1999 British Grand Prix: “Hello Sid, it’s just my leg, it’s not a big problem” – little did Schumacher know, it was a big problem. His right leg was broken and the quest for the first title with Ferrari had ended abruptly halfway through the season.
Starting second on the grid, Michael Schumacher lost two positions at the start and was behind his teammate Eddie Irvine coming on to the Hangar Straight. Technically, the race by now had been red flagged because of two stalled cars – but both Ferraris were oblivious to this situation. Irvine and Schumacher were side by side on the Hangar straight – Irvine went left for the corner while Schumacher went inside. Just as Schumacher braked to turn into the Stowe corner, his tyres, all four of it locked and instead of turning right, the car went straight to the gravel trap on the run off area and collided with the tyre wall.
The helmet was off but he was not able to lever himself out of the car and it seemed his leg was stuck inside.
With the impact severely damaging the front chassis, he was not able to see what kind of injury it was. The medical crew led by Professor Sid Watkins arrived at the scene within two minutes. Schumacher was conscious, and he quickly asked Watkins if he could telephone his wife Corinna to reassure her of his condition and he also requested the doctor to send a message to Jean Todt (then chief of Ferrari) to check the condition of the brakes on Irvine’s car. (See more of Formula One here)
The race was stopped and one thing was clear, Schumacher would not take any part in the race. The rescue team took him out his F399 cockpit and put him on a stretcher and carried him to an ambulance to ferry him to the helicopter, waiting to carry him to the nearest hospital.
THE WAITING GAME
While teams waited at the start-finish line, the rescue team was busy to get the track ready for the restart. The wrecked Ferrari of Schumacher was removed and under the supervision of Charlie Whiting, it was handed over to the Ferrari garage for further inspection. There was nothing one could do but wait for the news from the doctor. The team was visibly anxious and so was Michael’s younger brother, Ralf who was at the track driving for the Williams. He expressed his concerns to the reporters and was seen talking to Ross Brawn on Michael’s situation. The atmosphere was tense and for some of them present in the track who had no idea what the real situation was – it reminded them of that dreadful afternoon of San Marino Grand Prix five years ago.
THE RESTART AND THE RACE
After waiting for close to 40 minutes, the circuit was in shape for the restart. Ferrari’s hopes for the race rested on Eddie Irvine. He made another excellent start overtaking Coulthard to move into second. The race order for the top three remained unchanged for over 23 laps. Coulthard trailing Irvine by 3 seconds was the first to pit among the front runners. It was Hakkinen to pit next – it was not smooth as compared to Coulthard’s and he was stationary two seconds more than his teammate. As the jack was pulled out, Hakkinen waved through rest of the pitlane, unsure whether it was to bring in heat to the fresh tyres or he had a bit of a problem with one of the tyres.
Eddie Irvine came in next to pits and he missed his mark when it came to station his car for the refuelling and fresh tyres. The McLaren pit crew were still standing on the pitlane, and this didn’t help Irvine at all. 12 seconds stationary gave Coulthard the chance to overtake Irvine as Hakkinen entered pits once again for tyre change. His left rear was not fitted in properly and with some difficulty, they managed to send him back on the track.
The race was now a straight clash between Coulthard and Irvine.
They were just a second apart from each other and the race was still a little over half distance to go. In the meantime, Hakkinen was now racing in 11th position and was the fastest man on track, in an attempt to salvage some points. In the very next lap, Hakkinen’s left rear wheel went loose just near the pit entry and the Finn was quick to turn his car towards the pits on three wheels. This was the third time Hakkinen had come to pits in six laps and it was clear, his left rear had an issue. Ron Dennis was puzzled as he had a good look at what was happening to his ace driver’s machinery. Hakkinen rejoined the track in 19th place with no hope to secure points and a lap down to the race leaders.
A few seconds of breather and then more drama. Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR-Supertec had stopped due to half shaft on the start-finish line. The race directors were quick to call the safety car out on the track while arrangements were being made to drag the parked car to the pitlane.
The safety car was called in after a lap and the race leaders resumed their battle. Irvine was closer to Coulthard than ever as he tried his way to get past the Scotsman. Irvine, coming from North Ireland was as keen as the Scotsman to win in front of his home crowd.
Mika Hakkinen plagued with problems decided to retire from the race.
However, this didn’t change anything to the race order as he was way behind to challenge for the points. The race for the lead was still close as both drivers Irvine and Coulthard kept the gap under one second. Something had to be done and Ferrari was the first to make a plunge and call Irvine for his second and final scheduled pit stop on lap 40. This time there was no issues unlike his previous stop and he rejoined the race track in fourth position. McLaren responded by bringing Coulthard in the very next lap. The pit stop was precise and Coulthard was released 8/10th faster than Irvine. And this margin was enough to come ahead of Irvine in third place. Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Damon Hill pitted in the next few laps giving the lead back to Coulthard.
Irvine started to lose ground as Coulthard steadily increased his lead with each lap.
Clearly, it was McLaren’s race unless the driver made any error or the car gave any problems. The order remained unchanged as David Coulthard took the chequered flag to win his home Grand Prix for the first time. It was also McLaren’s first victory at Silverstone since Alain Prost’s 1989 victory with Honda powered engine. The second place gave six points to Eddie Irvine who went level with Michael Schumacher in the points tally. Both Ferrari drivers were eight shy of Hakkinen’s 40 points.
SCHUMACHER’S SEASON OVER
This win will go down as one of Coulthard’s best race wins. However, not so far away from the circuit, Michael Schumacher was placed in an operation theatre where he underwent a surgery at the Northampton General Hospital. A 11.8 inch steel pin was inserted into the leg and was flown to Switzerland to his residence to recuperate from the surgery. He would miss the next six races, which meant Eddie Irvine was the lead driver and championship contender for Ferrari.
As for the next six races, the teams went about their usual business – however a certain void was felt in absence of Michael Schumacher. He provided a different dimension to Formula One just like the champions of the past. It was just a matter of time for the fans of Schumacher and Ferrari before he would resume his racing activities.
Mika Salo took the German seat with a clear mandate to help Irvine win races and the championship. Ferrari had not won the constructor’s title since 1983 and driver’s title since 1979. And Schumacher’s absence didn’t help the cause.
Schumacher did come back for the last two races and helped Irvine secure victory at the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix.
This meant Irvine had a two-point lead over his championship rival Hakkinen going into the last race. Mika Hakkinen ended up winning the race and all Irvine could manage was a third place and thereby losing the championship by two points. The consolation was the constructor’s title coming to Ferrari after sixteen years.
If someone asks me to describe Michael Schumacher’s career – I would sum it up in three stages. His first race until the 1999 British Grand Prix, second stage from the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix till his retirement at the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix and finally the three-year stint with Mercedes. The rest he got as a result of his injury did him good to come back strongly, work with Ferrari very closely and together they ruled the Formula One like never before for five years running.