All of the cars at the start of the race were on the super-soft tyres, except for the McLaren of HÃ¤kkinen. But the major talk of the week - let alone the weekend - was the return of Michael Schumacher, and the threat of rain storms. The former...
All of the cars at the start of the race were on the super-soft tyres, except for the McLaren of Häkkinen. But the major talk of the week - let alone the weekend - was the return of Michael Schumacher, and the threat of rain storms. The former resulted in much talk of whether the German could do a full race distance, and whether he would be on top form. The latter was that the forecast was for an 85% chance of rain.
As the cars went on the warm-up lap, it was already over for Jarno Trulli, who's Peugeot engine locked solid, and caused the Prost to skid to a premature halt. The rest of the grid got to the line, and got away well. It was, however, a very short race for Hill, who was nerfed by the Benetton of Fisichella. The Benetton made a lengthy pit stop and rejoined, whilst Hill can now only hope for a better race in Japan. At the front, Michael Schumacher defied the sceptics, and took the lead from the outset, and by the end of the first lap, he had 1.7 seconds over Irvine. By the end of lap 2 it was 3.2 seconds... The German had clearly not lost his touch.
The Williams of Zanardi was in very early. Of the early chargers, most notable was the move of Gene from 19th on the grid to 12th by the end of lap 1, and Badoer from 21st to 15th. In the last race or two the Minardi's have started to come good. On lap 3, after proving what he could do, Schumacher dropped back, and let Irvine through. Schumacher now played the team game, and started to hold up the McLaren of Coulthard who was third. Coulthard pushed extremely hard, and almost nerfed Schumacher as he forced his way through to second, leaving Schumacher to hold up Hakkinen. Which he did very well. Hakkinen tried many times, but failed to by.
Irvine and Coulthard pulled out at the front, whilst the gap to Schumacher got bigger. The German wasn't having a problem going fast, quite the opposite, but he was doing the job requested by Ferrari - that of trying to stop the Finn from getting many points. The race was over pretty quickly for Zonta and Takagi - both retiring on lap 7, along with Ralf Schumacher who over did it and spun off.
For lap after lap, Coulthard pushed Irvine hard, but failed to get by. Further back, Hakkinen pushed Schumacher, but eventually dropped back a bit, and decided to not push it too far. At the end of lap 15, Coulthard's car started to fail, and he pulled off on the pit straight. He later said that he thought it was some sort of electrics failure. Further down the pack, Wurz was running in 6th, and Alesi was close behind in 7th, and pushing very, very hard. This was one of the best races we have seen from Alesi in a while.
Back at the front, Schumacher was forcing Hakkinen backwards, and into the path of Barrichello and Herbert. The gap from Irvine was now some 8 seconds, and Herbert was now only 2 seconds behind the Finn. The pit stops started, and of the leading trio, it was Eddie who pitted first, rejoining in 4th place, once Hakkinen and Schumacher had made their stops, it was situation normal, with Irvine, Schumacher and Hakkinen making up the top three, with Barrichello 4th, Herbert 5th and Frentzen in 6th - but yet to stop. The top 12 was made up with Alesi, Wurz, Villeneuve, Diniz, Gene and de la Rosa.
By lap 35, Schumacher had lengthened the gap to Irvine to some 12.5 seconds, with Hakkinen very close behind. Hakkinen appeared unable to do anything about the Ferrari in front of him, despite having the legs of it. The next bit of excitement was the BAR doing a quick Zebedee impression, bouncing across the gravel traps, but managing to rejoin the race.
The second round of pit stops soon came around, and Irvine pitted in 6.7 seconds and onto scrubbed tyres, and rejoined third. Alesi and Fisichella also pitted as well. The McLaren crew soon came out, and in came Hakkinen who lost 2 places, and rejoined behind the Stewart of Herbert. The top 6 was now Schumacher, Irvine, Herbert, Hakkinen, Barrichello and Frentzen. Hakkinen was pushing Herbert very hard for third place, and was determined to wrest it from him. Villeneuve retired from the race with a poorly BAR - the chances of the team scoring a point, and saving themselves from the embarrassment of last place in the championship now looks increasingly unlikely.
On lap 51, Schumacher started to drop back again, and let Irvine past into the lead. The two Ferrari's then went around in formation for lap after lap. The German had clearly lost none of his speed, and the doubts he had over his fitness were clearly over played. On lap 54, Hakkinen managed to find his way past Herbert and into third place, whilst Frentzen had a late burst chasing the Stewart of Barrichello for 5th. The Jordan driver didn't quite manage it, and the race finished with his still in 6th.
At the end of the race, Ron Dennis was interviewed, and had a couple of things he was not happy with. He said he wasn't pleased with the team tactics at Ferrari, and commented on how bald the tyres on the Ferrari's were. Expect a protest on the result.
- Stephen M Baines <firstname.lastname@example.org>