Motor Racing: Schumacher trails in Finn's wake

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THE HUGE red bowl of the stadium fell silent, the message was so devastating. Michael Schumacher's world championship aspirations had crumbled before his own people.

As Schumacher cajoled a reluctant Ferrari to fifth place in yesterday's German Grand Prix here, Mika Hakkinen was leading another formation slaughter by McLaren-Mercedes and opening a 16-point advantage at the top of the title standings.

The Finn's sixth win of the season, ahead of his team-mate, David Coulthard, could well prove the defining performance of the year. McLaren look as strong as ever, Ferrari again fallible, and even Schumacher may not possess the powers to redress the balance over the remaining five rounds.

The closest threat to the McLarens came from Williams' Jacques Villeneuve, who appeared on the podium for the first time since becoming champion in the final race of last season.

Damon Hill registered his first points for almost a year with fourth place in the Jordan, a result which should strengthen his negotiating position with the team.

Ralf Schumacher completed another good day for the Silverstone organisation with sixth place, his third successive finish in the points. However, his gamble on a two-stop strategy probably cost him a higher position.

Coulthard harboured thoughts of a second victory of the season, but overshot at his pit stop and failed to re-emerge in front of Hakkinen. In the later stages he resisted any temptation to attack his partner, reasoning the risk was too great and the potential consequences of failure too gruesome to contemplate.

Hakkinen maintained that his passage was far from comfortable, with Coulthard never more that a second from his gearbox and his car misbehaving towards the end. He knew also that Villeneuve, starved of competitive racing and with nothing to lose, was tearing up the deficit.

Eventually, Villeneuve, too, was hindered by a problem, and the three front-runners crossed the line with a degree of relief as well as satisfaction. Hakkinen was just 0.4sec clear of Coulthard, who was 2.5sec ahead of Villeneuve.

Hakkinen said: "It was a difficult situation for me near the end because I lost some performance and had to slow down to make sure nothing serious happened. But we made it and it's great for the team to have another one- two."

Coulthard was beaten to the first corner by Hakkinen and realised at that moment his only opportunity might come at the pit stop. He said: "Unfortunately I overshot and it cost me perhaps half a second. I never seriously thought of having a go because the risk was too great and the stakes too high.

"I was very uncomfortable towards the end because Mika's car was throwing out oil. It was getting on my gloves, on my mirrors and on my tyres. It wouldn't have made sense to try and overtake him, especially here, with all the Mercedes people looking on. It wouldn't have gone down too well if we'd ended up in the gravel.

"It would feel a lot better if I was at the front, but all the signs are that Mika is going to be world champion. He has driven very well. I just want to do all I can to try and finish second and have something to build on for next season." Hakkinen and Coulthard have been confirmed as McLaren's drivers for next season and the teamwork produced here looks capable of enduring.

Villeneuve was grateful to have them in his sights and then frustrated that he was unable to mix it with them. The Canadian said: "It's great to be on the podium again and really competing. But I had a problem near the end so I wasn't able to put any pressure on the McLarens."

Hill was just gratified to play a meaningful role in proceedings after an often tortuous season with Jordan. Ralf Schumacher's misplaced faith in two stops handed Hill the responsibility of leading the Jordan cause and he accepted it, keeping Schumacher Snr at bay in the process.

Hill said: "This is more like the races I have been used to. The team did a fantastic job and it was great to be able to hold off Michael, who at one stage was catching up worryingly fast. But there is nothing like the inspiration of wanting to hold on to fourth place to keep you going."

Schumacher Snr remains hopeful he can catch Hakkinen, but yesterday he was subdued and contrite. He said: "I am sorry I was unable to do better in front of my home crowd. But after being off the pace all weekend I couldn't expect a miracle. My main problem was lack of grip. It was difficult to keep the car on the road."

His team-mate, Eddie Irvine, experienced similar difficulties making three unscheduled excursions before coming in a travel-weary eighth. Johnny Herbert pulled up his broken Sauber eight laps from the end.


Race distance 45 laps, 307.035km

1 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 10pts McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 20min 47.984sec (ave speed 227.997kph)

2 David Coulthard (GB) 6pts McLaren-Mercedes +.427sec

Fastest lap (17) 1:46.116 (ave speed 231.471kph)

3 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 4pts Williams-Mecachrome +2.578

4 Damon Hill (GB) 3pts Jordan-Mugen-Honda +7.185

5 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 2pts Ferrari +12.613

6 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 1pt Jordan-Mugen-Honda +29.739

7 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife +31.027; 8 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +31.650; 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome +32.785; 10 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas +48.372; 11 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife +57.995; 12 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot +1 lap; 13 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford +1; 14 M Salo (Fin) Arrows +1; 15 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +1; 16 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford +2 laps. Did not finish (not classified): 17 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 37 laps completed; 18 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford 36; 19 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 27; 20 J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart-Ford 24; 21 P Diniz (Br) Arrows 2. Did not start: R Rosset (Br) Tyrrell-Ford (inj).


1 McLaren-Mercedes 118pts; 2 Ferrari 92; 3 Benetton-Playlife 32; 4 Williams- Mecachrome 24; 5 Stewart-Ford 5; 6 Jordan-Mugen-Honda 7; 8= Arrows, Sauber- Petronas 4.