Ferrari's dream turns into nightmare

Disqualification for Irvine and Schumacher gives Hakkinen championship subject to an Italian appeal

SUCCESS BLEW up in the faces of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher here yesterday, just as they were celebrating a tactically astute one-two finish in what had seemed to millions of television viewers to be an astounding inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix. Within hours their Ferraris had been excluded for irregularities in their bodywork, handing the world championship provisionally to McLaren-Mercedes' Mika Hakkinen, whom they had earlier convincingly vanquished.

SUCCESS BLEW up in the faces of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher here yesterday, just as they were celebrating a tactically astute one-two finish in what had seemed to millions of television viewers to be an astounding inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix. Within hours their Ferraris had been excluded for irregularities in their bodywork, handing the world championship provisionally to McLaren-Mercedes' Mika Hakkinen, whom they had earlier convincingly vanquished.

In victory Irvine had earlier raised a laugh when he declared: "It's depressing, Michael Schumacher is not only the best No 1 driver in the world, he's the best No 2 as well!" But they were not laughing when Jo Bauer, the technical delegate of the sport's world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Automobilisme, announced his findings after inspecting the two Ferraris. The stewards then deliberated on the matter and came to the same conclusion as Bauer and threw out the Italian team, who have appealed.

Two hours after the race had ended and with Irvine already on a plane and unaware of the outcome, Hakkinen was left apparently holding his second world championship crown after being elevated to first place ahead of the Briton, Johnny Herbert and his Stewart-Ford team-mate, Rubens Barrichello. Hakkinen, who is chasing back-to-back world titles, now has an uncatchable 12-point advantage if the Ferrari appeal fails. At the end of the race, the Finn had been four points behind Irvine with one race to go.

FIA will come under pressure to ensure the appeal hearing takes place before the final race of the season on 31 October in Japan. Several options are open to the committee which could, for example, decide to substitute Ferrari's exclusion with a hefty fine and possible loss of points gained here in the constructors' championship. This would ensure that the final race, at Suzuka in two week's time, would still decide the drivers' championship in front of a huge, worldwide television audience.

Irvine thought he was heading for the Suzuka showdown with a four-point lead after his victory, which had been handed to him by Schumacher. The 33-year-old Ulsterman had left for Macau in his private plane knowing there was a problem - not that he had been kicked out of the race.

Confusion reigned in the paddock at the spectacular Sepang circuit which had just hosted its first grand prix, with the faces of the Ferrari team turning from joy to despair.

"I spoke to Eddie before the decision had been taken," said Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt. "He knew about the problem but does not know about the outcome. When you hear something like this after such a drive then obviously it is a big disappointment. We have made an appeal to FIA but I do not know when that appeal will be heard."

The problem was that the turning vane on the barge-board - an aerodynamic part at the side of the car which helps air-flow and stability - was just a centimetre too short.

Ferrari, who accepted that the bodywork did not conform to the regulations at a meeting with the stewards, said the part had been used at the last race in Germany and the car had been scrutinised every day during this weekend's maiden race in Kuala Lumpur.

"For reasons we have still got to establish there is a piece missing of about a centimetre," said Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, who showed the problem part at a hastily convened press conference.

"We are sure there was no performance benefit. This piece was used at the Nürburgring. We raced it there and all weekend here. The stewards make their own decision on which parts they check."

Irvine and Hakkinen will now face an anxious wait for the outcome of the appeal hearing, which could set up another Suzuka showdown or turn the race into a damp squib.

Hakkinen will be officially crowned champion if the stewards' decision is upheld. But if the appeal panel decides to reinstate the Ferrari duo, as conspiracy theorists are already suggesting they will, then the outcome of the drivers' crown will turn back in Irvine's favour.

The stewards' decision came amid a post-race row between Ferrari and McLaren over the role played by Schumacher on his comeback after a seven-race absence.

The German showed what Ferrari had missed while he recovered from the broken leg suffered at Silverstone with a virtuoso performance, and managed to infuriate Hakkinen by holding him up for lap after lap.

"I was pissed off with him," said Hakkinen, who several times vented his frustration by signalling to Schumacher with a clenched fist. "That was the hardest race in my life. I felt Michael wasn't being consistent. I was always having to be careful because he would brake in a surprising place and I did not want to run into the back of him."

Schumacher commented: "My job was to make sure Eddie had a good gap so I drove a little bit slower. That's part of the championship and the rules allow us to do that."

Irvine's only moment of worry came when he was challenged for the lead by Hakkinen's partner, David Coulthard, on the fifth lap, but the Scot was forced to retire with a fuel pressure problem soon after.

In the later stages Hakkinen had dropped to fourth after his second fuel stop but benefited from a slight mistake by Stewart-Ford's Johnny Herbert to overtake the Briton on the penultimate lap. Damon Hill, in the penultimate race of his career, was knocked into retirement on the opening lap after being hit from behind by Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella.

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