Top Stories from the Business pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, December 30, 1999

Schumacher's First-Lap Crash Rocks Grand Prix

Around the World, It Was a Year of Memorable Moments

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
The journalist at the desk next to mine looked embarrassed and morally confused as about 300 was counted out as his winnings in a perennial Grand Prix betting pool around the question: ''How many laps will Schumacher do?''

He had bet ''0 laps,'' and as he received the $485 booty, Michael Schumacher was being wheeled off the Silverstone track on a stretcher after a crash caused by rear-brake failure on the first lap of the British Grand Prix on July 11.

While the extent of the German's injuries was unknown -- it turned out to be only a broken leg -- what seemed likely, and was later proven true, was that the outcome of the 1999 world drivers' championship had just been decided.

Halfway through the second season of a duel between Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, the winner would once again -- barring another such accident -- be the Finnish driver.

That evening, the winning journalist tried to clear his conscience by buying a round of drinks at a pub. But for the main actors of the 50th Formula One championship, digesting the results of Schumacher's accident proved a lot more difficult.

Although Ferrari won the next two races, Schumacher's extended absence destabilized the team. Eddie Irvine, the disgruntled No. 2 driver who inherited Schumacher's No. 1 position, ended up celebrating Schumacher's return, hoping that it would put the demoralized team back on track.

Even Schumacher's main competitors, the McLaren team and its star, Hakkinen, lost their way with breakdowns in concentration, teamwork and technology after the German driver was gone.

Despite having the best car, Hakkinen, who led Schumacher by eight points at the time of the accident, took until the last race of the year to win the drivers' title.

Later, Schumacher attempted to answer the question of why a driver races -- and by extension, why spectators watch (and sometimes bet).

''Immediately after the accident, you feel that you have had a sign that you should stop motor racing,'' Schumacher said on his return, in the Malaysian Grand Prix. ''And then, step by step, you come back and think that this season is finished, but you regain your normal lifestyle. And my normal lifestyle is being a racing driver; that's what I wanted to be again as soon as possible. To work with my friends in the team and for life to get back to normal.''

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