Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, October 20, 2000

Champion Schumacher Sets Sights on Securing Constructors' Title for Ferrari

Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - In five of the past six seasons, the Formula One drivers' title was decided only by the last race, leading cynics to suggest that the series had been manipulated by its organizers to provide suspense until the end.

Thanks to Michael Schumacher's victory at the Japanese Grand Prix two weeks ago, giving him his third drivers' title and Ferrari's first in 21 years, the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday has lost half of its suspense, but not half of its interest.

The constructors' title, awarded to the team with the most points combined between both its drivers, will be decided by Sunday's race.

If Ferrari wins it -- the team leads by 13 points -- it will also be the first time in 21 years for Ferrari to win both titles in the same season. Last year the Italian team won its first constructors' title since 1983. But neither the team nor the Italian fans considered that title a consolation prize for not winning the drivers' title.

''My first target was to win the driver's title and I clinched it in Suzuka, Japan,'' Schumacher said in Malaysia on Thursday. ''But there is still the constructors' title at stake and our intentions are clear, which is to retain it.''

But both teams know that Ferrari's task is not as difficult as McLaren's. McLaren can only win the title if both Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard finish first and second (for 16 points) or first and third (for 14 points), and providing Ferrari fails to gain three points in the first instance, or one point in the second. If the teams finish equal on points, Ferrari will win based on its greater number of victories this year. Ferrari has nine victories to McLaren's seven.

''Our preparation for Malaysia is no different from our preparation for any other Grand Prix -- we go there to win,'' said Ron Dennis, McLaren's owner and director. ''Our aim is to add to the seven victories and seven pole positions we have achieved so far this year.''

What he did not allude to are the bigger stakes: McLaren has a record 11 drivers' titles -- to 10 for Ferrari -- but the team has won only eight constructors' titles, to nine each for Ferrari and Williams. Another constructors' title would elevate the team to an equal status with the other two, while remaining ahead in the drivers' category.

Another constructors' title victory for Ferrari would place the team on the highest rung, with 10 titles for it, to nine for Williams. So in the end, the Malaysian Grand Prix may well turn out to be yet another duel between the top two teams, leaving all the others to fight for the scraps of the top six points-earning places. Ironically, it is this very close, cutthroat battle to the last race that pushes the top teams to the limits, lifting them high above the other contestants, that gives Formula One critics their other complaint: that the same teams always win. If the title were decided a little earlier in the season, perhaps another team or two would rise to the occasion to win occasionally.

If a McLaren car drops out of contention during Sunday's race, then why not a first victory for Jacques Villeneuve at his two-year-old British American Racing team, or a career first victory for Jenson Button at Williams?

Marc Gene, the Spaniard at Minardi, would certainly be a popular winner, as he drives at a team that has not won a race during its entire 15 years in the sport and has not scored a single point this year.

And Jean Alesi at Prost would certainly be another popular one if he scored only his second victory in the sport after 12 years, and the first points for his team this year. But because of the technological differences in the cars of those two last placed teams compared to the top two, their hopes of victory really ride on the effects of a possible rainstorm in what is now Malaysia's monsoon season.

One fact ought to ensure another close competition between McLaren and Ferrari again on Sunday: Rubens Barrichello, of Ferrari, lies nine points behind David Coulthard, of McLaren, in the championship. If Barrichello wins and Coulthard scores no points, the Brazilian would take Coulthard's third place overall in the championship. ''To finish third in the championship would be the greatest thing,'' Barrichello said, ''the fight is still open.''

Coulthard in Malaysia on Thursday gave an indication of his motivation: ''I have been third a few times now. It doesn't mean anything to me.''

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