Malaysia GP Preview

SCHUMACHER'S RETURN ADDS TO MYSTERY OF MALAYSIA INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 14, 1999 -- The surprise return of Michael Schumacher has added spice to the four-way championship battle in Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix. But Schumacher is not the only factor...

SCHUMACHER'S RETURN ADDS TO MYSTERY OF MALAYSIA

INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 14, 1999 -- The surprise return of Michael Schumacher has added spice to the four-way championship battle in Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix. But Schumacher is not the only factor that could affect the outcome of the first-ever Grand Prix in the Far East.

This the first time any of the Formula One drivers have raced on Malaysia's new state-of-the-art Sepang circuit, so both drivers and teams are facing the unknown. The weather will also almost certainly be a factor because, although the monsoon season does not start until next month, it has been raining almost daily at the track. The days are humid with temperatures in the 90-degree (30 C) range.

With two races, including this weekend's Grand Prix, to go in the Formula One World Championship, Mika Hakkinen leads the standings with 62 points while Eddie Irvine is second with 60 points. Heinz-Harald Frentzen has 50 points and David Coulthard has 48 points, and both are still in contention for the title.

Hakkinen can clinch the championship if he wins Sunday while Irvine finishes fifth or worse. To stay in contention, meanwhile, Frentzen needs to score three points more than Hakkinen, and Coulthard needs to score five points more than Hakkinen. (Points in F1 are awarded to the top six finishers: 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1.)

The Constructors Championship also has to be settled. West McLaren-Mercedes has 110 points while Ferrari has 102.

After missing seven races, Ferrari's Schumacher, who broke his leg in July, announced that he would compete in Malaysia just a week before practice was due to begin. He had changed his mind after saying just a few days earlier that he would sit out the rest of the season.

"I feel I can win the race," Schumacher said. "I feel very good inside, and I am sure that in qualifying I will be 100 percent. I don't know whether I am different from before.

"For sure, under certain race conditions it will be difficult for me if the race goes flat out from the first to the last lap. I will have to see myself how I am going to do in that situation. But still, car performance-wise, and in my own performance, I feel we have a good possibility to win here and to fight for the Constructors title, and even for the Drivers Championship, for Eddie, in the last two races."

Irvine believes the return of Schumacher will definitely help in the fight for both the Drivers and Constructors Championships.

"It's great, " Irvine said of Schumacher's comeback, "because we have been together and raced together for three-and-a-half years; working very well together. There is no question that (having him back) will help the team. "We each throw in lots of different ideas, and sometimes it's mine that is best and sometimes his," Irvine said. "We always go with whatever we think is going to be best, and there are always more ideas to throw into the pot.

From that aspect, it is going to be good -- plus, Michael's driving ability will always be a bonus to any team (that employs him)."

Said Schumacher: "I will do whatever I can to help Eddie as long as it is within the rules, not dangerous and not unfair."

But, Schumacher added, there is only so much he can do.

"I am driving for the team and not in the interests of Eddie," Schumacher said. "The only way I could help him would be if I was straight in front of him, then obviously I would let him by. That is very clear. But if that is not the case, then he has to manage by himself, and we will have to manage together to score maximum points for the Constructors Championship." To all of this, Hakkinen said, "I think Schumacher should have stayed home!" and then added, "Maybe Michael can help me instead (of Eddie)."

Actually, Hakkinen believes that his focus this weekend is Irvine and that the return of Schumacher doesn't really change the situation.

"It doesn't make much difference that he (Schumacher) is back," Hakkinen said.

"To score more points than Eddie is our mission here. Schumacher's return makes the end of the season more colorful, but I will approach this weekend in the normal way."

Irvine's strategy this weekend is to make sure he is still in contention for the crown at the season finale in Japan.

"My personal aim is to win the championship, in Japan," Irvine said. "So what happens here isn't really important as long as I win the title in Japan. It is difficult to say whether I am going to need three points here or 10: We must just do our best to take as many points as we can, then hope that I am in with a chance in Japan, where I hope to do it."

As for the other two championship contenders, Coulthard realizes he will probably have to play a support role to McLaren-Mercedes teammate Hakkinen, and Frentzen is just going to have fun in his B&H Jordan Mugen-Honda.

"Michael coming back spices up the championship," Coulthard said. "I know that I will have to drive for the team and help Mika. I do have personal aims for the race, but they are not the same as the team's aims. But like the rest of the team, I'd be upset if McLaren does not win the championship."

Said a relaxed Frentzen: "I'm not saying I'm going to win the championship. I'm just going to enjoy the situation because I don't have any pressure, so I can just go flat out. Michael (Schumacher) is a bigger challenge than (Mika) Salo was in the Ferrari because Michael has so much more experience than Salo, and he and Eddie make a strong team."

The F1 cars will get their first taste of the new 3.443-mile (5.542-km) Sepang circuit, located 35 miles (60 km) south of Kuala Lumpur, when practice begins Friday morning.

"I expect it to be a challenge for all the teams and drivers because we have never raced here before," Hakkinen said, "and because there hasn't been an extra day of practice. It looks like a great circuit, and considering that it is brand new it is (good to see) that it hasn't been designed to be just chicanes and tight corners. It is a combination of high-speed and tight corners. I think it is a fabulous track -- they have done brilliant work here."

Rain on Sunday will likely play a role in the outcome of both the race and the championship battle.

Johnny Herbert scored Stewart-Ford's first Grand Prix victory in a wet and wild race at the recent European Grand Prix. Other drivers who made driving or strategic mistakes helped him. Can he repeat if it rains in Malaysia on race day?

"That could happen again here if it rains in the race," Herbert said, "but I could do something wrong, as well. If it rains every day this weekend, we will have a really good idea of how quickly the track dries. That is the important thing when it comes to tire choice."

FORMULA ONE NOTEBOOK

Where to watch: Television viewers in the U.S. can watch the Malaysian Grand Prix live on SpeedVision at 1:30 a.m. (EDT) Oct. 17. Fox Sports Net will air the race tape-delayed at 10 a.m. or noon on Oct. 17 in most time zones; check local listings. SpeedVision will show qualifying live at 1 a.m. (EDT) Oct. 16.

Schumacher's comeback: Just five days after saying that he would sit out the rest of the season to recuperate from breaking his leg in July, Michael Schumacher decided to race in the final two Grands Prix of the season. "I took the decision (not to race) too early," Schumacher said. "I said after my checkup by the doctors, 'No, I am not going to race because I am not pain-free. I am not able to train as I want to train.' "But the team asked me whether I was able to do testing. So I said I believed that there should be no problem in doing five laps, then another five laps, so I would do testing if they wanted. And while I was testing ... I felt completely different. I was driving without pain and feeling very comfortable. I wanted to be very sure about that decision, which is why I asked the team for further testing."

Computer predictions: While the teams have never tested on the new 3.443-mile (5.542-km) Sepang circuit, they have already been around the track via computer models.

The teams will use similar methods before heading to the new road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis on Sept. 24, 2000.

"We use a very detailed circuit maps to predict the driving line," said Mike Gascoyne, technical director at B&H Jordan Mugen-Honda. "We know the optimum level of downforce and with that downforce we can find speeds at each point on the track and then optimize gear ratios."

Get together: Team Minardi and the Spanish communications company Telefonica have announced that they will form a partnership.

Malaysian Grand Prix Fast Facts

Date: Sunday, Oct. 17 Race: Fifteenth of 16 on 1999 schedule Venue: Sepang, Kuala Lumpur Circuit length: 3.443 miles, 5.542 km Race length: 56 laps On TV: Race (live) - 1:30 a.m. (EDT) Oct. 17, SpeedVision. (Tape-delayed) - Oct. 17; 10 a.m. or noon in most time zones, check local listings, FOX Sports Net. Qualifying (live) - 1 a.m. (EDT) Oct. 16, SpeedVision. Points leader: Mika Hakkinen, McLaren-Mercedes Previous winners: New race

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Eddie Irvine , Johnny Herbert , Michael Schumacher , Heinz-Harald Frentzen , David Coulthard , Mika Hakkinen , Mike Gascoyne
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , McLaren , Minardi , Jordan