Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, September 25, 1998

Hakkinen and Schumacher Battle to the Wire for the Title

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Never before in the modern era of Formula One have the final contenders for the drivers' title gone to the penultimate race with a tied score, as Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher will do Sunday at the Luxembourg Grand Prix on the Nurburgring in Germany.

While it is now mathematically certain that one of those drivers will win this year's title, what is not certain is how the winner will be chosen should they still be tied at the end of the season. With 80 points each, and a maximum of 20 points available to each driver over the next two races, no one else can catch them. David Coulthard, who is third, is 22 points behind.

The most historically similar situation was in 1974 between Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni. Like Hakkinen and Schumacher, they also drove for McLaren and Ferrari, respectively, and were also tied after the 14th race of the season. But their season was only 15 races, compared with the current 16. Fittipaldi won the title in the last race after finishing fourth, while Regazzoni finished 11th.

The closest-ever title score was in 1984 when Niki Lauda beat Alain Prost by a half-point. Half-points are no longer allotted.

The race Sunday could produce the final title winner, however, since despite the equal score Hakkinen needs only to win the race if Schumacher gains no points to win the title. This he would do by virtue of his greater number of second-place finishes. He has two and Schumacher has one. Should Hakkinen win the race and Schumacher finish second, drawing the score up to 90 to 86, the title would be decided at the Japanese Grand Prix on Nov. 1.

It would then be necessary for Schumacher to win and Hakkinen to finish second to draw them up equal again, but Hakkinen would again take the title on the basis of his second places. Both drivers now have six victories.

But while the stage is set for the greatest two-race duel since the modern era of the series began in 1950, the show may already be over and in Hakkin

en's favor. Should neither driver score any points in the next two races, Hakkinen would win the world championship on the basis of his greater number of second-place finishes.

Mathematically inclined fans may be hoping for this even more complex scenario: If Hakkinen finishes fourth in Luxembourg and in Japan, while Schumacher finishes second in one race and gains no points in the other, they will again be tied, as a fourth place is worth three points.

The decision would then be made by the number of third-place finishes, according to the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body. As Schumacher has three third-places this season against one for Hakkinen, the German would be declared champion.

But that would not be the case if Hakkinen finished third in the next two races while Schumacher caught up to the Finn's second-place finishes with another one for himself, plus a fifth place, worth two points. Such a scenario would draw them equal in points again, and they'd have the same number of victories, of second places, and of thirds. The winner would then be the one with the most fourth-place finishes.

Again it is Hakkinen, who has one fourth place, to none for Schumacher.

While it may come close, this season fortunately will not see the title awarding process go to its theoretical strangest outer limits. That would happen if both drivers had the same number of points distributed through an equal number of first- to sixth-place finishes. Under those conditions, Formula One's sporting regulations say that ''the FIA will nominate the winner according to such criteria as it thinks fit.''

Skeptics argue that such a decision would probably serve the commercial needs of Formula One, rather than its sporting needs.

Fortunately both Hakkinen and Schumacher may win the title simply by scoring one more point than the other driver over the next two races. While Hakkinen has the mathematical odds in his favor, Schumacher has the psychological edge. After trailing since the start of the season in March, he has finally pulled up equal to the Finn before the penultimate race. No small advantage.

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