A championship which ought to have been in the possession of Mika Hakkinen was out there to be claimed again last night, courtesy of the latest in a catalogue of mishaps that have undermined the McLaren Mercedes cause and sustained the aspirations of their opponents all season.
Hakkinen blundered a little beyond half distance in yesterday's Italian Grand Prix here and became a helpless passenger as his car twitched out of control at the first chicane and came to a halt.
Suddenly the prospect of a routine victory and an advantage of 10 or 11 points in the drivers' standings dissolved, giving way to the anguished realisation he still had it all to do in the final three races.
Eddie Irvine, never remotely in contention in the Ferrari, managed the sixth place which pulled him level on points with Hakkinen at the top of the championship and gave the Italian fans improbable justification for indulging in their ritual celebration on the track at the end.
Victory, however, went to one of the season's most consistent performers, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in the Jordan Mugen. Now the German, too, can rightly claim to be a contender for this year's tantalising first prize. He finished three seconds ahead of his countryman Ralf Schumacher, in the vastly improved Williams, with Mika Salo, in the other Ferrari, third. David Coulthard, in the second McLaren, was beaten to fourth place by another of the championship's outstanding drivers, Rubens Barrichello, in a Stewart Ford.
Frentzen has moved in front of Coulthard to third place in the championship, 10 points off the lead. The Scotsman, two points further back, maintains he is still in the equation and such has been the erratic nature of this season he cannot be written off.
Hakkinen and his McLaren have almost invariably been the fastest driver- car combination all year and once they had negotiated the potential perils of the charge from grid to first chicane, the 10 points should have been a formality. He was leading Frentzen by eight seconds when he approached that left-right corner for the 30th time, wriggled out of shape and out of the race.
A raging Hakkinen flung away his steering wheel, brushed aside marshals as he stomped the ground in exasperation, threw down a glove to release more frustration and ultimately slumped on to his haunches to weep in his hands.
The reigning champion said later: "I have been taking that chicane in second gear all weekend but this time tried to select first. I don't know why I did it and I lost it. It is every driver's nightmare. It means a complete waste of the race. It was my fault. I need one or two hours to come back to normal life. It was very emotional and a big disappointment for me. But there are three races and 30 points to go for. There's no point worrying about it. I've got to focus on the next race."
Irvine, who had endured the long, slow drain on his emotional resistance through the course of the weekend, was content to settle for one point from a race that might have inflicted terminal damage to his championship hopes. Hakkinen remains the favourite, but mistakes such as this, and at Imola, and by the team at a number of other circuits, defy logic and keep Irvine on his shoulder.
Irvine, emphatically outpaced by Salo here, said: "I'm still optimistic for the championship. This morning I wasn't. I'd written off this race. If I'd been five points behind by now that wouldn't have been bad. At one stage I was also crying, but this is a good result for me in the championship. McLaren are always faster than us on circuits like this. I didn't see what happened to Hakkinen but when I heard he'd gone off I decided just to make sure I brought the car home. The interesting thing will be to see what effect this has on Mika. I think it will get to his head.
"My team-mate couldn't have helped me today because he was too far ahead. I was too slow. If my car was as competitive as the Jordan I would have had 10 points today. So in a way it's a lost opportunity, but McLaren's is a bigger lost opportunity."
Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, suggests Irvine will be disappointed if he expects Hakkinen to crack. "He's a strong character. He made a mistake, that's life, that's motor racing. He will get over it. He makes fewer mistakes than any other driver. It won't jeopardise his championship prospects."
The chief beneficiary of Hakkinen's generosity accepted with disbelief and, when pushed to consider the consequences, acknowledged he had to regard himself as a championship challenger. Frentzen said: "I couldn't believe it when I saw Mika spinning off at the first chicane. Maybe he lost concentration. Once I knew where I was I just wanted to bring my baby home."
Frentzen, who announced he and his girlfriend, Tanja, are expecting a real baby, was presented with a relatively simple task after the jousting of the first lap. The Jordan had the legs of every car except Hakkinen's and when that obstacle was removed he merely had to ensure he did not make the same mistake as the Finn.
Not for the first time Frentzen's potency contrasted with the ineffectual drive of his team-mate, Damon Hill, who finished a distant 10th. Johnny Herbert also had an all too familiar race, retiring with a clutch failure on his Stewart Ford.
Eddie Jordan was pounds 28,000 richer last night thanks to Frentzen's victory. The Jordan team chief backed his faith in his German driver with a pounds 2,000 bet at 14-1.
Race statistics, page 11
1 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan
2 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams
3 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari
4 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart
5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren
6 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP POSITIONS
1= M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 60pts
3 Frentzen 50
4 Coulthard 48
5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 32Reuse content