For 1999 we expected another great battle between Ferrari led by Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, against the silver arrows of McLaren-Mercedes in the hands of defending champion Mika Hakkinen, and his teammate, the competitive David Coulthard.
The season introduced a new race in Sepang, Malaysia, with the interest of increasing the audiences of the sport and to keep it moving in direction of making it truly global. Europe still remained the main market (and to this day, but not for much), but a discussion about expansion seems no longer to include the old continent as an option.
The starting grid did not suffer major changes. It was Williams that made an impact by bringing Schumacher's younger brother, Ralf to the team along with and Italian Alex Zanardi. The British team did not present its best package (just as the prior year).
Also, Jacques Villeneuve joined the project of his friend Craig Pollock, who after getting sponsorship to buy Tyrrell, founded the British American Racing (BAR) team, and as companion to the Canadian chose Ricardo Zonta.
The Eddie Jordan outfit once was strengthened and on the rise, much was expected of his team and the presence of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and former world champion Damon Hill, offered perhaps the motivation that could make the difference.
The teams generally had similar expectations to those of the previous year. McLaren still looked slightly superior to Ferrari, which on the other hand, showed better adaptability, especially in the midst of war.
As always teams were implicitly divided into unbalanced groups: the titlecandidates mentioned two lines ago, the occasional race winners that entertain like Williams, Jordan and Benetton; those who improve, but with limited aspirations that don’t go beyond a podium finish, and the laggards who often don’t finished the races and whose ambitions are focused on earning few points during the tournament.
FERRARI IRVINE AND CAME CLOSE, BUT MIKA PREVAILED
The initial theory suggested that the championship was going to be a war in two fronts with two generals: Hakkinen and Schumacher with their respective teams. However, just at the beginning of the actions in Australia, both drivers marred (Hakkinen retired and Schumacher 8th), giving his first and deserved victory in Formula 1 to Eddie Irvine.
Several elements created high level of competitiveness and excitement during the tournament. The fragility of the McLaren was present as Hakkinen had six retirements, despite having a slightly better performing car. Also the respective lead-protectors, Irvine and Coulthard, proved more than that since both won several GPs.
However, the different note was brought by Frentzen, who slipped his Jordan among the big teams and earned points in virtually every race. He finished up on the podium nine times, highlighting his incredible victory at the French Grand Prix, in Magny Cours.
Anyway, it was Schumacher's accident at Silverstone that broke his leg and left him off the tracks by several GPs that really changed the landscape and opened the way for others. Eddie Irvine, his teammate at Ferrari, led with ambition and wisdom, proper characteristics of an excellent F1 driver, the fight for the championship until the last round, and with an inferior car.
The truth is that with 4 rounds to go, the same number of drivers had options for the championship. Hakkinen had the odds in his favor, followed closely by Irvine, and a little further behind were Frentzen and Coulthard. The latter suffered the misfortune of three consecutive retirements so he was out of contention.
The 14th round of the season in Nurburgring was the most decisive round, to which Hakkinen and Irvine showed up tied in points. In a very exciting Grand Prix, the rain was present intermittently, forcing constant change of tires and strategies. The leadership had many owners changes as beer mugs in bar on Friday night, and it was Johnny Herbert on the wheels of a Stewart-Ford who claimed the victory, the only of his life in the category. Amid much confusion and problems, Hakkinen managed to establish finish in 5th place after overtaking Marc Gene at the helm of a Minardi-Ford, who in turn managed to retain Irvine for several laps. The Irishman had to settle a bitter 7th place that gave him no points.
The Finn driver established a two point difference, which after getting the exact results between him and Irvine in the two remaining races (first and third places for both), stayed intact, giving the title to Hakkinen.
Eddie Irvine showed that he could put up a good battle, and he was certainly very close to become champion. Nevertheless, Hakkinen was always faster, and accumulated more wins and points despite the constancy of the Irish, who retired only once, and earned units in every single race but one in addition four victories. The superiority of the Finn was evident, and precisely that gives Irvine a greater credit.