Schumacher’s victory in the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix is regularly rated as one of his best races (Formula1.com, gpfans.com, planetf1.com, wtf1.com). It also featured an unexpected three stop strategy from Ferrari, which hoodwinked McLaren. Whilst McLaren lost the race due to a number of factors, it was only through strategy that Ferrari had any real opportunity to fight for victory. Let’s see how they did it, and if McLaren could have (or should have) responded differently.
The Championship Battle Going Into The Race
We’ll start with a quick summary of the 1998 season prior to the race. The significant rules introduced for the season had mixed up the competitive order, and also lead to the order changing significantly as the season progressed (Jordan, for example, almost finished 3rd in the Constructor’s Championship despite taking half the season to score their first point).
McLaren had opened the campaign with a dominant car, lapping the entire field at the season opener and nearly repeating the feat at the next race. Ferrari had quickly closed the gap (helped by significant developments by tyre supplier Goodyear) and three victories in a row in the middle season had put Schumacher firmly in the championship fight. However, McLaren still had the stronger car overall, and had recorded consecutive 1-2 finishes directly before the Hungarian Grand Prix. At this point Schumacher was 16 points behind Häkkinen in the championship (roughly 40 points in today’s system) with five races to go. Teammates Coulthard (McLaren) and Irvine (Ferrari) were no longer in the championship fight,
A two stop strategy was the assumed to be the fastest strategy. Indeed, every points finisher apart from Schumacher took this path.
One major question mark was how powerful the overcut would be. During the refueling era, the best way to overtake rivals during the pitstop phase was generally to stay out longer than them (this is the reverse of toady when the undercut is the generally preferred method). This is because of the significant weight difference that arises between an “empty” car yet to pit and one that has just pitted and is fat with fuel.
However, tyre wear was a major issue at the Hungaroring. Due to this, the teams began to (correctly) concluded in race simulations that the pit stop phase would barely feature either an overcut or an undercut: A heavy car on fresh tyres could run a comparable pace to a lighter car on worn tyres. However this theory was yet to be fully tested.
Another significant consideration was that the championship contenders used different tyres (Schumacher’s Ferrari used Goodyears, as opposed to the Bridgestones of the McLaren drivers). The tyre difference had been a major contributor to Damon Hill’s unlikely near victory here in 1997, and any differences in tyre wear this year could be key.
First Stint: Behind Both McLarens
Position laps 1-25: Häkkinen, Coulthard, Schumacher
Michael Schumacher lined up on the grid in 3rd place, behind the two McLarens of Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard. The most basic route to victory would have involved leaping ahead of at least one McLaren off the line; a realistic scenario given that Schumacher was on the clean side of the grid (an important factor at the dusty circuit). Failing this, Ferrari may have considered utilising teammate Irvine to block and disrupt the McLaren’s strategy during the pit stop phases (such tactics were semi-common at the time, particularly near the end of a championship fight).
Any plans made with these ideas in mind came to nothing. Schumacher had a poor getaway off the line and barely maintained 3rd place, whereas Irvine retired in the first stint with mechanical problems.
From here on Schumacher was able to stay close to Coulthard’s pace, whilst Häkkinen steadily built a gap. By the time Schumacher pitted on lap 25, he was around 5s off the race lead.
One of the main questions as the first stint drew to a close was whether the lead trio would get stuck behind Jacques Villeneuve after their stop. During the first 15 laps they had pulled away from the Williams at a rate of about 1s per lap, but after that point Villeneuve was able to match their pace.
By the time Schumacher need to pit, he was still just shy of a stop in hand of Villeneuve. There is a possibility that McLaren had intentionally slowed at the end of the stint to engineer this scenario. If so, they were somewhat lucky (or had correctly predicted) that Schumacher would be forced to refuel first. Another potential explanation was McLaren’s worse tyre wear on the Bridgestone tyres, something which would negatively affect them later in the race.
Second Stint: Stuck In Traffic
In modern F1 a driver can use their fresher tyres and DRS to overtake a slower car on old rubber. In 1998 there was no DRS, and the advantage of fresher tyres was typically undermined by the additional fuel. The Hungaroring was also notorious for being difficult to overtake on during this era, meaning that Schumacher was stuck behind Villeneuve for a full six laps.
Position laps 26-31: Häkkinen, Coulthard, Villeneuve, Schumacher
Both Coulthard and Häkkinen took their first stop after Schumacher and emerged in front of Villeneuve, before beginning to pull away. By the time Villeneuve stopped on lap 31, Schumacher was 3.5s behind Coulthard and 7.4s behind Häkkinen in the lead. It seemed hard to work out how Schumacher could win from this position, particularly as his strategy appeared to mirror that of the two McLarens.
However with Villeneuve out of the way, we finally got the first glimpse of Schumacher’s true pace in fresh air: His next lap was 1.2s faster than both McLarens, and within 4 laps he was on Coulthard’s tail again. Despite qualifying behind both McLarens, Schumacher clearly had better race pace, and Ferrari could smell an opportunity to capitalise if they could find a way to get track position.
At a little over half distance, the positions of the top three were as they were on lap 1. It was at this point that Ferrari decided to bring Schumacher in early for his 2nd stop.
Position laps 32-43: Häkkinen, Coulthard, Schumacher
Third Stint: Rolling the dice
The plan was to short fuel Schumacher and set him on a three stop strategy. An earlier than expected stop would give him free air to push, and hopefully give him the lead too when both McLarens pitted. Schumacher would then need to build enough of a gap to stop a third time.
Whilst the risk to Schumacher for this strategy was small given he was now a full stop ahead of Villeneuve in 4th place, the chance of success was also low. Not only was he was being put on a fundamentally slower strategy than that of the McLarens, but the plan would also be revealed before either of the McLarens had stopped a second time. In the era of refueling you could generally gauge when a rival would stop again based on how much fuel went in the car (which correlated with the length of the stop). This meant that McLaren had an opportunity to respond to what Schumacher did.
McLaren did indeed respond by pitting Coulthard the next lap. However, a couple of factors swung the race away from them at this point. The first is that, unlike Ferrari, Coulthard was still on a two stop strategy. This meant an extremely long final stint, where his pace would be slowed not only by fuel but by the need to manage his tyres.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if Coulthard emerged from his stop ahead of Schumacher as McLaren had intended, but he didn’t. This was partly because Coulthard needed extra fuel, causing his stop to be 1.2s slower than Schumacher’s. Given the gap between them was less than a second before the pitstop, it’s reasonable to think that this cost Coulthard track position.
Position laps 45-46: Häkkinen, Schumacher, Coulthard
However, we also need to take Schumacher’s raw pace into account. His in lap was nearly a second faster than Coulthard’s, and even taking the pitstop time into account, his out lap was almost three seconds faster. By the time Coulthard had completed his out lap, Schumacher was almost 5s up the road. This also meant that Häkkinen would inevitably end up behind Schumacher on the road too once McLaren pitted him, as they did on lap 46.
Position laps 47-51: Schumacher, Häkkinen, Coulthard
Schumacher was therefore able to get the free air he needed to push. However, McLaren were probably still favourites to win at this point. Whilst Coulthard’s strategy now had a long final stint, all he had to do was stay within a pitstop of Schumacher to take the lead back once Schumacher stopped. The same logic applied to Häkkinen too, with the Finn further up the road than Coulthard and his (still lengthy) final stint shorter than his teammate’s too.
19 Qualifying Laps?
It is often said that Schumacher produced “nineteen qualifying laps” during this third stint to open the gap required. What exactly would this mean? A literal interpretation would be his lap times were good enough to be competitive in qualifying. Häkkinen’s pole time on Saturday was 1:16:973. However, Schumacher’s times during this stint were at least 2.5s slower than this, and even his best time during the stint would not have been good enough for even a top 10 slot in qualifying.
Of course Schumacher had a significant disadvantage in tyres and fuel load in the race, meaning a like for like comparison with qualifying is not really fair. Taking these into account, a lap that would be equivalent to how hard he pushed in qualifying would be roughly a 1m19.9s. From the graph we can see that Schumacher hit this marker in at least half of his laps.
What about the other half? We have a few laps where Schumacher was a couple of tenths away, and several considerably slower laps. These can be explained by lapping other cars. This is a bigger issue at the Hungaroring than any other circuit except Monaco, due to the short lap and barrage of corners that leave little space to let leaders through. At one point during this stint team principle Jean Todt even went to the Jordan garage to urge Michaels’ brother Ralf to let Schumacher through without hold up.
In conclusion, it’s probably fair to say that Schumacher was pushing as hard as a qualifying lap for almost all of the 19 lap stint. At the same time. championship rival Häkkinen was slowing due to a mechanical issues. This meant the battle for the win was between Schumacher and Coulthard. From the graph below you can see the dramatic gap to Coulthard that opened up during this period, in contrast to the first half the race.
Halfway through his third stint, Schumacher had a major off at the last corner, costing him at least 5s and put an already ballsy plan further on the backfoot. (This is the sole lap in the stint where Coulthard outpaced Schumacher.) Luckily his car was up damaged, and he was able to continue his relentless pace. By the time he pitted for the final time he emerged in the lead by over 5s.
One peculiarity is that his fastest times come at the end of the stint. While on the face of it this is not surprising (given his low fuel at this point), those extra few tenths he was trying to find were not really necessary given he already had enough of a gap.
So, the short answer is that Schumacher was too quick. However, we also need to look at McLaren’s disastrous third stint to understand how the race unravelled for them.
McLaren’s Third Stint
As has already been mentioned, McLaren decided to pit Coulthard in response to Schumacher’s early 2nd stop, but unlike Schumacher they fueled him to the end of the race. After being jumped by Schumacher, Coulthard was now heavy with fuel and had to balance his pace with making the tyres work too. His 33 lap stint at the end of the race was longer than anyone else dared to try. In short: McLaren’s failed attempt to keep Coulthard ahead of Schumacher had placed the Scott on a compromised strategy.
Häkkinen pitted a couple of laps after Coulthard, and was jumped by Schumacher too. It was around this point that the Finn began to develop his mechanical issue, giving McLaren had a dilemma. Should they keep Coulthard behind their main title hope Häkkinen, or swap their drivers around to ensure that the faster Coulthard could stay in touch of Schumacher? Ultimately they correctly chose to do the latter. However, the decision took several laps, which probably cost Coulthard around 6s.
This graph not only illustrates well just how fast Schumacher was during this period compared to the McLarens, but how costly the time spent behind Häkkinen was. You can clearly see how Coulthard’s pace was limited to that of Häkkinen’s between laps 49 and 51, before his lap times improved across the rest of the stint.
In the end Schumacher emerged from the pits a little over 5s clear of Coulthard; less than the time Coulthard lost to an ailing Häkkinen. However, any suggestion that McLaren should have instantly let Coulthard through is unrealistic. Not only was did his problem get progressively worse over time (meaning the drop in pace was deceptively small at first), but Häkkinen was their lead driver in the race and in the championship. It’s clear that McLaren could have acted sooner though, as the vast majority of the time Coulthard lost was in the last lap and a half before he got through.
Had McLaren been quick witted enough to swap positions two laps earlier, Coulthard would have been at around 4s further up the road and right with Schumacher at the point Schumacher emerged from the pits for the final time.
What Else Could McLaren Have Done Differently?
The race win came down to a multitude of factors. Ross Brawn’s strategy switch and Schumacher’s raw pace were the key drivers, along with Häkkinen’s car troubles. However, even then McLaren still had a great opportunity to win the race and were running a comfortable 1-2 when Schumacher dived into the pits for a surprisingly early 2nd stop on lap 43. Their response to pit Coulthard the next lap and run him to the end of the race was, in hindsight, a mistake. Let’s have a look at what other options the team had in the immediate aftermath of Schumacher pitting, along with how significant their impact would have been and how easy the solutions were to see at the time.
Pit Häkkinen first?
When analysing the data in hindsight, this is a clear option that McLaren ignored. Schumacher’s out lap pace and shorter stop time meant that Coulthard was never going to come out in front of Schumacher, but Häkkinen would have fairly comfortably if they’d pitted him straight away. This would have been an easy checkmate. Schumacher would still have to do an extra stop compared to the McLarens, but would still be stuck behind one of them. The only issue is that this strategy would probably have allowed Coulthard to jump Häkkinen at his final stop, but a switch of position at the end of the race would have been no problem.
Even factoring in Häkkinen’s car issues this strategy would have been successful in preventing a Schumacher victory. Now it’s Schumacher whose pace would have been stuck behind Häkkinen rather than Coulthard. Of course the Ferrari driver would have been highly likely to force his way through at some point, but Schumacher would have spent the first few of those “nineteen qualifying laps” losing time to Coulthard, rather than closing the gap.
So why didn’t McLaren do this? The first reason is probably because Häkkinen was the one fighting for the championship. On the surface it makes little sense to put him on the fundamentally slower strategy, as it’s Coulthard that’s supposed to be acting as a rear gunner, not Häkkinen. This type of thinking is logical but doesn’t hold up to the reality of the race itself.
The only other explanation is that McLaren were confident that Coulthard could emerge from his stop ahead of Schumacher. If this is the case then they weren’t paying close enough attention to Schumacher’s short pit time and rapid first sector time, but it’s possible that they had insufficient time to analyse the data. Remember that McLaren had just over one minute to work out what to do if they wanted to pit a driver that lap.
Ape Ferrari’s Strategy
If McLaren were ahead of Schumacher when he switched to a three stopper, couldn’t McLaren also stop three times and maintain their advantage? This idea makes sense on paper, but has issues.
Firstly, they’d have minimal time to figure out what to do. During around one minute they’d have had to see Schumacher pitted, tell Coulthard to push like crazy and pit that lap, see that Schumacher’s fueling was short to make it to the end of the race, realise that their best bet of coming out ahead of Schumacher was to short fuel Coulthard too, work out how much fuel to put in the car and the then execute the strategy. And even after all that, there’s a reasonable chance that they would get jumped anyway due to Schumacher’s out lap pace.
Even in the best case scenario where Coulthard is able to stay ahead of Schumacher, it still gives Ferrari a further opportunity to try an under/over cut at the third stop. This strategy could be combined with pitting Häkkinen first, which would at least definitely keep Häkkinen in front of Schumacher. However, if the main aim is to keep Schumacher behind them, how would forcing their car to stop another time help?
Run their own race.
The only reason to stop Coulthard early was to try to block Schumacher, which they failed to do. Whilst ignoring Schumacher’s change of strategy would have required an alert strategy team (who might consider pitting Coulthard early, before aborting the idea when seeing Schumacher’s pitstop time and his first sector pace), it is a perfectly reasonable response.
McLaren’s original two stop strategy was the fastest way to get to the end of the race, and they should have stuck to it. Ferrari deviated from the best strategy on paper to get some clean air, whereas McLaren deviated but gained nothing in return.
Whilst the general rule on the day was that the benefit from fuel burning was balanced by the increase in tyre wear, this was only true across a stint (or comparing two stints of comparable length). After Coulthard’s second stop, his car was heavier than any other driver’s at any point during the race. Towards the end of the stint his tyres were more worn out too.
Coulthard’s average pace in the first two stints was around a 1:21.1. Given he had 18 laps to prevent Schumacher from winning the race, you might expect his pace to be a tenth or two faster during this phase of the race. Instead, it was half a second slower (as you can see from the graph above). This equates to at least 7s of lost time (probably more), even factoring in the fact that he couldn’t show his pace behind Häkkinen.
Whilst the messages from McLaren suggest that Coulthard was generally unhappy on this set of tyres (i.e. some of that time loss was independent of the additional fuel), the fact is that McLaren voluntarily chose a strategy that put them on a slower pace for a longer period of time.
|Swung the race to schumacher||could have lead to mclaren win|
|Schumacher had better race pace overall.||Schumacher lost 5s going off the track.|
|Schumacher’s shorter pitstop and rapid out lap meant he jumped Coulthard at the 2nd stop.||McLaren’s 2 stop strategy was theoretically faster.|
|Hakkinen’s developed car issues car issues.||McLaren were ahead and running 1-2 when Ferrari changed strategy.|
|McLaren waited too long to let Coulthard pass Hakkinen.|
|Coulthard’s early 2nd stop meant he had a longer ( and therefore slower) final stint.|
|McLaren’s tyres did not hold up as well as expected.|
The race was at least as much McLaren’s failure as it was Ferrari’s and Schumacher’s triumph. Whilst the core of the victory came from the strategy change and Schumacher’s pace in the crucial 3rd stint, the reality is that there were many factors at play.
When considering McLaren’s choices and mistakes, we should always remember how difficult it is to make the right call in F1. The team were working with incomplete data after all, and had just over a minute to decide how to respond to Schumacher’s early stop. Under these circumstances mistakes can happen.
McLaren also went on to win both championships by the end of the season, with Häkkinen getting ahead of both Ferrari’s at the Nürburgring later in the season, due to a combination of raw pace and strategic offset.