Motor racing: `Lucky' Herbert is singing in the rain

GRAND PRIX OF EUROPE Coulthard blows championship chance while Hakkinen stays the course to secure two important points
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The Independent Online
THE RAIN that brought torment for so many turned to showers of champagne for Johnny Herbert and Jackie Stewart at the end of a day when Formula One spun one of its most compelling and ultimately romantic tales.

Herbert, the Englishman who struggled to justify his job early in the season, delivered Stewart-Ford their maiden win in the Grand Prix of Europe after a succession of drivers succumbed to the conditions.

David Coulthard was one of those who led the race only to be caught out by the slippery surface and for him the cost was enormous. He effectively ruled himself out of the championship with two races remaining.

Eddie Irvine was the victim of a tyre mix-up in the Ferrari pit, then slithered off course under pressure from the McLaren-Mercedes of title leader Mika Hakkinen, in the closing stages and conceded two potentially crucial points to the Finn, who finished fifth.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in a Jordan-Mugen, also lost the chance to pull up to Hakkinen and Irvine, an electrical fault bringing him to a halt after he had led the early sector of the grand prix.

The drama had begun to unfold at the first corner of the first lap, when Damon Hill's Jordan also suffered an electrical problem. As the yellow car slowed Alexander Wurz, in a Benetton, veered right to avoid it, only to collide with Pedro Diniz's Sauber.

The Brazilian's car flipped and landed upside down. Diniz was carried away brandishing a reassuring thumbs up sign and was taken to hospital. He sustained a neck injury which was said to be "not serious".

His accident put into context the subsequent mayhem, although those on the receiving end of the slapstick were not easily consoled.

It was an afternoon for a cool head, steady nerve, caution and, above all, good fortune. Herbert, luckless for much of the year, cheerfully admitted fate played into his hands this time.

He reckoned the black clouds would deposit enough rain to warrant wet tyres when others were not so sure and was able to maintain his course as many came to grief.

His team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, almost made it a still more remarkable clean sweep for Stewart, but Jarno Trulli, in a Prost-Peugeot, resisted him to claim second place. Stewart, who will stay on to head the Jaguar challenge next season, had a win less than three seasons after forming his own Formula One team.

Herbert, who won two races with Benetton in 1995, said: "I feel this is payback for some of the bad luck I have had this year. When I crossed the line I shouted on the radio `I'm the man'. I've tried everything to change my luck. My Jamaican mechanic gave me a couple of lucky stones from Jamaica before the race, so maybe that did the trick. It's nice to have given Jackie the win he wanted while the team still carries his name. He and Ford have made this happen. Now my daughter Chloe can tell all the boys who tease her at school that her daddy is a winner again."

Hakkinen forfeited his chance of victory by changing tyres too soon and was left to scavenge for what he could.

Had others been more circumspect he might have had nothing to show for his later endeavours. Coulthard was presented with the opportunity to put himself firmly in contention for the championship and then became a helpless passenger as his car careered off the track and buried its nose into a tyre barrier.

The Scotsman ruefully summed up his title plight: "I think it's gone, hasn't it? I'm bitterly disappointed because it was my mistake. I was taking it easy and sometimes that can work against me. It was a marvellous opportunity lost."

Ralph Schumacher sensed his chance until a puncture sabotaged the Williams and he was thankful to reach the pits for a replacement. He finished fourth.

Giancarlo Fisichella was another driver seeking his maiden grand prix win, but he lost control of the Benetton and knew how Hakkinen felt a fortnight earlier. The Italian dropped his head against a chain link fence and wept.

Still the championship contenders were not in the points. Irvine sat in his car as his pit crew searched for a wheel that had gone missing in the confusion caused by Mika Salo's unscheduled stop for a new nose cone.

He was running ahead of Hakkinen until the persistence of the McLaren driver on a dry and fast track eventually proved too much for the Ulsterman. Irvine went straight on at a chicane and the advantage was gone.

He paid for that error with priceless points. He could manage no better than seventh, while Hakkinen advanced to fifth.

"That's the second time something like that has happened to me," Irvine said. "You need two pit crews instead of having the same group of mechanics working on both cars. But two points is nothing. I've not written off the championship."

Hakkinen put rather more value on those points. He said: "For the first time two points seem like 10. What happened to David will make people understand why I was driving carefully. He went off, I did not."

NURBURGRING DETAILS

1 J Herbert (GB)

Stewart-Ford 1hr 41min 54.314sec

2 J Trulli (It)

Prost-Peugeot +22.618sec

3 R Barrichello (Br)

Stewart-Ford +22.865

4 R Schumacher (Ger)

Williams-Supertec +39.507

5 M Hakkinen (Fin)

McLaren-Mercedes +62.950

6 M Gene (Sp)

Minardi-Ford +65.154

7 E Irvine (GB)

Ferrari +66.683

8 R Zonta (Br)

British American Racing +1 lap

9 O Panis (Fr)

Prost-Peugeot +1 lap

10 J Villeneuve (Can)

British American Racing +1 lap

DID NOT FINISH: 11 L Badoer (It) Minardi 53 laps finished; 12 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 52 laps; 13 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 48 laps; 14 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari 44 laps; 15 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 42 laps; 16 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 37 laps; 17 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber 35 laps; 18 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 32 laps; 19 A Zanardi (It) Williams 10 laps; 20 D Hill (GB) Jordan 0 laps; 21 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 0 laps; 22 P Diniz (Br) Sauber 0 laps.

FASTEST LAP: Hakkinen 1:21.282.

CONSTRUCTORS' STANDINGS

1 McLaren-Mercedes 110pts

2 Ferrari 102

3 Jordan-Mugen-Honda 57

4 Williams 33

5 Stewart-Ford 31

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