Motor racing: Schumacher takes it down to the wire

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The Independent Online
One point and one final race is all that separates Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher from the Formula One World Championship.

But, as David Tremayne explains, Villeneuve has only himself to blame for not clinching the title in yesterday's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

Jacques Villeneuve's worst nightmare came encased in the form of Michael Schumacher's 27th victory when the flag fell to end an extraordinary Japanese Grand Prix here yesterday. The triumph lifted the German within a point of the French-Canadian with one race left in the World Championship battle, but Villeneuve's fifth place finish may be taken away before the finale in Jerez, reversing their positions.

Villeneuve was already on a nine-race probation for failing to slow down under yellow caution flags, and when he offended again in Saturday morning practice he was initially banned from the race. But he was allowed to take up his pole position under appeal, and cut sharply across Schumacher at the start to snatch the lead. It soon became clear that his tactic was to try and delay him.

"I never thought he would try to take me out because he isn't that type of sportsman," Schumacher said, and in any case Villeneuve had been warned that any such tactics would result in the loss of further points. "But obviously he drove to make things as difficult as possible so others would have a chance to overtake me. It didn't work, except for Eddie."

Schumacher's Ferrari team-mate, Eddie Irvine, proved to be the leading light of the early going as he overtook Mika Hakkinen and Schumacher round the outside in a daring move in the first corner at the start of the second lap. A lap later he pounced on Villeneuve at the chicane and, as Villeneuve continued his delaying tactics, Irvine opened up a 12-second lead.

Schumacher could not find a way past Villeneuve, but as the Williams driver left the pits on lap 21 after his first fuel stop, Schumacher was bearing down on him on the main straight, and bypassed a clumsy blocking move to grab second place.

"I think there is a kind of gentleman's agreement where you don't pull over on the circuit there because the speed is quite different and you can have quite a big accident," Schumacher said, "but obviously Jacques decided to do this and then I took the dive to the inside."

Ferrari's team tactics now came into play, as Irvine was instructed to slow down and let Schumacher take the lead. "Everything went pretty much to plan," Irvine said. "I was just waiting for the phone call!"

Schumacher later paid Irvine a warm tribute. "I've said many times that Eddie is a great driver and a great team-mate, and I have to thank him for this victory."

As the two Ferraris headed the field, Villeneuve gambled on an early second fuel stop, but was delayed when the refuelling apparatus malfunctioned, and thereafter his challenge faded. Instead, it was left to Heinz-Harald Frentzen, his Williams-Renault team-mate, to recover from a slow first stint and overcome insufficient downforce. He had moved up to third place by the 31st lap, and then moved ahead of Irvine as the Ulsterman's front- end grip began to deteriorate.

Over the final laps Frentzen hounded Schumacher, and when Damon Hill blocked the Ferrari for a full lap with only three laps to go, losing Schumacher three seconds of a four-second lead, he closed to within striking distance.

"But catching somebody on this track is something, overtaking is a different challenge," Frentzen said. They finished 1.378sec apart. Irvine soldiered on to a honourable third, just holding off Hakkinen's McLaren, as Villeneuve struggled home just ahead of Jean Alesi's Benetton and Johnny Herbert's Sauber.

"I tried to slow the pace so somebody might pass Michael," Villeneuve said, "and I was really disappointed when nobody did! If I hadn't been under threat of suspension I would have driven a very different race, and our car was very competitive here." Williams' sole consolation was clinching a record ninth victory in the constructors' championship.

"I have to think a long way back where I had this satisfaction in winning," Schumacher beamed. "Coming back to the championship like this, you can't have much more relief. Whoever is going to be in front of the other guy is going to be the champion. That's the right situation going into the last race, and I look forward to it."

On the day when he should have taken his first world title, Villeneuve could only grit his teeth in anguish, having inflicted by his own hand what might prove to be a mortal wound to his aspirations.

Japanese Grand Prix

Japanese Grand Prix

1 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

(Ferrari) 1hr 29min 48.446sec, av speed 129.693 mph/207.508 kph.

2 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 6pts

(Williams-Renault) +1.378sec.

3 Eddie Irvine (GB) 4pts

(Ferrari) +26.384.

4 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 3pts

(McLaren-Mercedes) +27.129.

5 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 2pts

(Williams-Renault) +39.776.

6 Jean Alesi (Fr) 1pt

(Benetton-Renault) +40.403.

7 Johnny Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas +41.630; 8 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot + 56.825; 9 Gerhard Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +1min 00.429sec; 10 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot, +1:22.036.

Not classified (did not finish):

11 David Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 52 laps; 12 Damon Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 52; 13 Pedro Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 52; 14 Jos Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 52; 15 Tarso Marques (Bra) Minardi-Hart 46; 16 Mika Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 46; 17 Olivier Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen-Honda 36; 18 Shinji Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 22; 19 Ukyo Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart 8; 20 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 6; 21 Jan Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 3.

Fastest Lap: Frentzen 1:38.942 (133.350 mph/213.361 kph) lap 48.

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP

1 Williams 120pts

2 Ferrari 100

3 Benetton 63

4 McLaren 47

5 Jordan 33

6 Prost 21

7 Sauber 15

8 Arrows 9

9 Stewart 6

10 Tyrrell 2

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