Mika Hakkinen's victory in a tense, if scarcely spectacular, Luxemburg Grand Prix here yesterday was as devastating as it was convincing, leaving Schumacher to contemplate another forlorn challenge for the championship.
The German's second place sends him to the final race, in Japan, on 1 November, four points adrift, and even a win will not be enough if the Finn is next across the finishing line. Hakkinen will be champion on second- place countback.
All the optimism generated by Ferrari's clean sweep at Monza, a fortnight ago, and in qualifying here, evaporated as McLaren-Mercedes produced the reliability and impeccable team operation to match their undisputed superiority in performance. That advantage enabled Hakkinen to swat away the irritant that was Eddie Irvine, in the supporting Ferrari, close the gap to Schumacher and then open up a decisive lead when the scarlet car made its first pit stop.
The McLaren crew played their part with a slick wheel change and refuel when Hakkinen went in. The moment Hakkinen re-emerged in his path, Schumacher realised the race, and the championship, had slipped beyond his control. And on this occasion, the heavens declined to intervene.
Schumacher pursued Hakkinen with characteristic determination, and perhaps a touch of indignation, yet to no avail. The McLaren held its course and gradually Schumacher, his tyres shot, his heart pierced, dropped back, conceding defeat and sending home his hoards of fans in dismay.
Hakkinen indulged in the luxury of a last-lap cruise and took the flag 2.2sec ahead of his adversary. David Coulthard underlined McLaren's dominance with third place, immediately in front of Irvine.
"It is probably the most important race in the history of the company," Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren, said lavishly.
Schumacher graciously, if belatedly, joined in the podium frolics, but the effort was palpably more demanding than anything he had endured at the wheel. It is likely he will be frustrated for a third consecutive season, and that Ferrari will be confronting a 20th year without a champion.
Hakkinen, who has absorbed his setbacks this season with dignity and stoicism, would not allow himself to gloat now. He shared his joy with his team, paying tribute to their commitment and diligence in the face of intense pressure from Ferrari.
"This certainly makes my situation a bit different from a couple of hours ago," Hakkinen, 30 today, said with massive understatement. "To win keeps our advantage for the championship and gives us more motivation to prepare for the Japanese Grand Prix.
"It was enjoyable at the end, but the race was not so enjoyable, it was very tough. I had to concentrate all the time. I can be happy and celebrate my birthday but the fight goes on. We shall be testing to make the car quicker over the next four weeks."
Ferrari, too, will embark on a comprehensive test programme this coming month, but Schumacher's words articulated everything his body language revealed.
"I was surprised he was able to get in front of me but overall we weren't fast enough and we have to accept that," Schumacher said. "I pushed hard hoping for a little hole to sneak down, and that's why the tyres went off. We will certainly not give up because we can still win in Japan and one word sums up the next four weeks - testing. We're going to work non- stop and go for it. If we don't do it, we can still be proud of our achievements."
Schumacher, starting on pole, was out-accelerated by Irvine from the grid but had the lead at the end of the first lap, leaving the Ulsterman to fend off Hakkinen. Irvine succeeded until the 14th lap, despite a couple of sideways moments, and Hakkinen's signal indicated his exasperation until he was able to outmanoeuvre the Ferrari.
"He did annoy me earlier and it was quite close when I passed him," a relieved Hakkinen said. "Everybody knows Eddie's reputation but he was very fair today."
Hakkinen's drive was near perfect. He lost time when he got out of shape at the chicane yet recovered to reel in Schumacher and capitalise on the efficiency of his colleagues in the pits.
Coulthard looked on from a distance and again when it was all over, secure in the knowledge he had played his part in McLaren's campaign. "This gives us a major boost," the Scotsman said. "You could see from Michael's body language and what he said that they've done a good job to get this close. He knows things have swung our way."
Heinz-Harald Frentzen was fifth in a Williams, and Giancarlo Fisichella sixth for Benetton. Damon Hill was ninth on an unproductive day for Jordan and Johnny Herbert's Sauber was forced into an all too familiar retirement.
Luxembourg Grand Prix
1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes
1hr 32min 14.789sec
ave speed 198.534kph (119.120mph).
2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari
3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes,
4 E Irvine (Irl) Ferrari
5 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome
6 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife
7 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife +64.790; 8 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Mecachrome +1 lap; 9 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda +1; 10 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas +1;
11 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford +2; 12 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +2; 13 J Verstapen (Neth) Stewart-Ford +2; 14 M Salo (Fin) Arrows-Yamaha +2; 15 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford +2; 16 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford +2. Not Classified: E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford, 56 laps completed;
R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen Honda 53 laps; J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas 37;
R Rosset (Br) Tyrrell-Ford 36; J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 6; P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha 6.
Fastest Lap: Hakkinen, 1:20.450, lap 25.
WORLD CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP Standings: 1 McLaren-Mercedes, 142pts; 2 Ferrari, 127; 3 Williams-Mecachrome, 35; 4 Benetton-Playlife, 33; 5 Jordan-Mugen Honda, 31; 6 Sauber-Petronas, 10; 7 Arrows-Yamaha, 6; 8 Stewart- Ford, 5; 9 Prost-Peugeot, 1.