Reigning world champions McLaren entered the 1999 Formula 1® World Championship with the biggest targets on their backs, appearing to have the best package at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. But while their MP4/14 showed plenty of early pace, the new car lacked reliability, as McLaren suffered in Melbourne.
The Woking-based team dominated practice and qualifying at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit, locking out the front row of the grid by over one second to next best Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari.
But the first signs of trouble came before the race had even begun. While the cars peeled out on to the grid, polesitter Mika Hakkinen was stuck in the garage with a technical problem, leaving McLaren with no quick solution other than moving the Finn into the spare car.
More drama appeared on the grid when Hakkinen’s car failed to get going for the formation lap. As the McLaren team worked desperately to get Hakkinen moving, Schumacher stalled his engine while waiting and was forced to start from the back of the grid.
Further trouble unfolded when the Stewart cars of Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello both caught fire from an oil leak. While Barrichello was able to jump into the team’s spare car, Herbert became the first of many retirements on the day.
When the lights finally went out, McLaren filed one-two into Turn 1 with Hakkinen leading David Coulthard. The duo put their new machinery through its paces, creating a three-second buffer to Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine by the end of the opening lap. Thirteen laps later, the duo expanded their lead to an astonishing 18 seconds before Coulthard suddenly appeared in pit lane and retired with transmission problems.
Simultaneously, Hakkinen developed issues of his own and lost all his lead when the Safety Car scrambled for an eye-catching incident involving Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian spectacularly lost his rear-wing along the back straight, sending him into a high-speed spin.
McLaren were worried and also vulnerable, with Hakkinen left a sitting duck when the race resumed. He was immediately brought in for a pit stop and sent back out just before a second Safety Car intervention halted the race for an accident involving Williams’ Alex Zanardi.
With the race neutralised, Hakkinen’s woes worsened as the team opted to retire his problematic car, ending the weekend with what would be McLaren’s first and only double retirement for the year.
The race suddenly fell into Ferrari’s hands as Irvine took the race lead, ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the yellow Jordan. The 33-year-old kept a firm eye on his mirrors as Frentzen trailed closely behind for the remainder of the Grand Prix.
Plenty of mechanical issues continued to plague the field, ending Mark Gene, Oliver Panis, Jarno Trulli, Pedro Diniz, Alexander Wurz, Luca Badoer and Ricardo Zonta’s days.
Schumacher almost suffered his own retirement, sustaining a puncture at high-speed along the back straight. The German managed to crawl back to the pit lane, changing tyres and swapping for a new front wing after damage was sustained through vibration. Unusually, the front wing bared the number four, initially intended for Irvine’s car if needed.
Schumacher’s race was further compromised when the German entered the pit lane without notice. His team ordered him back out and to return pit lane on the following lap to replace his steering wheel for a new one, having struggled to cope with damage sustained earlier.
Back at the front, Irvine held station, keeping Frentzen at bay as he crossed the line to claim his maiden Formula 1® victory, 81 races into his career. Irvine would go on to win three more races in 1999 with Ferrari, narrowly missing out on the championship to McLaren’s Hakkinen by two points.