Motor Racing: Schumacher takes his revenge

Italian Grand Prix: German levels championship race as the power of the Prancing Horse leaves McLaren trailing
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The Independent Online
THE MOSAIC of humanity stretched along the track as far as the eye could see and a huge banner, bearing the Prancing Horse, shimmied at its heart. No crowd celebrates success like this crowd and no success could have been more precious than this one.

Michael Schumacher, banishing the traumas of Spa, and Eddie Irvine gave Ferrari and their faithful their first 1-2 triumph at Formula One's cathedral for a decade - and a little bit more.

Mika Hakkinen's struggle to fourth place in the Italian Grand Prix here yesterday left him ahead of Schumacher in the championship only because he has two second places to the Germans one. They are level on points and wins with two races remaining, at the Nurburgring and Suzuka.

Schumacher, who lost the opportunity of overtaking Hakkinen when he crashed into the back of the Finn's McLaren-Mercedes team-mate, David Coulthard, in Belgium, a fortnight earlier, feared he had compounded his plight by throwing away the advantage of pole position.

His sluggish start relegated him to fifth while Hakkinen swung wide and into the lead, covered by Coulthard. Schumacher quickly negotiated Jacques Villeneuve's Williams and was allowed through to third place by his dutiful partner.

Schumacher chased after the McLarens with characteristic determination, but although he made ground it became clear the fastest man on the circuit was Coulthard. The Scot duly took over at the front and pulled away with ominous ease.

Coulthard, winner of this race last year, was already contemplating a repeat. However, on the 17th lap his engine blew and he parked his broken car at the side of the road.

Hakkinen and Schumacher plunged into the trailing clouds and anxiously jockeyed for position. The Ferrari attacked at the chicane, the McLaren resisted, but lost momentum in the process and could not match Schumachers acceleration at the exit.

Schumacher's course seemed straightforward enough, yet Hakkinen was able to retaliate after their pit stops. He had closed the gap to 2.6 seconds with eight laps left when he pushed a little too hard and spun off the track.

To his credit, he managed to scramble back into the race although now his objective was survival rather than victory. He was caught and passed by Irvine, and then by Schumacher's younger brother, Ralf, in a Jordan, before gratefully making it to the line.

The expressions of dismay in the McLaren camp told the story of the day as graphically as the jubilation in the Ferrari pits and out there in the gallery and on the track. Schumacher enacted the leap of joy he had doubtless been rehearsing in his mind two weeks earlier. His fortunes had turned full circle.

"My grandmother said if it was unfair what happened in Spa it will be equalised in Monza and she was right," Schumacher said. "She is 74 years old but she is clever. She watches the races and talks to me afterwards. I will speak to her later.

"At the start it looked like I wanted to go for a walk instead of a race. It was terrible. But I was able to get up to third and try to catch the McLarens. When David's engine blew it was impossible to see and we both slowed down big time. It was very dangerous. Mika lost it into the chicane and then closed the door, but I was able to out accelerate him coming out of the chicane.

"I wasn't really worried when he started getting closer to me because it was only by a couple of tenths of a second a lap. It's one thing to catch a car here, another to get past it.

"When he went off it certainly made it a lot easier for me and, thanks to Eddie and Ralf, who caught him as well, we are now level on points in the championship."

Hakkinen, who led by 16 points only three races back, was unhappy with the handling of his car in the first half of the race and ultimately had to contend with the handicap of failing brakes.

He said: "That was the reason for my high speed spin. I was lucky to come out of that without stalling. While I was spinning I was thinking 'this will mean zero points'. Fortunately I managed to keep going and score three points. Up to then I was reeling in Michael. I am confident and still very positive, and will fight to win the championship."

Coulthard has had more than his share of bad luck this season and the long walk back from the country exposed him to more abuse from Ferrari's fans still blaming him for the collision with Schumacher at Spa. However, there was some consolation.

He said: "I thought it was going to be an easy win but I've had lots like that this year. When I was walking back the fans were a bit aggressive so I stopped and went to them and talked to them. I think it helped rebuild bridges that were damaged. I must have stopped 25 times and not one of them refused to shake hands. Even in a different language, we were able to communicate and it felt really good."

Jean Alesi was fifth for Sauber and Damon Hill, winner in Belgian, contributed another point to Jordan's coffers with sixth place. His team are now just two points behind third placed Williams in the constructors' championship.

"This is a great result on the back of Spa," said Hill, who started 14th on the grid and gambled on a two-stop strategy. "It was always going to be difficult but we seem to be going from strength to strength. We must take the award for the most improved team of the season."

Johnny Herbert has to be one of the most disappointed drivers of the season and spun out here with a braking problem on his Sauber.

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX

1 M Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

Ferrari

2 E Irvine (Irl) 6pts

Ferrari

3 R Schumacher (Ger) 4pts

Jordan-Mugen Honda

4 M Hakkinen (Fin) 3pts

McLaren-Mercedes

5 J Alesi (Fr) 2pts

Sauber-Petronas

6 D Hill (GB) 2pts

Jordan-Mugen Honda

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP

1 McLaren-Mercedes 128pts

2 Ferrari 118pts

3 Williams-Mecachrome 33pts

4 Benetton-Mecachrome 32pts

5 Jordan-Honda 31pts

6 Sauber-Petronas 10pts

7 Arrows 6pts

8 Stewart-Ford 5pts

9 Prost-Peugeot 1pt

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