Michael Schumacher remains the pre-eminent driver, but Mika Hakkinen is a worthy champion, which is not necessarily a contradiction in the context of this business. Hakkinen has capitalised on his superior equipment and withstood sustained pressure from Schumacher.
For the second successive season, however, Formula One is indebted to Schumacher and his Ferrari team for making a contest of it and taking the title to the wire at the Japanese Grand Prix. Twelve months ago the German's ambition and indignation got the better of him and he resorted to an ill-fated ram-raid on Jacques Villeneuve's Williams. This time he was undone from the moment he stalled on the grid at Suzuka and eventually he succumbed to a tyre blow-out.
Had Schumacher been given a lengthy ban, as some demanded in the clamour that followed Jerez last year, who would have taken the fight to McLaren- Mercedes? There is frankly no one else out there who would have been capable of doing so.
Even Schumacher could not, in the end, bridge the performance gap between McLaren and Ferrari. He, and his team, closed it sufficiently to create a spectacle that not only went the distance but also left the audience craving the opening of the next production, in the spring.
McLaren emerged this past spring as dominant as many inside the sport feared. Their car, created by Adrian Newey, who defected from Williams, and powered by an engine long developed and refined by Ilmor, was simply a class above the rest. Hakkinen won in Australia, albeit with the compliance of his team-mate, David Coulthard, and won again in Brazil.
It seemed the only hope for the show was that Coulthard might get his act together and give us a domestic squabble. Instead, Schumacher muscled him out of that row, quite literally, in Argentina, and although Coulthard won at Imola he soon became resigned to a bit part.
Ferrari took a significant step forward in early summer, raising suspicions about the legality of their car. They were adamant an improvement in their tyres had contributed substantially to their progress.
A combination of gremlins in the works at McLaren, Ferrari's remarkable reliability, and Schumacher's incomparable ability to exploit weaknesses and capricious weather conditions, changed the complexion of the championship. He won in Canada, France and Britain to hoist himself up to Hakkinen's shoulder.
The challenge brought the best out of McLaren and Hakkinen, who countered with emphatic victories in Austria and Germany. Schumacher squandered the opportunity to lead the championship when he ran into the back of Coulthard at Spa, but drew level in Italy.
It appeared the balance had shifted Schumacher's way, the more so as he claimed pole position at the Nurburgring for the penultimate race. To his dismay, Hakkinen produced perhaps the performance of his life and regained the initiative.
That we were denied the final showdown by a rule that stipulates a driver who stalls on the grid must start at the back is the abiding disappointment of the season. The abiding memories are of the stirring, fluctuating duel, the bravado of Schumacher and the growing stature of Hakkinen. The Finn has moulded innate speed and courage into consistent racing potency. He has disproved the theories about a lack of cunning and nerve with a series of masterly, authoritative drives. Eight grand prix wins is testimony to his season's work.
McLaren, despite their blips, have had a superb year, and are restored to the top of the pile for the first time since 1991, a tribute to the unflinching resolve of Ron Dennis and his charges. Ferrari salvaged credit and self-esteem from a season they promised would be theirs yet might have subjected them to humiliation.
The field, of course, is cluttered with contrasting emotions. Williams will be gratified that they have clung on to third place in the constructors' championship as they negotiate a period of transition. Benetton will be less easily consoled. They collapsed in the second half of the season, parted company with their team principal, David Richards, and were shunted to fifth place in the standings.
They lost fourth position to Jordan, the alternative success story of the championship. They failed to score a point in the first half of the season and the future looked grim for Eddie Jordan and his expensive signing, Damon Hill. But Jordan ordered a comprehensive redevelopment of the car, and Ralf Schumacher's sixth place at Silverstone directed them back on course. Hill hauled himself on track with fourth place in Germany and followed up with another fourth in Hungary.
Then came the improbable - what had seemed the impossible - in Belgium. McLaren and Ferrari fell by the soggy wayside and it was Jordan who stepped into the breach, with Hill presenting the team with their maiden grand prix victory and the younger Schumacher completing a historic 1-2 success. Sauber led the "second division" where Arrows, Stewart- Ford and, especially, Prost-Peugeot will feel they under-achieved. Tyrrell in their last season, before giving way to British American Racing, could not even muster a swan-song point. Minardi's inability to score was scarcely staggering. They last troubled the scorer three years ago.
This "other" Italian team yearn for a change of fortune next season, as all but McLaren do. Some aspects of the championship will certainly be different. New venues are being prepared in China and Malaysia, and with only one tyre supplier no one will be able to hide their incompetence behind the black art. Besides, the fewer the technical complications, the greater Formula One's credibility as a sport.
Jordan are justifiably optimistic they can make an even bigger impression on proceedings next season. Hill's partner will be Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who replaced him at Williams and now changes places with Ralf Schumacher. Alex Zanardi completes an all-new line-up for the deposed champions.
The likelihood is that McLaren and Ferrari will again compete for the major prize. Hakkinen has told Coulthard it will be his turn next time and the Scotsman has expressed his intention to take it. He is aware that his job at McLaren, let alone a tilt at the title, will depend on a markedly improved level of performance.
Ferrari are once more saying next year will be their year, and they might at last be right. Schumacher should have known what he was letting himself in for at Maranello, but three years without the championship is a long enough purgatory for the best driver in the world, and 20 years will have been long enough for the Italians to wait for a champion.
FROM MELBOURNE TO SUZUKA: HOW THE 1998 DRIVERS' CHAMPIONSHIP WAS WON
8 March: With two laps to go, David Coulthard slowed down allowing team-mate Mika Hakkinen to overtake. Michael Schumacher suffered an engine failure after five laps.
Points after race:
Hakkinen: 10 Schumacher: 0
29 March: Hakkinen cruised home; Schumacher finished third.
Hakkinen: 20 Schumacher: 4
12 April: Schumacher's victory began the Ferrari fight-back. Hakkinen trailed home in second.
Hakkinen: 26 Schumacher: 14
SAN MARINO GP
26 April: Hakkinen's race lasted 17 laps before gearbox failure forced him to retire. Schumacher finished second behind Coulthard.
Hakkinen: 26 Schumacher: 20
10 May: The victorious Hakkinen fought off criticism about being psychologically incapable of coping with the challenge of his team-mate, Coulthard. Schumacher was third.
Hakkinen: 36 Schumacher: 24
24 May: Hakkinen extended his lead over his nearest rival, Coulthard, to 17 points. Schumacher crawled home in 10th place after a torrid race.
Hakkinen: 46 Schumacher 24
7 June: Ferrari hit a purple patch with Schumacher's second win of the season. Hakkinen dropped out on the opening lap with a cracked gearbox.
Hakkinen: 46 Schumacher: 34
28 June: Ferrari pushed Hakkinen back into third place as they secured their first 1-2 finish in eight years. Hakkinen lost time with a spin as he tried to overtake Ferrari's Eddie Irvine.
Hakkinen: 50 Schumacher: 44
12 July: Hakkinen spun off on lap 41 and damaged his car's front wing. Schumacher took the race, with Hakkinen in second.
Hakkinen: 56 Schumacher 54
July 26: McLaren finally responded to the Ferrari fightback with another 1-2 win. Schumacher challenged early for the lead but bounced off after 17 laps. He re-entered the race in 16th place and progressed through the field to finish third.
Hakkinen: 66 Schumacher: 58
2 August: McLaren were back to their early-season best in Hockenheim as Hakkinen led the way to his sixth grand prix win of the year. Schumacher came home in fifth.
Hakkinen: 76 Schumacher: 60
16 August: Hakkinen led until beset by mechanical problems after 47 laps. He finished in sixth place. Schumacher won, despite making three pit-stops to McLaren's two.
Hakkinen: 77 Schumacher: 70
30 Aug: Hakkinen spun off on the restart of lap one. Schumacher led the race but crashed into the back of Coulthard on lap 26 while trying to lap him. The race was eventually won by the ex-world champion, Damon Hill.
Hakkinen: 77 Schumacher: 70
13 Sept: Hakkinen led before struggling from brake problems and finishing fourth. Ferrari enjoyed their first home win in 10 years.
Hakkinen: 80 Schumacher: 80
27 Sept: Schumacher had been favourite to take the race but Hakkinen came through to win, giving him a four-point advantage going into the final race of the season.
Hakkinen: 90 Schumacher: 86
1 November: After stalling his engine on the start, Schumacher was moved to the back of the grid. Unfazed, he charged through the field to fifth place until a tyre exploded on the 31st lap. Hakkinen cruised to his first world championship title.
Hakkinen: 100 Schumacher: 86
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