Motor Racing: Third man in a two-horse race

Showdown in Suzuka: Schumacher must win but needs his team-mate to halt Hakkinen's title drive
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The Independent Online
THERE IS at present only one topic of conversation at Scuderia Ferrari, just as there is at McLaren. With the self-consciousness of mourners at a funeral trying to avoid the mention of death, personnel find their chatter sliding back on to the one topic regardless of their efforts to avoid it. As the cars pound endlessly around the test tracks in search of those final improvements that can spell the difference between success and failure, employees talk of nothing but the outcome of the World Championship battle. This will be played out between Ferrari's ice-cold German, Michael Schumacher, and McLaren's outwardly dour Finn, Mika Hakkinen, on Japan's Suzuka stage next Sunday.

Ever since Hakkinen turned the tables on Ferrari's scorching qualifying pace, and won the Luxembourg Grand Prix four weeks ago, the Prancing Horse has been on its back hoof, searching within its well-heeled arsenal for the right calibre of weapon and the extra ammunition to fire back at the team which seemed set to cruise to another title after the dominant manner in which it opened the season in Melbourne in March. Last week the faithful tifosi stood like shadowy sentinels on the bridge close to the Ferrari factory in Maranello, patiently watching Schumacher flog tirelessly round and round the Fiorano test track. At times the team has even taken to flooding sections, both here and at Ferrari's other test track, Mugello, to simulate conditions should there be a repeat of 1994's downpour at Suzuka.

"We are not leaving anything to chance," Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, admitted with a cheerfulness that was a marked contrast to everyone else's underlying nervousness. "We have even made pit-stop practices where the crew have simulated dealing with a stalled engine."

All World Championship showdowns are intense but there is an extra agenda this year, following protracted sniping between McLaren and Ferrari over mutual interpretation of the complex technical regulations. After the technical delegate of the governing body, the FIA, had given the nod to McLaren to use a fancy braking system in Australia, Ferrari succeeded in having his ruling overturned in time to have it banned by the next race. McLaren later hit back with thinly veiled accusations that Ferrari's engine management system behaved like a form of traction control, which was outlawed five years back. After the manner in which McLaren have led the championship all season, a last-race stumble would be unbearably embarrassing, while Ferrari still has ringing in its ears the pre-season remark of the Fiat chief, Gianni Agnelli, that it would be the team's fault if they did not win their first title in 19 years.

"There are many, many scenarios, aren't there?" Brawn inquired with his trademark owlish expression. "I'm sure it's going to be very tough. Goodyear have done a huge amount of work since the race at the Nurburgring, and so have we. But McLaren have also done a great deal, and we are not underestimating the challenge of Bridgestone on their home ground."

Since Melbourne, where his engine broke, Schumacher has not suffered a mechanical failure, something that doubtless keeps McLaren's Ron Dennis awake at night.

Equally critical will be the role of the respective team-mates, neither of whom looked remotely impressive as their partners fought for victory last time out. Hakkinen's stable-mate, David Coulthard, has won only one race, at Imola, while Eddie Irvine has yet to win at all. But the Ulsterman is the more likely to spring a surprise. It was at Suzuka in 1993 that he made his debut, finishing fifth and later collecting a punch in the mouth from the late Ayrton Senna, after angering the Brazilian by racing him as he was being lapped and then later upsetting him further with his insouciant refusal to accept any blame. Five years on, Irvine is ready to win, and last year showed at Suzuka that he has the pace to run at the front as he helped Schumacher to a crucial victory.

Irvine's detractors - Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill among them - dismiss him as little more than Schumacher's lackey. But as he proved in France earlier this season, he is quick enough to race and beat Hakkinen, and to back Ferrari in the one-two it desperately needs in order to crush the McLaren challenge. It is not enough for Schumacher to win, because if Hakkinen makes it home in second place he would match the German's points score. Both would have won seven races, but Hakkinen would take the title via a greater number of second places.

"I'm cool," Irvine told the Italian press last week, where at one stage he was quicker than Schumacher round Mugello. "I know what I have to do, and I'll give it all I've got."

Cynics who watched Schumacher's thuggish attempt to take Jacques Villeneuve out of the title-deciding Grand Prix of Europe last season smirk at the thought that, with a four-point deficit this time around, the wunderkind must keep his nose clean. But what if Irvine should account for Hakkinen, whether by design or malchance?

"We have to finish in first and second places," the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, said last week. "Of course we need Schumacher to win, and I think Eddie has got a very challenging race. He is very good in Suzuka, and he has driven some good races this year. Now he is far more comfortable with his back, which in the last two races caused him big, big problems.

"Above all, I want fair attitude. I want, as they might say in football, a masculine match, but without fouls. I expect from Eddie a strong opposition, but sporting. Of course the pressure in Suzuka is really for Schumacher, but also for Hakkinen. We will see."

Hakkinen, meanwhile, is aiming to clinch his first title in style. "If everything goes normally, I think I will win," he said. "There is no point in thinking about second place." But that's the trouble with Suzuka. Things are very rarely normal on one of the fastest, most challenging tracks in the calendar.

FORMULA ONE-TWO: HOW THE RIVALS MATCH UP

Mika

Hakkinen

Born

28 Sept 1968

Team

McLaren-Mercedes

Driver rating

9 Has remarkable inner confidence and bounced back brilliantly from life-threatening accident in 1995. Doesn't make many mistakes, either. Mentor and manager is former champion Keke Rosberg, which helps.

Car rating

10 Sharp design by Adrian Newey has superior aerodynamics to anything else, and more compliant suspension. Allied to powerful Mercedes- Benz V10, makes an almost irresistible package.

Tyre rating

9 Bridgestone began the season with a clear advantage which McLaren exploited to the full. But once Goodyear started fighting back, the Japanese company has come under pressure in second year of F1.

1998 high points

Winning at Monaco gave Hakkinen his biggest buzz, after an almost faultless race in the grand prix everyone wants to win. But the GP of Luxembourg ran it close after he did to Schumacher what Schumacher normally does to everyone else.

1998 low points

In Hungary and Monza car problems forced Hakkinen to drop down the finishing order, while in Belgium the first-lap accident negated an excellent start. Hesitation next time led to disaster.

On Michael

"Of course you have to respect him, but he is not unbeatable."

He says

"If life was a fairy tale I'd be World Champion

already. But it isn't. And I'm not. Yet."

They say

Fast, confident and the closest out there to Schumacher. Would make an excellent and

deserving world champion.

Michael

Schumacher

Born

3 Jan 1969

Team

Ferrari

Driver rating

10+ Nobody is in his league for the all-round combination of factors which lead to greatness. Added to that, his ability always to deliver the goods in the cockpit has been an inspiration to the Ferrari team. It shows.

Car rating

9 The Rory Byrne/Ross Brawn Ferrari F300 is not quite a McLaren, lacking its aerodynamic edge and having markedly stiff suspension, but its engine

management system is reckoned to be second to none.

Tyre rating

10 After a feeble start, long-serving Goodyear hit back mid-season and had Bridgestone on the run for a long time. Despite recent setback in Luxembourg, they may well remain the tyres to beat in their final outing.

1998 high points

Schumacher's victory in Hungary was a combination of brilliant on-the-hoof tactical thinking by tech director Ross Brawn, and equally brilliant driving. Monza was unexpected icing on the cake.

1998 low points

Crashing with Wurz at Monaco cost

Schumacher big time, but that accident with Coulthard at Spa was even more embarrassing. Without them, he could have clinched the title by now.

On Mika

"Most of the year he's had a superior car, and it's easy to win races that way. He hasn't had to fight much."

He says

"If Hakkinen is out, I might let Eddie win as a thank you for all his help this season."

They say

Outwardly arrogant, occasionally ruthless, but far and away the best guy out there. His tragedy is the lack of a Senna to measure

himself against.

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