Japan 1998 - one to forget for Schumacher 08 Oct 2003
Michael Schumacher may choose to put the 1998 Japanese Grand Prix out of his mind this weekend. He started the race with a good chance of the title. However, while he failed to finish, victory went to a flying Finn at the wheel of a McLaren. Mika Hakkinen was crowned world champion.
The arch rivals headed to Suzuka with Hakkinen holding a four-point advantage at the top of the driver standings. The pair had been in a class of their own all season, winning all but two races. It was Hakkinen who held the form, though, having out-driven Schumacher for victory in the previous round at the Nurburgring.
The battle immediately resumed in qualifying in Japan, with Schumacher edging Hakkinen for pole by less than two tenths of a second. David Coulthard qualified third for McLaren, well over a second behind Schumacher, while Eddie Irvine was fourth, almost two seconds adrift of his Ferrari team mate.
As the cars formed on the grid on Sunday, it seemed the entire field was on edge. Jarno Trulli caused one aborted start when he stalled his Prost. Then, amazingly, Schumacher did the same, forcing him to move to the back of the pack. The field got away cleanly at the third attempt, but the German knew he had a mountain to climb.
He instantly set about the task, making up a staggering ten places in the opening lap alone, with Hakkinen leading from Irvine at the front. Schumacher's charge quickly continued as far as seventh, but was then halted by the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve. Unable to find a way past the still reigning champion, Schumacher could only watch as leader Hakkinen moved away into the distance.
However, Schumacher refused to give up. As the frontrunners began to pit, he put in a series of stunning laps to lift himself to third place behind team mate Irvine. But then, just as he looked to be back in contention, disaster struck. Schumacher's tyres had picked up debris from an accident between two backmarkers and on lap 31 his right-rear exploded, ending his title hopes.
Hakkinen, safe in the knowledge that he was champion, managed to put his celebrations on hold long enough to bring his McLaren home six seconds clear of Irvine. Coulthard was a distant third, with Jordan's Damon Hill winning a tense battle with Williams' Heinz-Harald Frentzen to snatch fourth at the very last corner.
This year Schumacher may only need a single point from Suzuka, but he knows from experience how easily things can slip away. Substitute one Finn for another and a repeat performance of 1998 in Japan on Sunday would make Kimi Raikkonen the youngest champion in Formula One history.