MOTOR RACING; Ferrari's triumph inspires a fever

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ALL NIGHT and into the early hours of this morning, a weekend death toll of 37 on Italy's roads and the latest political shenanigans were relegated down the order in the national radio news bulletins. The lead story was Ferrari's one-two success at the German Grand Prix, and Eddie Irvine's improbable climb to the top of the world championship.

There were reports from Hockenheim, an interview with a game Irvine in Italian, vox boxes with deliriously incomprehensible ex-pats somewhere in Germany and, most importantly, confirmation that, as tradition demands, the church bells at Maranello rang out.

They made no mention of reaction at Woking or Stuttgart, but it can be assumed only hands were wringing at the homes of McLaren and their engine partners, Mercedes. Self-analysis and reappraisal will consume their coming days.

McLaren ought now to be sitting comfortably in both the drivers' and constructors' championships. Instead, a combination of their errors and misfortune have ceded command to the consistent Ferrari. Irvine leads Mika Hakkinen by eight points and the Italians have a 16-point advantage in the team standings.

And all this with Michael Schumacher, Ferrari's No 1 driver, laid up at home with a broken leg and an injured heel. He must be thinking he could have been well on his way to winning his third title and delivering Ferrari their first in 20 years.

But then Hakkinen, too, has good reason to feel he is the luckless victim of fate. A tyre blow-out ended his race at Hockenheim but a problem on his fuel rig had cost him the lead. A week earlier he was punted out of contention by his team-mate, David Coulthard, and in the race before that, at Silverstone, he was grounded by a wheel problem.

The Finn, who along with Coulthard has signed a new contract to stay at McLaren next season, said: "I cannot believe what has been happening in the last few races. I'm doing everything right, but I've now lost wins in the last three races.

"It can't be allowed to continue. I'm trying to win the world championship and I need to win the next race. I even wore my lucky underpants for this race, but that didn't do any good either."

The tyre failure - and Coulthard's during qualifying - will be investigated by Formula One's suppliers, Bridgestone, but McLaren know they have to eliminate their self-destructive errors if they are to capitalise on the superiority of their car in the remaining six rounds of the championship.

Ron Dennis, the team principal, said: "We will use the strength and depth of the team in order to achieve our goals. There is a long way to go and this has never been a sport for the faint-hearted."

That message of defiance was endorsed by Norbert Haug, head of Mercedes Motorsport, whose discomfiture was transparent.

He said: "Last year we had a maximum 32 points from the races in Austria and Germany, this year we could have had the same but we have 12. It happens in motor racing.

"First of all I'm just happy Mika is OK. When he went in the tyre barrier it could have been more serious. He could have been hurt. So from that point of view we had some good luck.

"It is not correct to say everything is going wrong for us. You have to have the breaks and it is very stressful. But we have a lot to be positive about. We can be optimistic.

"We still have the advantage in car performance and we have good drivers. Mika gave a fantastic performance again here, just as he did in Austria, and David showed he can push.

"Of course there are things we have to look at but we are going to show we are strong. It is not over yet. Mika's luck has to change and it will change.

"It is quite obvious that under normal circumstances Mika is in control. He has eight pole positions from 10 races. He'll be OK. We'll be back."

McLaren have to come back quickly if they are to check Ferrari's relentless momentum, and Irvine believes his car will be better suited to the next circuit, in Budapest, than it was to Hockenheim. The Ulsterman is comforted also in the knowledge that his new partner, Mika Salo, is up to the task.

"Hungary should be more to our liking," Irvine said. "It's like a big go-kart track and I'm looking forward to a real tussle with the car. Mika is up to speed now so we should be able to fight. McLaren are still quicker and we have to keep improving the car, but as long as they keep doing what they're doing we've got a chance."

Jordan are another team likely to be conducting an inquest this week. While Heinz-Harald Frentzen sustained his excellent form this season with third place in his home race to go above Schumacher into third position in the championship, Damon Hill pulled out of the race in more mysterious circumstances. He said his brakes were not safe; his team said they could not find anything wrong with them.

Eddie Jordan, the team owner, said: "I need to speak to Damon to see what actually happened and why he did not want to continue."