The penultimate round of the 2000 Formula One World Championship in Japan was expected to be exciting, with the championship on the line. A victory by Michael Schumacher would clinch the title, while almost any other result would give Mika...
The penultimate round of the 2000 Formula One World Championship in Japan was expected to be exciting, with the championship on the line. A victory by Michael Schumacher would clinch the title, while almost any other result would give Mika Hakkinen a final chance at a third consecutive championship at the Malaysian GP.
And there was no disappointment: the tension was constant, from the moment the first start light came on, to the checkered flag. The two contenders were evenly matched throughout the race, far outdistancing everyone else, including their teammates, in a true battle of the titans.
Like the epic battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, this weekend there were only two men on the track: everyone else faded into the background. But of those two, it was Schumacher who would have the edge as the checkered flag fell. His skills were highlighted on a damp track in the second half of the race, as he was able to catch Hakkinen, take the lead, and claim the World Championship.
Schumacher had claimed the pole position, too, over Hakkinen, with the Ferrari driver claiming an edge of just nine thousandths of a second over the silver McLaren. The two drivers' teammates, David Coulthard (McLaren) and Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) were next, but well behind the two front-runners.
As the lights came on, one by one, and then winked out to signal the start, Hakkinen was again able to control his McLaren's wheelspin better than Schumacher, and pulled abreast of Schumacher almost immediately. The German wasn't keen on this, though, and moved over on Hakkinen, nearly to the edge of the track, forcing the McLaren onto the shoulder of the track.
The Finn wasn't about to give up that easily, though. He stayed on the throttle, and was able to pull ahead of Schumacher by the first turn, taking the corner and the lead in the race.
"Michael did nothing [that I think was] wrong," said Hakkinen. "I accept what he did. I was not going to give up my position because I was going for it. Michael saw me, knew he didn't have a chance and let me get away."
Behind the two, Coulthard hung on to third, but Barrichello had had a relatively poor start, and was passed before the first corner by both Ralf Schumacher (Williams) and Eddie Irvine (Jaguar).
But it was all about Hakkinen and Schumacher. The two ran off into the distance immediately, with Hakkinen averaging maybe a tenth of a second better times per lap, but with both easily a full second quicker than Coulthard in third - and others, behind Coulthard, were slower yet.
And by the time of the first of the two stops, Hakkinen had pulled a solid, if not luxurious, lead of some two seconds over the Ferrari. With both front-runners running clock-work pit stops of some seven seconds, there was not much impact on the race. Hakkinen timed his stop a little better, though, and, so, after the stops, he held a 2.5 second lead.
The tables were turned, though, when light rain began to fall on sections of the track halfway through the race. Everyone's lap times shot up by a second as the drivers had to exercise a lighter touch to avoid excessive risk.
But this exactly what Schumacher needed. With his delicate touch, he is able to control a car - with dry-weather tires - in damp or wet conditions with skill unmatched by any of the other 21 drivers currently in Formula One. Only Jean Alesi, driving a back-of-the-grid Prost, can show his skills in the wet with similar verve.
As hard as Hakkinen worked this afternoon at Suzuka, there was no matching Schumacher once the water hit the track. The Ferrari was now pulling closer, two tenths, three tenths on every single lap.
As window for the second round of pit stops opened, the Finn was clinging onto a lead of only a second. As he came up to lap the Jaguars of Irvine and Johnny Herbert, Hakkinen darted for the pits, hoping to save the time spent lapping the duo.
The stop was relatively quick at 7.4 seconds, but Schumacher was flying. Was there any hope for Hakkinen to retain his lead after the Ferrari pitstop?
The answer to that question was sealed by a combination of a sub-six second pit stop for Schumacher, and, at the same time, Hakkinen being slowed by a pitting Pedro De La Rosa.
"The guys did a great stop, but unfortunately I lost valuable time on my out lap partly due to traffic," said Hakkinen. "It also began to rain a bit more and, as a result of the new tires, it was extremely slippery and I was sliding everywhere."
Schumacher had been driving the wheels off the Ferrari as well, trying to make sure he could get out before Hakkinen.
"I had some traffic, and [Alexander Wurz] had spun and was moving backwards in front of me as I came into the pits. I did not think I had done enough. But as I went down the pit lane, Ross Brawn was saying 'it's looking good, it's looking good.' Then he said 'it's looking bloody good!'"
And bloody good it was, for the Ferrari team. As Schumacher pulled out of the pits, Hakkinen was still out of sight beyond the final turn: a four-second lead for Schumacher. And the track was still wet ...
Both leaders now encountered significant lapped traffic, so the gap stretched and shrank at times, but it stayed in the five-second range until the final few laps, when Hakkinen put on a furious final burst of speed - with Schumacher trying to ensure that he finished the race and claimed the championship.
At the final flag, Schumacher crossed the line 1.8 seconds ahead of the Finn, while a frenzied Ferrari pit crew waved and saluted their first World Champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979.
"I felt an outbreak of emotion as I crossed the line," reflected the three-time World Champion. "The conditions were difficult today and the season has had its ups and downs. It was great to finish with a win after a fight to the last corner, thanks to Mika.""
Oh yes, in the rest of the field, Coulthard and Barrichello finished 3-4, with Ralf Schumacher having blown another BMW engine, and they were followed by Jenson Button in the other Williams-BMW, and Jacques Villeneuve in a BAR-Honda.
But it was a day for only two drivers, two two-time World Champions, and on this day - and this season - it was Michael Schumacher, who demonstrated the superior skill, and justly claimed the Championship as his own.