An unpredictable season, fought down to the wire even if, in the end, it was not to see the much-awaited Drivers͛ title return to Ferrari. But 1999 was a year that saw the Scuderia take the Constructors’ title for the first time in 16 years, since it was last won by René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay in the 126 C3.
Over the winter Ferrari finalised the F399 with the help of the now fully operational new wind tunnel in Maranello designed by Renzo Piano. The season opened in Melbourne, Australia, where reigning champions McLaren monopolised the front row. Unfortunately Michael Schumacher’s championship began in the same way that 1998 had concluded. Clutch trouble caused his engine to stall on the grid meaning he had to start from the back. The McLarens surged ahead, only to break down one after the other within a few laps. The race was won by Ferrari͛s Eddie Irvine – the first in his career. What everyone was eagerly anticipating, however, was the duel between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher who were back in the mix from the next race. The Finnish McLaren driver won in Brazil, but the German triumphed at Imola, in front of ecstatic fans, and Monaco, where Ferrari pulled off a one-two. Hakkinen took victory in Spain and again in Canada where Schumacher ended his race after colliding with the ͚Wall of Champions͛. The rain-soaked French GP instead saw an outsider, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, take the flag in the Jordan. The British Grand Prix took place on 11 July, at Silverstone. The two McLarens led at the start, pursued by Irvine and Schumacher. Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Zanardi were stuck on the grid so the race was red flagged. However, the front-runners were now at Stowe corner, where Schumacher tried an attack on Irvine. But Schumacher had a brake problem, which caused him to crash into the tyre wall at high speed. He immediately tried to pull himself out of the cockpit, but he quickly realised his right leg was injured and let himself drop back into the car. The impact had broken his tibia and fibula. His season finished there, at least as far as the title fight was concerned. Coulthard won the race ahead of Irvine who became the Scuderia’s lead driver. At that point Hakkinen led the championship standings on 40 points with Schumacher and Irvine following on 32 each.
Irvine’s promotion seemed to spur him on. He won in Austria and Germany with a bit of help from the lack of team play by the two McLaren drivers, while in contrast Schumacher’s replacement, the Finn Mika Salo, made a vital contribution. In Hungary Hakkinen won again while Irvine made a mistake and came off the track with eight laps to go, thus surrendering second position to the other McLaren of Coulthard. Eddie still led though, two points ahead of Hakkinen. In the next three races Salo and Irvine collected a miserly eight and four points respectively, but that was enough for the McLaren driver to regain the championship lead with only two races to go.
Schumacher made his big come-back in Malaysia, and after taking pole position acted as the perfect team driver by letting Irvine pass at the start while slowing Hakkinen down and forcing him into third place. Irvine arrived for the finale in Japan, two weeks later, with a four-point lead, the same that Ferrari held over McLaren in the Constructors’ championship. Eddie’s weekend immediately became complicated. He left the track disastrously during qualifying, dropping him down on the grid. Schumacher took pole but Hakkinen overtook him at the start. Schumacher managed to keep to within just a few seconds of the Finn, but was unable to pull of an attack that would have made Irvine’s third place count. Hakkinen won the world championship, with Irvine just two points behind. Ferrari could at least count on the Constructors’ title, its first in many years. It was the Scuderia’s ninth but many more were going to come their way over the next few years…