This is the eighth installment in RACER’s ongoing 25th anniversary celebration during which we share the 25 most important issues from our first quarter century.
The trouble with being the most revered automotive brand (and one of the world’s most revered brands, period) is that your greatness is not just celebrated, it’s expected. For those associated with Scuderia Ferrari, that means rock-star adulation when you’re winning and relentless commercial pressure when you’re not. The joy and relief clear on the faces of the team following Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Australia on Sunday was clear evidence of that.
And that was for a Ferrari team that has gone a “mere” 10 years without a championship. In 1998, the passionate Tifosi were wringing their hands over a 19-year title-less streak in F1.
But times were changing. The arrival of world champion Michael Schumacher and the director of his title-winning efforts at Benetton-Renault, Ross Brawn, for 1996 had turned the red cars from mediocrities into contenders, if not quite on the same level as the Williams-Renaults, and the following year Schumacher had fought Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve to the last race before their controversial collision ended his hopes.
Another obstacle to Ferrari’s resurgence had arisen in 1998 when the McLaren-Mercedes team emerged as the leading constructor out of the gate, but Schumacher had swept to three straight wins at midseason and, as RACER’s September issue was in preparation, all was looking promising for the Scuderia.
So, was Schumacher “The Man Who Saved Ferrari”? According to Maurice Hamilton’s cover story, team director Brawn actually deserved as much credit. That theory would gain more credence the following year when an injury forced Schumacher to the sidelines and his number two, Eddie Irvine, emerged as a title threat for the house that Brawn built.
Shining a spotlight on the need to continually push for enhancements to race driver safety has been a key element of RACER from the inception of the magazine. In 1998, it was NASCAR that was drawing particular attention on this score after a rash of serious injuries to its drivers in crashes. Gerald Martin addressed the matter with his feature story for the September issue. NASCAR would implement a multi-year program to address concerns over the safety of NASCAR’s Cup cars, which culminated in the introduction of the “Car of Tomorrow” in 2007.
Less urgent than safety but still a nettlesome issue at the time was the continuing absence of an American driver – or much American involvement of any kind – in Formula 1. Gordon Kirby went to the most credible source on the subject – America’s most recent world champion, Mario Andretti – to get his perspective on why the prospects for a new American champion looked bleaker than ever.
While the USA still has no F1 drivers of its own to cheer for two decades later, the re-establishment of the U.S. Grand Prix and an American-owned team has significantly raised the profile of the sport here, a vital first step. The influence of the sport’s new American-based ownership could also change the paradigm.
Times were changing on the media front, too. RACER‘s innovative editorial approach and cutting-edge design were increasingly being noticed beyond the ranks of traditional motorsports media. While working on the July 1998 issue, we learned that RACER had been selected as one of the year’s top 12 magazines by min magazine – magazine media’s trusted source for consumer and B2B brands – alongside the likes of Elle, The New Yorker and ESPN The Magazine. It was another encouraging sign of mainstream affirmation of RACER‘s mission that a “racing magazine” could go far beyond tradtional definitions of the category.
Meanwhile “The Internet” had evolved beyond the mysterious stuff of futurists into a growing means of communication, and RACER jumped into this new world with the first incarnation of RACER.com in May 1997. Initially, the website was an evolution of the “RaceWeek” fax news service we had previously produced that had been edited by Gordon Kirby, who collaborated with Bill King on RACER‘s web-based news hub. It was already clear that the way the public would get news and indulge interest in subjects like motor racing would profoundly change in the years ahead.
Also, by this time Haymarket Publishing had reached out to RACER to inquire about buying the majority of the company and a conversation began that would run until January 2001 before it became reality.