An unpredictable season, fought to the bitter end despite lacking the champion that most people expected: that sums up 1999 as far as F1 is concerned, a year that saw the return of Ferrari as Constructors’ Champion, a title it hadn’t held for 16 years, since René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay claimed it in the 126 C3. Over the course of the winter, Ferrari fine-tuned the F399, assisted by the fully operational new wind tunnel in Maranello designed by Renzo Piano.
The season opened in Melbourne, Australia. Here, McLaren’s reigning champions hogged the first row. Unfortunately, Michael Schumacher’s championship began as it had ended in 1998. A clutch failure left the single-seater sitting on the grid and he was obliged to start from the back. The McLarens shot off only to fail one after another in the space of a few laps. The other Ferrari driver, Eddie Irvine, scooped up first place, the first win in his career.
But everyone was waiting for the duel between Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher: they resumed their key roles from the next race on. McLaren’s Finn won in Brazil, whereas the German came out on top in Imola, driving the watching fans wild with joy. In Monaco he was even part of a one-two. Hakkinen won in Spain and Canada, where Schumacher crashed into the famous Wall of Champions, whereas a wild race in France ended with the triumph of outsider Heinz-Harald Frentzen with Jordan.
11 July saw the British GP in Silverstone. At the start, the McLarens were ahead, followed by Irvine and Schumacher. Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Zanardi’s cars remained on the grid, so race management showed the red flag. The drivers out in front had already reached Stowe corner however, where Schumacher tried an attack on Irvine. Due to a brake issue though, the German driver couldn’t stop his car and crashed into the protective tyres at high speed.
Michael immediately started pushing himself out from the cockpit with his arms, but in so doing realised that his right leg wasn’t behaving as it should and fell back into the car. He had broken both tibia and fibula during the crash and – at least as far as the fight for the title was concerned – that’s where his season ended. The race was Coulthard’s, ahead of Irvine, who thus became Scuderia Ferrari’s leading driver. At that moment, Häkkinen dominated the championship with a 40-point lead on Schumacher and Irvine, both with 32.
The “field promotion” seemed to give Irvine a boost: also thanks to a lack of teamwork between the McLaren drivers, he won in Austria and Germany. Here, in contrast, the contribution of Finnish driver Mika Salo as Schumacher’s replacement proved essential. In Hungary, Häkkinen claimed another win, whereas an error by Irvine took him off the track eight laps from the end, so that he was forced to hand second place to the other McLaren, Coulthard’s. Nevertheless, Eddie drove with a two-point lead over Häkkinen. In the next three races, the Finnish and British driver picked up a measly 8 and 4 point, but it was enough for the McLaren driver to regain the top position in the rankings when there were only two races before the end.
Schumacher’s grand return came in Malaysia. He did the Scuderia the exemplary courtesy of gaining pole position then allowing Irvine to pass at the start, shrewdly slowing Hakkinen down and forcing him into third place. The final round came two weeks later, in Japan. Irvine possessed a four-point lead, and Ferrari the same with respect to McLaren among the Constructors. Eddie’s weekend immediately took a complicated turn: the driver from Northern Ireland was involved in a disastrous exit from the track with ramifications for qualification.
Schumacher took the pole, but Häkkinen got ahead of him at the start. The Finn and the German stayed a handful of seconds apart, but Schumacher didn’t manage to launch the attack that would have bolstered Irvine’s third place. Häkkinen was World Champion and Irvine foiled, but there was the Constructors’ title as consolation, a satisfaction that ended a long dry spell. It was the ninth such triumph for Scuderia Ferrari, but many more were to arrive a few years later…