San Marino salutes genius of Schumacher

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A collision with an unidentified piece of metal and a mysterious engine cut-out lasting several seconds cost Mika Hakkinen the chance to deny Michael Schumacher his third win in three grands prix this season at Imola yesterday. At the end of the 62nd and final lap of the San Marino Grand Prix, Hakkinen's McLaren trailed Schumacher's Ferrari by 1.1sec, and the fans in the grandstands and on the hillsides were going wild with delight.

Besides stretching his lead in the world championship, Schumacher became the first Ferrari driver to open the season with a hat-trick, as long as we discount Alberto Ascari, whose three wins at the start of 1953 were interrupted by the Indianapolis 500, which counted for points in those days despite being run for American drivers to an entirely different formula. This is not an absolute record - Ayrton Senna kicked off 1991 with four wins in his McLaren before Nigel Mansell went one better the following year for Williams - but it would take some courage to bet against Schumacher either extending his winning run or following the example of Ascari, Senna and Mansell by using the platform to wrap up the title long before the end of the season.

While a healthy, competitive Ferrari team is held to be essential to Formula One's public appeal, the ringmasters will be keen to avoid an early walkover. To McLaren, whose cars failed to score a single point in Australia and Brazil thanks to three retirements and a disqualification, a second place for Hakkinen and a third for David Coulthard yesterday represented a comeback of sorts. But they will be desperate to answer Ferrari's win on home ground with a victory on their own turf at Silverstone in a fortnight's time.

For Schumacher, who missed six races of the 1999 season after breaking his leg in the British Grand Prix, a relaxed preparation for the current campaign appears to be paying dividends. According to medical tests held between the first two races, he is in the best physical shape of his life, and a long winter break with his family appears to have left him with the ability to focus his energies from a basis of complete relaxation, the ideal state of mind for a competitive athlete.

At 31, his pleasure in the job is undiminished, while his ability to articulate his feelings continues to grow. Taking money out of the equation, he was asked this week, what motivates him most about Formula One racing? His answer was as succinct and illuminating - and, it seemed, as deeply felt - as could be imagined.

"It's the pleasure of driving the car absolutely on the limit and having the feeling that you're doing it just right, lap after lap," he said. "Every lap is different, every lap is a new challenge, because even though you [the spectators] don't see that, and for you everything looks the same, on every lap there is something different. You always try a new approach. You always try to find a way of improving. It remains quite a big challenge even after all these years. Even in testing you have it. I still feel that way, particularly when the car goes well, like it's doing now. It is very easy to feel this excitement."

Whatever the stains on his past record, the elder Schumacher has one priceless virtue. Like Nuvolari, like Senna, he drives with visible emotion. Imola is a good setting for a display of his art, thanks to its tricky bevelled kerbs which encourage the driver to throw the car through the bends, using the kerbstones as tiny bankings. Schumacher versus Hakkinen may have lacked the ingredient of overtaking on the track, but it did not lack for the expression of competitive spirit.

"For the first time this season we've had a proper race from the first corner to the last," Jean Todt, the Ferrari team manager, correctly said, after watching his No 1 driver recover from a terrible start in which he not only failed to overtake Hakkinen, who started the race from pole position after trumping Schumacher's best lap in the final seconds of Saturday's qualifying session, but almost ceded second spot to Coulthard as his car snaked across the track with its wheels spinning in a way that appeared to prove the absence of the rumoured illegal traction-control devices.

Hakkinen led the race until the 44th lap, although not without incident. When both he and Schumacher made their first of their two pit stops at the end of the 27th lap, the Finn held a lead of about four seconds, and seemed to be holding it with relative ease. But over the course of the next 10 laps, two pieces of misfortune befell him.

First, he ran over a piece of metal and damaged the underside of his front wing. "That made the car very difficult to handle," he said. Then, as he neared the end of lap 35, a single puff of smoke emerged from the back of his car. There was to be no more smoke. But as he prepared to brake and turn into the new chicane at Tamburello, at the end of the finishing straight, his engine momentarily cut out. "I don't know why it happened," he said. "The engine just stopped when I was at peak revs in seventh gear. It came back after three or four seconds, but it cost me a lot of time, and probably it cost me the race. I couldn't see the smoke, so I don't know if it had anything to do with the engine stopping."

A scrutiny of the respective lap times of the two cars made it difficult to see where Hakkinen had lost a significant amount of time at a single stroke, but his lead was certainly eroded he came under sustained pressure from Schumacher between the 40th and the 44th lap, when the leading McLaren made its second pit stop for fuel and tyres. This, as Schumacher later observed, was the "decisive moment". Intensifying his sprint, he delayed his own second stop for a further four laps, making up time to such good effect that he came out of the pits with a lead of almost four seconds.

Both cars had to get past two squabbling back-markers, Eddie Irvine's Jaguar and Jarno Trulli's Jordan, but when they found themselves in the clear in the 50th lap the race to the flag was on. Hakkinen chipped away at Schumacher's slender lead, taking a 10th of a second here and there, gaining a little more as they swept past Jacques Villeneuve's BAR and Mika Salo's Sauber, who were engaged in a battle to be the first non-Ferrari or McLaren home. But the German was able to hold on and to salute the delighted Italian fans.

"Yesterday I had to apologise to them," he said, referring to his failure to fulfil his promise to claim pole position, "and I said I hoped to be able to put things straight. I hope I did." He glanced out of the window at the multitudes marching along the track, waving their flags and banners. "They look happy enough," he concluded. "I said we wanted to fight the McLarens, to find out where we really are. Now we've done it. That was a race. It was really good fun. That was what people want to see."

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX DETAILS

Race distance: 62 laps (305.609 kms, 189.901 miles)

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 31 min 39.776sec (avg speed 200.043 kph, 124.304mph) 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +1.168sec 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +51.008 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari +89.276 5 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda +1 lap 6 M Salo (Fin) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap 7 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar Racing +1 lap; 8 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 9 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife +1 lap; 10 J Herbert (GB) Jaguar Racing +1 lap; 11 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife +1 lap; 12 R Zonta (Brazil) BAR-Honda +1 lap; 13 G Mazzacane (Arg) Minardi-Telefonica +2 laps; 14 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Supertec +3 laps.

Did not finish: 15 J Trulli (It) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 58 laps completed; 16 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows-Supertec 49 laps; 17 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 45 laps; 18 J Alesi (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 25 laps; 19 N Heidfeld (Ger) Prost-Peugeot 22 laps; 20 J Button (GB) Williams-BMW 5 laps; 21 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 5 laps; 22 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Telfonica 4 laps.

Fastest lap: Hakkinen, lap 60, 1:26.523.

CONSTRUCTORS' STANDINGS: 1 Ferrari 39pts, 2 McLaren 10, 3 Benetton 8, 4= Jordan, Williams 7, 6 BAR 6, 7 Sauber 1.

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