Schumacher nears home straight in title race

American Grand Prix: Ferrari driver closes on championship as 200,000 spectators witness a thrilling F1 return to United States
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Ferrari drivers waved at one another like lost friends reunited after the race. Beyond the Italian team's wildest expectations the lead in both the drivers' and constructors' championships returned to Maranello as Michael Schumacher urged his legendary prancing horse into an unbeatable gallop around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday and his team-mate Rubens Barrichello rode shotgun in the final laps after a finely judged refuelling stop.

The Ferrari drivers waved at one another like lost friends reunited after the race. Beyond the Italian team's wildest expectations the lead in both the drivers' and constructors' championships returned to Maranello as Michael Schumacher urged his legendary prancing horse into an unbeatable gallop around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday and his team-mate Rubens Barrichello rode shotgun in the final laps after a finely judged refuelling stop.

McLaren have won the famous Indianapolis 500, where Ferrari's past attempts have been diluted at best, but on Formula One's return to the United States for the first time in nine years the red cars dominated a race that gave the 200,000 spectators everything they could have asked for.

David Coulthard jumped the start and was thus consigned to a frustrating afternoon playing catch-up. In the greasy initial conditions Schumacher drove with his customary brilliance. And there were fabulous drives from Mika Hakkinen and Johnny Herbert which ultimately went unrewarded. There was even the spectacle early on of a Minardi running in third place.

However, the first US Grand Prix at the Brickyard may be remembered mainly as the race in which the world championship balance swung dramatically back in Ferrari's favour.

"Naturally you know how nice a result it is for me," Schumacher smiled, the tears of Monza nowhere near the surface this time. "I can finish second twice in the remaining races and still win the title, but first of all you have to finish second twice. I'd honestly rather win the next one too, rather than rely on being second. We know what can happen. I could have a retirement like Mika did today, and things could turn around."

There was also a hint of controversy here. Coulthard's premature start gave him the lead for a while as he deliberately slowed Schumacher enough to let Hakkinen get in touch, but Schumacher himself came close to the 10-second stop-and-go penalty that Coulthard duly received.

"You are allowed to move as long as you stop again before the lights go out," Schumacher explained. "You sit there and try to be ready, and sometimes this sort of problem happens. It was obvious that my colleague [Coulthard] was moving a little bit more than a couple of centimetres... I didn't think what David did was right. He was slowing me down enough to let Hakkinen catch me. I thought it was a bit too much considering he isn't fighting for the championship.

"But it was a strange condition, different to Spa. The circuit took a long time to dry out and rain tyres were necessary for a long time. You got blisters on them on the fast corners, yet the infield was still wet. It was a matter of waiting for the situation to be right."

Hakkinen stopped for dry tyres on the eighth lap but Schumacher nursed his, taking it relatively easy in the first part and basing his decisions on his lap times as relayed to him by the team. "When Jenson Button was going faster on dry tyres than I was, I knew the moment was approaching," he said.

On his tyres Hakkinen got into a fabulous charge that reduced what had at one stage been a 40-second deficit to less than five. "I don't whether he would have caught me," Schumacher admitted, but it became a moot point when the McLaren rolled to a halt on the 26th lap, its rear end engulfed in flame from a fluid leak. That may prove to be the moment that the Finn's chances of a third consecutive world championship evaporated.

Schumacher's only problem came with a quick spin starting the 69th lap. "I was asked to put on a show," he joked, "so maybe that will count."

If Schumacher made it easy, Barrichello had to fight for his runner-up slot and was followed home by Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve, who raced nose to tail in the last half of the race. The former 500 mile race winner edged ahead momentarily on the 65th lap, only to run wide and cede the place once again to the German.

Ralf Schumacher was out of luck after running second only to his brother, Button recovered well after yet another brush with Jarno Trulli but also fell victim to mechanical failure, while Herbert's charge on wet tyres took him from last place on the opening lap to fifth until a very slow pit stop killed his chances.

"I think it was a success, don't you?" Bernie Ecclestone said of Formula One's first run at Indianapolis. "That fight for second and third places kept the interest going after Mika's retirement, and I saw plenty of overtaking out there."

And indeed there was. But possibly the best overtaking move of them all was denied by Hakkinen's retirement.

Comments