OCTOBER 7, 2003

Deciding the World Championship

The FIA Formula 1 World Championship will be decided this weekend at Suzuka in Japan, and it will take something quite extraordinary to stop Michael Schumacher winning a record sixth World Championship. The Ferrari will be a strong car on the fast sweepers of Suzuka and if Bridgestone cannot build a good tyre for Suzuka, then the company may as well give up in F1 and concentrate of rubber for tractors. The weather may also help Michael as the Bridgestone wet tyres are better than those used by Michelin.

In any case Michael Schumacher needs only to score one point to take the title, no matter what Kimi Raikkonen achieves. The Finn must win the race and he will have to contend not only with Ferrari but also with Williams. The two teams need the best possible results in order to settle the Constructors' title which is finely balanced with Ferrari three points ahead. Thus Schumacher and Barrichello both need results to guarantee another Championship double for the Italian operation. Williams should be strong but Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher have been incident-prone this year, something which one can argue might have affected the outcome of the Drivers' World Championship.

Suzuka is a track where local knowledge is very useful and in this respect Ralf Schumacher should have an advantage as he spent a year racing in Japan before he moved into Formula 1.

There is little chance of anyone else winning the race although Renault has surprised on occasion this year. Jarno Trulli is desperate to win his first Grand Prix because he knows that if he ends the year without a win he will be seen to have failed against Fernando Alonso, although in reality in recent races, he has done rather well.

A win for anyone else would be rather miraculous although Olivier Panis's performance in qualifying in Indianapolis was a sign that Toyota is beginning to get into the ballgame.

The focus will be on the race but it is worth noting that in the 21 World Championship showdowns which have occurred at the last race, only eight have resulted in the underdog going home with the title. The most dramatic of these was in 1986 when Nigel Mansell lost the title because of a high-speed tyre blow-out. In 1997 Michael Schumacher threw away his chances when he tried to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the road and ended up in the sandtrap himself; while back in 1976 James Hunt took the title in a topsy-turvy rain-drenched affair which saw his main rival Niki Lauda withdraw because he felt conditions were too dangerous to race.

The odds are stacked fiirmly against Raikkonen but as a result he goes to Japan with nothing to lose. The Finn will not care whether he is second or third in the title, winning is all that really counts. All he can do is to drive as fast as he can. The same is true of Michael Schumacher, who hopefully has learned that driving others off the track is not the way to build respect.

Aside from the battle for the Constructors' title, the fight for fourth place in the Drivers' title is close with Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Fernando Alonso all covered by just three points. And the fight for fifth place in the Constructors' title (which is worth millions of dollars) with five teams covered by five points: Sauber, BAR, Jaguar, Toyota and Jordan all wnat to come out ahead.

All in all the Suzuka weekend has the potential to be a classic F1 showdown...