Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, October 31, 1998

Questions for Grand Prix

One Is Already Answered: The Cars Are Equal

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The practice session on Friday for the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka addressed one of the three pressing questions of Sunday's championship-deciding final race.

The answer is that the duel between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher will be fought with cars of virtually equal quality.

Schumacher clocked the fastest time, 1 minute 39.823 seconds, around the 5.86-kilometer (3.643-mile) circuit. His brother, Ralf, was the second-fastest, in a Jordan, ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen in a Williams, and Eddie Irvine in the other Ferrari.

Coming in fifth in his McLaren, Hakkinen trailed Schumacher by 0.8 seconds, but they ran neck and neck throughout the sessions before traffic prevented the Finn from improving at the end on fresh tires.

Since the last race five weeks ago at the Nurburgring in Germany, the championship leaders worked furiously to develop their cars. After trailing all season, the Ferrari has finally caught up. But the biggest question of the weekend who will be champion will be answered only after the one now hanging most strongly in the air: What tactics will the winner use?

Both cars being equal, the title should go to the best driver. To win his first title, Hakkinen need only finish ahead of Schumacher. Or, if they tie, the title still goes to the Finn since he would have a greater number of first- or second-place finishes. Schumacher must come in first or second, with Hakkinen doing no better than third or sixth.

Several previous such showdowns ended in controversy with the drivers trying to knock each other off the track. In 1989 and 1990, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna decided their titles in collisions at Suzuka. In 1994, Schumacher won his first drivers' title in Australia against Damon Hill when the two collided out while Schumacher had a one-point advantage.

But last year in Jerez, Spain, when Schumacher rammed into Jacques Villeneuve's car, the drivers learned that such moves do not always benefit the points leader. Schumacher went off, while Villeneuve drove his damaged car to third place, and won the title.

So the issue now is not whether Hakkinen and Schumacher will try to bump each other off, but whether their respective teammates, David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine, will try to do it for them. Coulthard said Thursday he would not do such a thing to help Hakkinen: ''I have never done that for my own championships in the past, so I don't see why I should do it for someone else's.''

Irvine said that Hakkinen would have to be careful overtaking him, but he added, ''I wouldn't want to take Mika off or anybody else off for that matter so that Michael could win the championship because I wouldn't want somebody to do it to me.''

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