Schumacher ends Ferrari's 21-year wait

German's third world title denies Hakkinen treble as rain plays major part in destiny of championship

In their thousands, Japan's highly enthusiastic spectators rose to their feet and greeted him with applause, cheers and prolonged blasts on their air horns. Aware that they had watched him win a third world drivers' championship in majestic style, allied to his unique sure touch in greasy conditions, they saluted Michael Schumacher in their own way as, on the opposite side of the track, Ferrari burst into paroxysms of unalloyed delight.

In their thousands, Japan's highly enthusiastic spectators rose to their feet and greeted him with applause, cheers and prolonged blasts on their air horns. Aware that they had watched him win a third world drivers' championship in majestic style, allied to his unique sure touch in greasy conditions, they saluted Michael Schumacher in their own way as, on the opposite side of the track, Ferrari burst into paroxysms of unalloyed delight.

Schumacher sprang from the cockpit of his red charger, clenching his fists and clutching his helmet in the euphoria of a victory well-won. After saluting his arch rival, Mika Hakkinen, whose championship crown he had just taken and whose aspirations of a third consecutive title he had stymied, he warmly embraced the team's sporting director, Jean Todt, who wept with pleasure.

Then, one by one, Schumacher moved along the Ferrari team, beaming into faces alternately suffused with pleasure and the anguish of extreme joy. It has been a long road for them, a longer one still for what is arguably the most legendary team in racing. Not since Jody Scheckter in 1979 has Ferrari crowned a world champion. For three seasons now the Prancing Horse has stumbled at the final fence. But now, after a masterly performance, Schumacher and Ferrari had finally delivered.

Somewhere in the red sea, Schumacher found his wife, Corinne, dressed in denim and wearing one of his famous red caps. For an eternity in the mêlée they simply looked at one another, before sharing a long kiss that was as emotive a way of celebrating the release of tension as had been her husband's uncharacteristic tears at Monza.

An afternoon that had started so badly for Schumacher had finally turned in his favour. Hakkinen, appreciating only too well what it takes to win motor racing's greatest prize, offered further congratulations as they headed off to tell the world their stories.

Nine-thousandths of a second had separated them in qualifying, but even before the start Hakkinen's chances were thrown into doubt as his Mercedes-Benz engine began smoking ominously on the grid. But when the starting lights went out it was the Ferrari that lagged as Hakkinen made the greatest getaway of his career. Side by side the two led the field into the first corner where, 10 years earlier, Ayrton Senna had won his second title by pushing rival Alain Prost off the track. Schumacher was almost as unsubtle, veering sharply to his right the moment he left the starting blocks. But Hakkinen has seen that before and simply kept going, obliging Schumacher to relinquish the lead.

The first half of the race belonged to the Finn, in his determined quest to take the fight down to the final race, at Sepang, Malaysia, in two weeks' time. But then the tide began to turn.

First, Hakkinen lost a second trying to lap an intransigent Pedro de la Rosa on the 30th lap. That was also the point at which the first rain drops fell, rendering the already tricky Suzuka track into a greasy skating rink.

Hakkinen's fuel stop on the 37th lap went well enough, McLaren timing it to perfection just as he was about to lap the duelling Jaguars of Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine. But then Hakkinen lost more time as he rejoined just behind De la Rosa, before the Spaniard made his own stop at the end of the lap. Schumacher, meanwhile, had dramas of his own. On the 33rd lap he had brushed Ricardo Zonta's BAR-Honda as he and Hakkinen lapped the Brazilian in the chicane. Then, just as he was about make his second pit stop on the 40th lap, Alexander Wurz spun in front of him as they exited the chicane.

"I knew I had two crucial laps after Mika stopped," Schumacher said. "As I went to the pits the Benetton spun in front of me and I wasn't sure where to go to avoid it. I slowed up and as I came in I thought the gap to Mika wasn't going to be enough. But it was a great stop and as I went out Ross Brawn [Ferrari's technical director] was saying to me, 'Looking good, looking good, looks bloody good.' I was waiting for him to say, 'Doesn't look good,' but it didn't happen. It was a big relief to be ahead of Mika."

Now Ferrari had the upper hand. "When I came out after my second stop I realised that Michael had yet to stop, so I knew it would be tight," Hakkinen said. "Then I hit traffic and my new tyres were shiny and the conditions were very slippery. I was all over the place with no grip, and that also lost me time. After that I just tried to keep up."

On the last lap he got the gap down to 1.8sec, but it was not enough. "It's important to be a good winner," the Finn conceded, and indeed he was, fighting all the way and surrendering his crown with dignity and honour. "It doesn't mean, however," he added, "that I have to be happy about it."

Fittingly, it was a two-horse race as the leaders' team-mates, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello, were completely overshadowed on their way to third and fourth places respectively. But Jenson Button's fifth place was another outstanding indication of his potential.

"In a way it's frustrating that none of the top four cars retired, and to be best of the rest," the Briton said. "But I'm really surprised that I've been so quick here, especially as my car was oversteering initially and my arms were tiring after 18 laps. But then it all came together. The conditions were pretty difficult out there, so it's great to score points again."

Button's superb performance staked his own future claim to a championship, but the day belonged to Schumacher. "There was so much emotion as I crossed line," he confessed. "I finally did it, and it feels simply great. And it means a bit more to me win this for Ferrari because of its history. More than my previous two titles did with Benetton. After 21 years the wait is finally over."

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