They felt fate had treated them shabbily in the first two races, and even here Mika Hakkinen sought to blame pernicious intervention. However, to the world beyond the McLaren-Mercedes camp, it appears that Michael Schumacher and Ferrari simply cannot be contained.
Schumacher asked for a genuine race, a head-to-head with his nemesis, to prove his victories in Australia and Brazil were not flukes. Hakkinen duly stayed the course, leading for most of it, but Schumacher and his team produced the decisive burst of pace and perfect pit stop to win the San Marino Grand Prix yesterday.
Schumacher's maximum score of 30 points gives him a 21-point lead in the title standings over his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, fourth here after losing another pit- stop joust with David Coulthard in the second McLaren.
More significantly, Schumacher's advantage over Hakkinen, champion for the past two years, is 24 points and, even with 14 rounds of the championship remaining, the Finn is anxiously calculating the scale of his task. "It is a hell of a gap to make up," Hakkinen said. "The only way to make it up is to win races." Hakkinen and McLaren begin that mission at the British Grand Prix, on Sunday week. They perhaps retain a slight performance advantage, as Hakkinen demonstrated in the first half of the race, and Coulthard in the closing stages, when he romped away from Barrichello at the rate of a second and a half a lap.
The problem they have to overcome is the Schumacher-Ferrari knack of shifting thebalance of a grand prix with an astutely judged and brilliantly executed strategy.
Hakkinen led the German by 2.3sec before making his second pit stop, 18 laps from the end. He was stationary for 8.3sec. Schumacher came in four laps later, stopped for 6.2sec, and returned to the track almost four seconds clear of the McLaren.
Hakkinen claimed a mysterious metal object damaged the floor of his car and an equally mysterious engine cut out cost him "three or four seconds". Yet he was able to up his pace in the closing stages, setting the fastest lap time and reducing Schumacher's winning margin to 1.1sec.
Not for the first time, the race had been rescued by the dubious drama of the pit stop. Schumacher trailed Hakkinen for 44 laps in the main event, Coulthard headed Barrichello for 46 laps on the undercard. Coulthard's car was evidently much quicker than Barrichello's, but overtaking is well nigh impossible on this circuit.
Third place was some consolation for the Scot after retirement in Australia, and disqualification in Brazil. Any prospect of competing for the first two positions was banished at the first corner, where he was squeezed out by a defiant Schumacher and conceded the impetus to Barrichello.
Coulthard had no complaints about Schumacher's conduct immediately after the start, but expressed his bewilderment that Barrichello should have been so tardy once he had put his Ferrari in third place.
"Michael did what he was entitled to," Coulthard said. "I couldn't understand why Rubens was so much slower. He said he was struggling with the balance of the car. It was impossible to overtake him, but my guys got me away quicker at the second pit stop so from that point of view I can be satisfied with third place."
Barrichello said: "All weekend I was not on the pace I had in Australia and Brazil, and now I have to work out why. Fourth place is not good enough." Every other driver outside Ferrari and McLaren would be delighted with fourth place. The two super teams are distancing themselves even further from the rest.
Jacques Villeneuve was fifth here, earning another two points for BAR-Honda. Mika Salo confirmed the promise shown by Sauber-Petronas with sixth place. Ulsterman, Eddie Irvine, was seventh for Jaguar, three places ahead of his teammate, Johnny Herbert.
Irvine said: "This was a very positive weekend. We qualified in the top seven again and ran very competitively in the race. The car was much improved from Brazil. I was really impressed with the pace.
"Unfortunately, I had a bad start because of a clutch problem and in this business the start is everything. That cost me some points. But I'm very encouraged. Today was the most fun I've had in a racing car for a long time. I was battling throughout with Jarno Trulli."
Jenson Button was acquainted with reality after his fantasy start in Formula One. The 20-year-old British driver's Williams-BMW was dumped in a gravel trap with engine failure after only five laps. Button said: "I went into the second chicane and the rear wheels just locked because of an engine problem, so I finished off the track in the gravel. Now I can't wait to go testing at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix."
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