Motor racing: Schumacher's lucky break

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The Independent Online
It was billed as the Great Confrontation: the local hero, Jacques Villeneuve, versus Michael Schumacher, his main rival in the world championship. And for one of the 69 laps it lived up to expectations. But the Canadian Grand Prix will be remembered principally for Schumacher's luck, David Coulthard's lack of it, and the massive accident which left the French driver, Olivier Panis, with both legs broken.

Schumacher won the start, but it was the young Italian Giancarlo Fisichella who burst through from the third row to harry Villeneuve for second place. Further back, Panis, the pre-race dark horse who was much fancied in the hot conditions in his Bridgestone-shod Prost, ruined his chances by running into Mika Hakkinen's McLaren in the first corner. The Finn retired, as did Eddie Irvine, who spun his Ferrari in avoidance.

Schumacher instantly got into his stride to open up a small lead, but his task became immeasurably easier as Villeneuve's day came to a sad end at the conclusion of the second lap. Going into the final corner, the Canadian made an elementary error and spun his Williams- Renault hard into the outer wall. As he clambered out and stalked angrily away, Villeneuve left Schumacher firmly in control and his countrymen in complete dismay. After his argument earlier in the week with the sport's governing body, when he was issued with a reprimand in Paris for comments deemed detrimental to the sport, this was the final blow in a week of unrelenting pressure.

"I just made an error," he said afterwards as he counted the cost in terms of a lost championship lead. "This is going to be hard to swallow. There is no point to stop eating or lose sleep over it, but it's going to be difficult to accept."

Schumacher quickly opened a lead of 2.5 seconds by the fifth lap, leaving Fisichella to fend off the infinitely more experienced Jean Alesi and Coulthard. The Italian proved eminently capable of this initially, as he set the fastest lap.

Williams' problems doubled as Heinz-Harald Frentzen met trouble early on, losing fifth place to Ralf Schumacher on the sixth lap, and then coming under pressure from the newcomer Alexander Wurz, who replaced the unwell Gerhard Berger in the second Benetton. But a respite came when the safety car was deployed on the seventh lap after Ukyo Katayama had crashed his Minardi and partially blocked the track.

The racing resumed at the end of the ninth lap, and straight away Schumacher surged ahead again, with Fisichella also moving clear of the fight between Alesi, Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher, in the second Jordan, for third place.

Michael Schumacher increased his lead with fastest lap on the 14th circuit, but his brother's race ended with a dramatic accident in which his Jordan- Peugeot speared off the track before colliding heavily with the tyre barriers. The young German was shaken, but able to limp away. It was a forestaste of what was to befall Panis.

Schumacher pitted on lap 28, rejoining after a 7.6sec stop, but nevertheless surrendering the lead to Coulthard.

Schumacher was later to express his displeasure with the tyres he used. "We really must have some conservative back-up tyres from Goodyear," Schumacher said. "I couldn't have had a better start, and our two-stop strategy seemed to be working well.

"Everything was reasonably okay on my first set of tyres, partly because of the safety car coming out. But when I had to push on my second set to try and catch David, I blistered my tyres and had to stop again earlier than intended. On my third set I blistered the rear tyres in five or six laps despite the fact that I wasn't pushing by then."

As Coulthard kept going McLaren's one-stop fuel strategy became apparent, and though Schumacher momentarily reduced his advantage, Coulthard had smoothly opened it to 8.3sec by the halfway point as McLaren's chances began to look distinctly promising. To underline it, Coulthard celebrated by setting another fastest lap.

He finally stopped 12 laps later than Schumacher, and though the German regained the lead he still had one stop left to make. It seemed all over bar the shouting, but appearances were to be very, very deceptive.

Further back, Sauber's strategy echoed McLaren's, elevating Johnny Herbert to a smooth fifth place behind Alesi and Fisichella by lap 40, but the Englishman's progress was delayed by a 10-second stop and go penalty for speeding in the pit lane during his fuel stop.

Coulthard duly regained the lead on the 44th lap as Schumacher made his second stop, and now the German faced the apparently impossible task of erasing a 12-second deficit in 25 laps. When Panis unlapped himself on the 50th lap it was clear that Schumacher was in trouble, and when he brought the Ferrari in a lap later it was the trigger for the drama that would suddenly explode.

No sooner had Schumacher apparently relinquished all chance of victory than Coulthard, too, came in with his left rear tyre severely blistered. But then the Scot's engine stalled as his clutch malfunctioned, and out on the track Panis crashed his Prost very heavily, bringing out the safety car again. After three laps at slow speeds, the cars were red-flagged off and the race was over. Schumacher, never luckier, led Alesi, Fisichella, Frentzen, Herbert and Nakano home, with the bitterly disappointed Coulthard seventh in the race he so deserved to win.

He was bitterly disappointed. "Seeing we had 30 seconds in hand over Michael we decided to make the second stop after my second set of tyres was blistered. We did it in response to him stopping too, and the rest is history. When I put the car in gear the engine just stalled, then it stalled again. By the third time it was cool enough to engage the gear, but by then it was all over for us."

Schumacher had a new seven-point lead in the world championship, but this was not a day for celebrating. Panis sustained a broken right leg, but the drivers were incensed by the manner in which marshals pulled him from the car, rather than letting him await the professional attention of the sport's medic, Professor Sid Watkins.

CANADIAN GRAND PRIX

1 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

(Ferrari) 1hr 17min 40.646sec

(average speed 112.3 mph)

2 Jean Alesi (Fr) 6pts

(Benetton-Renault) at 2.565sec

3 Ginacarlo Fisichella (It) 4pts

(Jordan-Peugeot) at 3.219

4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 3pts

(Williams-Renault) at 3.768

5 Johnny Herbert (GB) 2pts

(Sauber-Petronas) at 4.716

6 Shinji Nakano (Jpn) 1pt

(Prost-Mugen-Honda) at 36.701

7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes at 37.753; 8 P Diniz (Braz) Arrows- Yamaha at 1 lap; 9 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha at 1 lap; 10 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas at 1 lap; 11 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen-Honda at 3 laps. Not classified (did not finish): 12 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 46 laps completed; 13 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 42; 14 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Renault 35; 15 R Barrichello (Braz) Stewart-Ford 33; 16 J Trulli (It) Minardi-Hart 32; 17 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 14; 18 U Katayama (Jpn) Minardi-Hart 5; 19 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1; 20 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 0; 21 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 0; 22 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 0.

Fastest lap: Coulthard 1:19.635 (120.1mph).

Constructors' championship

1 Ferrari 51pts

2 Williams 43

3 Benetton 23

4 McLaren 21

5 Prost 16

6 Jordan 12

7 Sauber 8

8 Stewart 6

9 Tyrrell 2

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