16 years had passed since the last time Scuderia Ferrari had won a title. It was 1983 when Rene Arnoux, who took the Drivers’ title fight to the last race, and Patrick Tambay brought the Constructors’ Championship to Maranello. It was a strange season for Ferrari, because they had to focus on Eddie Irvine, after Michael Schumacher broke a leg at the British Grand Prix. To replace him, the Scuderia had chosen the Finn Mika Salo who on more than one occasion did all he could to help Irvine, also picking up plenty of points for the team.
Michael returned to the cockpit in Malaysia, for the penultimate race of the year, where he drove a perfect supporting role, helping Irvine to win the race so that the man from Northern Ireland now led the Championship, four points ahead of Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren, while Ferrari led the English team by the same gap in the Constructors’ Championship, 118 points to 114.
However Eddie’s lead was less reassuring than it appeared. He had in fact one less win than his Finnish rival, who could take the title if he won in Japan. If Hakkinen finished second, Irvine needed to finish in the top four and if his rival finished third, he needed at least a sixth place finish.
Once again, therefore, the World Championship would be decided in Japan. On Saturday 30 October, Schumacher took his second consecutive pole position after an intense battle with Hakkinen. Coulthard was third in the second McLaren, followed by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Jordan and then Irvine. Eddie was nervous and had a big crash at the hairpin, just 10 minutes from the end of qualifying. His Ferrari was destroyed, but the driver was unharmed. He was therefore hoping that Schumacher would help him in the race. He would need to keep Hakkinen behind him while Irvine tried to finish in a position one higher than he started from.
However once again Hakkinen did better at the start. Schumacher tried to block his rival’s path, but in the end, he had to let him past. Olivier Panis in the Prost and Irvine also got away well, getting themselves into third and fourth ahead of Coulthard and Frentzen. Hakkinen immediately gained a big lead over Schumacher, while behind the race leaders, Irvine was not able to get the better of Panis, losing time until lap 16 when the Frenchman pitted. Three laps later, Hakkinen came in, with his stop taking a bit longer due to a problem with the right front wheel. The Finn however maintained his position in the battle with Schumacher, who made his first pit stop on lap 22.
At the end of the first run of pit stops, Hakkinen was leading Schumacher by 6 seconds, followed by Coulthard who had managed to overtake Irvine by pitting a lap earlier, and Frentzen. At the halfway stage, Eddie was stuck behind Coulthard and so Ferrari decided to pit him again on lap 32 to avoid losing too much time behind his rival. The mechanics were fantastic, sending the Ferrari back out on track in only 6.3 seconds, while Coulthard lost control of his car two laps later, going straight into the barriers and handing the Constructors’ Championship to the Scuderia on a plate.
The Drivers’ title however was in Mika Hakkinen’s hands, and after his second pit stop, he continued to control the race ahead of Schumacher and Irvine. Seeing that the race leader was showing no signs of letting up, in the last laps, Ferrari told Schumacher to ease off to avoid any risk to the Constructors’ Championship.
The Finn crossed the finish line taking his fifth win of the season and his second title. However Scuderia Ferrari were also celebrating with Schumacher in second and Irvine in third, giving the Maranello team their ninth Constructors’ title. A Drivers’ title would have to wait.