The British Grand Prix at Silverstone is always one of the highlights on the English sporting calendar.
20 years ago, it produced a seminal moment in a thrilling title battle.
The 1999 event saw the biggest accident in the racing career of Michael Schumacher. Schumacher’s absence opened the door for his team-mate Eddie Irvine, who nearly became Ferrari’s first world champion in 20 years.
It was a dramatic build-up to the weekend. Damon Hill had captured plenty of press attention with speculation that it could be his last Formula One race at Silverstone.
It ended with a British 1-2 on the podium as David Coulthard climbed onto the top step of the rostrum.
Meanwhile, Ferrari’s star driver had been admitted to Northampton General Hospital. His season was ruined and his dreams of becoming the Scuderia’s first title winner since 1979 were in real jeopardy.
Michael Schumacher arrived at Silverstone for the eighth round of the 1999 FIA Formula One World Championship under pressure.
He’d thrown away victory in Canada by crashing out, while gear selection issues had seen him restricted to fifth in wet conditions last time out in France. He’d even been overtaken in the closing stages by his younger brother Ralf, in an under-powered Williams.
The early season momentum that saw the German power to back-to-back victories at Imola and Monte Carlo had faded away.
In the last three events, he’d scored a meagre six points to Mika Hakkinen’s 26 and therefore trailed his chief rival by eight points as they arrived in Northamptonshire.
Schumacher looked troubled all weekend. He barely cracked a smile and missed out on pole position after a scrappy qualifying session.
Windy conditions didn’t suit his Ferrari F399 and he didn’t improve on his initial ‘banker’ lap. He still lined up on the front row but crucially, behind Hakkinen who claimed pole position.
British fans had plenty to cheer with three drivers in the top six. David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine occupied the second row. Meanwhile, Damon Hill qualified in a season-high sixth spot, just two weekends after failing to break the 107% rule at Magny-Cours.
It had been a beautiful, sunny weekend weather-wise but Schumacher’s mood going into the race painted a grim and cloudy outlook. It didn’t get any better at the start.
He made a slow getaway and before Copse, had been relegated to fourth place behind the second McLaren of David Coulthard and team-mate Irvine.
In their fourth year together at Ferrari, it was clear friction was beginning to develop between them.
The Ulsterman had won the first race of his career in Melbourne, out-qualified Schumacher in Spain and came into the Silverstone race just six points shy of the double world champion.
Desperate to get back past Irvine, Schumacher raced hard through the Maggots, Becketts and Chapel complex and was in his slipstream as they headed onto the Hangar Straight.
However, the race was being stopped. Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR and the Williams of Alessandro Zanardi had stalled on the grid. Villeneuve’s car was stuck in-gear and on the racing line.
Most of the field behind the Ferrari duo saw the red flags and lifted off to acknowledge the situation. It seemed though that the Maranello pair had missed the officials with the flags. They carried on racing towards Stowe corner.
At this point, Schumacher was on the inside line and looked like he was about to overtake. As he started to slow the car down for the apex, he locked up and flew across the gravel trap straight on towards the tyre barriers in a sickening impact.
Ferrari are in shock
Marshals were quick to the scene of the accident. With the adrenaline still flowing, Schumacher attempted to get out of his wrecked machine.
However, it became clear that he was trapped in the chassis.
Schumacher thumped the steering wheel in frustration. His miserable weekend was over.
It was a lot worse though than scoring no points for the second time in three races. He’d hurt himself in the accident.
He’d had some shunts in his time. The worse knock he’d suffered was a swollen knee after a crash in practice for the 1996 Belgian Grand Prix.
Two days later, he’d win the race in an evil-handling car.
Marshals did their best to calm Schumacher down. The FIA medical delegate Professor Sid Watkins arrived on the scene and the German knew he’d done some significant leg damage.
His first words reportedly to Watkins were: “Sid, call Corina (Michael’s wife) and tell her I’m alright, it’s just a broken leg.”
Watkins confirmed this to reporters in the days that followed and also revealed Schumacher’s immediate concern for Irvine’s Ferrari:
“Call (Ferrari Team Principal) Jean Todt and tell him the brakes had failed, and to check the other car.”
As paramedics attended to Schumacher, the fans at Stowe corner quickly realised the severity of the accident. After some initial cheering at the German going off – the legacy of the rivalry he’d had with Damon Hill in the mid-90s – they fell silent.
Among the blankets put up to protect the driver from keen photographers, Schumacher waved his hand as he was carried to the ambulance that took him to the medical centre.
In the pits, many Ferrari mechanics and officials looked dumbfounded. They were shocked, startled and confused.
They didn’t quite know what to do.
A British 1-2
As the cars departed on the second formation lap, Schumacher was being airlifted by helicopter to Northampton General Hospital.
On arrival, it was confirmed that he’d sustained a fractured right tibia and fibula. The initial estimation was he’d be on the sidelines for six weeks.
Back on track, Hakkinen led away from pole position but he would ultimately fail to finish. He lost a wheel exiting Woodcote. An issue with the wheel hub on his right-rear corner meant he was withdrawn on safety grounds.
It was a British 1-2 with Coulthard taking his first victory since April 1998 at Imola. Irvine was second, losing victory after overshooting his pit garage at his first pit stop.
Considering the worry he would have had for his older brother’s health, Ralf Schumacher drove a fine race to finish third. Hill was fifth in his final-ever British Grand Prix and briefly led the race during the second round of pit stops.
Afterwards, the talk was of what had caused Schumacher’s crash, which was still unclear at the time, and when would he return.
Irvine even speculated he could be back at the next event in Austria in the post-race press conference.
Schumacher’s surgery on his injuries was successful. He left hospital two days later to start recuperation at a private clinic in Switzerland. Ultimately, the injury left him on the racing sidelines until mid-October.
In the first-ever Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, he silenced any doubters that thought he wouldn’t be the same driver again.
He lapped a full second quicker than anyone else in qualifying. In the race, he finished a dutiful second to Irvine in the race, who was going for the championship.
Although he played the team game in Kuala Lumpur, it was clear he felt very uncomfortable about the situation.
He’d put all the hard work in to become the first world champion for Ferrari since Jody Scheckter; Now, his slower teammate could be the man to claim that honour.
In the end, it was Hakkinen who claimed back-to-back championships. A dominant race day performance in the Suzuka finale saw the Finn take the 1999 title by just two points.
Irvine was a distant third and a full minute behind Schumacher. Ferrari did claim the constructors’ title for the first time since 1983. That was Michael’s main reason for coming back before the season’s end.
Irvine went off to Jaguar and never threatened again. He claimed just two more podiums in the next three years and disappeared from F1 at the end of 2002. Schumacher of course would go on to rewrite the history books, winning five successive championships.
The Ferrari F399 might have been a championship-winning machine but it was a tricky car to setup. That was shown by Mika Salo, Schumacher’s stand-in finishing second in Germany, before qualifying 18th in Hungary.
For Michael Schumacher, it was a defining moment in his career.
It made him appreciate the risks far more and arguably, the experience made him an even better driver.
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