Motor racing: Schumacher proves sublime

Hungarian Grand Prix: German closes gap to seven points as Hakkinen finds trouble with his McLaren
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The Independent Online
WRITE HIM off at your peril. Just when it seemed even Michael Schumacher was powerless to prevent Mika Hakkinen's relentless march towards the world championship, the Ferrari driver put on a virtuoso performance here yesterday that keeps the contest alive.

As Schumacher went clear to win the Hungarian Grand Prix, Hakkinen was wrestling his broken McLaren-Mercedes to sixth place. Now they are separated by only seven points with four races remaining.

This twist in the saga, the significance of the occasion and the sheer brilliance of Schumacher's driving were reflected in the scenes of jubilation at the end. A cause was reborn.

The German, under guidance from his technical director and mentor, Ross Brawn, opted for a three-stop strategy rather than the two favoured by McLaren, and then called on his unrivalled ability to pour on the pace and tilt the balance of the grand prix.

Having taken the lead after his second stop, he was set his target to facilitate a third visit to the pits - open up a 25-second advantage in 19 laps.

As Schumacher went about his task, Hakkinen's car was rendered impotent by a suspected shock-absorber failure and David Coulthard, taking over in second place at the wheel of the other McLaren, had no answer to the irresistible force.

Schumacher emerged from his third stop comfortably ahead and the 32nd victory of his career was assured, despite an unscheduled trip across the grass on the 52nd lap. Coulthard came in a dejected second, 9.43sec down, Jacques Villeneuve was again third for the revived Williams team, and Damon Hill's fourth confirmed Jordan's resurgence.

"It was fantastically emotional at the end," Schumacher said. "The people went mad. Thanks to them for helping me and making this one of my most special wins.

"I had a dream something like this might happen, but I thought it was only a dream. I could not expect this. The team got the right strategy and did a great job.

"It didn't work at the start and I had to push like hell when Ross decided to go for the three stops. When he told me what I had to do, I said 'thanks very much'. It was like 60 qualifying laps in all, but it worked."

Schumacher, starting third on the grid behind Hakkinen and Coulthard, was held at bay in the first sector of the race and found himself tracking Villeneuve after his first stop. It was at that stage Brawn took the decision to make an extra stop.

McLaren responded by bringing in Coulthard, then Hakkinen, but they had been outwitted by Ferrari and the initiative had been ceded. Schumacher was in front and off the leash.

"I couldn't understand when I couldn't see Mika ahead of me," Schumacher said afterwards. "I didn't realise he was already behind me."

Hakkinen was faced with a struggle for survival. His car lost performance and became almost uncontrollable. Coulthard was handed the responsibility of chasing Schumacher, but it was a forlorn challenge.

A disconsolate Coulthard said: "The pace Michael was able to run at before his last stop was phenomenal. I just wasn't able to push. It was impossible once he was ahead. It was a remarkable performance by Michael. My tyres were done 15 laps from the end. With hindsight, you have to say the three- stop strategy was right."

Brawn, whose calm, calculated guidance played a significant part in Schumacher's two championship successes at Benetton, rated this victory "pretty high up with his best".

"Michael always rises to the occasion. We started the race with an open strategy, but once we were behind we had to go for the three stops. It was a gamble, but then we had nothing to lose. I told him what he had to do and it was asking a lot, but he's done it before."

Hakkinen was like a man shackled to a chair as thieves stole his paintings and antiques. One by one, places were taken from him: by Villeneuve, then Hill, then Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the other Williams. It was all he could do to reach the end and cling on to that one, perhaps precious, point.

He said: "It was very frustrating sitting there, unable to do anything about it as the other cars went past me. There was nothing I could do. The car was just undriveable and almost impossible to keep on the road. This is obviously not good for me and the championship, but I am still leading and in the next race I shall be looking for 10 points."

That race is at Spa in Belgium, Schumacher's spiritual home, where he has won four times. He said: "It seems to be a lucky place for me, close to my home and a special circuit. I love it and I am looking forward to going there."

Hill's rehabilitation continues, even if he could not quite match his results of recent years here. Five previous visits have yielded two wins and three second places.

He said: "It's my worst result for six years, but I can't be disappointed. Fourth place was realistically the best I could hope for this time. I had two tough battles, with Jacques and then with Heinz-Harald. I was exhausted at the end of it."

Johnny Herbert finished 10th in his Sauber Petronas and Eddie Irvine was forced to retire his Ferrari with a broken gearbox after 13 laps.

n Heinz-Harald Frentzen was flown to a Vienna hospital to be treated for exhaustion following the Hungarian Grand Prix. He remained in hospital overnight for observation.

HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX

77 laps, 305.844km (190.048 miles)

1 M Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

Ferrari 1hr 45min 25.550sec

Fastest lap (lap 60) 1min 19.286sec (ave speed 180.349kph, 112.067mph)

2 D Coulthard (GB) 6pts

McLaren-Mercedes +9.433sec

3 J Villeneuve (Can) 4pts

Williams-Mecachrome +44.444

4 D Hill (GB) 3pts

Jordan-Mugen-Honda +55.075

5 H-H Frentzen (Ger) 2pts

Williams-Mecachrome +56.510

6 M Hakkinen (Fin) 1pt

McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap

7 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas +1; 8 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife +1; 9 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda +1; 10 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas +1; 11 P Diniz (Br) Arrows +3; 12 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +3; 13 J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart-Ford +3; 14 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell- Ford +3; 15 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford +3; 16 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton- Playlife +5. Did not finish/not classified: 17 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart- Ford 54 laps completed; 18 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 28; 19 M Salo (Fin) Arrows 18; 20 E Irvine (N Irl) Ferrari 13; 21 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 13.

CONSTRUCTORS'

CHAMPIONSHIP

1 McLaren-Mercedes 125pts; 2 Ferrari 102; 3 Benetton-Playlife 32; 4 Williams- Mecachrome 30; 5 Jordan-Mugen-Honda 10; 6 Stewart-Ford 5; 7= Sauber-Petronas, Arrows 4.

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