Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, August 28, 2000

Hakkinen Move Seals Belgian Grand Prix

After Spinning Out, He Roars Back To Overtake Schumacher Near End

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium - Mika Hakkinen balanced one big mistake with one brilliant move Sunday as he won his first Belgian Grand Prix and lifted himself one step closer to his third consecutive Formula One drivers' title.

Hakkinen narrowly missed victory here at Spa last year, when he was beaten by David Coulthard, his teammate at McLaren. After his victory Sunday, the Finn was almost at a loss for words, repeating twice, ''It was incredible.''

Indeed it was.

It was a suspenseful race in which Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen's closest rival in the title race, drove with equal brilliance in his Ferrari.

Hakkinen started from pole, and led for the first 12 laps before spinning out on lap 13 and handing the lead to Schumacher. Hakkinen retook the lead a few laps from the end of the 44-lap race in a superb maneuver that even Schumacher had to applaud.

''Mika made an outstanding move,'' he said. So, too, had Schumacher, much earlier.

The race started on a wet track behind a safety car. Hakkinen pulled off calmly as Jarno Trulli in a Jordan and Jenson Button in a Williams fought for second place, protecting the Finn from Schumacher, who started fourth.

Schumacher slid past Button on the penultimate corner on lap 4 and then overtook Trulli at the first corner on lap 5. Button tried to follow Schumacher through, but rammed into Trulli, causing the Italian to spin out of the race. Button continued.

Schumacher began closing in on Hakkinen, setting one fastest lap time after another. A series of pit stops, as drivers came in to change to dry-weather tires, did not alter the order at the top. By lap 12, Schumacher was only 4.6 seconds behind Hakkinen.

The sun had begun to shine brightly but the track was still not entirely dry around the edges. On lap 13, Hakkinen's rear tire touched the paint on the side of the track. The McLaren lost grip and spun out. It was a huge error that allowed Schumacher to race into the lead. At the end of the next lap, Schumacher was 5.8 seconds ahead of Hakkinen.

''My spin was not planned,'' said Hakkinen. ''The curbs here in Spa are very difficult, very slippery, and when they catch you there's nothing you can really do. I was lucky to stay on the track.''

Schumacher's many fans from across the border cheered while the German sped ahead, apparently on the way to regaining the championship lead he had lost to Hakkinen in the last race.

Hakkinen's mid-race pit stop was marginally faster but he returned to the track about five seconds behind the Ferrari. But, after the stop, the McLaren was faster. Tension mounted as Hakkinen started to catch up.

Lap by lap, Hakkinen made up time on Schumacher, who drove his car through the remaining wet spots on the tarmac to preserve his tires, which were suffering more wear than the Finn's.

By lap 37, Hakkinen was 0.8 behind Schumacher, and after the next lap he was 0.7 back. When the two leaders caught some stragglers with just five laps left, Hakkinen saw his chance to pass. The first attempt, along the back straight, nearly ended the Finn's race when Schumacher turned in on him to defend his position.

''I don't know if my tire touched his car,'' Hakkinen said, who added that he felt his car jump, which made him lose concentration for half a lap.

The two drivers discussed the move after the race, at Hakkinen's urging, because, he said, his immediate reaction was that ''there was something weird going on, and not fair.''

But he said he was not angry with Schumacher.

At the same spot on the next lap, the two leaders caught the BAR car of Ricardo Zonta. Schumacher began to pass the Brazilian on the left, while Hakkinen, taking advantage of the sudden surge in speed from the aerodynamic tow of Zonta's car, sped around the right.

For a moment the three cars were side by side down one of the fastest straightaways. Hakkinen came out ahead not only of Zonta but of Schumacher.

''Normally that kind of situation is quite unusual,'' Hakkinen said. '' I knew there was no point in trying to follow Michael and overtake him, because obviously he's not going to give me room. So I took plan B and went completely inside and overtook the back marker and at the same time overtook Michael.''

The maneuver gained Hakkinen one of his greatest victories.

He drove his McLaren-Mercedes around the 44 laps of the 6.968 kilometer (4.329 miles) track in one hour 28 minutes and 14.494 seconds for an average speed of 208.467 kilometers per hour (129.249 miles per hour).

Schumacher finished 1.1 seconds behind Hakkinen. Ralf Schumacher, Michael's brother, driving a Williams in a race almost on his own, finished more than half a minute behind the two leaders in third place.

Coulthard, in the other McLaren, came in fourth, Button, in the other Williams, came in fifth and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in a Jordan, finished sixth.

It was Hakkinen's fourth victory this season, the 17th of his career and his first in Belgium. It brought his total in the drivers standings to 74 points, six more than second-place Schumacher at 68. Coulthard is third with 61.

''We have four races to go,'' Schumacher said, ''We know that we're a little bit behind. But I'm still optimistic; nothing is lost yet.''

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