Motor Racing: Japanese Grand Prix - Desire is the key as Schumacher and Hakkinen face up for the final battle

Ferrari and McLaren poised for a gripping showdown as tension mounts at Suzuka
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The Independent Online
IF A sleepless Michael Schumacher or Mika Hakkinen should take a peek in the bedside tables in their rooms at the Suzuka circuit hotel tonight, they will find a volume of The Teachings of Buddha ready to offer them appropriate advice to carry into tomorrow's Japanese Grand Prix, the race that will determine the destiny of the 1998 Formula One world championship.

"There is an old saying," the Buddha observes. "Keep your mind level. If the mind is level, the whole world will be level. Consider these words. Realise that all the distinctions of the world are caused by the discriminating voices of the mind. There is a path to enlightenment in these very words." And a path, perhaps, to the title for the one who silences the clamour of those discriminating voices and keeps a level mind amid 90 minutes of chaos and fury that will put an end to an enthralling season-long battle.

The Buddha's teaching, intended to guide the devotee towards the state of desirelessness, might not be the most obvious course for these two rivals to follow. For Buddhists, desire leads to action, which leads to suffering. There can be no doubting the ferocity of the desire shared by Schumacher, who is looking for his third title, and Hakkinen, seeking his first.

For both, the task is to sublimate their emotions, arriving at a state of pure skill and pure judgement lasting 90 minutes and enabling them to adjust to whatever unexpected obstacles fate may throw in their path. One will succeed. The other will suffer.

Seven months ago and two races into the 1998 season, few would have put money on the title going down to the wire. Imperious wins for Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes in Australia and Brazil planted the notion that this would be a rerun of those years in the 1980s when the McLaren team turned domination into a habit that almost suffocated the sport. But the efforts of Schumacher and the Ferrari team gradually revived the series, an opportunistic win in Buenos Aires preceding a run of three victories in a row at Montreal, Magny-Cours and Silverstone, forcing McLaren on to the back foot. When Schumacher took a brilliant tactical victory at Monza in front of 100,000 ecstatic Italians, Hakkinen seemed demoralised. But two weeks later at the Nurburgring, in the penultimate round, the Finn responded with his own triumph of strategy, beating Schumacher at his own game and setting up a perfectly balanced finale.

The two men are the focus of all attention at Suzuka. Their respective team-mates, Eddie Irvine and David Coulthard, form the supporting cast. The remaining 18 cars and their drivers exist only in the sense that their unpredictable peripheral actions might somehow affect the outcome. The final appearances in grand prix racing of two famous names, Tyrrell and Goodyear, are no more than sideshows. This is a classic Formula One shoot- out, in the tradition of Moss versus Hawthorn, Hunt versus Lauda, Senna versus Prost. The permutations are considerable, but only two results are possible.

At 30, Hakkinen stands on the brink of justifying a talent that seemed destined to remain unfulfilled. This would delight those who admired the Finn's courageous recovery from his near-fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995, and chief among the celebrants would be Ron Dennis, the McLaren team boss, who signed Hakkinen up five years ago and whose faith in the driver's gifts has never wavered. Schumacher, four months younger, possesses the valuable experience of winning the title three times in similar circumstances, and enjoys the psychological advantage of having come from behind over the course of the season, but such considerations could be blown away by the sudden discovery, when the red lights go out, that the McLaren's Mercedes engine and Bridgestone tyres give Hakkinen a simple and unanswerable performance advantage.

Schumacher also bears the enviable burden of the hopes of millions of flag-waving Ferrari fans around the world, desperate to end a famine of 19 years since Jody Scheckter became the last man to take one of the red cars to the drivers' title and to join the illustrious list of those - Alberto Ascari, Juan Fangio, Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Surtees and Niki Lauda, as well as Scheckter - who have carried the championship back to the factory in Maranello. There can be no disputing his right to join such company. Over his three seasons with the team, Schumacher has given a sustained display of his legendary ability to motivate and inspire his co-workers, winning three races in his first year, when the car was nothing more than a dog, and five in his second, when it was still far from being the class of the field.

Unveiling the latest Ferrari, the F300, last spring, Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat boss, declared that if the team failed to win the championship this year, they had only themselves to blame. More recent statements from Maranello have suggested that next season's title might be a more realistic target.

But there have been too many deferred promises since Scheckter's victory, and once again Schumacher has the chance to seize glory against the odds - although an annual budget estimated at pounds 100m, of which Schumacher takes roughly a quarter, make the Ferraris unlikely candidates for underdog status.

The presence of three of the team which carried him to his titles with Benetton - the technical director Ross Brawn, the chief designer Rory Byrne, and the software specialist Tad Czapski - provides valuable reassurance for a driver who functions best when surrounded by those he knows and trusts. It is also a reminder of the words of Enzo Ferrari himself: "A racing car is not necessarily the creation of a superior being, but it is always the end product of unstinted collective endeavour, given life by a team of men fired by a communal ardour."

Outside the team, Schumacher is widely revered and perhaps even more widely disliked. But there is a hectic passion in his work at the wheel which makes admirers of those to whom the Ferrari, alone of all the cars on the grid, possesses something very like a soul. Narrow and lithe, beautiful in its practical details, the F300 has a greyhound urgency that suits its driver and makes a strong contrast with the almost luxurious quality of the McLaren MP4/13, whose lustrous finish would befit a limousine and whose carbon-fibre suspension arms would look equally at home on a mantelpiece.

Four points behind, and with six victories to Hakkinen's seven, Schumacher must try to win the race while relying on Irvine to ensure that Hakkinen finishes no higher than third. But the German can still win by coming second if his rival scores no more than a single point for sixth place, or finishes out of the points altogether. For Hakkinen the equation is more complicated: should he be circumspect, and finish no higher than necessary, or should he obey the racer's instinct to win? His public utterances indicate the latter, but his enigmatic nature conserves the truth.

One certainty is that all the nonsense talked at the beginning of the season about grand prix racing not being a team sport will be consigned to the rubbish bin tomorrow when Irvine and Coulthard perform their appointed tasks in an effort to stop the opposition and ease their team leader to the championship. In that connection there has been widespread discussion of the possibility of the use of illegitimate tactics, with a No 2 driver being sent on a kamikaze mission to remove his leader's rival from the track or at least barge him out of an advantageous position. Various lurid incidents from Formula One's recent history hardly discourage the notion - notably the still-controversial crashes involving Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at this very track in 1989 and 1990, and the two more recent final- round cameos involving Schumacher, who collided with Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and with Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez last year.

Both camps have been wearily dismissing the possibility of such low tricks, but there is little in the recent history of Formula One to imbue the observer with much confidence in the word of its participants. After putting up surprisingly little resistance to Hakkinen's crucial passing manoeuvre at the Nurburgring a month ago, and apparently receiving the wrath of certain members of the Ferrari team as a result, Irvine may feel that a show of stiffer resistance will be in order in Japan, should it be required. Coulthard certainly put down a marker during Thursday's pre-race press conference. "I won't make it as easy as Eddie did for Mika, if that was the situation," he said. "I would have put up a lot more of a fight." Schumacher's expression as he listened to the Scot's remarks, from a vantage point a couple of feet away, told a story of mild scepticism at Coulthard's ability to get away with such a thing, in the aftermath of their well- publicised coming together at Spa in August.

More elevated forms of strategy will certainly come into play, with the Ferrari team's ability to switch plans in mid-race likely to prove influential. "The good thing about the team," Brawn observed this week, "is that we have open discussions on strategy. I know there's a view in the trade that I'm the strategist, and it's true that I make the decisions on the pit wall, but before we get to the pit wall everybody is expected to make a contribution. Michael is part of that, as is Eddie, because they see things on the track that I can't see, since I'm not a racing driver.

"Sometimes Michael will be here until quite late on a Saturday night, going through something that we're not entirely comfortable with and working out the options. Not every driver does that. And because we go through that process, there's never a situation in a race when he questions what I'm telling him. I make the call, but he knows that if we've decided to switch strategies it's because of all the factors we've discussed."

Dominating those factors are the variables - the tyres, the mechanical reliability, the drivers' temperaments, the weather. All these unknowns are the subject of fevered speculation in the narrow alley behind Suzuka's pit lane, where the paddock hums with something approaching delirium on the eve of the showdown. No one, however diligent or ingenious, can legislate for the faulty machining of a 50p bolt or the lethal nick in the bland surface of a slick tyre. But the beautiful paradox of this absurd and wonderful sport is that, for all its maximised and optimised technology, the most priceless asset of all is nothing more than a level mind.