Motor Racing: Hakkinen puts title defence in gear

Brazilian Grand Prix: Schumacher demonstrates his determination to give world champion a difficult season
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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN kick-started his quest for a consecutive world championship with a convincing victory for McLaren in Brazil yesterday. But the speed of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, vanquished after a strong initial challenge, signalled that another gruelling title contest is in prospect.

Schumacher and his brother Ralf had walked to the grid together, laughing and joking, and this time the Ferrari driver avoided stalling his engine for the third consecutive race. That dubious honour fell to David Coulthard, who was left on the start line as Hakkinen in the sister McLaren sprinted into the lead. The Finn quickly established a cushion over Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, but just as McLaren got Coulthard back in the race they suffered more drama as Hakkinen's car momentarily slowed dramatically on the fourth lap, leaving Barrichello to take over the lead.

There was little doubt that the latter's gifted performance in qualifying third on the grid on Saturday had boosted the gate, as thousands more Brazilians flocked into the circuit where once they had come to cheer the late Ayrton Senna, Barrichello's close friend and mentor. "Let's just hope that the angels are kind to us in the race," he had said.

He led for 26 glorious laps, and for another 17 the angels would indeed smile until his experimental engine expired in a cloud of oil smoke.

As Coulthard, running second on the road but in an actual last place, chased initially after the Stewart-Ford, Hakkinen picked up the pace again to launch a challenge for Schumacher's second place, with Irvine ready to pick up pieces in a comfortable fourth.

But Barrichello looked perfectly secure as he held his countrymen in thrall. Tyre choice came under critical scrutiny before the start, which took place under a blue sky devoid of the rain that had once seemed a threat. McLaren, Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and the Williams drivers had opted for Bridgestone's hard compounds in the interests of longevity, and in the high ambient temperature the choice of the softer rubber by the Stewarts, Benettons and Prosts, Damon Hill and Eddie Irvine, was considered more of a gamble.

The leading Stewart seemed quite comfortable in the early laps. Even after Schumacher had cut away half a second from Barichello's 3.4sec lead by the 10th lap, with Hakkinen looming in his mirrors, the Brazilian maintained his equilibrium and had regained the margin five laps later. There was no chance for Jackie or Paul Stewart to relax, however, as Johnny Herbert retired the sister car from seventh place at that point.

After a spin on the second lap, Jean Alesi enlivened the race with a scintillating sprint up the field for Sauber-Petronas to catch the battle for fifth place between Fisichella and Frentzen. He passed the German on the 19th lap, then outfoxed the Italian a lap later. Suddenly, he began to eat into Irvine's advantage in fourth place.

By one third distance, Barrichello was still three seconds clear, but Schumacher was containing Hakkinen's challenge as Jean Alesi stormed up to Irvine with a flurry of fastest laps. But then the Frenchman stalled during his first pit stop, undoing all his hard work, and three laps later his race ended with mechanical failure.

Barrichello's stop on the 27th lap was much smoother, but it dropped him to fourth place behind Irvine as Schumacher led Hakkinen through the backmarkers. On more than one occasion the Finn fared worse, as Alencader Wurz and Pedro de la Rosa delayed him.

It was now clear that Stewart's gameplan called for two pit stops, Ferrari's and McLaren's one, and the focus now switched firmly on to the battle between Formula One's two biggest stars. At this stage Hakkinen seemed content to bide his time, unable quite to summon enough to overtake, but able to keep right with Schumacher. More and more their fuel stop assumed critical importance. Such is the blight of modern F1.

Schumacher stopped first, on the 38th lap, remaining stationary for 10.3sec. Now Hakkinen cut lose with the fastest lap as he built up a lead, and his stop, four laps later, occupied 9.1sec. It was enough to win him the race.

It was a disappointing day for Hill, who retired on the 10th lap after a collision with Wurz's Benetton, and for Fisichella, whose strong run in fifth place ended in the pits on the 38th. The newcomer, Stephane Sarrazin, escaped unharmed from a heavy shunt in his Minardi.

As Hakkinen reeled off the laps, Schumacher's persistent efforts made no impression, but Ferrari's race performance boosted the Italian team's morale. The world championship, it seems, will not be a one-horse race after all.

The happiest man may have been Irvine, who retained his world championship lead with fifth place as Ferrari heads for its home race at Imola. "People might want me to philosophise about it," he said, "but I just want to lead the series there. Simple as that."