Ferrari's wait ends in split seconds

 

Title deciders come in two shapes. Those that give you an outcome and those that provide something different, something special. They set the blood racing. They suck you in and compress time into a knot of adrenaline, make you will the contenders to new and more spectacular performances as the game goes on.

Yesterday's Japanese Grand Prix fell into the latter category. Sure, there'll be people who'll say that nobody overtook anybody else, that action was at a premium and it was just cars going round, but this wasn't a battle fought with grand gestures. This was a contest of minutiae, tiny sherds of time that swung the advantage one way and another for over 300 kilometres.

It was a contest fought at such levels that rough-housing was never an option. In the stratospheric climes Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen operated in yesterday, actions were fought over thousandths of a second per one-and-three-quarter-minute lap, strategies enacted over fragile, crystalline moments which could shatter with the slightest shift in gear.

For 53 laps Schumacher and Hakkinen bruised and sparred in particles of time and when those precious few seconds had been gifted to the Ferrari driver 13 laps from home, the final perfectly visible blow was delivered, fittingly, by the German's whole team, Schumacher using his later second pit stop to hurl himself back into the fragmented netherworld of hundreds and thousands ahead of his championship rival. Enough to allow him draw breath, enough to allow him to consider how to maintain the alarming pace and still keep his Ferrari on the surface in the worsening rain.

Okay, so maybe it sounds over-dramatic, this is sport not rocket science after all. We're not sending people to the moon here. But all weekend, this Japanese Grand Prix was about pressure finding the best, the extraordinary, in two competitors. From the very start of hostilities in Suzuka on Friday, through to the battle for pole won by Schumacher by just nine thousandths of a second, he and Hakkinen were not only in a different class to their rivals, they were in a whole other school.

With Schumacher holding and eight-point lead over his McLaren rival, a championship-sealing result in Japan was there for the taking. Schumacher was facing an end to five years of enormous pressure, enormous expectation and often, enormous underachievement. He was also staring into the prospect of being Ferrari's first champion for 21 years. A wait that within the ranks of Ferrari has become the same kind of burden that Manchester United fans bored their friends into murderous intent with not so long ago.

Hakkinen too was chasing a dream, a third consecutive championship, the chance to join Fangio in the pantheon of greats. He had to win to bring the championship to a final round decider in Malaysia. It was a duel made in heaven.

But for Schumacher the start came from Hades. Watching him before the start was like eyeing a penalty-taking footballer place the ball off centre and walk away for his run-up with his gaze fixed on his boots. It was wrong.

Nerves were jangling. You could see 1998 and that start-line stall all over again. Hakkinen was going to do it. We were rumbling in the Kuala Lumpur jungle in a fortnight.

And from the off the worst fears of Ferrari looked like being realised. Schumacher's wheels spun furiously as Hakkinen got away cleanly and arrowed to the first corner, having avoided Schumacher's diving riposte across his bows. It was a move Hakkinen later dismissed as legitimate in the face of speculation that the Ferrari driver would again be hauled over the coals.

"I was a bit concerned for my own start because I had smoke coming out of the car and I was thinking `that's it, the engine's on fire'," he said. "Then somebody came on the radio just when the lights came on and I thought `it's definitely on fire now.' But I ignored it and concentrated on the start and got away well. It wasn't brilliant but it was better than Michael's and he moved to my side a little bit, but when he realised he didn't have a chance he backed off. That was it."

Schumacher had lost the advantage and now it was all he could do to hang on to the Finn's coat-tails as he set a blistering pace. The two raced away from the rest of the field, lap by lap their private battle growing ever more isolated.

By the time Hakkinen ducked into the pits for his first stop he had pulled out a two second lead over Schumacher and was over 13 seconds clear of his team-mate David Coulthard who, after saying he had been afforded the best view in the house of the showdown when he qualified third, would have needed theatre glasses strapped to his visor to get a glimpse of the contest ahead.

Further back the Jordans of Jarno Trulli and Heinz Harald Frentzen were struggling, the Italian on a desperate three-stop strategy which failed to rescue him from a 15th place start, the luckless Jordan number two eventually finishing a strangely apt 13th. Frentzen was even unluckier, or maybe that should be fortunate as, after trawling through two thirds of the race on the cusp of the top 10 after a poor start, his gearbox failed and he was forced to abandon his car on lap 29.

But at the front the battle was still raging. With one stop gone the race should have settled into a pattern of concertina times as Schumacher pushed and Hakkinen responded. But within the space of a few laps the wheel turned and Schumacher got the breaks he needed. They were small but in the final shake-up they were just enough.

First, spots of rain began to fall across the circuit, even the elements conspiring on Ferrari's behalf. Then Hakkinen found himself in a squall of traffic, suddenly sucked into a dead zone behind Minardis and struggling Benettons. It was enough to give Schumacher time to manoeuvre and a gap that had been two seconds was suddenly down to just one.

It remained that way until the second round of stops, and the moment that made Schumacher champion. Hakkinen was called in on lap 38 for fuel, and despite worsening rain, `slick' tyres. Schumacher though hadn't reached the end of his stint and was gifted two laps in which to make up the time he needed to stop and get out ahead of Hakkinen. It was going to be close however and the German wasn't aided by traffic, which dropped his next lap time to a second off his previous pace. But Hakkinen too had caught traffic and lost crucial seconds attempting to pass Pedro De la Rosa, the Arrows driver making a meal of an attempt to let the Finn by at the Spoon chicane.

With Ross Brawn on the radio calmly telling him it was "looking good", Schumacher came in, narrowly missing the spinning Benetton of Alex Wurz, on lap 40. The six seconds it took to get him fuelled and shod stretched infinitely in his mind, he confessed later, but as he took to the track, his crew were pumping their arms to the sky in joy at the sight of Hakkinen just emerging on to the start of the final straight. Schumacher led. Nothing now could stop him.

And so it proved. Schumacher is champion. The first Ferrari driver to capture the ultimate prize since Jody Scheckter brought about the traditional ringing of bells in Maranello in 1979. The bells were pealing again last night. For Schumacher the sweetest music. It was the sound of victory ringing in his ears.