reports from Suzuka, Japan
One week ago Michael Schumacher left the Williams drivers in his dust in the Pacific Grand Prix, but at least they were still on the track at the finish. Yesterday, as the world champion and his team-mate, Johnny Herbert, sped home first and third in the Japanese Grand Prix to clinch the Constructors' Championship for the Benetton-Renault team, Damon Hill and David Coulthard were licking their wounds after spinning into ignominious retirement.
"It was a great motor race to watch," a resigned Frank Williams said, but only for the first 25 laps when the combative Jean Alesi took the fight to Schumacher in a dramatic charge. After taking pole position in dry qualifying, Schumacher snatched an instant lead on a track rendered treacherous by morning rain, but Alesi pushed him hard immediately, and resumed his challenge even after he was called into the pits on the fourth lap for a 10-second stop and go penalty after jumping the start.
In a spirited fight he made short work of lesser rivals and even after another pit stop to switch to dry-weather slick tyres and then a spin after an altercation with the Portuguese driver Pedro Lamy, he had the German back in his sights by the 13th lap after a string of fastest laps.
"He was quick at the beginning of his dry tyres, while I needed a few laps to learn the circuit on mine," Schumacher said. "His performance was typical of the Ferrari in these conditions, but when it began to dry out the relationship was back to normal."
Nevertheless Alesi, who got within one second, was still only two adrift when his Ferrari's differential failed on the 25th lap. From that point the race was unquestionably Schumacher's.
"The team really earned this championship," he said. "This year and last it is the best team in the paddock, and we have also equalled Nigel Mansell's record for nine victories in a season, so we have something new to go for in Australia."
Hill inherited second place on Alesi's demise, and even led briefly on the 34th lap after Schumacher had stopped for fuel and tyres. But Williams' disaster unfolded shortly afterwards when Hill nearly stalled in his pit stop and then lost control at the left-hand Spoon Curve, which is approached in sixth gear, on the 35th lap. He slid over the kerb, bounced violently across the gravel, and dropped to fourth behind Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen's McLaren as he drove slowly round the outside of the gravel bed before rejoining the track.
He then lost more ground having a new nose fitted, and just as it was announced that he had been fined $10,000 (pounds 6,330) and given a 10-second stop and go penalty for speeding in the pit lane, Coulthard threw away second place when he, too, fell victim to Spoon Curve. The Scot recovered faster than Hill had, only to spin wildly at the very fast 130R corner that follows.
"It started to spit and I got on the radio to ask what the situation was on the rest of the circuit," Coulthard said. "Into Spoon I got a wiggle on and went into the gravel. Then I lost it at 130R on my own gravel and spun. That was it. You've got to keep it on the circuit to score points."
A lap later, Hill's appalling afternoon ended when he spun again, this time for good, at Spoon.
The Williams drivers' rivals were uncharitable about the rain at that corner. "I was warned and took it a little bit easy. But I didn't see anything wrong with that part of the circuit," Schumacher said.
"It was raining, but not hard," said Herbert, who benefited from the impetuosity of others to finish behind Hakkinen's impressively competitive McLaren. "There were spots on the visor, but not much."
Eddie Irvine survived to take fourth place after assaults from his Jordan team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, and then Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but for the fourth consecutive race Gerhard Berger's Ferrari was troubled by electronic glitches. He threw his gloves away in disgust after parking in the pit garage.
Hill again cut a lonely figure out on the circuit as his rivals celebrated, but was stoic in his despair: "Just when you think it couldn't get any worse! There's no easy way out of it, you just have to keep working on it because the easy way is to give up. It would probably be less painful that way, but that's not an option. We have to keep forgetting and looking forward. It's not a glorious end to the season."
He now has a psychological mountain to climb.
n The Japanese driver Aguri Suzuki, who crashed heavily on Saturday afternoon, is recovering from a fractured rib and a crushed vertebra.
Japanese Grand Prix
(At Suzuka; 53 laps, 193.117 miles)
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1hr 36min 52.930sec (120.2mph)
2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +19.337sec
3 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault +1min 23.804sec
4 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot +1min 42.136sec
5 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda +1 lap
6 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1 lap
7 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes; 8 H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford, all +1 lap; 9 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford; 10 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford; 11 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford; 12 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart, all +2 laps.
Did not finish (not classified): 13 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 40 laps completed; 14 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 39; 15 P Diniz (Bra) Forti- Ford 32; 16 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 24; 17 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Ford 23; 18 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 16; 19 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 15; 20 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 12; 21 B Gachot (Fr) Pacific- Ford 6; 22 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1.
Did not start (failed to complete one lap): G Morbidelli (It) Footwork- Hart.
Fastest lap: Schumacher 1:42.976 (128.12mph).
World Drivers' Championship standings (after 16 rounds): 1 Schumacher 102pts; 2 Hill 59; 3 Coulthard 49; 4 Herbert 45; 5 Alesi 42; 6 Berger 31; 7 Hakkinen 17; 8 Frentzen 15; 9 Barrichello 11; 10= Blundell, Panis, Irvine 10; 13 Brundle 7; 14= J-C Boullion (Fr), Salo 3; 16 Morbidelli, A Suzuki (Japan) 1.
Constructors' Championship standings: 1 Benetton 137pts; 2 Williams 102; 3 Ferrari 73; 4 McLaren 27; 5 Jordan 21; 6= Sauber, Ligier 18; 8 Tyrrell 3; 9 Footwork 1.Reuse content