Welcome back to yet another delightful edition of the Moment in History. I’m quite sure you read last week’s newsletter and learned all about Schumacher’s team ordered win in Austria. Well, we are going to stick with Schumacher for this week and revisit the 1998 British Grand Prix. It was the ninth race of the 1998 Formula One season and Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine were all hunting for the Drivers’ World Championship. The real two contenders, Hakkinen and Schumacher, started the race one, two respectively. To be honest, it was your typical British Grand Prix. A little rain here, a little rain there. A couple of safety cars. Things were going just about as expected until the 57th lap. That is when the race stewards told race leading Michael Schumacher he had to serve a penalty.
Initially, Ferrari was perplexed by the penalty. Ferrari argued that penalty, assessed because Schumacher illegally pass Alexander Wurz under the safety car on lap 43, should have been issued within 25 minutes of the incident and they were informed 6 minutes after the limit had expired. Furthermore, the hand-written notification was unclear as to which penalty was actually being issued, a stop-and-go, or 10 seconds added to Schumacher’s race time. Reacting in the moment, Ferrari told Schumacher to stay out on track and finish the race.
That was the prevailing strategy until a even better option popped up. Ferrari called into Schumacher to pit on the final lap of the race. As it turned out, the finish line was before the Ferrari pit box and because the finish line extends across the pit lane, Schumacher could pit while also finishing the race. Serve the penalty and win the race. Win win. Hakkinen’s McLaren-Mercedes team didn’t see it that way. A protest was immediately lodged by McLaren-Mercedes who felt Ferrari cheated by not having Schumacher serve the penalty. The FIA didn’t know what to do. In fact, the FIA crumbled under the pressure. The FIA initially decided to add a 10 second penalty to Schumacher’s race time, but as it was a penalty which could only be used to punish an infraction in the last 12 laps of a grand prix – not the case here – they eventually rescinded the penalty altogether. As a result, the three stewards involved handed in their licences at an extraordinary meeting of the FIA World Council.