Motor Racing: Protagonists keen to avert Japanese crash

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The Independent Online
ONE BY one yesterday they ushered the world championship contenders and their seconds into a press room more crowded than any hole in Calcutta. Like prize fighters at a weigh-in, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher eyed one another coldly in their first face-to-face encounter since the McLaren driver's dramatic victory in the Grand Prix of Luxembourg at the Nurburgring at the end of September.

But where verbosity is the stock-in-trade of pugilists, words had to be pulled from the Finn and the German. Both professed to be relaxed as the climax to their season-long battle approaches, but in truth they seemed almost comatose. Almost reluctantly, they spoke of their individual highs and lows, the peaks and troughs that had brought them across the world to the Orient and the final showdown.

"It's been an extremely good year," Hakkinen said. "Definitely some great results for the team and me. The first two races were fantastic, because we dominated and had the car maximised 100 per cent. And Monaco was a great victory for me personally, because the Monaco Grand Prix was a race I had always wanted to win. Which any driver wants to win. A fantastic result. Lots of good results and great memories. But there were also lows, particularly Canada, where the transmission broke, and what happened at Silverstone." There, a 38-second lead over Schumacher had been negated by deployment of the safety car and, in atrocious weather, the Ferrari pilot had swept home to a controversial success.

Hakkinen adopted a philosophical expression. "There has been more success than disappointment so I'm happy," he said, "because in my experience motor racing holds more disappointments than happy moments."

If the Finn was his usual awkward self during such public moments, Schumacher was not about to enliven proceedings with any unwitting display of charisma. "To be honest, after the first two races I doubted I would be fighting for the world championship, he said. "By Monaco I told the team that if we didn't get a better tyre, then we had no chance. As you know, things turned around from Canada. Before that, everything had been low apart from victory in Argentina. After the Canadian win, with the exception of Belgium, everything was quite good."

For 17 of the 32 days since Hakkinen dished out his resounding defeat in Germany, Schumacher and his partner, Eddie Irvine, have been flogging around either Ferrari's private test track at Fiorano, or Mugello, which Irvine likened to Suzuka. "The time has been very useful," Schumacher admitted. "We did a lot of work, and after the race at the Nurburgring we needed to do more than the other team. We have made some steps, now we will see if they are good enough or not. We have certainly done some improvements to the Goodyear tyres, and I'm pretty sure we are going to need everything here."

Hakkinen and McLaren have done slightly less running. "Quality, not quantity, has been important to us," Hakkinen said. "Bridgestone has done a lot of work and I am extremely happy with the developments. But while he felt sure that racing on the tyre manufacturer's home ground would confer an advantage, Schumacher disagreed, injecting some much-needed levity when he joked: "Bridgestone is based here, so I guess there might be an advantage in delivering the tyres quicker."

With his four-point deficit, Schumacher must keep his nose clean in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix and avoid the sort of collision that last year brought shame upon his head in the fight with Jacques Villeneuve. On Sunday the team-mates can influence the title outcome, but neither Irvine, nor Hakkinen's partner, David Coulthard, want any part of a controversy and expressed their desire for a clean contest. "You say what you have to say, DC," Irvine said, when the matter was raised. "And I'll agree."

Oblivious to the openly derisive expression on Schumacher's face as he sat behind him (feelings still run high after their collision at Spa in the Belgian Grand Prix), the Scot laid out his unequivocal view on driving standards. He would help his team-mate, of course, in any way that he could. "But any racing incident is a matter of opinion. Others may disagree with my opinion, but I'm not prepared to break the rules as I see them and drive anyone off the road in order to help Mika win the world championship. I've never done that to win my own championships, so I don't see why I should do that to help someone else win theirs."

On cue, Irvine said: "I agree!" Then he added: "I don't want to take Mika off so Michael can win. I wouldn't want anyone to do that to me, and that's how you've got to judge it."

Tactics for this race will be crucial, and here Hakkinen and Schumacher were in complete accord. "What I do will certainly depend on how qualifying goes, then how the race is going to develop on Sunday," Hakkinen said. "I cannot decide that sitting here today. We just need to wait and see how the race develops, and play things as it unfolds. But of course, like Michael, I'm here to win."