to do the same. At the flag, the final point went to Minardi.
Jarno Trulli (Prost AP02 Peugeot) holds off Rubens Barrichello (Stewart SF3 Ford) for 2nd © LAT
"It was a very fair fight with Rubens," said Trulli. "But, as I said, I know this track very well, and I knew... where to put my wheels."
Barrichello had no complaints. "Jarno was quite fair, but it's quite difficult to overtake at this circuit, and he was always giving me the outside line. We were lucky today, me and Johnny, because a lot of people dropped out. I've got mixed emotions, I guess. From the bottom of my heart I'm happy for Johnny, because he's been having a terrible season, but on the other hand I really would have liked to give the first victory to the Stewarts."
In victory, Herbert admitted he felt not only happy, but relieved. "I wasn't happy with myself in the first part of the year, especially in qualifying, but I stuck to my guns, and it's getting better - although still not what I want it to be. I'm very happy for Jackie [Stewart] that he's won a race in his last year with his name on the car."
Barrichello was right to point out that the team's success owed more than a little something to luck, but nothing should be taken away from its victory. On a difficult day, it made no tactical errors worth the name, and made the most of what it had. The same could not be said for Ferrari and McLaren. Whoever wins the championship will have made very heavy weather of it.
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