Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, July 29, 2000

2 McLarens Threaten Schumacher's Lead

Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
HOCKENHEIM, Germany - Ear-shattering cheering and horn-honking buried the howling roar of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari engine as he raced through the stadium sector of the Hockenheim track Friday.

But at the German Grand Prix on Sunday, Schumacher, the leader of the Formula One drivers' series, will need more than the support of his home crowd to beat the McLarens, which, with their Mercedes engines, are also, in a way, at their home track.

Schumacher has failed to finish three of his last four races, allowing the two McLaren drivers to close in. On Sunday, either David Coulthard or Mika Hakkinen -- six and eight points, respectively, behind the German -- could take the lead in the standings for the first time this season.

McLaren, only four points behind Ferrari, may also dethrone the Italian team from the lead in the constructors' championship for the first time this season.

''The results haven't been ideal,'' Schumacher said. ''But I would like to think that we have now had enough bad luck to be able to start turning things around again.''

He made a good start Friday, setting the fastest time of the free-practice sessions, at one minute and 43.532 seconds around the 6.825-kilometer (4.24-mile) track for an average speed of 237.317 kilometers an hour.

Hakkinen was third fastest and Coulthard only fifth. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, another German, created a surprise by finishing second in his Jordan, only 0.043 of a second slower than Schumacher.

On Sunday, the focus will be on the battle between the two leading teams. For the first time in years, there are two contenders with equally good cars.

After 10 races, Ferrari and McLaren have five victories and five pole positions each. While the Ferraris have suffered four breakdowns, to three for McLaren, McLaren cars have been disqualified twice.

McLaren has set the fastest lap in seven of the 10 races, Ferrari has recorded the fastest lap in the other three. But Hakkinen, who has a reputation for pure speed, set five of those lap times, while Schumacher, who has the reputation as the best all-round driver, has accounted for all five of Ferrari's victories.

That distinction is significant because it takes more than a single fast lap to win a race. The best drivers know how to get the most out of a car over a whole race: how to preserve tires, to save fuel, to build speed at the appropriate moments or slow down to reduce wear on their machines while they are ahead.

This season, for the first time since joining Ferrari in 1996, Schumacher has had a competitive car from the start.

''It's undoubtedly the best car we've had at the beginning of a season,'' said Jean Todt, the Ferrari director. ''While we also had a good car in the previous years, it was usually only good by the middle of the season.''

In each of the past three seasons, Ferrari has started poorly but came from behind to challenge for the drivers' title in the last race and lose.

In the past two years, Hakkinen has hung on to win the drivers' title. The year before, Jacques Villeneuve won the title driving a Williams.

Ferrari gained a head start this season by winning the first three races while McLaren suffered teething problems. Both McLarens broke down in the first race in Australia. In the second race, in Brazil, Hakkinen's car broke down and Coulthard's was disqualified because its front wing measurement was outside the limits.

McLaren fell afoul of the technical regulations two weeks ago. After Hakkinen won the Austrian Grand Prix, a plastic seal was found to be missing from the car's data box.

On Tuesday, Formula One officials announced that the car's software met regulations and that the driver had gained no advantage from the infringement. Hakkinen kept his 10 points, but the team was stripped of 10 points in the constructors' championship.

Hakkinen said at Hockenheim that while he was unhappy for the team, the disqualification did not prevent him having a good vacation between races. That was a warning to Schumacher, for the Finn also took a break before winning in Austria.

''I am fit, relaxed and rested,'' he said. ''I am even stronger than in Austria.''

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