Motor Racing: Schumacher shatters symmetry

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EVEN a spin five laps from the finish could not stop Michael Schumacher and Ferrari injecting fresh life into the Formula One World Championship yesterday when brilliant driving and a superb refuelling strategy saw the German beat Mika Hakkinen's hitherto dominant McLaren-Mercedes. As drizzle fell, the closing stages of a dramatic Argentinian Grand Prix took place on a skating rink.

No start this season had been more eagerly anticipated, with Schumacher's Ferrari upsetting the symmetry of a McLaren front row for the first time. David Coulthard, in pole position, was on his mettle to get it right in a race that he desperately needed to win to close the points gap to team- mate Hakkinen, and the McLaren pair duly beat Schumacher to the first corner. But as the Scot worked to open an early lead, Schumacher was all over Hakkinen, and slipped ahead of the Finn on the second lap.

Right away it was warfare between McLaren and Ferrari, the Italian cars suddenly rejuvenated by their wider new Goodyear front tyres. When Schumacher then devoured Coulthard's initial 2.7sec lead it was evident that Ferrari had opted for a two-stop refuelling strategy and McLaren a one-stop.

McLaren and Ferrari were nose-to-tail within four laps, but on the next lap Schumacher dived inside the McLaren on a hairpin bend with his inside two wheels on the grass. The two touched, and the Ferrari spun the silver car as Coulthard legitimately attempted to close the door. To compound McLaren's misery, Irvine was giving Hakkinen no peace for second place.

Further back, having disposed of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jean Alesi thrust his Sauber-Petronas on to Jacques Villeneuve's gearbox in a similar fight for fourth place, the British cars working on single stops, the Swiss on two.

Coulthard, meanwhile, was coming back at the pair of them, but his McLaren had sustained damage in the Schumacher incident. After two dull races, Formula One had finally come alive.

By the 15th lap the McLaren's were hitting their stride again, running similar lap speeds to Schumacher, an ominous development for Ferrari's strategy. But while Hakkinen was keeping the gap constant, Villeneuve and Alesi were holding Coulthard up and the Scot was regularly losing ground to the leaders.

Hakkinen reduced Schumacher's lead on the 18th lap, and for the first time the German's driving seemed to have the edge of slippery, wheel- locking desperation to it, as if the tide of the race was turning.

A lap later Hakkinen had taken back another six-tenths of a second. Then a backmarker cost Hakkinen a full second on lap 21, and suddenly Schumacher had found the rhythm again, pulling away again before pitting for fuel on the 28th lap. He returned behind Hakkinen, but still ahead of Irvine.

Now Hakkinen had a 10- second lead over Schumacher, while further back Coulthard finally squeaked ahead, briefly, of Villeneuve once Alesi had pitted, but lost the place to the world champion almost immediately.

There was a familiar ring to the story when Hakkinen, still on his original Bridgestone tyres but with a light fuel load, set the fastest lap on the 32nd to extended his lead over Schumacher, while Coulthard stopped on that lap for fuel and tyres.

By the halfway stage Hakkinen led Schumacher by 13.6sec. Villeneuve was third, almost half a minute behind, from Irvine and Frentzen, who had Alexander Wurz's Benetton on his tail throughout.

Hakkinen slithered in for his sole stop on the 42nd lap, was stationary for 10.9sec, and rejoined behind Schumacher. But the German still had to stop again.

It seemed that one of the McLaren's was home and dry but Coulthard, despite the damage, continued to press his challenge to Villeneuve for sixth place. This would end in tears on the 54th lap when, having slipped ahead of Villeneuve, the hapless Scot found an already bad afternoon made worse when the Williams driver refused to give up and they tangled. That ended Villeneuve's race, and killed Coulthard's chances of scoring any points.

Schumacher was now regularly lapping faster than Hakkinen to increase his lead, and again the tide turned for Hakkinen. He was clearly not going fast enough to catch the Ferrari even when it made its second stop. The gap was 20 seconds with 20 laps to go, perilously close as the German made his trademark sprint prior to stopping.

Sure enough, Schumacher came in after 53 laps and resumed without losing his lead. It was all over. The two-stop strategy, with the late splash- and-dash, had worked. Even after his spin Schumacher regained lost ground with insouciant ease.

Wurz was another late spinner after snatching third place from Irvine, while Coulthard survived a grassy moment of his own to snatch sixth when Giancarlo Fisichella also spun his Benetton.

It was scant consolation for the Scot in an afternoon that had seemed to promise him so much.

Argentinian Grand Prix

1 M Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

Ferrari 1hr 48min 36.175sec

2 M Hakkinen (Fin) 6pts

McLaren +22.899sec

3 E Irvine (GB) 4pts

Ferrari +57.745sec

4 A Wurz (Aut) 3pts

Benetton +1min 08.134sec

5 J Alesi (Fr) 2pts

Sauber +1:18.286

6 D Coulthard (GB) 1pt

McLaren +1:19.751

7 G Fisichella (It) Benetton +1:28.438

8 D Hill (GB) Jordan 1 lap behind

9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams +1 lap

10 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart +2 laps

11 J Trulli (It) Prost +2 laps

12 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell +2 laps

13 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi +3 laps

14 R Rosset (Br) Tyrrell 4 laps

15 O Panis (Fr) Prost 7 laps

Not classified (did not finish)

16 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi 63 laps completed

17 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams 52 laps

18 J Herbert (GB) Sauber 46 laps

19 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan 22 laps

20 M Salo (Fin) Arrows 18 laps

21 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart 17 laps

22 P Diniz (Br) Arrows 13 laps