Whenever the Canadian Grand Prix nears, talk amongst F1 fans usually includes a mention of the Wall of Champions. But what is the Wall of Champions? And how did it earn that title? Look no further than the 1999 race, which was by anybody’s standards, a classic.
Going into the race, Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher lead McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen in the drivers’ standings by six points, but the latter was in better form after winning last time out in Spain. In what was a very tight qualifying session, Schumacher qualified on pole by just twenty-nine thousandths of a second from Hakkinen, with Ferrari number 2 Eddie Irvine and the second McLaren of David Coulthard on the second row.
The weather was sunny and scorching hot for the Grand Prix and the heat had seemingly gotten to Jarno Trulli and Jean Alesi, with both spectacularly crashing out at the first corner. Michael Schumacher lead away in his Ferrari, with Hakkinen in close company, while Giancarlo Fisichella made an excellent start from seventh on the grid and was up to fourth. After a brief Safety Car period, the race was back underway but Ricardo Zonta became the first victim of the Quebec Wall. The Brazilian took the chicane far too fast, lost the rear end and broke his suspension on the unforgiving barrier.
The Safety Car neutralised the race for the second time and when it returned to the pits at the end of the seventh lap, Schumacher caught Hakkinen napping to open up a decent lead. The leading two continued to pull away from their British teammates but it was another Brit that was about to grab everybody’s attention. 1996 World Champion, Damon Hill, made a similar mistake to Zonta on Lap 15 of 69. His Jordan was carrying too much speed into the final chicane and he broke his suspension on the wall.
By Lap 29 and Schumacher had opened up his lead over Hakkinen to a couple of seconds and was looking comfortable. But looks can be deceiving and he got onto the inside kerbing, unsettled his car and skidded straight into the wall at terrific speed. It was a pure mistake, something we almost never saw from the German. Hakkinen inherited the lead and the Flying Finn had a golden opportunity to take the lead in the championship. The wall, wasn’t done yet, though.
Just five laps later, the local hero and 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, wrecked his BAR by colliding head-first into the outside wall of (you guessed it) the final chicane. Three of the drivers that had won four of the last five Drivers’ championships had crashed out of the race at the same point on the track, that was how the Wall of Champions was Christened.
The Safety Car was inevitably brought out for Villeneuve’s stricken BAR and most of the remaining drivers took the opportunity to pit for the sole fuel and tyre stop. David Coulthard had been stuck behind Eddie Irvine for most of the race, and he clearly let his frustrations show by trying a daring move around the outside at the restart. Irvine attempted to shut the door but Coulthard kept his foot in it which sent them both off the track and to the back of the pack.
Giancarlo Fisichella had now moved up to second but it didn’t last long as a couple of back-markers balked him and Heinz-Harald Frentzen snuck through to gain a position. Irvine was channeling his rage in pure pace as he was scything his way through the field. By Lap 48 he was back in the points and on the gearbox of Johnny Herbert for fifth and, a few laps later, Irvine was passed the Stewart driver, despite both drivers cutting the final chicane. However, it was insult added to injury for Coulthard as he was given a stop/go penalty, trampling any slim hope he had of a points finish.
Irvine continued his recovery by blasting past Ralf Schumacher on the back straight on Lap 58 and the podium was in his cross-hairs. Third place was a long way ahead of the Ferrari driver and looked a like a steep climb to reach but that was all before Frentzen had a brake failure with just a few laps to go. The Jordan driver flew off the track at Turn 3 and was out of what looked like an almost certain podium.
This mean that this Grand Prix became the first to end under Safety car, with Hakkinen first, Fisichella second and Irvine third.