Motor racing: Goodyear make epic exit

In the shadows of the Hakkinen-Schumacher showdown, one of the drama's leading players heads for the wings
NO SOONER will the issue of the 1998 World Championship be settled here in Suzuka today, than the focus will shift forwards to 1999. In the case of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Ralf Schumacher, they will scarcely have time to take off their damp overalls before each dons fresh virgin- white sets as they prepare to begin their programmes for next year.

The two German drivers will be swapping teams next year, Schumacher to join Williams, Frentzen to take Schumacher's seat at Jordan. On Tuesday and Wednesday each will drive the other's car in the first steps of their acclimatisation to new teams, and to Bridgestone tyres.

The Japanese Grand Prix marked the end of an era, as the Goodyear tyre company prepared to withdraw from Formula One after an almost unbroken spell since their debut in 1965. Back then the Akron company provided the rubber for Honda, who were, like Ferrari, at that time a manufacturer of their own chassis and engine. At the end of a promising year came the first victory for both parties, in Mexico City, courtesy of the American Richie Ginther. The first World Championship followed in 1966, as Jack Brabham took his eponymous car to his own third title. Since then Goodyear's successes have far outstripped those of even their closest rivals, but more than that the company have been a true friend to Formula One, supporting it in the darkest hours.

But in 1999 Formula One will revert to a monopoly situation regarding tyre supply, which is a possible cause for concern after the way Goodyear have fought back this season against the initially dominant Bridgestone to enliven what at one stage seemed likely to be a very dull championship.

"I have great experiences with Goodyear," Michael Schumacher said. "Personally, I didn't expect the improvement they achieved for us, and I'm very sad that they are leaving. With a single-tyre competition next year we will find out just how good our car is compared to McLaren."

Yesterday Goodyear helped the Ferrari driver to his 20th pole position and set up the perfect battle for the World Championship, as Mika Hakkinen comfortably outpaced Eddie Irvine to take the other front-row starting position.

For this all-important contest Ferrari had prepared special qualifying engines, said to give close to 800bhp, and while they would not be raced, the plan was that they would help in the quest for the fastest qualifying time.

In the event, there were mixed feelings over their effectiveness, but there was no doubting Schumacher's determination and commitment. He was the last driver to venture out in qualifying, calmly leaving his first run until 20 minutes of the allotted hour had gone by. At that stage Hakkinen was quickest, but with the minimum of fuss the Ferrari pilot asserted his authority, and defended it as Hakkinen counter-attacked with gusto. The contest for fastest time remained their exclusive preserve, on a track where fortune favours the brave. More than once, Hakkinen bettered Schumacher's section times, but when his last effort saw him come perilously close to disaster after momentarily leaving the road in the corner named after the motorcycle ace Ernst Degner, Schumacher could finally relax.

"Of course it's nice to be on pole position," he said. But with Hakkinen so close he was not about to go overboard. "This is only qualifying," he added cautiously, "so we mustn't get too excited." Irvine's failure to join him at the front left him in a vulnerable position, for Hakkinen needed only second place to clinch the title. The Ulsterman's afternoon was a blend of reasonable, if not outstanding, laps, and the frustration of yellow flags as other drivers went off.

But Schumacher's speed enabled the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, who made a rare public appearance at a race in support of the team he has brought back from the brink of ridicule in the early Nineties, to relax momentarily. At one stage the Italian aristocrat was seen seizing the arm of his phlegmatic sporting director Jean Todt as FIA officials insisted on a routine check of the eligibility of Schumacher's car.

By his own admission, di Montezemolo is too nervous to watch a race in company - "I get too emotional, and I don't want anybody to see that" - and he planned to seal himself in a private trackside office by the time the showdown started.

Further down the pit lane, the McLaren chief Ron Dennis had watched Hakkinen's every move with his customary poker player's stare.

Dennis once famously admitted that the first feeling he experiences on the day after a race his cars have failed to win is pain. As the climax to an extraordinary season drew closer he and di Montezemolo had reached the same moment of truth facing Schumacher and Hakkinen: the last round of the epic mano a mano contest. The apogee of success for one, the despair of failure for the other.