Ask anyone who has grown watching F1 in the late 90s what is the top rivalry they can think of, and Schumacher-Hakkinen will be your answer. The two champions battled it out head to head, almost peerlessly for three seasons on the trot between 1998-2000. The rivalry was to reach its peak on a rainy Sunday at Spa Francorchamps in 2000. The Belgian Grand Prix started behind the safety car, and Hakkinen took an early lead after the rolling start. The race came alive as things started to dry out and Schumacher got clear into 2nd place. The stage was set for a brilliant battle that to the doctor, symbolized everything the two had been through in their head-to-head competition.
You couldn’t shake a sense of deja vu as Schumacher mounted an inspired charge, catching up rapidly, making use of the semi-wet conditions and his car’s wet-favoring setup, just as he had done so many times during the early days. If Schumacher’s charge reminded one of his rise to double world champion status, Hakkinen’s resolute yet struggling drive as the conditions changed could easily be compared to his long scrappy wait for his first Grand Prix win.
The pit stops proved to be an inflection point, as the McLarens stayed out a bit too long, as Michael stayed out, using the wet spots on track to keep his tyres going. He had built up a big lead before pitting halfway through the race. Parallels could instantly be drawn to Schumacher’s move to Ferrari after mounting two back to back world championship winnings campaign at Benetton, only to start with fresh resources. He still came out ahead of Hakkinen’s McLaren, which also pitted a little while later, to get fresher tyres. The track had by now dried up, and the conditions were coming to Hakkinen and McLaren, just the way things had started turning around for the team after HAkkinen’s comeback in 1996-97.
Schumacher had come back from behind and surged towards the lead, so to speak when he took up the Ferrari drive. His task was to get a team that hadn’t won anything major with regularity since Alain Prost, to challenge for the championship again. He had started with 3 race wins in 1996, and a close and controversial 1997 campaign. Same was the case that Sunday, when he had come back from behind and after all pit stops, found himself comfortably out in front.
Hakkinen, was now on a determined charge. Just as his maiden Grand Prix victory had breathed a second life in his career at what would be its halfway point in 1997, so had his fresh tyres on a dry track breathed a second wind in his challenge for the race win. The McLaren, setup for dry conditions was much quicker than the Ferrari, and the difference in their setups meant that the Ferrari was losing out on straightline speed as compared to the McLaren. As a result, Hakkinen soon caught up with Schumacher getting into a dogfight, reminiscent of their neck-to-neck battle on the points charts throughout the 1998 season.
Hakkinen closed in down the Kemmel straight, Schumacher defended with all his might. There was no way through into Les Combes. Hakkinen attacked again down the straight, and Schumacher almost drove him off track. There still wasn’t a way through. Payback for the Finn though, wouldn’t be far behind. On the very next lap, the lead pair came up behind a backmarker at the same spot – the Kemmel straight. In the most audacious bit of opportunistic driving in recent times, Hakkinen stitched up Schumacher and overtook him around the BAR Honda of Ricardo Zonta. Schumacher had held on until almost the end of the straight, before diving down the left of the backmarker, expecting Hakkinen to back off and pass the BAR after the LesCombes chicane. Hakkinen, however, taking advantage of his car’s straightline speed and track position, leaped down the BAR’s right hand side, swerving back to take the racing line ahead of the Ferrari, having passed both the cars in one gutsy manouvre.
Much like the dogfight of the 1998 ended with Mika Hakkienen coming out on top of the standings, the Finn was victorious that day at Spa. The brilliance of his move epitomized the dazzling display of speed that won him his two world championships in 1998-99. The rest of the season though, went Schumacher’s way, as Michael Schumacher won his first title with Ferrari, and much like his championship defense burnt out in the latter part of the 2000 season, Mika Hakkinen‘s form would also dwindle, prompting him to take a sabbatical in 2002, which he was never to make a comeback from. Michael Schumacher however, would outlast his worthy rival as he set out on his record-redefining run of 5 consecutive world titles.
The Schumacher-Hakkinen rivalry might only have lasted head-to-head for 4 seasons, but it sparked a new era of Formula1. The era of the modern Ferrari v/s McLaren battle, which has gone on through many twists and turns since that day.