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Motor Racing: Gentle joust for title rivals

THEY BEGAN the jousting yesterday, a day before the first practice session, three days before the race, and they came out of it with little if anything between them. Much like the championship table.

Mika Hakkinen leads Michael Schumacher approaching the penultimate round of the season, the Luxembourg Grand Prix, because he has two second places to the German's one. They are level on 80 points and six victories.

If Hakkinen wins on Sunday and Schumacher fails to score, then the Finn will be world champion. Otherwise, they head for a last-race decider in Japan.

This off-track meeting was cordial, occasionally humorous, even knockabout, yet at the edges remained an unmistakable sharpness, and Schumacher made the most of any opportunity to try a psychological overtaking manoeuvre.

Schumacher, attired in the red of Ferrari, led the way to two seats, smiling broadly and evidently finishing his lunch. He turned to shake hands with Hakkinen, also dutifully dressed, in the silver-grey of McLaren- Mercedes.

But for the vulnerability of the silver-grey car and the silver-grey team, this duel might have been settled long ago. It certainly would have been had Schumacher not been the pre-eminent Formula One driver he is.

So now each had to convince their audience, and the other driver, he had the ability, nerve and back-up to take the decisive final stride.

Hakkinen, restricted to fourth place at Monza last time out by failing brakes, said: "We're still very competitive and have the fastest car. We have a strong engine - forget the last grand prix. [His team-mate, David Coulthard, was leading in Italy until the engine blew.] The tyres are good, the team have experience, they're motivated and all committed to win. They are definitely one of the best, if not the best team."

Schumacher said: "Our strongest point is the reliability of the car. We suffered for lack of speed at the beginning of the season but right now our package is close to the top. We have won and been competitive on most types of circuit, so I believe I have a 50-50 chance of winning the championship."

Hakkinen said: "We have been giving too many presents."Schumacher said: "The pressure comes more from outside, what people feel around us. I am also racing in my home country here. I'm never nervous in the car. I'm pretty confident. Any feeling in the stomach is usually before the race. I feel more nervous when I play football."

Hakkinen said: "I've been in Formula One a long time and there's always pressure. It is something you have to handle. In the car you are confident about your ability. If you allow pressure to get to you, you can make mistakes. I'd be wrong to say there is no pressure, but you have to make it positive pressure."

The weather was uncharacteristically clement here yesterday but rain is possible come Sunday and Schumacher is the acknowledged master in the wet. Hakkinen played down the implied threat of such a scenario, insisting that while he preferred a dry race he would have no problem confronting a wet one.

Schumacher said he was of like mind.

Hakkinen talked of a routine build-up to this race: training, relaxing, keeping a cool head. Schumacher was more extravagant, revealing he had organised a carting romp for his team. This image of fun and togetherness was doubtless meant to contrast with the perception of a beleaguered McLaren camp. Hakkinen is said to have been less than enthusiastic about testing last week, such was his dismay over the weaknesses exploited by Schumacher.

However, Hakkinen maintained he was concentrated on his contest with Schumacher. He found it exciting, and looked forward to more. And he would not require the unfair intervention of Coulthard to help his cause.

"Certainly I would never think of going to my team-mate to take the other driver off," he said.

Schumacher came in: "The only thing I would ask my team-mate [Eddie Irvine] is to stay away from my daughter when she gets to the age."

Hakkinen gave a glowing assessment of his adversary, citing his two championships and extreme pace. Asked about Schumacher's weaknesses he had only a tantalisingly brief response: "It would be uncomfortable for me to start explaining."

Schumacher had a gracious endorsement of Hakkinen's talents, which meant his satisfaction would be all the greater for beating him.

A beaming Hakkinen called for more, but the encore was less sugary: "This is the first time he has been fighting for the championship. We'll see how he performs. It is a new situation for him."