Motor Racing: Schumacher row sours Hakkinen title day

Former champion complains of dirty tricks after Coulthard deliberately holds up the challenge of Ferrari in Japanese Grand Prix
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The Independent Online
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER lost the Japanese Grand Prix after a perfect performance from Mika Hakkinen earned the Finn victory and his second consecutive world championship. The Ferrari driver may secretly have been the one who was truly satisfied with the outcome, but that did not stop him from launching a scathing attack on Hakkinen's McLaren partner, David Coulthard.

The post-race argument overshadowed what had been an excellent performance by Hakkinen, and the perfect riposte by McLaren to the FIA court of appeal's controversial decision last week which had reinstated Ferrari as the winner of the Malaysian Grand Prix and given Eddie Irvine another shot at the crown. But it was the British team's adoption of the baulking tactics that Ferrari had used against them in Malaysia, that ignited acrimony.

Having overtaken Irvine on the 24th lap, Coulthard backed off so much that the Ferrari driver lost handfuls of time. Then, having slid off the track, Coulthard held up Schumacher as he was being lapped.

"It was a different thing in Malaysia, where I was racing for position and had not been lapped," Schumacher said. `Then you can play tactics. But if you have been lapped, you should give space. David had passed many blue flags, and he had some kind of problem, but he was really zig-zagging."

Schumacher then dragged up the controversial incident in which he ran into the back of Coulthard's car in the rain in Belgium last year, when he added: "Actually, I am not sure now whether I should believe that what happened at Spa was not done purposely, the way he behaved today."

Coulthard, who retired with gearbox failure on the lap 40, reacted angrily. "If Michael doesn't apologise, then I will sue him," he said. "He thinks he operates on a higher level, and should watch what he says."

The McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, was more sanguine, but said: `If you look at the lap times you will find that the most Michael lost was three seconds on that particular lap. But after what he put Mika through in Malaysia, I don't want to hear a word from Michael about being held up. He should look at his own races, and some of the things he has done himself."

McLaren's decision to embrace the questionable tactic of "sandbagging" - delaying rivals by deliberately driving slowly - may have been triggered in response to the FIA upholding Ferrari's appeal. "I didn't want to do it," Coulthard said. "It isn't a nice thing to do but unfortunately, as we have seen recently, it seems to be coming more and more. Ferrari made it part of the sport in Malaysia. I didn't feel good holding up a fellow Briton, but..."

Irvine, who needed Hakkinen to finish behind Ferrari team-mate Schumacher, was philosophical in defeat and not particularly bothered by Coulthard's tactics.

"We knew there would be games today," he said. "It was a fantastic drive by Mika, but after some of the things that have happened this season you'd have to say he has certainly done his best to help me have a chance of winning the World Championship, no doubt about that. But we didn't quite make it. After my accident yesterday my neck was a bit sore, and it was pretty boring driving round and round wondering if anything was going to happen to Mika."

So much depended on the start, and Hakkinen timed his to such perfection that he had sprinted several car lengths clear of Schumacher by the first corner. Coulthard's attempt to defend against Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Jordan lost him two places as Irvine and the fast-starting Olivier Panis in the Prost slipped ahead.

Hakkinen's pace in the opening laps suggested that he was on a three- stop refuelling strategy to Schumacher's two, but when it transpired that the Finn was after all only going to stop twice, less charitable interpretations were placed upon Schumacher's performance.

Not a few observers took the view that he was secretly delighted with the result, for Hakkinen's victory denied Eddie Irvine the title, while Coulthard's retirement handed the constructors' championship to Ferrari. "The buzz is that Michael is quite happy with the result," Coulthard said, "because he didn't want Eddie to win the title, and now he can still be the first Ferrari driver to succeed in 20 years."

Certainly, the German's performance in those early laps seemed curiously unimpressive as Hakkinen opened a 6.6sec lead before Schumacher stabilised it on the 15th lap. After that the two were evenly matched, but by then the damage had been done.

The turning point for Irvine came on the 23rd lap, when he made his first stop. Coulthard had stopped a lap earlier and was fully up to speed as Irvine rejoined the race. The McLaren driver squeezed ahead into the first corner, and then began the delaying tactics. Ferrari may have started the dirty war in Malaysia, but McLaren surrendered the morale high ground as Coulthard was instructed to slow down. It may not have been right when Schumacher did it to Hakkinen in Malaysia, and it may not have been right in Japan as Coulthard lost Irvine around 3.5sec a lap for nine laps. But the rules allow it. Irvine had fallen from 30 seconds behind Hakkinen to 53 by the time he stopped again on the 32nd lap.

Coulthard's incident with Schumacher occurred three laps later. The Scot put a wheel in the dirt on the 34th lap, and pitted with damage to his McLaren's nose. When he rejoined, a lap down, he held Schumacher up for several corners before moving over, in which time the gap between the leading McLaren and the Ferrari jumped from 6.2sec to 9.9sec. `I can only believe that Michael is trying to deflect attention from the fact that Mika beat him fair and square and he was therefore unable to help Eddie win the championship," Coulthard said.

Damon Hill's swansong race was a pathetic shadow of the performance that had won him the race and the title here three years ago. After going off on the 15th lap, Hill pitted six laps later and stepped out of the cockpit. "I am very sad to be leaving F1 and I would have loved to have finished on a higher note," he said lamely. Team owner Eddie Jordan was speechless.

Hakkinen best of rest, page 6

DETAILS FROM SUZUKA

1 M Hakkinen (Fin)

McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 31min 18.785sec

2 M Schumacher (Ger)

Ferrari +5.015sec

3 E Irvine (GB)

Ferrari 1:35.688

4 H-H Frentzen (Ger)

Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:38.635

5 R Schumacher (Ger)

Williams-Supertec 1:39.494

6 J Alesi (Fr)

Sauber-Petronas one lap

7 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford one lap; 8 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford one lap; 9 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec one lap; 10 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton- Playlife one lap; 11 P Paolo Diniz (Br) Sauber-Petronas one lap; 12 R Zonta (Br) BAR-Supertec one lap; 13 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows two laps.

Not classified (did not finish): 14 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 47 laps completed; 15 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 43; 16 L Badoer (It) Minardi- Ford 43; 17 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 39; 18 M Gene (Sp) Minardi- Ford 31; 19 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 21; 20 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 19; 21 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 3. Did not start (failed to complete first lap): A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec.

FINAL CONSTRUCTORS' STANDINGS

1 Ferrari 128pts

2 McLaren-Mercedes 124

3 Jordan-Mugen-Honda 61

4 Stewart-Ford 36

5 Williams-Supertec 35

6 Benetton-Playlife 16

7 Prost-Peugeot 9

8 Sauber-Petronas 5

=9 Arrows and Minardi-Ford 1

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