Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, October 9, 2000

Schumacher Noses Out Hakkinen

Victory Gives Driver 3d Overall Title and Ferrari's First Since 1979

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
A 21-year wait by Formula One's most venerable team came to an end at Suzuka, Japan, on Sunday as Michael Schumacher drove to victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, winning his third drivers' title and Ferrari's first since 1979.

''We did it, we did it!'' an emotional Schumacher cried out to his team over the car radio on the deceleration lap after he crossed the finish line. ''I can't believe it. Oh . . . oh . . . we did it.''

It was the culmination of a five-year effort by the German at the Italian team, which he joined after winning his second drivers' title at Benetton in 1995.

But until he crossed the finish line, it looked like things might go the way they had each of the past three years, when Ferrari lost the title in the last race.

Mika Hakkinen, who had to finish ahead of Schumacher in order to preserve his chances of winning the title, finished the race only 1.8 seconds behind the German after the two drivers took turns leading the field, driving within two seconds of each other, throughout most of the afternoon.

''It's difficult to find the proper words for such a feeling,'' Schumacher said after the race. ''There was such an outbreak of emotion when I crossed the line. The conditions today were so difficult: rain, then no rain, then a little bit more. The fight went to the last corner, thanks to Mika. He could have made it a bit easier for me!''

It was Schumacher's 43d victory, his eighth this season and his third in a row. He now joins five other drivers -- Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna -- with three world championships. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Alain Prost have more, with five and four titles, respectively.

Perhaps more important for Schumacher, however, was bringing Ferrari its first drivers' title since Jody Scheckter won it in 1979.

''We have been working for five years, getting very close three times and not making it three times,'' Schumacher said. ''That obviously adds certain emotions, despite the fact that it has been 21 years for Ferrari itself. Sorry to say this, but the history of Benetton is not as great as the history of Ferrari. Therefore this has much more meaning to me.''

It was a suspenseful race from beginning to end. As the cars revved their engines at the starting lights, Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes began smoking and dripping fluid from the rear.

''When I looked in the mirror,'' Hakkinen said, ''I saw the smoke coming out of the bodywork, and I thought, ''that's it, it's on fire!'''

But the Finn, who started second on the grid, raced past Schumacher, the pole-sitter, taking the lead at the first corner. Schumacher followed Hakkinen like his shadow for the first 21 laps, never more than two seconds behind until on Lap 22 Hakkinen made a 6.8-second pit stop, handing the lead to Schumacher. Schumacher's 7.4-second pit stop a lap later returned the lead to Hakkinen, again by two seconds.

But on Lap 31 as the Finn struggled to pass Pedro de la Rosa -- who was driving in an Arrows, a lap behind -- Schumacher came to within 0.8 seconds of Hakkinen.

A light rainfall that had moistened the track at the start of the race then intensified, and Schumacher, one of the best drivers in wet conditions, took advantage. On Lap 37, Hakkinen made his second pit stop, in 7.4 seconds, while the German stayed out in the lead for another two laps to gain time.

''Everything looked pretty good,'' Hakkinen said of his pit stop. ''But when I got back to the track I realized that Michael still hadn't stopped. I realized that he would have an advantage. Then I had traffic and at the same time it started raining again, so I was sliding all over the place.''

Schumacher made his pit stop on Lap 40 in only 6.0 seconds. As he drove down the pit lane back to the track, he heard Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director, over the radio saying: ''It's looking good, it's looking good.''

Ferrari mechanics jabbed their fists into the air as Schumacher returned to the track more than four seconds ahead of Hakkinen, with only 13 laps left.

Not even an increase in the intensity of the rain, nor a last-lap burst of speed from Hakkinen could make Schumacher lose the lead, and the German crossed the finish line first, covering the 53 laps of the 5.86-kilometer (3.64-mile) track in one hour, 29 minutes and 53.435 seconds for an average speed of 207.316 kilometers an hour.

''Obviously I'm disappointed,'' Hakkinen said, ''but I would still like to congratulate Michael. We have had a great battle this year with both ups and downs, and it's been very exciting. I believe to be a good winner you have to be a good loser.''

David Coulthard, Hakkinen's teammate finished third, more than a minute behind the leaders. Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher's teammate, came in fourth, Jenson Button in a Williams, came in fifth, and Jacques Villeneuve, in a BAR, finished sixth.

With one race left, Schumacher has 98 points to 86 for Hakkinen, and a victory is worth 10 points. Ferrari leads the constructors' series by 156 points to 143 for McLaren, which can still win the constructors' title at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Oct. 22.

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