Ralf Schumacher revels amid mayhem

German Grand Prix: World champion upstaged by brother as charge for fourth title is stalled by mechnical failure after dramatic start-line crash
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The Independent Online

It was, said Ralf Schumacher, just a perfect day. Somehow that did not seem to do this extraordinary German Grand Prix justice.

After the tedium of Silverstone, mayhem was restored to Formula One, and the younger Schumacher claimed the home victory only following the retirement of his Williams-BMW team-mate, Juan Pablo Montoya, and a seamless sequence of spectacular incidents.

This is often derided as a boring, featureless circuit and drastic changes to the layout are planned, but again it produced enthralling racing and tense overtaking manoeuvres, as well as the sudden twists of fate.

Two other casualties of the attrition were the championship contenders, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard, leaving the German 37 points ahead of the Scotsman with five races remaining. If the elder Schumacher wins the next race, in Hungary, his fourth title is assured.

The champion's day, far from perfect, encapsulated the fluctuating fortunes and tangled emotions of the race. His Ferrari spluttered to a halt on the grid with a gearbox problem and was hit from behind by Luciano Burti's Prost. The Brazilian's car was launched into the air, somersaulting over the Arrows of Enrique Bernoldi, depositing carbon fibre on to his countryman, and then smashing to the ground just behind the other Orange car, driven by the Dutchman Jos Verstappen.

Schumacher's car, minus one wheel, was buffeted 200 metres into the first corner. Both drivers were unhurt and the race continued under the control of the Safety Car.

A disconsolate Schumacher ambled back, believing his work was finished. Then he learned that the race had been stopped and sprinted up the pit-lane to climb into the spare Ferrari for the restart.

He was always ahead of Coulthard, apparently strengthening his hold on the championship, even if Williams were dominating the race, until his car expired with a fuel pressure problem moments after his pit-stop. Now Coulthard was presented with the opportunity to make up ground. Instead he, too, had to pull off, with an engine failure.

Coulthard still refused to acknowledge his championship quest was a lost cause, and implied that the restart had been an unnecessary decision designed to give Schumacher, the driver supported by the majority of the 120,000 crowd, a second chance. Team principals also conveyed their dismay to Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial driving force of Formula One.

Coulthard said: "It is difficult to accept the red flag was right because we had already driven through debris. If you were cynical you would understand the reason for it." His views were supported by Jacques Villeneuve, who finished third, but Ralf Schumacher was of the opinion the red flag was justified as the scattered debris could have caused a puncture.

It would have been the perfect day for the Schumachers had the Ferrari held out, because by then the elder brother was well clear of Montoya. The Colombian, having claimed his maiden pole position in Formula One, appeared on course for his first win at this level as he made his routine pit-stop. However, a problem with the fuel rig relegated him to fourth. Two laps after Schumacher's Ferrari stopped, so did Montoya's Williams, its engine expired.

Just about the only driver to avoid the drama was Ralf Schumacher, who drove in splendid isolation all afternoon. He was distinctly second best to Montoya for half the race, inherited the lead and, blessed with the weekend's best car-engine-tyre package, cruised to his third win, 46 seconds ahead of Rubens Barrichello, in the other Ferrari.

The younger Schumacher said: "We knew this circuit would be hard on engines and when Juan Pablo pulled away I thought 'you do what you want'. It's great to win here, a German driver with a German engine, the perfect scenario.'' Barrichello, a tearful winner here last year, merited the man of the match award, twice out-manoeuvring Coulthard into the stadium section of the circuit and capitalising on his two-stop strategy.

Mika Hakkinen, in the other McLaren, also suffered a blown engine, joining the conveyor belt of retirements that served to promote an improbable posse of drivers. Villenueve's third place lifted BAR-Honda above Jordan-Honda to fifth place in the constructors' championship. Benetton-Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button were fourth and fifth, respectively, forcing the much-maligned Anglo-French organisation ahead of Jaguar to seventh. Jean Alesi was sixth for the financially challenged Prost.

Alesi has emerged as favourite to replace the sacked Heinz Harald Frentzen at Jordan, whose cars were among the 12 that failed to finish. The team principal, Eddie Jordan, is understood to be involved with the Irish horseracing syndicate, Friends of Alex Ferguson, buying into Manchester United.

Jordan said: "Alain [Prost] is a good friend so there is no way I will get involved in any breach of contract." The French driver could be in the yellow car as soon as the Hungarian Grand Prix.

As for the United link, Jordan said: "I'm always interested in shares that have a return on investment, and especially when the shares represent flair and a bit of fun, which football is."

RACE DETAILS

1 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1hr 18min 17.873sec (Ave 147.094 mph)

2 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari +47.177sec

3 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda +1min 02.806sec

4 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Renault +1:03.477

5 J Button (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:05.454

6 J Alesi (Fr) Prost-Acer +1:13.950

7 O Panis (Fr) BAR Honda +1:17.500; 8 E Bernoldi (Bra) Arrows-Asiatech, +1 lap; 9 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Asiatech, +1; 10 F Alonso (Sp) Minardi-European, +1.

Not classified: J Trulli (It) Jordan-Honda 34 laps completed; D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 27; T Marques (Bra) Minardi-European 26; J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 24; M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 23; L Burti (Bra) Prost-Acer 23; K Raikkonen (Fin) Sauber-Petronas 16; E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 16; M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 13; R Zonta (Bra) Jordan-Honda 7; N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 0; P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar 0.

Fastest lap: J P Montoya (Col) 1min 41.808sec.

Constructors' Championship: 1 Ferrari 124 points, 2 McLaren-Mercedes 66, 3 BMW-Williams 56, 4 Sauber-Petronas 19, 5 BAR-Honda 16, 6 Jordan-Honda 15, 7 Benetton-Renault 6, 8 Prost-Acer 4, 9 Arrows-Asiatech 1.

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