Motor racing: Hakkinen conquers the world

Motor racing: Schumacher realises his worst nightmare in Japan while McLaren's plan works like a dream
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OF ALL the myriad scenarios that had been mulled over endlessly in the build-up to the great showdown it was, ironically, the one everyone had overlooked. What if Michael Schumacher, the brilliant winner of pole position on Saturday and the man whom many believed would snaffle the world championship from right under McLaren's nose, stalled on the grid?

In Belgium there had been the start-line shunt to end all start-line shunts, but as the world spotlight focused on the tense battle between Schumacher and his fellow front-row man, Mika Hakkinen, the Japanese Grand Prix would only get under way at the third attempt. And it would end with Hakkinen wiping away the tears that accompanied his feat of securing Finland its second World Drivers' Championship, and Schumacher stalking darkly back to the pits after a brilliant recovery drive had fallen victim to a spectacular Mansell-style puncture as he sped past the pits to complete his 31st lap.

The drama had unfolded when the Italian driver, Jarno Trulli, stalled his Prost's engine just before the red lights went out to signal the start. He was moved to the back of the grid, and after a short delay they tried again. This time it was Schumacher who stalled, his Ferrari's already overheated clutch beginning to drag. Now it was the title contender who was put to the back, and Hakkinen seemed home and dry.

On the third try the Finn survived his potentially most dangerous moment when he out-accelerated Eddie Irvine's Ferrari into the first corner. Thereafter it was his race, and he controlled it brilliantly. But Schumacher was charging, scything up to 12th from 20th even on the opening lap, and swiftly homing in on the battle for fifth place between Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Williams and his old nemesis, Damon Hill, in the Jordan.

This was another nightmare for, as Hakkinen surged away, Schumacher became bottled up until the first pit stops, losing another 30 seconds to Hakkinen. But such was his effort that he had risen to third place as the race approached 30 laps. Hakkinen was in command, but as long as Schumacher was charging, McLaren could be certain of nothing.

The end came with chilling suddenness as Schumacher completed his 31st lap, the right rear tyre exploding just as Nigel Mansell's had in Adelaide 12 years earlier. Moments before, the 20-year-old Argentine driver, Esteban Tuero, had crashed heavily into local hero Tora Takagi's Tyrrell at the chicane. Hakkinen and Irvine were lucky; Schumacher was not. He ran over debris which cut the tyre, and his quest for a third title was history.

Fighting to disguise his disappointment, he described how much he had enjoyed his adrenaline charge. "The first couple of laps were good fun. All the other drivers were very fair and did not try to make life difficult for me. But I never expected a rear tyre to explode, because if anything I was worried about the fronts as I had flat-spotted one and was experiencing a lot of vibration. But despite the result, I don't feel too disappointed. I think we did not lose this championship today, but in the early stages of the season when we were too far behind."

What had up until then been a fascinating race became a high-speed hiatus before Hakkinen could begin celebrating.

"The moment I heard Michael was out I knew it was over," Hakkinen said. "I was the champion. But I had to concentrate so that I was able to go fast and keep going for it."

Irvine followed Hakkinen home, salvaging an honourable second place after an excellent drive and, as David Coulthard completed McLaren's day with third place, Damon Hill provided the last excitement in the last corner by pouncing past Frentzen to snatch fourth. "I just thought, the hell with it," he said. "I just went for it on the last lap, and it paid off."

The season-long animosity between McLaren and Ferrari evaporated in a spirit of sportsmanship. Before the race, the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo had sat down for an hour with the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis.

"I am here because first of all I wanted to support the team," Di Montezemolo said. "But also, win or lose, I wanted personally to shake the hand of Ron Dennis. I think it is important for the name of sport that we are seen to be talking."

Di Montezemolo was phlegmatic and dignified in defeat. "I am extremely proud of the Ferrari team and what it has achieved this year," he said. "Today's race was a roulette, one of those things. It is great for the sport that two top teams should be so close."

Not to mention that the World Championship had been settled without the controversy and rancour of Jerez 1997.

Richard Williams, Derick Allsop, results, page 28