Ferrari in cruise control

Non-Championship Formula One races died out in the early Eighties, but there has been something of the same atmosphere here as a long, long season draws to a close.

Non-Championship Formula One races died out in the early Eighties, but there has been something of the same atmosphere here as a long, long season draws to a close.

Michael Schumacher, already crowned world champion after the vicissitudes of Suzuka, took his ninth pole of the year for the Malaysian Grand Prix. But as car after car embarked on a fast lap only to abort as qualifying reached its mid-point under a blanket of speed-sapping humidity, there was a suggestion that the 2000 championship had perhaps gone on one race too long.

The focus, naturally, remained on the warring Ferrari and McLaren teams. The latter came to Malaysia with a 13-point deficit to try to overcome if they were to retrieve the world championship for constructors they lost to Ferrari last year. With 16 points up for a one-two finish it was not an impossible task, but the bulletproof reliability of the red cars suggested that the three points they needed - equivalent to only a fourth place - rendered McLaren's threat distinctly academic.

Further down the pecking order, however, this final race is the last throw of the dice for Benetton, BAR and Jordan in the fight for fourth. Not, granted, a position of great prominence, but in these days of two-horse racing you take what you can get.

As Johnny Herbert was reminded by Murray Walker on Friday night, when Jaguar Racing staged an emotional This Is Your Life farewell to the 36-year-old Briton on his F1 swansong, his victory for Stewart-Ford in the 1999 Grand Prix of Europe was the last occasion on which anything other than a McLaren or a Ferrari has been first.

A one-two for Benetton would push them equal with third-placed Williams-BMW. But while that would take a seismic shift of fortune, there was a minor miracle for the Renault-owned team when Alexander Wurz sprang into a stylish and confident fifth place.

The Austrian has had a disastrous season and is headed to a testing role with McLaren in 2001 after being ousted from the team in favour of Jenson Button (who struggled to only 15th place after running out of time to set up his car). Not surprisingly, Wurz was ecstatic about this unexpected boost.

"To qualify right behind the McLarens and Ferraris is really pole position for me," he said, but otherwise it was business as usual. With the irrepressible Jacques Villeneuve pushing into sixth ahead of Eddie Irvine and Ralf Schumacher, BAR may be set to compound Jordan's Japanese nightmare by retaining fifth place overall, or perhaps even moving ahead of Benetton.

Until the dying moments Ferrari had the front row sewn up, with Rubens Barrichello setting second-fastest time, half a second adrift of his team leader. But in the space of 10 seconds his expressive face blackened as first an off-colour David Coulthard, and then Mika Hakkinen, separated them. It was the one genuinely dramatic part of the session, but with the silver arrows still half a second off Schumacher's pace, the German's chances of a record-matching ninth win of the season look rosy.

With the pressure relieved after victory in Japan, Schumacher admitted that he has really been able to enjoy his driving this weekend. "This is the ideal situation because there is no pressure. We race because we love it and you just drive to the limit for the fun of it. But we are still racing for the constructors' title and that is very important for us, although I do think it would take a miracle for us not to score those three points."

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