Ferrari's final gamble pays

 

A formula one season that looked to be ending with the same processional monotony as it began has been thrown open by the Hungarian gamble that Ferrari insiders admit came straight out of the last chance saloon.

McLaren had begun the season so far ahead of their rivals technologically that six races into the campaign it looked as though the trophy should just have been handed over in a quiet little ceremony of capitulation by rivals who realised that an engineering march of gargantuan proportions had been stolen over them by the Woking-based team.

That was reckoning without the sublime skills and obstinate nature of Michael Schumacher. Reluctant to hand anybody a crown he seems to believe is his birthright, the German hectored his team, badgered his engineers and bullied the corporate giants at Goodyear into rebuilding his Ferrari 310 into a machine capable of putting him within sight of Hakkinen and Coulthard and in Schumacher's case that's more than enough. Give him a sniff of a race leader's exhaust and Schumacher will sooner or later overtake.

However, Hockenheim, the raw power circuit that is the German GP, defeated the Italian car's subtle breeding and allowed the grunting Mercedes to destroy the previous months' good work and a Hakkinen/Coulthard one-two and a fifth place for Schumacher seemed to have put paid to any hopes of the German driver usurping Hakkinen's claim to the throne.

But, once again, Schumacher has pulled an unlikely trump card - three-stopping at Sunday's Hungarian GP and tearing up the track like an 18-year-old racing a hot-hatch from the lights to beat the McLarens comprehensively. But it was a card that Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt admits was inserted into the deck at a late stage of the game and more in hopeful desperation than premeditated calculation.

"This was our last opportunity to open up the championship," said Todt. "If we had lost, then everything would have been over for us."

The gamble worked and now Ferrari, just seven points down in the drivers' championship with Schumacher, reckon they can take the title from under Ron Dennis's nose.

The next race is the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps and Schumacher could not have asked for a better grand prix venue to maintain his momentum. Spa is where he made his debut, in his one-off race for Jordan, in 1991 and where he scored his maiden win two years later.

The 29-year-old has won on Formula One's most demanding circuit for the past three seasons, including once when he started a rain-lashed race from 16th on the grid.

"Spa is a drivers' circuit and we have the best driver there is," said Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn, the man who decided on Sunday's three-stop strategy. "We have regained the initiative from McLaren." Schumacher himself was typically relaxed yesterday, although judging by his post-race celebrations on Sunday, he was equally aware of how crucial the victory was. "We did a lot of hard work on everything during a long sixdays test at Fiorano last week and that paid off for us," he said. "I think we are very competitive again, but it will be difficult. With four races to go, the championship is still wide open . . . I am enjoying it now."

McLaren's tests in Silverstone this week will have to focus on what went wrong with Hakkinen's car, the early indications suggesting it was a shock absorber problem.

The result was a nightmare for the Finn, but he believes the title is still his for the taking. "I can still win the title," he said. "We will have to find out what the problem was, but I'll go to the next race still leading the championship."

Meanwhile, Hungarian Grand Prix organisers risk a heavy fine - even a Formula One ban at the Hungaroring - by the International Automobile Federation (FIA) following the track invasion which followed Schumacher's win. Thousands of Ferrari fans in the 120,000 crowd poured on to the circuit to celebrate, engulfing several drivers at the back of the field while they were still slowing from racing speeds.

Tyrrell driver Tora Takagi of Japan said the incident terrified him. "I was on my `cool-down' lap and I arrived at the back of the circuit to find people all over the track" he said. "Luckily - and happily - I didn't hit anybody.

"But in slowing down and swerving to take avoiding action, the engine stalled. It was scary for me and not a nice way to end the day."

After a similar invasion at Imola two years ago, the circuit authorities were fined and warned by the FIA that a repeat incident could result in the removal of the San Marino Grand Prix.