"We felt we were going the right way and the current car is the best I've ever driven."
Michael Schumacher, who was due to start in third place, was forced to start from the back of the grid in his Ferrari after he stalled following a delayed start when the two Stewarts of Rubens Barrichello and Johnny Herbert broke down.
Back of grid: Michael Schumacher
The setback was a repeat of last season's finale in Japan, where Schumacher stalled in his decisive race with Hakkinen, which helped his rival to the title.
Barrichello had to start from the pit-lane in a replacement car while Sauber's Jean Alesi joined Herbert in retirement when he stalled at the restart.
Damon Hill's 100th career grand prix ended in miserable fashion when he was pushed into the gravel in his Jordan on the opening lap.
Jacques Villeneuve: Pulled out after aerofoil flew off
Another former world champion, Jacques Villeneuve of Canada, crashed into the wall on the 14th lap after a rear wing collapsed on his brand new British American Racing car.
World Champion Mika Hakkinen (McLaren), who led from pole, had extended his lead to 1.2secs over team-mate David Coulthard by the end of lap five. The McLaren duo looked set to repeat last year's one-two when they lapped the rest of the field until both were forced out wih mechanical failures.
Irvine who was nearly 13 seconds back, took over the lead with Frentzen in second. Schumacher had charged up to fourth spot, but had to drop back through the field again with a puncture.