Motor Racing: A nerve-racking 1999 - the year the action went down to the wire: Hakkinen claims title in last race

Formula One World Drivers' Championship Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka

IT WAS the most improbably close finish of recent times. Even given Formula One's propensity for putting on a good show, few could have envisaged a last-race decider this year.

The moment when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari careered off the track at Silverstone, breaking the German's leg in two places, seem to have ended the world championship contest. Mika Hakkinen's second consecutive title appeared assured.

However, such was Hakkinen's and McLaren-Mercedes', profligacy through the late summer and autumn that the Finn went into the final round, the Japanese Grand Prix, trailing Ferrari's No 2 driver, Eddie Irvine, by four points.

Hakkinen had been forgiven an earlier aberration, at Imola, where he threw away victory by crashing into a wall. But a catalogue of calamities, compounded by a controversial ruling of the sport's governing body, gave the advantage to Irvine.

In that fateful British Grand Prix Hakkinen lost a wheel and ultimately retired. In Austria his team-mate, David Coulthard, inadvertently rammed him.

Hakkinen contained his frustration and reminded himself he still had the fastest car. Surely, he reasoned, all would be well. Instead, things got worse.

In Germany a problem with the fuel rig cost him vital time and then a blow-out at 200 mph hurled him out of the race.

Hungary produced a straight-forward win for Hakkinen, but in Belgium he was muscled out of the first corner by Coulthard. Italy reduced him to tears. He spun at a chicane and squandered 10 more points.

Two nervously claimed points at the Nurburgring - where Irvine drew a blank - gave Hakkinen the edge with two races remaining. Suddenly, though, the equation was complicated by the return of Schumacher, who dominated the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix and handed victory to Irvine.

But wait. Another twist. Ferrari were disqualified because their cars' turning vanes were illegal. Oh no they're not, decided a court of appeal. They were within a 5mm tolerance apparently prescribed by the rules.

So the show went to Suzuka with Irvine in the box seat. Another win for Schumacher would suit the Irishman fine and the great man was on pole again. Alas, the fabled magic deserted Schumacher on the day. Irvine, in third place, was powerless to mount a challenge.

Hakkinen had victory and the title, and was left wondering how he and his team had contrived to prolong the suspense.

DERICK ALLSOP

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