The championship is go and Michael Schumacher is ruing another failure to heed the warning signs. As the Ferrari driver ran foul of the stewards at the Austrian Grand Prix here yesterday, Jacques Villeneuve marched to victory and within one point of the German at the top of the title standings.
Villeneuve would have assumed the lead by virtue of his greater number of wins this season but for Schumacher's emotion-charged finale after serving a 10-second stop and go penalty for overtaking Heinz-Harald Frentzen under yellow flags.
Relegated from the near certainty of second place to ninth by the time he re-emerged, Schumacher looked forward in anger. Jarno Trulli's engine failure after a stirring final drive for Prost- Mugen-Honda pushed Schumacher one place up the order and his very presence appeared to intimidate Rubens Barrichello into throwing his Stewart off the road and now he was seventh.
On the penultimate lap he brushed aside Damon Hill's Arrows-Yamaha and was through the red mist into the sixth place that earned him a potentially crucial point. Given another lap, he might have taken his brother, Ralf, but perhaps both were spared a family dilemma by the chequered flag.
Schumacher found consolation, too, in the unexpected form of the Ferrari, after qualifying a lowly ninth, and he will require all the power and technical improvement he can muster if he is to resist the revived challenge of Villeneuve and Williams-Renault, who are now ahead of Ferrari in the constructors' championship.
They renew hostilities in Schumacher's 100th race, at the Nurburgring, his home ground, even if it is the Luxembourg Grand Prix on Sunday, and have only two further rounds to decide their duel.
Schumacher said: "I didn't see any yellow flags but I have to accept the decision. Perhaps they should have a system where flags are waved at both sides of the circuit so the drivers can see them.
"I was angry and fired up after that and just went for it. I was pushing hard, giving it 100 per cent. It wasn't easy to get past Hill, but I knew I had to have a go. On the plus side for me is the fact that I am still leading the championship and the car was much better than I expected it to be."
Ironically, the stewards yesterday included Austrian lawyer Peter Soche, who was one of those officiating at the 1994 British Grand Prix, where Schumacher was disqualified for ignoring a black flag. His title prospects were undermined then and have been again here.
Villeneuve, who squandered the advantage of pole position and had to work his way to the front from third place, won rather more comfortably than his three-second margin over David Coulthard may suggest. The McLaren- Mercedes driver was content to hold second place under threat from Frentzen, in the other Williams.
Villeneuve, winner of six races this year, said: "This is a crucial result for me and things are looking much better in the championship. The car is strong and I am confident for the rest of the season.
"I had a bad start because of wheel spin and coming from behind is difficult because you have to be aggressive without making mistakes. It was a big relief when I heard about Michael. Most of the race I knew what he was doing, because the team were keeping me informed and towards the end I was asking about him so as not to get bored."
Coulthard, following up his victory in Italy with six more points, has advanced to fourth in the drivers' championship, but his satisfaction was tinged with frustration over problems encountered with back markers, notably the man driving a Formula One car for possibly the last time in his home country, Gerhard Berger.
Coulthard said: "I'm very pleased with this result because realistically I was expecting only a couple of points. But this was one of the worst races for traffic. Drivers were not very cooperative when they were being lapped. Gerhard suddenly woke up as I was about to lap him and made it difficult for me. That's not right. He paid for it when he went off."
The scramble for the lower places produced some of the more memorable racing at this revised circuit, returning to the calendar after a 10-year absence. The racing became a mite too close, however, for Jean Alesi, in a Benetton-Renault, and Ferrari's Eddie Irvine.
They collided, the Benetton flipped up and over the Ferrari, but landed more or less on its wheels and the French driver was unhurt, if not impressed. He said: "Irvine tried to overtake where there was no space whatsoever." Irvine ushered his damaged car back to the pits and retired.
Austrian Grand Prix
1 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 10pts
(Williams-Renault) 1hr 27min 35.999sec
(average speed 210.228mph/ 130.633kph)
2 David Coulthard (GB) 6pts
3 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 4pts
4 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) 3pts
5 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 2pts
6 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 1pt
7 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 37.207; 8 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 49.057; 9 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:06.455; 10 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha +1 lap; 11 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +2 laps; 12 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart +2 laps; 13 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell- Ford +4 laps; 14 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford +7 laps. Not classified (did not finish): 15 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 57 laps completed; 16 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 57 laps; 17 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen- Honda 56 laps; 18 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 47 laps; 19 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 37 laps; 20 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 36 laps; 21 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 0 laps.
Fastest lap: Jacques Villeneuve 1min 11.814sec, average speed: 134.660mph.
1 Williams 98pts
2 Ferrari 86
3 Benetton 53
4 McLaren 44
5 Jordan 33
6 Prost 20
7 Sauber 15
8 Arrows 7
9 Stewart 6
10 Tyrrell 2Reuse content