We have seen many great drives around the Suzuka circuit since it made its F1 debut back in 1987, but not all of them have involved race-winning races. When it comes to listing Michael Schumacher's greatest drive, what one comes to your mind? Belgium 1992, where he took his first win? Spain 1994, where he drove half the race stuck in fifth gear? Europe 1995, where he made a do-or-die move on Jean Alesi to take the lead? Spain 1996, where he won in terrible conditions? Without a doubt these are all great drives, but there is one which many remember for the wrong reasons, and tend to forget about just good how good a drive it was.
The race I'm referring to is the 1998 Japanese Grand Prix - a race that showed all that's good about the German. Going into the race, Schumacher was 4 points behind championship rival Mika Haikkinen, having been soundly beaten at the previous race at the Nurburgring, their respective teams, Ferrari and McLaren, had a full 5 weeks to prepare for the race, and it looks like Ferrari had done the better job when, after a thrilling duel in qualifying, Schumacher took pole from Haikkinen in the final minutes of qualifying. In these days of a 4-point difference between first and second, it looked liked Schumi was all set for the win which would give him the title, and Ferrari’s first in 19 years.
But as the drivers came round to form on the grid after their formation lap, disaster struck for Schumacher. As he slipped the car into first gear, the car lost engine power, moved forward a few inches and stalled. Schumacher held his hand up to signal that he had stalled, and the race start was aborted. The rumour was that a mechanic failed to get enough dry ice into the car to keep the engine cool, others said that it was a simple clutch problem. Whatever the cause, Schumi had to now start from the back of the grid, with his title rival Haikkinen now on 'pole' heading the field as they got away.
But what had been bad luck for Schumacher then became a treat for us fans watching. Off the start Schumacher had overtaken 5 cars, including the stalled Prost of Jarno Trulli, by the first corner, and had passed another 3 cars by the end of the first lap, meaning he had made his way to 14th. Schumacher then began to pick off the drivers in front of him one by one, and passing in some unconventional places - such as passing Fisichella around the outside of the Esses bends just after the start of the lap, and Alex Wurz going into the Degner Curves. It was an unbelievable drive and by lap 5, he was right on the tail of the Jordans and Williams', who were battling for the final points positions. Schumi managed to pass his brother Ralf in the first Jordan going into the final chicane (and whose car promptly failed a few meters later), and despite being stuck behind Damon Hill for a few laps, managed to get by the Jordan before making his way past compatriot Heinz-Harald Frentzen, once again at the chicane.
He was driving at a record speed, and when Jacques Villeneuve came into the pits Schumacher was an increditable fourth, behind Haikkinen, team-mate Eddie Irvine and the second McLaren driver David Coulthard. Soon after Coulthard pitted, moving Schumi upto third, before the German made his first pit stop, emerging ahead of Coulthard and keep third place. The only driver able to match Schumacher's pace was race leader Mika Haikkinen, who look set to take the title, while Schumi could only keep pushing and hope he could catch and pass the Finn.
But then drama on lap 31. Three laps previous, Esteban Tuero in the Minardi was taken out of the race by Tora Takagi's Tyrrell at the final chicane, showering bits of carbon fibre over that area of the circuit. Schumacher and the others drove through this section, believing it to be clear. But as the German began lap 31, his right rear tyre exploded coming down the start-finish straight, finishing his race and his championship hopes. It is still believed to this day that Michael had picked up a puncture driving through the debris from the Tuero-Takagi accident, but no matter what the cause, the result was that his race was over, and that Mika Haikkinen became McLaren's first world champion since 1991, and that Schumi had failed to land Ferrari's first drivers title in 19 years. But no matter how the race turned out, it was a storming race from Schumacher, showing all that was good about the German, and because he never finished the race it is very often forgotten in the list of his greatest drives. How he would love a drive of similar stature this weekend!