NEWS FEATURE

Saward's Review of 1998

The most astounding thing about the 1998 Formula 1 World Championship was not that McLaren produced a scintillating car - which was spectacularly dominant in Australia in March - but that it took until the Japanese GP in November for Ron Dennis's team to win the World Championship.

The other astonishing thing was that Ferrari achieved the impossible. For the first six weeks of its life the F300 would not run properly at all, its badly-placed exhaust pipes frazzled the electronics and the gearbox selected like a lottery draw. The team botched frantically having promised the world at the launch of the car that this would be Ferrari's year and that there were no excuses for failure.

There were lots of excuses in those early months... but finally a new rear end appeared and the team began to develop the car and the tyres. And then Ferrari started winning races. In part this was down to enormous amounts of work by the Ferrari team; in part it was down to Michael Schumacher - who remains the best driver in the pack and who inspires those around him to achieve more. In part it was down to Goodyear.

There was a certain amount of luck involved as well but whenever an opportunity presented Schumacher grabbed the chance with both hands - except at Spa where he screwed up big time by running into the back of David Coulthard.

It helped that McLaren made more mistakes than usual.

The start of the year is another era now. Do you remember how we wondered if Mika Hakkinen could actually win a race on his own merit, without help from his team-mate David Coulthard? DC ended 1997 giving Hakkinen a win and he started 1998 in the same way, moving aside in Melbourne to led Mika win. This underlined from the start of the year that Hakkinen was the team's Number One driver. This was a big knock to David's confidence but he gritted his teeth and got on with the job. Over at Ferrari Eddie Irvine had no such trouble. He knew from the outset that he was a hired-gun, tail-end-Charlie for Michael Schumacher and after a lackluster start to the year he drove some fine races later in the year.

As the year went on Hakkinen emerged from the shadows. He still made mistakes - too many of them - but at the Luxembourg GP he showed the mettle of a champion, beating Schumacher at his own game. One can say that Mika had a car which should have won the title by September but there is no doubt that McLaren's reliability was not brilliant this year and Ferrari took advantage of that. The team had aimed to have as reliable a car as possible and so it proved to be.

Hakkinen is, however, a worthy World Champion and one should not forget his own personal victory over a head injury which nearly killed him in Australia in November 1995. One must also salute Ron Dennis for standing by Hakkinen through the hard times.

Williams had its worst season since 1988 and failed to win a race. Jacques Villeneuve nonetheless drove his socks off on most occasions and did an impressive job. His switch to the new British American Racing is a triumph of friendships over logic but there are no laws against committing career suicide and whatever happens Jacques bank manager is not going to be complaining...Heinz-Harald Frentzen did not respond to the Williams school of driver psychology and it was no surprise when he was replaced.

It ended up being a good year for Jordan although for most of the year it did not look as though it would turn out that way. Damon Hill spent the first part of the year looking as though he should have retired but as the car improved so did Damon's motivation and good fortune gave him victory at Spa. The winner is the man left standing at the end of the race and that is all that matters...

Benetton failed to win a race but team boss David Richards was looking to the longer-term and the day-to-day running of the team was left in the hands of Joan Villadelprat, who has been doing the job for some years already. Give the team a good package and it will win again. Whether or not the inexperienced Rocco Benetton will be able to do that remains to be seen.

Of the rest, there was little to report. At least, little they would like to read about their performances...

AUSTRALIAN GP

ROUND 1

The Australian Grand Prix was a big shock for Formula 1. For a world which was used to Williams-Renault domination, the performance of the two McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13s was a revelation. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard qualified side by side on the front row of the grid - split by only four-hundredths of a second - but Michael Schumacher, the nearest challenger, was three-quarters of a second behind.

World Champion Jacques Villeneuve found himself in fourth place, almost a second slower than the McLarens.

The big surprise in qualifying was Johnny Herbert who put his Sauber Petronas in fifth place on the grid, ahead of both Benettons and both Jordans.

The race would be even more shocking as the two McLarens pulled away from the field at a rate of three seconds per lap, leaving the rest to struggle in their wake. Schumacher's Ferrari lasted only five laps before he stopped with an engine problem.

As the McLarens disappeared up the road at an incredible rate Villeneuve was left holding off Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton, the Italian having pulled off successful overtaking moves on both Herbert and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the early laps.

By the time the teams started doing their first pit stops the McLarens were over a minute ahead although the battle for third remained lively as Fisichella was able to get ahead of Villeneuve and Herbert during the pit stops, only to have Frentzen play a better tactical game and emerge ahead of all of them.

In the middle of the race there was a communication problem between McLaren engineers and Hakkinen and the Finn suddenly appeared in the pitlane, thinking he had been called in for some reason. He was waved through but by then Coulthard was in the lead.

Both McLaren drivers had to pit for a second stop but Coulthard remained ahead as the two lapped the entire field. In the final laps of the race it became clear that the McLaren team did not have two drivers with equal number one status. This came as something of a shock to Coulthard who thought he should be allowed to win. He was ordered to move over and let Hakkinen through. He was not happy about it but lifted off slightly as he came on to the start-finish line and allowed Hakkinen to take the lead. After the race he put a brave face on it but it was clear that McLaren was pushing Hakkinen for the World Championship and Coulthard was going to have to play a team game.

After the race Melbourne's promoter Ron Walker made a great deal of noise about the race having been "fixed", presumably because of criticism from gamblers who had bet on the event. The FIA foolishly reacted to the comments and forgetting motor racing history and traditions decreed that in future team orders would be banned. This was naive and impossible to police and by the midsummer the FIA President Max Mosley was saying that certain kinds of team orders were acceptable after Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine went through a charade in Austria.

Fisichella was able to pass Frentzen once again to take third place but then had to pit again and his fine drive ended with mechanical failure. This left Frentzen to finish third, just ahead of Irvine's Ferrari - which had pulled-off a neat one-stop strategy to get ahead of Villeneuve and Herbert.

It was not a good day for Jordan - which was clearly off the pace - not for Prost, while Stewart Grand Prix had a dreadful time: Rubens Barrichello failing to get away from the grid and Jan Magnussen (remember him?) colliding with Ralf Schumacher on the second lap.

BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX

ROUND 2

The Brazilian GP in Sao Paulo was a miserable race weekend with the sub-standard paddock fizzing with anger as teams traded blows over the legality of different electronic systems. Ferrari led the attack, claiming that McLaren, Williams and Jordan were running a brake-steer system which they felt was illegal, despite the fact that the FIA Technical Department had ruled that they were acceptable within the rules.

The FIA stewards finally decided that the FIA technical department was wrong and declared that McLaren's brake-steer system was illegal. Ferrari was however rapped on the wrist by the FIA for suggesting the system was dangerous.

The most dangerous thing in Brazil was the precedent set by the stewards and the decision did much to create the belief in the paddock that the FIA was trying to help Ferrari close the gap to McLaren.

Ferrari won the political battle over brake-steer but the McLaren men dealt them another psychological blow when they went out in qualifying and blitzed the Ferraris once again with Hakkinen a full second ahead of the nearest non-McLaren challenger which was Williams's Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Michael Schumacher was fourth fastest in his Ferrari while Alexander Wurz impressed with fifth place in his Benetton. Jacques Villeneuve made a dog's breakfast of qualifying, crashing heavily on Saturday morning and having to use the spare car. He was 10th on the grid. The Prost-Peugeots looked good in qualifying with Olivier Panis ninth and Jarno Trulli 12th.

Ferrari's discomfort was added to in the race as the McLarens took off into the lead once again and quickly established themselves at the front of the field with a five second advantage by the end of the third lap. Hakkinen then pulled away from Coulthard who had little reason to chase, knowing that Hakkinen was now the team's designated winner.

Michael Schumacher had made a bad start in the race and had to thread his way up to fourth place by lap 10 - aided by Irvine who moved out of his way. He then began to attack Frentzen's Williams. Both drivers were on two-stop strategies and when they stopped Schumacher managed to get ahead despite stalling during the pit stop. Intelligence and speedy work by the Ferrari mechanics meant that he lost almost nothing although Wurz, on a one-stop strategy, was ahead of Michael on the road.

The only runners apart from Wurz on one-stop strategies were the two McLarens and they won as they pleased - despite drops of rain in the closing laps of the race. Coulthard showed that he could keep up with Hakkinen by closing right up to his team-mate in the closing laps and crossed the line a second behind the Finn. When Wurz finally came into the pits he lost third to Schumacher and the German was able to lap fast enough to guarantee himself the position, despite having to stop again. He finished a minute behind the McLarens and seven seconds ahead of Wurz. Frentzen and Fisichella completed the top six.

Jordan had a dreadful weekend with Hill qualifying 11th, dropping to 14th at the start and then finishing tenth, only to be disqualified for his car being underweight. Ralf Schumacher might have cheered things up for Eddie Jordan - who was celebrating his 50th birthday during the weekend - but he fell off on the first lap of the race.

Prost too had a miserable race. Panis crashed in the warm-up destroying his car and setting back the team's testing programme by several weeks - a vital delay as it turned out - and both drivers retired with mechanical troubles. For Alain Prost it was not a race to remember fondly...

ARGENTINE GP

ROUND 3

After two dominant performances from the McLaren-Mercedes team there was little hope of a different result as the Formula 1 circus gathered in Buenos Aires. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard had both taken 10 days of holiday between the races while desperate rivals Ferrari, Williams and Jordan rushed back to Europe for a few days of testing in Barcelona. Among the new things tried were some wider Goodyear front tyres and Ferrari decided to use these in Buenos Aires. It made a difference but not enough to topple McLaren in qualifying. The drivers did that themselves. World Championship leader Hakkinen made a right mess of qualifying making a mistake on each of his four sets of tyres and as a result he ended up third on the grid behind Coulthard and Schumacher. The nature of the circuit did not help because the lap times are always closer at the track.

The improvement from Goodyear could be seen further down the grid as well with Eddie Irvine - who had not impressed at the first two races - qualifying fourth with Jordan's Ralf Schumacher fifth ahead of the two Williams drivers. The poor performance of the Benettons underlined the Goodyear advantage.

The McLaren was still the best car and had overcome the tyre advantage and no amount of propaganda from Ferrari about having performed miracles was going to change that.

But give Michael Schumacher a sniff of victory and he will go after it and he decided on a two-stop strategy to beat the McLarens in the race. This meant that he needed a good start and he failed to do that with Hakkinen getting away to follow Coulthard into the first corner. When he is charged up Schumacher is a formidable adversary, however, and he quickly forced his way past Hakkinen and went after Coulthard. In normal circumstances Schumacher would never have been able to challenge the Scot but the McLaren driver had a downchange problem which meant that he was drifting slightly wide at one corner. Schumacher saw this and on the fifth lap went for the gap, barging Coulthard out of the way. It was typically aggressive Schumacher behavior and he got away with it. Coulthard was spun back into sixth place.

Once in the lead Schumacher was able to build a lead thanks to his light fuel load while Hakkinen had more difficulty with his heavy car. When Schumacher pitted Hakkinen duly took the lead but when Mika stopped at mid-distance Michael was back in the lead. The next few laps were vital as the lightweight Ferrari built a big enough lead to have his second stop and remain ahead. Schumacher did it and Hakkinen then seemed to settle for second place. Coulthard's comeback was disrupted when he collided with Villeneuve. This meant that irvine emerged in third despite crashing into Alexander Wurz's Benetton.

In the closing laps rain began to fall and there were various adventures up and down the field. Schumacher went off and bounced across a sandtrap but as Hakkinen had not bothered to chase he was not close enough to take advantage and the Ferrari stayed ahead to win. Hakkinen was second with Irvine third. Wurz had to settle for fourth while Jean Alesi was a delighted fifth having started 11th on the grid. Coulthard came home in sixth, having survived a second spin.

While Ferrari trumpeted the fact that it was back in the hunt against McLaren the truth was that a tyre advantage added to Schumacher's opportunism, brilliance AND luck had combined to give the team an unlikely victory.

Real progress with the car would not be made until the Ferrari appeared with a completely redesigned rear end at the Spanish Grand Prix.

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX

ROUND 4

The Ferrari team was not looking forward to the San Marino Grand Prix, despite the fact that Michael Schumacher had won in Argentina. The McLarens were unlikely to have two bad races in a row and Ferrari did not want to be humiliated in front of its home crowd. The team continued to talk up the progress being made - and hoped for the best, waiting for the new rear end of the F300 to be finished.

At the beginning of practice at the Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari it was clear that unless the McLarens broke down Ferrari was not going to be in the hunt for victory. The McLarens were the dominant force and on Saturday morning Schumacher's heart must have sunk when he saw a 1.4sec gap between his car and Coulthard's MP4-13. In the afternoon he managed to find six-tenths and Coulthard was 0.3s slower than in the morning but the McLaren driver was still nearly half a second ahead. Mika Hakkinen might have had pole but had to lift off on his final flying lap when Giancarlo Fisichella spun his Benetton in front of him.

The Ferraris shared the second row while Alexander Wurz did a good job for Benetton putting his car ahead of Jacques Villeneuve's Williams. Fisichella paid for his mistake with a miserable 10th on the grid. The pattern of the season was beginning to emerge with the top five teams: McLaren, Ferrari, Williams, Benetton and Jordan sharing the top 10 grid positions as they often would and Sauber leading the chasing pack. Tora Tagaki impressed everyone by qualifying 15th in his Tyrrell on his first visit to Imola.

At the start of the race the two McLarens got off the line well as usual and Coulthard duly took the lead from Hakkinen. Schumacher was third but found himself under attack from a fast-starting and aggressive-looking Villeneuve.

Wurz's promising qualifying was ruined within seconds as he suffered a gearbox problem as he accelerated away from the grid and to add insult to injury he was then rammed from behind by an over-enthusiastic Damon Hill.

This little incident created a traffic jam in the midfield and Jackie Stewart's team demolished itself as Jan Magnussen ran into the back of his team-mate Rubens Barrichello.

While the stragglers wandered around to the pits for repairs, Coulthard began to build up an advantage and it was quickly clear that Hakkinen could not match him. Perhaps he did not need to because he knew that later David would have to obey team orders. We would never find out because after 17 laps the Finn retired with a gearbox problem, leaving Coulthard out ahead by himself with Schumacher unable to make an impression in his Ferrari.

Coulthard, Schumacher and third-placed Villeneuve all pitted at the same time but Eddie Irvine stayed out for an extra lap and was able to get ahead of Villeneuve when he stopped. Jean Alesi also did well to move into fifth ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

The order remained unchanged at the second pit stops - everyone adopting the same strategy on this occasion - and Coulthard was able to build up a 20 second lead over Schumacher, with Irvine half a minute behind his Ferrari team mate. David began to suffer from some overheating problems in the final laps of the race but was able to nurse his car home to the finish to score his first - and as it turned out - only win of the year.

Michael Schumacher finished second to keep his World Championship hopes alive while Irvine kept Villeneuve behind him to claim third place. The fight between Frentzen and Alesi was settled in the German's favour at the second pit stops.

The Benettons, Jordans and Prosts all failed to finish, adding to their disappointing seasons while there was much rejoicing at Minardi with Esteban Tuero scoring the team's best result - eighth - for nearly two years.

SPANISH GRAND PRIX

ROUND 5

After two races off the boil McLaren's Mika Hakkinen returned to glory at the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya outside Barcelona. The Finn set the fastest time in all sessions throughout the weekend and won the race at a canter, completely in a league of his own. David Coulthard shadowed his team-mate throughout but found that he could do nothing to match Hakkinen's pace while Michael Schumacher suffered quietly, finishing nearly a minute behind Hakkinen on a day when Bridgestone tyres had the edge over the Goodyears.

Ferrari, however, had finally produced its new rear end for the F300 and began to look ahead to an intensive testing programme designed to close the gap to McLaren.

That would be in the future, however, because in qualifying for the Spanish GP Hakkinen was one and a half seconds ahead of Schumacher's Ferrari. The pair were split by Coulthard but he was seven-tenths off Hakkinen's pace.

As an indication that Bridgestone were doing a better job, Giancarlo Fisichella was fourth fastest in his Benetton while Alexander Wurz was just a tenth slower and fifth on the grid ahead of a disappointing Eddie Irvine. Johnny Herbert gave Sauber a boost to qualify seventh while Rubens Barrichello gave the folk at Stewart some encouragement by qualifying ninth. Clearly the Stewart-Ford package could work if everything held together and the engineers got the set-up right.

It was a bad day, however, for Williams Grand Prix Engineering with World Champion Jacques Villeneuve down in 10th on the grid and Heinz-Harald Frentzen 13th. Villeneuve had the excuse that he had gone off pushing the recalcitrant FW20 too hard. News leaked out that Williams was working on a completely new rear end, just as Ferrari had done...

At the start of the race the two McLarens went away like clockwork but Schumacher was very slow off the line and dropped behind both Irvine and Fisichella. Further back Frentzen and Jean Alesi ran into one another, which caused the already depressed Heinz-Harald to spin. He would pit and rejoin at the back, beginning a good charge through the field.

Up at the front Hakkinen let the McLaren-Mercedes have its head and after 10 laps he was 10 seconds ahead of Coulthard. The Scotsman was in no trouble and had built himself a six second gap over Irvine's Ferrari, which was under attack from Fisichella. Michael Schumacher shadowed the pair, waiting to pounce.

With overtaking difficult the pits stops were very important and as soon as Irvine and Fisichella went into the pits Michael Schumacher did his usual impressive job to emerge ahead of both Irvine and Fisichella. These two then collided at the first corner and put each other out of the race. This promoted Barrichello to fifth place although he was under heavy pressure from Villeneuve and Herbert.

Schumacher's high-speed pit work had been a little too good for the FIA computers and the stewards ordered that he be given a 10-second stop-go penalty for failing to observe the speed limit in the pitlane. This dropped Michael behind Wurz but a strong charge and a good second pit stop meant that Michael was able to regain the place by the end of the race.

After the second stops were over Hakkinen took it easy in the closing laps, allowing Coulthard to close up while Schumacher trundled home in a lonely third place. It was a similar story for Wurz in fourth while Barrichello was able to get away from the Villeneuve-Herbert battle to give Stewart and Ford something positive to talk about.

The battle for eighth place provided the most excitement of the afternoon with Jarno Trulli, Ralf Schumacher and Alesi all being overtaken in the last couple of laps by a hard-charging Frentzen.

MONACO GRAND PRIX

ROUND 6

Michael Schumacher has always been a great performer at Monte Carlo but this year the Ferrari was simply not good enough and as he tried to push the car beyond its limits he ran into trouble, crashing heavily on Thursday afternoon in Casino Square. He suffered a mechanical failure at the start of the Saturday morning session and so was ill-prepared for qualifying. In the circumstances qualifying fourth on the grid was not a bad performance but it meant that Michael had no chance at all of a win on Sunday afternoon.

Both McLaren men had brushes with barriers during the practice sessions but it did not affect them to the same extent and they duly lined up first and second on the grid with Mika Hakkinen three-tenths faster than David Coulthard. The Bridgestones were performing well again and so Giancarlo Fisichella was on the pace, qualifying third, just two tenths behind Coulthard and ahead of Schumacher.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was fifth with Alexander Wurz sixth in his Benetton and Eddie Irvine seventh. The big surprise of qualifying was Mika Salo, who put his Arrows eighth on the grid. The big disasters were Jacques Villeneuve, who was 13th on the grid and the two Jordans which were 15th and 16th. Eddie Jordan was angry.

For once the entire field behaved well as they snaked their way through Ste Devote Corner at the start of the first lap: Hakkinen led Coulthard, Fisichella and Schumacher while Wurz made a good start to pass Frentzen for fourth place. As at previous races the two McLarens began to pull away quickly from the field, with Hakkinen obviously in control and Coulthard able to stay ahead of the pursuers. Coulthard then began to fight back and closed on Hakkinen.

Further down the field Irvine decided he wanted to take sixth place from Frentzen and used the Williams as a cushion to get through. A furious Frentzen retired.

On lap 17 Hakkinen no longer had to worry about Coulthard as the Scotsman's Mercedes engine blew up at the chicane, leaving Mika with a 20sec lead over Fisichella. A few laps later Hakkinen seemed to have lost concentration a little because he glanced the barriers at Ste Devote. The McLaren kept going...

At the pit stops, however, Giancarlo drops behind Wurz and Schumacher. The Ferrari driver was keen to pass Wurz as quickly as possible to begin to chase Hakkinen and on lap 37 tried to do to Wurz what Irvine had previously done to Frentzen.

The Austrian refused to give way and retook the place and the two drivers banged wheels at they went downhill from the Loews Hairpin. At Portier Schumacher barged Wurz out of the way and got ahead. It would be his downfall. The manoeuvre damages the rear suspension of the Ferrari and Schumacher was forced to pit. The damage was repaired and Michael rejoined three laps down but there would no points for him.

A few laps later Wurz also suffered for the incident. He had stopped for new tyres and the added grip caused his damaged suspension to collapse at high speed in the tunnel. Alexander was lucky to emerge unhurt from a big accident.

These adventures left Fisichella in second place with Irvine third although the Ferrari driver was half a minute behind the Benetton. Mika Salo was fourth with Jean Alesi chasing him and Villeneuve an uninspired sixth. With five laps to go Alesi retires with a broken gearbox which puts the second Arrows, driven by Pedro Diniz into the points.

Fisichella tries to close the gap to Hakkinen but after a spin decides to settle for second. Irvine is a distant third and Salo is the last man not to be lapped. Villeneuve was fifth while Diniz had to limp to the finish having been driven into on the last lap by a daft challenge from a frustrated Michael Schumacher.

CANADIAN GRAND PRIX

ROUND 7

The F1 circus arrived in Canada with McLaren having won five victories to Ferrari's single win and although Ferrari was beginning to edge a little closer thanks to a controversial new engine-mapping arrangement which the FIA agreed was legal but which other teams had not thought of doing and therefore complained about. Whatever the case, the Ferraris were able to exit the corners much more effectively. Williams did not have the same system but was also making progress, bringing out its revised FW20 in time for Canada.

But things did not look very different after qualifying in Montreal with the two McLarens at the front as always. On this occasion it was David Coulthard's turn to take pole position. Mika Hakkinen had had another of his flaky qualifying sessions, aborting a couple of runs because of mistakes but he was only a few hundredths slower than Coulthard and second on the grid. Michael Schumacher was only two-tenths slower - evidence that progress had been made. The Goodyear tyres were also working well a situation highlighted by Ralf Schumacher's fifth place on the grid for Jordan behind Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton and ahead of the two Williams cars.

At the start Coulthard made the best start but Hakkinen was slow away and fell behind Schumacher's Ferrari. Further back Ralf Schumacher failed to get off the line and this caused congestion in the midfield. The result was a spectacular shunt with Alexander Wurz trying a rather silly move on the inside of Jean Alesi at the first corner. The Benetton was launched into a roll and both Jarno Trulli and Johnny Herbert were taken off in the resulting mayhem. The race was red-flagged.

There would be more chaos at the second start with Hakkinen suddenly slowing at the first corner and Ralf Schumacher spinning in avoidance. This caused Trulli and Alesi to collide and Tora Takagi went off as well. Eddie Irvine and Wurz had to pit at the end of the first lap while the race came under the control of a Safety Car.

After five laps the race was on again with Coulthard able to keep Schumacher at bay. Fisichella followed, ahead of Barrichello - the first survivor of the midfield chaos - who managed to get the better of Frentzen and then Villeneuve to run fourth. On lap 11, however, Rubens spun at the hairpin and dropped back to seventh place.

Soon afterwards Pedro Diniz also went off and when he rejoined he dumped turf all over the circuit and another Safety Car was needed. As the race restarts Coulthard suddenly slows with a throttle linkage problem. McLaren's unreliability handing Schumacher the lead. At the same moment Mika Salo crashed heavily and the Safety Car was sent out again. Michael Schumacher took advantage of this to come into the pits but when he rejoined he drove Frentzen off the road - later claiming he did not see the Williams. This would result in a 10-sec stop-go penalty for Michael, which many felt was a very lenient punishment in the circumstances.

All this left Fisichella in the lead from Villeneuve but Jacques went completely mad at the restart and having taken the lead went over a sandtrap and dropped back. He then collided with Esteban Tuero's Minardi and had to pit.

Schumacher was finally called in for his penalty and rejoined in third place behind Damon Hill. He soon passed Hill and chased after Fisichella. At the final pits stops Michael was able to get out ahead of Fisichella and pulled away to win.

Irvine survived to finish third with Wurz fourth and Barrichello fifth. Jan Magnussen finished sixth for Stewart but learned a few days later that he was being dropped by the team.

FRENCH GP

ROUND 8

After the Canadian Grand Prix there was wan extra week before the French Grand Prix and this allowed the teams to hold two big tests, during which the dominant McLaren team began to realise that there was not a great more potential for development left in the MP4-13 even if the tyres could be improved. It had been such a good car straight out of the box that there not much more to be found.

In Magny-Cours testing Ferrari was quicker despite the fact that Michael Schumacher had a nasty high speed accident which destroyed his car. Heinz-Harald Frentzen also had a very big accident and would suffer from the after-effects throughout the French Grand Prix weekend. Schumacher, however, was in fine form and by the end of qualifying had surprised everyone by qualifying only two-tenths slower than pole man Mika Hakkinen. There was a suspicion that the Finn was not entirely happy with the car as David Coulthard, who qualified third, admitted that he could not get his car to handle well.

Ferrari's progress was underlined by the fact that Eddie Irvine qualified fourth. Development from Goodyear were also significant, this being underlined by the fact that both Williams and Jordans were ahead of the two Benettons with Jacques Villeneuve leading Ralf Schumacher, Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

The start at Magny-Cours has always been a critical moment because overtaking at the track is not easy these days, despite the Melbourne Hairpin and any move to pass another car is a big risk if the rival driver refuses to give way. This was in the minds of the McLaren men as they lined up on the grid. The one thing they had to avoid was Schumacher and Irvine getting ahead. That would be a disaster.

As the lights were about to go out Jos Verstappen stalled his Stewart and Race Director Charlie Whiting hit the button to abort the start. The FIA software was not fast enough, however, and the lights went out as normal and then suddenly red lights came on. Both McLarens took off well while Schumacher's Ferrari staggered away. The red flags - which should not have been out - saved his day. Such is the good fortune of champions.

At the second start the two McLarens both made bad starts and in a flash Schumacher was in the lead with Irvine behind him. McLaren's nightmare scenario had happened. As Irvine kept Hakkinen and Coulthard behind him Schumacher disappeared up the road at a rate of a second a lap and in those early laps the race was effectively won. On lap 21 Hakkinen finally managed to get ahead of Irvine but then made a very costly error and spun, dropping behind Eddie again. Although Hakkinen pitted almost immediately he had blown his chance to get ahead of the second Ferrari. McLaren's hopes now lay with Coulthard and his pit stop went terribly wrong as the nozzle of the refuelling machine failed to connect to the car. By the time he was back on the track Irvine was well clear of both McLarens. The order remained the same until the second pit stops. Once again Coulthard had trouble. His stop was slow and then it was discovered that he had been sent out without enough fuel to make it to the finish. He would have to stop again. This dropped him to seventh place.

Although Hakkinen put on a charge and began to close on Irvine he was not close enough to take the place although the two drivers crossed the line side by side on the last lap.

Behind them Villeneuve finished fourth and Alexander Wurz fifth while a great drive by Jean Alesi - including a brush which ended Frentzen's race - was not rewarded as the Sauber driver was passed by Coulthard on the last lap.

BRITISH GRAND PRIX

ROUND 9

Having been beaten at Magny-Cours McLaren needed a win at Silverstone to keep up momentum and confidence and Mika Hakkinen did his best in qualifying, giving Ferrari's hopes of success a drubbing as he took pole position by nearly half a second. But Schumacher was there in second and David Coulthard was in no position to help out Mika as he was in fourth on the grid - and did not really know why.

The man who had broken into the top three was none other than World Champion Jacques Villeneuve - sporting purple hair for the first time. The French-Canadian said that he now finally felt confident in the FW20. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was three-tenths slower but that put him behind Coulthard and Eddie Irvine. Damon Hill showed well in front of his home crowd and qualified seventh and then came the two Saubers looking better than normal, with Jean Alesi ahead of Johnny Herbert - evidence that Goodyear was now producing more competitive tyres than Bridgestone. The major disaster in qualifying was the performance of Ralf Schumacher, who started 21st on the grid, having had his times disallowed because he failed an FIA test to get out of the car within five seconds. The cockpit had to be modified...

Britain's famous summery weather popped up on Sunday with miserable low cloud, high winds and rain. The track was damp when the race started and most people chose to start on intermediate tyres. Hakkinen got away well with Schumacher and Coulthard on his tail while Alesi made a sensational start to be fourth at the first corner. Irvine, on the other hand, ended up down in 10th.

After five laps Coulthard was able to show McLaren's supremacy once again as he passed Schumacher to take second place. Further back Irvine carved his way through the field to get up to fifth place by lap 12.The rain intensified and several drivers spun out. Most drivers stopped for wet tyres and during the pits stops Irvine was able to get ahead of Alesi. The conditions continued to deteriorate but the two McLarens stayed ahead of the two Ferraris while Ralf Schumacher moved into sixth after a remarkable drive through the field. The rain became worse and worse and just before the second pit stops were due Coulthard spun out and a few laps later Hakkinen went off at high-speed at Bridge Corner, damaging the front wings of the car. While Mika could still drive the damaged car, it was slower but as he had 40secs in hand over Schumacher the situation did not seem too serious - until the Safety Car was sent out.

It could not have worked out better for Schumacher. Hakkinen's advantage was wiped out and at the restart Schumacher had not trouble passing Hakkinen, who went off again trying to keep the Ferrari behind him. Schumacher pulled away and then received a signal to indicate that he had been given a penalty for overtaking under yellow flags during the Safety Car period. The issuing of the penalty had been bungled by the stewards and the Ferrari tacticians took advantage of this, ignoring the order and bringing Michael in on the last lap. He won the race in the pitlane but by doing so made it impossible for the stewards to take away the win - because they had been to blame. It was not exactly cricket, but that is the way they operate at Ferrari these days.

The stewards had to withdraw the penalty - and make fools of themselves - and Schumacher went home with the win - which was not totally fair given the fact that he had broken a very basic rule and got away with it...

It was a good day all round for the Schumacher Family, Ralf giving Jordan its first point of the year with sixth place.

AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX

ROUND 10

After two consecutive Ferrari victories, the McLaren men were looking decidedly spooked when they arrived in Austria. They knew that the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13 was still superior to the Ferrari F300 but the awareness that Michael Schumacher was able to exploit circumstances to win races meant that the team was definitely feeling the heat. What was needed was a dominant performance to show that the McLaren was still the better car.

Thousands of Schumacher fans turned up as usual despite the inclement summer weather which made the weekend a pretty miserable and mud-covered affair.

There was heavy rain in the days before the race and on Saturday a shower in qualifying meant that qualifying turned into a scramble. In such circumstances it is inevitable that the normal grid order will be disrupted and so it was that Giancarlo Fisichella was able to take pole position for Benetton with Jean Alesi's Sauber alongside. Mika Hakkinen was third for McLaren with championship rival Michael Schumacher alongside. With only two points between them, Austria looked like being an important race.

Fifth and sixth on the grid were Rubens Barrichello's Stewart-Ford and Mika Salo's Arrows while Ferrari's Eddie Irvine was eighth and poor old David Coulthard had a terrible time and ended up 14th - with Damon Hill alongside him.

The opening laps of the race were going to see a great sorting out in the order. Hakkinen and Schumacher made the best starts and passed both the front row men to lead Fisichella while Alesi - usually a brilliant starter - found himself in fifth behind Barrichello. There were various collisions in the course of the first lap - including a crash between the two Arrows cars which resulted in Coulthard losing the front wing of his car - and a Safety Car came out. Coulthard pitted for repairs.

The race restarted quickly with Hakkinen battling Schumacher for the lead. On lap 5 the Ferrari driver made a rare mistake and allowed Fisichella to get ahead but he was soon back behind Hakkinen and on lap seven the two cars made contact but both stayed on the track and Hakkinen began to pull away. Barrichello disappeared with a mechanical problem (as was sadly the norm at Stewart). Further back Coulthard charged through the field to be seventh by lap 16. On the next lap Schumacher made another mistake and the Ferrari went off bouncing wildly over a sandtrap, tearing off the front wings and the barge-boards of the car. Schumacher had to pit.

While Coulthard found a way past Alesi to take fourth place, Fisichella came into the pits. When he rejoined he found Alesi alongside him and the two ran side-by-side up the hill to the Remus Kurve where, neither wanting to give way, they collided and were both out. This left a delighted Coulthard in third place behind Hakkinen and Irvine and when the Ulsterman had to pit again he dropped behind Coulthard. The two McLarens would stop later but remained 1-2 at the head of the field while Michael Schumacher was now in the spotlight, chasing back up the order after his incident. Michael was soon behind his brother Ralf, who was running in fourth place. He quickly passed the Jordan driver and then chased after his team-mate Irvine, who immediately began to slow down allowing Schumacher to catch and then pass him. The FIA - which had banned team orders earlier in the year - decided to take no action.

It mattered little in Austria as the McLarens strolled on to a magnificent 1-2 finish while the Ferraris came home third and fourth. Ralf Schumacher added some more points for the Jordan team while the final point went to Jacques Villeneuve who had started 11th on the grid.

GERMAN GP

ROUND 11

After the team's 1-2 finish in Austria, McLaren perked up and as the F1 circus headed across Germany to Hockenheim - in the rain - the silver-grey cars were the favorites for a dominant performance at the Heidelberg track. Traditionally, Hockenheim favors cars with plenty of horsepower and a good chassis balance. This sounded like the perfect recipe for McLaren and a source of worry for Ferrari. And so it turned out to be with the two McLarens setting the pace and Ferrari struggling badly.

Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard lined up 1-2 on the grid, the pair lapping half a second faster than the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve, which was behaving much better at a track where high-speed aerodynamics is important.

The Jordans also looked a lot better thanks to a lot of aerodynamic improvement and some progress with the Mugen-Honda engines. Ralf Schumacher was again faster than Damon Hill.

Sixth on the grid - nearly one and a half seconds a lap slower than Hakkinen - was Eddie Irvine but for once the Ulsterman could enjoy being ahead of his illustrious Ferrari team-mate.

On this occasion Michael Schumacher was in deep trouble and ninth position on the grid offered him little hope of a big result on race day. Hoping to do well in front of his home crowd with a new longer wheelbase version of the Ferrari, Michael had spent Friday trying to dial in the new car to the circuit. It did not work and so it was decided on Friday night that Michael would switch back to his normal car on Saturday morning. He promptly went off and was not able to recover the car for the first 45-minute practice session. In the second 45-minute session his Ferrari V10 blew itself up after only six laps of running and so he went into the qualifying session in the afternoon without any real setting-up work having been done. In the circumstances ninth on the grid was not bad.

It was not a good day for Germany because Heinz-Harald Frentzen was also in trouble, starting 10th on the grid after failing to get the most of his qualifying tyres.

The race, as expected, proved to be a McLaren-Mercedes benefit with Hakkinen and Coulthard getting away well and leading from flag to flag. In the closing stages of the race Hakkinen's car began throwing out large amounts of oil and slowed with a loss of horsepower but as Coulthard was (probably) under orders to stay behind he had to slow as well. They made it to the finishing line despite the problem.

Villeneuve did not make a good start and dropped behind both Ralf Schumacher and Damon Hill. During the first lap he was able to repass Hill, leaving Damon to fight off the two Ferraris, Michael Schumacher having jumped both Benettons at the start.

Irvine soon made life easier for Schumacher when he made a mistake and went off the track. Eddie kept going but was out of the points.

In the early laps Ralf Schumacher was able to keep pace with the McLarens, suggesting that he was planning to run a two-stop race. This was confirmed when he pitted after only 14 laps, dropping to ninth place. Villeneuve moved up to third as a result and proved to be able to keep pace with - but not catch - the McLarens. With all the other major runners on one-stop strategies the order remained unchanged at the front although Coulthard was much closer to Hakkinen after his stop, despite overshooting his mark slightly.

Villeneuve finished a delighted third with Damon Hill fourth, scoring his first points of the season. Michael Schumacher survived to finish fifth and his brother Ralf ended the day sixth, which was evidence that perhaps his strategy had not been a wise one given that he had qualified fourth.

As a result Hakkinen increased his lead in the Drivers' World Championship to 16 points and Michael Schumacher's task of winning the title looked less likely than ever with only five races to run.

HUNGARIAN GP

ROUND 12

At the Hungaroring qualifying is the most important part of the weekend because overtaking is very difficult and only rarely achieved on the racing circuit. Thus it was surprising to hear Michael Schumacher talk about being satisfied with third place on the grid, behind the two McLarens.

Up at the front it was a McLaren 1-2 once again with Hakkinen a tenth ahead of Coulthard and four-tenths clear of Schumacher.

Schumacher's qualifying performance was remarkable in that he was able to 0.9s faster that Damon Hill's Jordan and Eddie Irvine's Ferrari despite the fact that both men were using soft Goodyear rubber and Schumacher was on a harder compound. The two Williams driver - who chose similar tyres to Schumacher - were a second slower than the Ferrari and Ralf Schumacher was a disappointed 10th fastest without having had any real problems.

The starting laps of the race gave little indication as to the strategies adopted by the various teams and which tyres would work out to be the best option in the circumstances.

The two McLarens led with Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine chasing. Hakkinen built up a lead of around three seconds, while Coulthard found himself under attack from Schumacher's Ferrari but managed to stay ahead.

Irvine disappeared early in the race with gearbox trouble, which left Damon Hill in fourth place. When the pit stops began it was still unclear which cars were running which strategies but soon afterwards Schumacher's remarkable pace indicated that he might be stopping three times. The McLaren strategists spotted this and prepared to bring Hakkinen and Coulthard in as soon as Schumacher made a move. In this way the German would be bottled up in the vital laps when he needed to be lapping quickly and would be beaten.

Schumacher's second stop came on lap 43 and immediately the McLarens were called in - one after another. Schumacher's pace in those vital laps was so fast, however, that he was ahead of both McLarens when he re-emerged.

The Ferrari star then had to push incredibly hard to build up sufficient of an advantage to stay ahead of the McLaren's during his third pit stop. This looked like being a tall order but he would be lucky as one McLaren tripped up the other.

As Schumacher charged away, setting several fastest laps, Hakkinen began to struggle with a shock absorber problem - although the problem was never fully explained by the team. Coulthard radioed that he was being held up by the Finn but he was trapped until the team gave him the go-ahead to overtake.

This did not happen for four laps during which time David last vital seconds to Schumacher.

The German was pushing so hard up front that at one point he went off the road but fortunately did no damage to his car. Although Coulthard pushed hard, his tyres would not allow him to lap any faster and when Schumacher eventually pitted he was able to get out ahead. If Coulthard had not lost those vital seconds when he was trapped behind Hakkinen it might have been a very different story.

Schumacher, however, had the race won and Hakkinen's misfortune was compounded as he fell behind Villeneuve, Hill and Frentzen and finished a miserable sixth - even being lapped by Schumacher on the last lap of the race. Michael had closed the gap in the World Championship to just seven points.

Frentzen's fifth place was more impressive than it appeared as the German was barely able to walk after the race and spent the next few days in a Vienna Hospital recovering from salmonella poisoning which had affected his performance all weekend.

BELGIAN GP

ROUND 13

Going to Spa at the August always means the possibility that the weather will disrupt the logical order of things in Formula 1 but no-one suspected that it would be quite such a dramatic intervention. On the face of it Spa was a McLaren track, with scope for the MP4-13's excellent handling and for the horsepower of the Mercedes V10 engine. At the same time Michael Schumacher's ability behind the wheel is always an advantage at Spa where the driver can make a big difference.

Thus it was quite surprising in qualifying that Schumacher did not do as well as might have been expected with Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard - split by a tenth - ending up a full second ahead of Schumacher, who found unable to stay ahead of the fast-improving Jordan-Mugen Honda of Damon Hill.

There were two big crashes in practice but neither Jacques Villeneuve nor Mika Salo was injured.

Schumacher is at his best in the wet and so when Sunday morning dawned cold, damp and miserable he was delighted and was duly fastest in the warm-up. The weather was very bad as the start approached but the race went on as planned - at least until just after the first corner when Coulthard, who had made a bad start, suddenly speared out of the spray and crashed heavily into the wall on the run down towards Eau Rouge. The McLaren rebounded into the path of the field and there was chaos as car after car smashed into the wreckage. Thirteen cars were involved and a red flag came out.

There were only 18 cars left for the second start - four teams having crashed both cars - and so Rubens Barrichello, Olivier Panis, Mika Salo and Ricardo Rosset were unable to start.

At the second start both McLarens made bad starts and Hill came from third to lead Irvine into the first corner. At the exit Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher made contact and the McLaren spun and was hit by Johnny Herbert's Sauber. Both were out. Schumacher's car was undamaged and he immediately passed Irvine to be second. McLaren's misfortunes continued when Coulthard and Alexander Wurz collided. The Scotsman had to pit for repairs.

With Hakkinen's car in the middle of the road a Safety Car was deployed. At the restart Schumacher attacked Hill and quickly took the lead and raced away from the field at three seconds a lap. There were many spins in the next few laps as the rain intensified, including Irvine who damaged his Ferrari. When all his rivals came in for wet tyres Villeneuve stayed out and crashed heavily soon afterwards.

Schumacher's lead was up to nearly 40secs when he came up to lap Coulthard. In the spray Schumacher misjudged the situation and smashed into the back of the McLaren. Without his right front wheel Schumacher drove to the pits and then stormed down to the McLaren pit to scream abuse at Coulthard. While all this was happening Eddie Jordan's team found itself in the remarkable position of running 1-2 with Jean Alesi's Sauber third.

Further back in the field Irvine spun out and even Hill had an off but he kept going nonetheless while Giancarlo Fisichella's hopes of a good finish ended when he failed to see Shinji Nakano's Minardi in a ball of spray and ran into the Japanese driver, destroying the Benetton but luckily avoiding injury. With the wrecked Benetton in the middle of the track the Safety Car was deployed again, setting up a dash to the finish. The order, however, remained unchanged giving Jordan its first Formula 1 victory - and a 1-2 at that.

An ecstatic Alesi finished third with the remaining points going to survivors Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Pedro Diniz and Jarno Trulli after a dramatic day's racing.

ITALIAN GP

ROUND 14

It is not unusual to find a Ferrari on pole position at Monza. There used to be an unwritten law in Formula 1 which allowed Ferrari a little - how shall we say - leeway with the regulations during qualifying sessions. This did not matter much in those days and helped to boost the crowds and get everyone excited. In the races things quickly returned to normal...

Thus when Michael Schumacher took pole at the Autodromo Nazionale this year one could find people in the F1 paddock who seemed to think that there was some funny business going on.

Monza is not unlike Hockenheim in character - as Jacques Villeneuve proved being competitive at both tracks - but at the German GP six weeks earlier the Ferraris had been embarrassingly slow in qualifying and in the race. Suddenly Schumacher's F300 was able to outblast the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13, the car which had been dominant all season. It all looked rather fishy...

The men at the FIA said that everything was OK and so the performance had to be put down to Schumacher's brilliance; a strong showing by Goodyear and the fact that there had been a lot of rain during the practice days which meant that everyone was struggling with set-up during the qualifying session - and Schumacher and his engineers got it right. McLaren found that they had the wrong gear ratios and that the Bridgestone tyres were not working that well. And that meant that Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were 3-4 on the grid behind Schumacher and Villeneuve, who once again found that the Williams was very good in high-speed corners. Eddie Irvine was fifth and Ralf Schumacher sixth. The Bridgestone tyres were obviously not that bad as Alexander Wurz was seventh for Benetton while Prost Grand Prix had a good day with Olivier Panis and Jarno Trulli ninth and 10th. The big disasters in qualifying were Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Damon Hill who found themselves in 12th and 14th on the grid.

At the start Schumacher made a poor start and was overtaken by both McLarens, Irvine and Villeneuve. Hakkinen had barged Jacques out of the way and this meant that the Williams was behind Coulthard and Irvine as well. Jacques was pushed back to fifth later on the first lap as Schumacher began to charge. On the second lap Irvine let Schumacher up to third.

The McLarens had built a lead of four seconds but suddenly on lap eight Coulthard went ahead and Hakkinen began to drop slowly backwards towards Schumacher's Ferrari. Something was wrong.

Further back Damon Hill was the hero of the early laps, having chosen a light fuel load, he was able to charge up to fifth place in the course of the first 14 laps before he had to pit.

Once ahead of Hakkinen Coulthard quickly built a lead of 10secs over Hakkinen but on lap 17 his engine suddenly blew up. Hakkinen and Schumacher arrived at the second chicane in a cloud of oil smoke and both had to slow down. There was a scramble to get back onto the power and Schumacher managed to get ahead. Once in the lead Michael stayed ahead while Hakkinen faded badly at the end of his first stint.

All the leading cars except Hill were on one-stop strategies and with Schumacher able to stay ahead there was little hope for Hakkinen to retake the lead. Mika charged hard but then made a mistake and spun. He rejoined but was in trouble with his brakes. Irvine and Ralf Schumacher were both able to pass him before the finish. Villeneuve's race had by then ended with a mistake at the Lesmo Corner which dumped the Williams into a sandtrap.

Ferrari fans celebrated the team's first 1-2 finish at Monza for 10 years and Schumacher left Monza knowing that with two races to go he was equal on points to Hakkinen. The World Championship could go either way...

LUXEMBOURG GP

ROUND 15

Having made a real mess of qualifying and the race at Monza, the McLaren team was hoping to have a rather better time at the Luxembourg Grand Prix, an important race for the team's sponsor West and for engine-supplier Mercedes-Benz. It was not to be. The McLarens did not perform well in qualifying and Mika Hakkinen found himself trapped in his nightmare scenario: Michael Schumacher was on pole in his Ferrari and the second red car was alongside with Eddie Irvine at the wheel. All Ferrari had to do on Sunday afternoon was to have Irvine keep Hakkinen bottled up behind him and let Schumacher disappear up the road. The strategy had worked brilliantly in France...

That result would have meant that Schumacher could go to Japan ahead on points in the World Championship and that would give him the option of driving Hakkinen off the track to win the title - a manoeuvre Michael has used in the past.

Hakkinen tried to disguise his disappointment but there was no doubting that he was around a second a lap slower than he should have been and six-tenths behind Schumacher.

David Coulthard was in even worse trouble, lining up fifth on the grid behind Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton, which was behaving very well on its Bridgestone tyres.

Behind Fisichella was Ralf Schumacher's Jordan and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Williams. Ralf would have been even further forward if he had not spun off on his fastest lap while there was added disappointment at Jordan as Damon Hill could do no better than 10th on the grid. There was also frustration at Williams with Jacques Villeneuve's ninth position occasioned by excessive understeer for which no solution could be found.

At the start Schumacher made his customary bad getaway and so it was Irvine who led into the first corner with the two McLarens giving chase and Fisichella under threat from Alexander Wurz, up from eighth on the grid. Irvine's moment of glory was short-lived. At the end of the first lap he made a mistake at the chicane, bounced wide and in a flash Schumacher was through and in the lead. With Irvine holding up Hakkinen Michael was then able to build up a lead of five seconds. After 14 laps running behind Irvine Hakkinen made his move at the chicane and eased ahead of the Ulsterman, who behaved well on this occasion and did not try to run into the Finnish driver. Mika then set off after Schumacher and closed rapidly. When Schumacher pitted Hakkinen put on a burst of speed until his stop four laps later. He emerged just ahead of the Ferrari. Further back Coulthard was able to get ahead of Irvine, leaving the second Ferrari to fight for fourth place with Frentzen's Williams.

For 10 laps Hakkinen and Schumacher duelled but gradually the Finn began to edge away from the Ferrari. The order was unchanged at the second pits stops and Hakkinen maintained a comfortable five second lead until the closing laps when he let Schumacher close in slightly. It had been a dramatic and tense fight with Hakkinen doing to Schumacher what the German has so often done to others.

With a four point lead in the World Championship and a hard-won psychological advantage, Hakkinen was back as the favorite to win the title and the McLaren men regained a little spring in their step as they packed up at the Nurburgring.

Coulthard finished third and by doing so McLaren moved to within one point of the Constructors' title. In order to lose the team would have to fail to score in Japan and Ferrari would have to score a maximum of 16 points. The Mercedes-Benz men went home happy...

JAPANESE GP

ROUND 16

With five weeks between the Luxembourg and Japanese Grands Prix Ferrari and McLaren spent their time testing and playing psychological games in preparation for the World Championship showdown in Suzuka. The rivals were obviously charged up and in qualifying they were well clear of the rest, Schumacher beating Hakkinen to pole by a tenth of a second. This was an astounding performance as Eddie Irvine - who knows, loves and has always gone well at Suzuka - was almost two complete seconds slower than his team leader. Certainly Irvine had no way of explaining what had happened. He had no real problems and felt that with fourth place he had achieved all he could achieve with the car. He did not even bother to go out for a final qualifying run. The only conclusion, given that the FIA said that Schumacher's car was OK, was that if the Ferrari was not a space ship, the driver must be an alien.

It was fishier than kedgeree but set up a grand finale for the TV cameras on Sunday...

David Coulthard was only a second slower than Hakkinen - which was much more believable - and he took the opportunity to explain that he had not been happy with the way the car had been developing for some time. Behind the top two teams everyone else was in team order with Williams on the third row (Heinz-Harald Frentzen ahead of Jacques Villeneuve), Jordan on the fourth (Ralf Schumacher again outpacing Damon Hill), Benetton on the fifth (Alexander Wurz ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella), Sauber on the sixth (Johnny Herbert outgunning Jean Alesi on this occasion) and Prost on the seventh (Olivier Panis beating Jarno Trulli).

Everyone was very edgy at the start with Trulli stalling as they waited for the lights to go out. The start was aborted. At the second attempt Michael Schumacher's Ferrari stalled. He would have to start at the back. Suddenly the pressure was off Hakkinen. He was on pole and there were 20 cars between him and Schumacher.

At the third attempt the race got underway with Hakkinen leading Irvine, Frentzen and a slow-starting Coulthard. Schumacher drove a storming first lap to be 12th and his progress in the early laps continued until he became stuck in seventh place behind Villeneuve and Hill. In the laps that followed he lost half a minute to Hakkinen and all realistic chance of winning the race - and the championship - disappeared.

Irvine tried to keep up with Hakkinen but could not while Frentzen absorbed enormous pressure to hold on to third place despite the best efforts of Coulthard.

The frontrunners soon began to pit and thanks to some very fast laps Schumacher emerged in third place ahead of Coulthard, Frentzen, Hill and Villeneuve. In the next few laps Irvine was unable to make much of an impression on Hakkinen and on lap 28 he stopped again, indicating that he was on a three-stop strategy.

The World Championship was settled moments later when Schumacher suffered a right rear tyre explosion after running over debris from a crash between Esteban Tuero's Minardi and Tora Takagi's Tyrrell. Hakkinen had little time to celebrate and stopped immediately for new tyres to stay ahead of Irvine, who had another pit stop to make. The Ulsterman managed to stay ahead of Coulthard but was in no position to challenge Hakkinen in the closing laps. The new World Champion duly won his eight victory of the year, trailed home by Irvine and Coulthard. The battle for fourth place was only decided at the last corner when Hill snuck past Frentzen.

It had been an exciting race and a fitting end to an interesting season. It had begun looking like being a McLaren benefit but somehow Ferrari had nearly stolen the big prize...

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