The 1998 edition of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on 8 March will be remembered in the Formula 1 world when team orders rocked the sport to its core.
McLaren drivers David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen controversially swapped positions late in the race, after a pre-existing agreement decided who would be allowed to win the Grand Prix.
Hakkinen led Coulthard in a McLaren front-row lockout on Sunday afternoon at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit. Both MP4-13s jumped away well, with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher following closely behind. The German attacked hard at Coulthard, almost taking second position at the opening corner.
The top three of Hakkinen, Coulthard and Schumacher then held station, before a sudden engine failure left Schumacher’s F300 stuck on the Main Straight, ending his day early.
After the first round of pit stops, McLaren had a clear lead over the rest of the field as the positions at the front remained the same. However, on Lap 36, McLaren was left confused when race leader Hakkinen came into the pits unexpectedly for a second stop.
The Finn claimed he heard a call from the team to enter the Pit Lane immediately. Hakkinen quickly fled back on track, while team principal Ron Dennis suggested years later in 2007 that Hakkinen’s radio had been tapped into.
The race carried on with Coulthard leading Hakkinen heading into the final stages of the race. Remarkably, the duo had lapped the whole field, benefitting from new rule changes around slimmer car designs and grooved tyres. But with only a handful of laps to go, the lead changed hands.
Out of the final corner, Coulthard purposely let off the accelerator – handing over P1 to his teammate across the start/finish line. The crowd was left stunned and confused.
It was later revealed Coulthard and Hakkinen had made a pre-race decision that the driver who led at the first corner on Lap 1 would go on to win the race, should one of them be in the position to do so.
The podium ceremony left a hush in the crowd when Hakkinen famously raised the arm of his Scottish compatriot, who had settled for second place.
Coulthard and the McLaren team were criticised heavily in the aftermath – Australian Grand Prix Corporation Chairman Ronald J Walker AC CBE lodged an official complaint at the time – with the FIA declaring any further incidents would be investigated accordingly.
Team orders continue to be a controversial topic in Formula 1 to this day. Most recently, the debate surfaced again following Mercedes’ move at the 2018 Russian Grand Prix when Valtteri Bottas gave up his race lead to Lewis Hamilton, in order to defend his championship lead against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.