Motor racing: Schumachers offer the title to Villeneuve

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The Independent Online
Derrick Allsop

reports from

the Nurburgring

Even Michael Schumacher will be hard pressed to salvage the world championship from the debris of yesterday's family contretemps. The title will almost certainly be Jacques Villeneuve's.

The balance of a whole season tilted in the bizarre moments that followed the start of the Luxembourg Grand Prix here, and then on two consecutive laps later in the race when the promise of McLaren-Mercedes again disintegrated.

Villeneuve, without breaking sweat, was consequently left an uncluttered road to claim his seventh victory of the season and a probably decisive nine-point lead in the championship with two races remaining.

The Canadian needs only to beat Schumacher in Japan on Sunday week to become champion.

The German went into yesterday's race, staged on his home ground, leading Villeneuve by a point, but his fate was delivered into the hands of the McLaren pair, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, within seconds of the red lights extinguishing. Schumacher's Ferrari competed for the first corner with the Jordan- Peugeots of his brother, Ralf, and the Italian, Giancarlo Fisichella, both to his right. The younger Schumacher, squeezed in the middle, was thrown up and over the Ferrari. He and Fisichella were out of the race, but the Ferrari trundled across the gravel and back onto the road in 10th place.

It was, however, a forlorn attempt to carry on. After bumping over a kerb Schumacher realised his suspension was too badly damaged to continue and he reluctantly brought the car into the pits after two laps.

Schumacher looked on in the hope that the McLarens would contain Villeneuve's Williams-Renault. Alas, at the beginning of the 43rd lap, Coulthard rode to a halt with a blown engine and, a lap later, Hakkinen also stopped with a sick motor.

Villeneuve could scarcely believe his luck. He had survived a wheel banging clash with his team-mate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in the mayhem of the start, then watched with an ever broadening smile as circumstances conspired to convey him to the threshold of the championship.

He was almost coasting by the end and crossed the line 11.77sec ahead of Jean Alesi's Benetton-Renault. Frentzen was not so fortunate in the skirmish with his partner, inadvertently knocking off his ignition, and had to work his way up to third.

By then Schumacher was making his solemn way to his parents' home in Kerpen. Before he left here he said: "This is the worst thing that could have happened. It is shame the incident happened with my brother but I don't think anyone is to blame. It was not a deliberate move. These things happen in motor racing."

The younger Schumacher had been to see his brother after their collision and the pair spent five minutes in private, and doubtless candid, conversation.

Ralf said: "It wasn't my fault. Michael had a bad start and it was easy for me to pass him. Then suddenly I saw something yellow out of the corner of my eye and it was too late. I was hit by Giancarlo and my car jumped in the air, so then I hit Michael."

Fisichella, who was highly critical of his team-mate after a coming together in Argentina earlier in the season, was patently unimpressed with the German yesterday. He said: "I thought my team-mate would be a little more cautious knowing his brother was going for the title. I went round the corner and hit him because there was nowhere I could go."

To compound Ralf's miserable day he was reprimanded by the stewards for running across the track after the crash.

At that early stage of the race, the championship was still a far from lost cause for Schumacher Snr. The McLarens were blindingly quick and Hakkinen, on his 29th birthday, appeared on course for a deserved first win in his 94th grand prix after taking his maiden pole here. When, however, Coulthard's car was forced to retire the Finn must have feared the worst. Soon his race, too, was over and Villeneuve was out on his own, the only potential enemy boredom.

Luxembourg Grand Prix

1 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 10pts

(Williams-Renault) 1hr 31min 27.843.sec

(average speed 120.14mph)

2 Jean Alesi (Fr) 6pts

(Benetton-Renault) at 11.770sec

3 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 4pts

(Williams-Renault) at 13.480

4 Gerhard Berger (Aut) 3pts

(Benetton-Renault) at 16.416

5 Pedro Diniz (Bra) 2pts

(Arrows-Yamaha) at 43.147

6 Olivier Panis (Fr) 1pt

(Prost-Mugen-Honda) at 43.750

7 Johnny Herbert (Gb) Sauber at 44.354, 8 Damon Hill (Gbr) Arrows-Yamaha at 44.777, 9 Gianni Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas at one lap, 10 Mika Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford at one lap.

Not classified (did not finish):

11 Jos Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 50 laps completed; 12 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 43; 13 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 43; 14 David Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 42; 15 Jan Magnussen (Den) Stewart- Ford 40; 16 Eddie Irvine (GB) Ferrari 22; 17 Shinji Nakano (Japan) Prost- Mugen-Honda 16;18 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 2; 19 Tarso Marques (Brazil) Minardi-Ford 1; 20 Ukyo Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Ford 1; 21 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 0; 22 Giancarlo Fisichella (Italy) Jordan- Peugeot 0.

Fastest lap: Frentzen 1min 18.805sec.

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP

1 Williams 112pts

2 Ferrari 86

3 Benetton 62

4 McLaren 44

5 Jordan 33

6 Prost 21

7 Sauber 15

8 Arrows 9

9 Stewart 6

10 Tyrrell 2

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