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“I have to admit, it was a bit scary. I had no brakes, no steering, nothing was working. I was just sitting there hurtling down the track with wheels hitting me on the head and cars going all over the place. There was nothing I could do except sit there and think ‘S**t, where is this taking me?’ It was not pleasant…”
Eddie Irvine’s harrowing recollection of the first-lap accident that struck just moments into the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps offers a vivid insight into the scale and ferocity of what remains one of the most notorious F1 pile-ups.
In total the incident lasted barely 15 seconds, but by the time it was over no fewer than 13 of the 22 machines that took the start had bitten the dust and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage had been accrued.
Never before had so many cars been destroyed in so little time, but just what had caused such unbridled carnage?
The chief culprit, as is so often the case at Spa, was the weather. The race got underway amid a characteristically torrential Ardennes downpour, meaning the field arrived at the circuit’s excruciatingly tight first corner, La Source, bunched together and shrouded in spray.
Somewhat amazingly the entire grid managed to negotiate the right-hander without incident, but as McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen led the pack down the hill towards Eau Rouge, the Finn’s team mate David Coulthard - sitting in fourth - lost control after running over a drain cover.
In an instant the Scot’s silver MP4-13 speared sideways out of the gloom and smashed violently into the inside retaining wall, the force of the impact spitting the car back across the circuit and into the path of the onrushing pack.
The scale of devastation that followed was unprecedented.
Detached tyres and shards of carbon fibre bodywork filled the air as cars lost control and ricocheted into one another at will, one brutal impact following another. Then, just as the chaos seemed to be waning, along came the unsighted tail-enders, cannoning helplessly into the wreckage.
After what must have felt like an eternity to those caught up in the mayhem, the collisions eventually abated and the race was red-flagged. The drivers involved, all of whom escaped largely unscathed, raced back to the pits to collect spare cars for the re-start, but they needn’t have rushed - such was the scale of the accident that it took nearly an hour to clear the circuit of debris.
When the race was eventually re-started, only 18 cars made it to the grid, with Stewart, Prost, Arrows and Tyrrell all left with just one unshunted machine at their disposal. Of the 11 teams, only Jordan escaped the melee with both cars intact, thanks in part to the quick thinking of drivers Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher, who’d both been behind Coulthard when he’d lost control.
"It was quite funny,” Ralf later reflected, “because I just spotted a McLaren sideways in front of me and then I saw the mess going on all around me. So I moved my car left, parked it in neutral and waited, just in time to see an Arrows suddenly missing me by about ten centimetres. Then when everything had settled, I just engaged a gear and went through."
But that wouldn’t be the end of Jordan’s luck. In the re-started race, with rain still falling heavily, the damage tally climbed to an incredible 23 cars as drivers continued to fall off the road and crash into each other. The most notable casualty? Race leader Michael Schumacher, whose unfortunate demise - via another memorable shunt with Coulthard - promoted Hill and Ralf Schumacher into an unlikely one-two and paved the way for a memorable maiden victory for the popular Irish team.