Saturday 10 June 2017

In Retrospect: The 1999 European Grand Prix, by Steven Critchley

F1 action will return to Baku's treacherous street circuit on 25 June, after a successful hosting of last year's European Grand Prix, which returned to the calendar after a three-year absence. This time, it will be host to the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix, once more testing the technical abilities of constructors in a more diverse way, while also forcing drivers on the circuit to time their overtakes to perfection.

As a street circuit, Baku offers little margin for error from anyone, regardless of how experienced or decorated they may be. Another battle of Ferrari versus Mercedes is expected, but the negation of the disparity that once existed is reflected by Mercedes's Valtteri Bottas being priced at 28/1 on bet365's F1 betting odds to win this year's title. However, the unpredictability that typically characterises a new F1 circuit was in full evidence last year, when Sergio Perez enjoyed a rare moment in the sun in an unfancied Force India car and finished third.

19 June 2016: Drivers speak to press after the inaugural F1 race in Baku. 

For his part, then-champion Lewis Hamilton was left disappointed after finishing fifth. It was not the first time that fans and drivers alike have been left to reflect on the lost illusion of a champion's immortality after a European Grand Prix. After becoming a standalone event in 1983, the top of the podium was always occupied by a hot favourite with real title credentials. However, that all changed in 1999, when the event was held at Nurburgring circuit, and an oft-overlooked Brit named Johnny Herbert emerged victorious for Stewart Racing. As a constructor, Stewart was the very personification of the 'underdog' back in the late 1990s, and the qualifying round would prove to be little indication of the race to come.

In the bosom of his home country, Heinz-Harald Frentzen claimed pole position after a fantastic qualifying run, with Britain's flagship driver David Coulthard in second. Herbert, meanwhile, was consigned to 14th after appearing sluggish throughout qualifying. On a day in which the erratic weather conditions proved decisive, Herbert's key to victory was a shrewd decision from his construction team to change to wet tyres at precisely the right time. The underrated Brit's progress up the field was quiet, and thus largely unfettered, especially with other teams making tyres changes at a later time and to their detriment. Giancarlo Fisichella and David Coulthard both led at times in the earlier stretches of the race, but both suffered a spin while leading and saw themselves out of contention for victory.

26 September 1999: The conclusion of the 1999 European Grand Prix.

Ralf Schumacher also led, but suffered a puncture on lap 50 and handed the lead to Herbert, who maintained it all the way to the chequered flag. Four years later, another shock would be produced when Ralf Schumacher himself won at Nurburgring in the same event. In the context of the time, it was a remarkable (and for neutrals, hugely welcome) aberration from the usual effortless win from brother Michael Schumacher, who was in the midst of a five-year title winning streak with Ferrari.

One of the ongoing debates among F1 fans is whether or not the European Grand Prix should consistently feature on the yearly calendar. Once more absent this year, it is well-suited to the points system that was introduced in 2010, with the 25 points now awarded for a win ensuring that the event could not fail to add further unpredictability to a title race.

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