Wednesday, August 21, 2013

DC Describes A Disastrous Belgian GP

David Coulthard kept a diary of his 1998 season with McLaren. He was deeply involved in the controversial, crash-filled event at the notorious Spa circuit. His bad day in Belgium ended with Michael Schumacher accusing him of attempted murder…

“Like most drivers I love the breathtaking and exhilarating Spa circuit, where the adrenaline runs higher than anywhere we race. It’s a fabulous place, tremendously satisfying and thrilling for us as well as the spectators. Every corner at Spa is famous in racing lore and the track has been the scene of some of the sport’s greatest battles. It is also notorious for wet weather and big accidents. Unfortunately this year’s event had far too much of both and, sad to say, yours truly was in the thick off it.

“In the pre-race warmup session the rain began that was to continue to fall throughout the race. Also a forecast of what was to come were the numerous incidents of cars sliding off the soaking wet track. More worrying was the lack of visibility when following other cars. In the spray it was difficult to even see the track, let alone the car in front. My McLaren team mate Mika Hakkinen and I were on the front row, ahead of Jordan’s Damon Hill, Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and the rest of the 22-car field.

“As I sat there on the starting grid in the pouring rain my visor was steaming up, the last thing you want moments before you're going to need the clearest possible vision. With one eye on the starting lights I reached down between my legs and got the leather shammy and gave my visor a quick wipe. Despite this unwanted distraction I got away smoothly, we all made it safely around La Source and started down the hill toward Eau Rouge. Suddenly, my rear wheels spun. The car veered sharp right, smashed into the wall, then shot back across the track directly in front of the oncoming pack.     

“I still don't know what caused me to spin, though it seems likely I just made a mistake, lost it and from then on was just a passenger. At first I was convinced that I was hit from behind, but when I watched it later on video I couldn't see anyone close. In fact, no one could see anything except glimpses of cars smashing into each other and wheels and debris flying in all directions through the clouds of spray.

“It all happened so quickly. I don't really remember many details, after the first hit against the wall. I saw it coming and got ready for more. In that impact my visor popped open and as the car bounced back I grabbed the chinpiece of my helmet with both hands and held on for dear life. I ducked down as low as possible in the cockpit because I was afraid of another car coming over the top and taking my helmet with it.

“I just prayed that my car wouldn't rebound into the middle of the track. But it did and it was destroyed, as were many others. When the red flag came out there were a dozen cars parked there in what looked like a wrecker's yard. It was one of the biggest ever multiple shunts and a miracle that no one was seriously hurt.

“I don't know how many cars hit me. My cockpit was a steaming mess, with cold fire extinguisher fluid spraying onto my legs. My left foot was bruised from bashing around in the footwell, and my head had also taken a knock. Mika Salo came up and asked me if I was okay. My natural reaction was to say yes, though I was actually feeling a bit shell-shocked and wasn't entirely positive that I was okay, or even where I was. 

“When I got back to the garage the team was getting the T-car ready for the re-start, which would take nearly an hour while the track was cleaned up. For a while I wasn't sure what track we were at. Gradually, it came back that we were at Spa and the Belgian Grand Prix would start all over again. Once I got back into the car I felt fine and just focussed on making a good start among the 18 survivors who would again temp fate on a soaking wet Spa.  

DC's bad day in Belgium became even worse after the re-start, ending in an infamous confrontation with Schumacher...

“On the second start Mika and Michael touched going around La Source. Mika spun, was hit by another car and his race ended there and then. Half way around the first lap Alexander Wurz tried to pass me in his Benetton, we collided and flew off the track. Alex was unable to continue. As I was sliding backwards through a gravel trap I selected first gear. I let the car slide through onto the grass on the other side and rejoined the race - in 16th and last place.

“The day after the race Alex sent me a fax saying he hadn't been able to find me at the track to apologize for running into me. He hoped that the incident wouldn't affect our personal relationship. I had helped him settle in when he moved to Monaco and we saw each other there occasionally. It was a nice gesture on his part and I phoned him and left a message on his answering machine, saying that I would prefer that he didn't run into me, but there were no hard feelings. There was no animosity after this incident, though there was a lot of it to come.

“Cars were flying off the track all around Spa. The Safety Car came out a couple of times, while the marshals removed abandoned cars from dangerous positions. But I was making little progress on intermediate tyres as the rain fell more heavily. On lap 9 I stopped to change to full wets and came back out in 13th place, second last in what remained of the 22-car field.

“Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher was leading the race and the team kept me informed of his progress. Because of the spray I couldn't see much in my mirrors. On lap 24 my engineer Pat Fry said Michael was coming up behind to lap me and that I should prepare to let him past. As I dropped down the hill from Malmedy through Rivage I caught a glimpse of a car approaching, and the marshals began waving blue flags to let me know a faster car was coming up behind me. As I went through the Pouhon corner I maintained my position and my speed on the right hand side of the track to give Michael plenty of room to overtake me. The next thing I knew there was an almighty thump at the rear of my car.

"I was in total disbelief! I flicked on the radio and said that Michael had hit me from behind and his Ferrari had just gone past me on three wheels. My car had lost the rear wing in the impact and I came into the pits behind Michael, who somehow managed to make it there on three wheels. The guys directed me into the garage, where I got out of the car. As I was taking off my gloves Michael came running into our garage shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘WERE YOU TRYING TO FUCKING KILL ME?!’

“I said something like: "It was you who ran into the back of me, pal." Michael tried to get closer to me, but my guys held him back. In his fax to me Alex Wurz said that our guys should have let Michael through, because I still had my helmet on! That was the only funny part of this exchange. I was extremely angry at Michael's outburst. I'm afraid I responded in kind and my remarks were widely reported.

“I said that for Michael to come into the garage acting like an animal and accusing me of trying to kill him was totally unacceptable and disgusting. If he couldn't do it himself he really needed to get some help to control his anger.

“I explained that the team had told me Michael was coming and asked me to move over, which I would have done anyway. I was having a terrible race and he was about to lap me, so I was getting out of his way. Either he wasn't watching in front of him or he couldn't see me in the poor visibility. I hadn't moved over, or swerved, or slowed down. He just drove straight into the back of me.

“When I had incidents with him in the past - such as in Argentina earlier in the year, where he also hit me from behind - I had waited and discussed it with him like a man afterwards. I didn't come stomping down the pit lane asking if he was trying to kill me. I said that until Michael was prepared to discuss it reasonably, man-to-man, I had no interest in talking to him.

“There were accusations from Michael and Ferrari that I deliberately took him off to help my team mate Mika in the championship. I thought this was absolute bollocks - paranoia in the extreme. I said that while it might be understandable in this twisted world that some people would suggest such a thing, you only had to watch the TV footage to see that I was trying to get out of his way. I expected him to drive around me - not straight into the back of me. 

“It was completely absurd to think that I would willingly risk becoming involved in an accident that could have been lethal. I had already had more than my share of crashes at Spa and the whole weekend, including the practice accidents, was a wakeup call for us all. In the race the conditions were atrocious, visibility was often nil, and there were cars aquaplaning off all over the place. Before the incident with Michael I had been on the radio for four or five laps, telling the team to speak to the Stewards and get the Safety Car out for the safety of all the drivers.

“With a new wing on the back of my car I went back out to finish the race. I was seven laps down, but there was a chance I could collect a point because cars were still dropping out. Just before the finish there was another serious accident caused by the poor visibility. Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton was destroyed, and briefly caught fire, when it ran full force into the back of Shinji Nakano's slower Minardi.

“After the race was over the Stewards investigating our coming-together called it a racing incident and that neither Michael nor I was to blame. Michael later modified his remarks (and at Monza, the next race, we met and made an uneasy peace). What bothered me most was the personal attack on my integrity. That is something I place great value on and I could not accept it being questioned.
In our sport we might all have an inflated opinion of ourselves, because you need a lot of confidence to do what we do. But I know right from wrong. I did not believe I had done anything wrong, nor did most of those who saw what happened.

“Only eight cars were still running at the end of a disastrous Grand Prix. I was classified seventh, five laps behind the winner. One of the few positive things to happen in Belgium was Damon Hill's first victory for Eddie Jordan's team. I was delighted for them both and I don't think anyone begrudged them the win in what had otherwise been a black day for the sport.

- excerpt from DAVID’S DIARY by David Coulthard (with Gerald Donaldson)


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