Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Hakkinen's Victory a Fitting End to a Stirring Season

Vantage Point/ Commentary

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The Formula One season ended with a sharp bang followed by a 19-lap glide to victory.

When Michael Schumacher's right rear tire exploded on Lap 32 of the race Sunday, it deflated not only his title hopes but also the rest of the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. As Schumacher rolled to a halt with 19 laps to go, Mika Hakkinen won his first drivers' title, and his team, McLaren-Mercedes, won its eighth constructors' title. The promised duel to the finish between the two title contenders never happened.

But this was still one of the best seasons in recent memory. Over the last few years, Formula One has seemingly been ruled by its commercial needs and clouded by poor sportsmanship and technical and rules disputes. The untainted 1998 season aided the sport's image.

While Formula One hasn't been plagued by dope scandals, it frequently runs into controversies over its complicated rules. The only time such a dispute occurred this season was when Schumacher won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone by crossing the finish line in the pit lane, rather than on the straightaway, after serving a 10-second penalty at the end of his last lap. His opponents complained, to no avail.

That victory effectively re-ignited the championship race, as it drew Schumacher to within two points of Hakkinen, who had dominated the early part of the season. The previous year, the championship was fortuitously stretched to a final showdown after Jacques Villeneuve was disqualified from the penultimate race in Suzuka for speeding under a caution flag, an offense rarely punished before that.

Indeed, the 1998 season created most of its excitement on the track alone. Schumacher's loss on Sunday, although an obvious disappointment for him, was nevertheless a redemption of sorts for the German driver. He finished last season in disgrace at Jerez, Spain, after he tried to knock Villeneuve off the track. He only succeeded in going off himself, handing the title to the Canadian.

The International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, stripped Schumacher of his second-place finish in the championship, but did not suspend him for any races. It appeared to some to be a victory of marketing over sport, as eliminating racing's biggest star might prove too unpopular.

But Schumacher ended the 1998 season looking human and sympathetic. Again, he came within a few of points of the title and, again, he lost. But this time it was because of a blown tire, not because of questionable tactics. His sportsmanlike reaction to the defeat showed when he broke protocol by entering the parking area where the final three finishers place their cars before climbing to the podium. He congratulated Hakkinen with a handshake.

Hakkinen showed fine sportsmanship all season, too, after several setbacks. On Saturday, after being beaten to the pole position by Schumacher, the Finn walked over to the Ferrari driver and shook his hand in congratulations.

Hakkinen's title is a redemption for him as well. After being accused of winning only because he had the best car, the 30-year-old driver from Helsinki put such doubts to rest. He may have won the title in Suzuka, but he proved his mettle at the Luxembourg Grand Prix on Sept. 27, a race held in Germany on Schumacher's home territory at the Nurburgring track. The two drivers entered that race even on points. Hakkinen not only won, but also did so with Schumacher putting pressure on his tail for much of the race.

This from a man who nearly died in a racing accident in his McLaren at the Australian Grand Prix in 1995, then returned just months later as a more patient and composed driver.

''That weekend in Adelaide changed my life,'' Hakkinen said Sunday. ''Nothing was ever the same again.''

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