Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, October 30, 1999

Grand Prix Drivers Set for Final Battle

In Japan, Irvine and Hakkinen Both Have Chance of Snatching the Title

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The outcome of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday will determine whether this season's Formula One championship is about speed or reliability.

Eddie Irvine and Ferrari got to the top of the standings by being more reliable than Mika Hakkinen and McLaren. Hakkinen, who earned 11 pole positions, was faster, but like Irvine he only won four races.

But if Irvine's words on Thursday in Suzuka are an indication of how he will drive on Sunday for what may become his first world drivers' title, then Hakkinen will have to watch out.

''I don't intend to treat it any differently from the way I would treat any other race,'' Irvine said. ''You must do things the same way that you normally do them. If you try to do too much, you cause confusion. I intend to cruise along in my normal mode.''

That cruising mode started in the first race of the season at the Australian Grand Prix in March when Irvine inherited his first Formula One victory after both Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher, in the other Ferrari, were knocked out of contention with technical problems.

The Northern Irishman led the championship through the next race, in Brazil, where Hakkinen won, and Irvine gained two points for finishing fifth.

At the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Irvine's car suffered its only breakdown this season and it was Schumacher who inherited the victory from Hakkinen, who drove his car off the track into a wall while leading the race.

The Monaco Grand Prix was the high point of the season for Ferrari when Schumacher and Irvine came in first and second, and the team led the constructors' championship 44 points to 20 over McLaren. But the next four races saw a drop in the team and car's level and errors by Schumacher that culminated in a first-lap accident at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July in which Schumacher broke his leg.

During those four races, while Schumacher gained only six points, and Hakkinen gained 26, Irvine steadily scored in each race to gather 14 points. As Schumacher exited the series in second place with 32 points, Irvine took over the role as the team's number one driver and also had 32 points. He played the role perfectly by winning the next two races, in Austria and Germany.

Ferrari's momentum finally slumped in August when McLaren came in first and second in the next two races. Hakkinen won in Hungary, but after a first corner scuffle with David Coulthard in Belgium he finished only second. The four points he lost would have put him equal to Irvine today.

Irvine nevertheless continued his steady stride through the points, finishing third in Hungary and fourth in Belgium. As the series went to the Italian Grand Prix last month, Hakkinen led the standings by one point, 60 to 59.

Hakkinen dominated Ferrari's home grand prix until he made a gearshift error while leading the race and he spun off. The 1998 world champion broke down in tears of frustration by the side of the track that symbolized his and his team's entire season.

While Hakkinen cried, Irvine finished the Italian Grand Prix in sixth place, and gained the single point that drew him level to Hakkinen. Then at the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Germany, the two leaders fought out the championship at the back of the pack before Hakkinen finished in fifth place for two points, while Irvine got none.

So in Malaysian two weeks ago, Hakkinen and McLaren which was eight points ahead of Ferrari could have clinched the championships. But the race marked the return of Schumacher. The German qualified a second faster than Hakkinen and Irvine, and then pulled aside to let Irvine pass him to win the race.

That put both Irvine and Ferrari back in the lead by four points. (Ferrari was subsequently disqualified after McLaren complained about the legality of its cars, but a week later they were re-instated.)

To win the title, Irvine must simply finish ahead of Hakkinen, or hope the Finn does not score enough points to tie him. Hakkinen will win the title if he wins in Japan, or if he ties Irvine. He can only do that by finishing second or third, depending on Irvine's position. In a tie, Hakkinen wins on the basis of his greater number of second or third placings throughout the season.

Should McLaren tie Ferrari, by earning four points more than the team on Sunday, they will win the constructors' title on the basis of the number of victories. Ferrari must simply stay ahead.

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