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Motor racing: The big fight that never was

Derick Allsop says Formula One's rule on false starts needs to be rethought
MIKA HAKKINEN and McLaren-Mercedes put on an impeccable performance to finish the job, Michael Schumacher was magnificently defiant to the end, and the protagonists restored dignity to the Formula One World Championship with their sportsmanship and graciousness.

And yet...

The overriding emotion for the neutral observer is again one of frustration, a sense of having been short-changed, even betrayed; lured to the big fight that never was.

They had been paraded as prize fighters about to slug it out, toe to toe, for the ultimate title. Instead, they came out of their respective corners separated by a crowded ring and were never likely to exchange blows.

Hakkinen was shadow boxing in the clear, Schumacher taking them on, one, two, three at a time, like some latter-day western hero in a bar room brawl. He could not, alas, lay out everyone in his path and was eventually incapacitated when his tyre exploded.

Perhaps it was always going to end like that. Perhaps not. The stress he put on his car and tyres made retirement a short odds possibility. What we do know is that the moment his car stalled on the grid, the championship had virtually been decided. Only a breakdown or highly improbable mistake by Hakkinen would have revived Ferrari's hopes of acclaiming their first champion in 19 years.

It was not the scenario the world wanted, even if many would have wallowed in Schumacher's demise. The German has rarely been mistaken for a paragon of virtue and Hakkinen was billed as the good guy in this confrontation.

The electronics/clutch problem which afflicted the Ferrari denied the watching millions - many of whom had crawled from their beds in the middle of the night - the spectacle they had savoured.

Fate, of course, is part of the game, indeed part of the fascination. The past decade has produced a catalogue of showdowns that failed to materialise or go the distance.

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had their tit for tat spats in 1989 and 1991, Schumacher and Damon Hill had their coming together at Adelaide '94, Jacques Villeneuve's misfortune handed the crown to Hill in 1996, and last year it passed to the Canadian after Schumacher's ill-starred ram raid.

This time it was different, Schumacher was deprived of his chance on a technicality, a rule that says if a driver stalls he must start at the back of the grid. It is, surely, an excessive and totally unnecessary punishment.

Certainly there will be scant sympathy for Schumacher in some quarters. This will be seen as appropriate retribution. But what of the show? What of the race? This is one rule the authorities should reconsider through the long winter months ahead.

They might, for instance, give a driver a second chance, following the lead of athletics, where a sprinter leaving his blocks before the gun is issued a final warning. A championship that defied the early auguries and fired our senses deserved a better climax than this.