The FIA Formula One 1999 season got off to a somewhat predictable start. The McLaren team of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard seemed unbeatable as they took pole and second place positions in race after race. Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine were the nearest threats to the defending champions’ titles, but it was obvious that they were struggling to keep up with the powerful Mercedes engines of the McLarens.
Disaster struck in the Silverstone Grand Prix when a brake failure caused Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari to career straight into a tyre barrier. He damaged both legs, and it was soon evident that he would not return to Formula One for a number of weeks, or even months. Test driver Mika Salo was drafted in as his replacement, and some hoped that the old rivalry between the two Finnish Mikas would surface in the forthcoming races.
Northern Ireland’s Eddie Irvine was Ferrari’s number one championship contender, and with some strong support from Salo, he managed to win a number of races that Hakkinen should have had sown up. Irvine, out from Schumacher’s shadow, suddenly became the favourite of Ireland’s F1 community, and the Jordan team now had a new rival for our affections.
Never has it been so difficult to hate the enemy. Hakkinen is quite modest, unlike most of his Formula One colleagues. He also gained the sympathy of some of his opponents after a driver error caused his tearful exit from the Italian Grand Prix. Frentzen too earned some new fans after a number of impressive performances and a win in the Italian race. Now both Irvine and Hakkinen were in first place on 60 points, and Frentzen was breathing down their necks at 50. There was also a bit of inter-team rivalry between Eddie Jordan and McLaren chief Ron Dennis as he grudgingly acknowledged the Irish team’s win.