F1 returns to Malaysia with new world champion

For a race only one year old, the Malaysian Grand Prix already has a lot of history.

For a race only one year old, the Malaysian Grand Prix already has a lot of history.

Last year, Michael Schumacher made a spectacular return to the Formula One season after a three-month break to recover from a broken leg. He won pole position, gave up the race lead to then-Ferrari-teammate Eddie Irvine, was disqualified after the race, then reinstated.

Now, Schumacher returns to the Sepang course near Kuala Lumpur as the newly crowned world champion. His manager says that new souvenirs, labeled "World Champion 2000," are already being prepared, possibly for sale by Sunday's season-ending race in this Southeast Asian country.

Schumacher clinched his third Formula One title by winning the Japanese Grand Prix on Oct. 8, moving past two-time champion Mika Hakkinen on the second pit stop.

That gave Schumacher an uncatchable 12-point lead in the season standings and a third world driving title to go with the pair he earned with Benetton in 1994 and 1995.

Since, Schumacher had pursued a third crown for Ferrari, coming close twice. After starting the season brilliantly - winning five of the first eight races - he slumped, allowing Hakkinen to overtake him.

Then Schumacher recovered to win in three continents - Europe, North America and Asia - as he won the Italian, U.S. and Japanese races.

He returns to Malaysia in triumph. Last year, after missing six races following a crash at the British Grand Prix in July, he returned to racing in Sepang amid speculation over when - even whether - he could come back.

He gained the pole position and then led the race before moving aside to allow Irvine to go ahead. The Ferraris finished first and second and gave Irvine a temporary lead in the season standings.

Then, the Ferraris were disqualified for a technical violation. Less than a week later, the decision was overturned and Ferraris' 1-2 finish was reinstated. But Hakkinen snatched the driver's title from Irvine's grasp in the final race of the season in Japan.

Malaysian Grand Prix officials hoped that this season would go down to the wire and maneuvered to have their race as the final one. But while the race should be as exciting as any Formula One contest, for Schumacher, win or lose, it will still amount to a victory lap.

The Malaysians have spent 30 million ringgit (almost dlrs 8 million) giving the track and surrounding area a face lift since last season.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a racing enthusiast, was a driving force to bring Formula One to his country. His 19-year hold on power has strengthened since an election victory after last year's race and threats by the weakened opposition to disrupt the Grand Prix with massive protests have little credibility.

The track, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur near the airport, was built for 280 million ringgit (nearly dlrs 80 million). More than 100,000 fans attended in 1999, and it was telecast to more than 150 countries according to racing officials.

This year, race organizers improved the stands and safety features around the circuit. Even if it rains Sunday - the monsoon season is upon Malaysia - a new drainage system would quickly help improve conditions.

Schumacher's victory in Japan thrilled Ferrari fans all over the world. But a bit of suspense hangs in the Sepang air, to see whether a bizarre set of circumstances could rob the venerable Italian stable of the constructors championship.

Ferrari leads archrival McLaren by 13 points. Hakkinen and McLaren teammate David Coulthard need to finish at least first and third and to shut Ferrari out of the points to snatch the constructors title.

However, if Schumacher and teammate Rubens Barrichello score at least three points, or if a McLaren does not win the race, Ferrari will have the constructor and driving double for the first time since 1979, when Jody Scheckter paced Ferrari to both victories.

Ferrari won the constructors title in 1982, 1983 and 1999, but Scheckter was the last Ferrari champion driver until this year.

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