The Italian championship dream is very much alive, after Michael Schumacher led home Rubens Barrichello
in an eventful United States Grand Prix.
The German's margin of victory on a damp-but-drying track was both more and less than could have been expected prior to the first American Formula One race for nine years, but helped to give him an eight-point cushion heading to the Orient and the season finales in Japan and Malaysia. Barrichello, too, had to rely on others to cement his second place, but at least on this occasion, it was from within his own team.
Schumacher's bid to lead from lights to flag was thwarted right from the off, but only by a suspiciously good start from the McLaren
of David Coulthard
starting alongside him on the front row. The German's fears about straddling the famous yard of bricks proved an irrelevance as, firstly, the front row was moved back to row two, and, then, Coulthard made a better than average getaway, as all but Johnny Herbert opted for wet-weather tyres to combat the greasy track and decidedly leaden skies..
Replays showed that the Scot had, indeed, begun to move before the lights had gone out but, at this point it mattered little. Having built up a small cushion over the rest of the field - which all made it through the tight opening corner sequence unscathed - Coulthard then allowed Schumacher to catch him, before bottling the Ferrari
up until team-mate Mika Hakkinen arrived in third place.
The Finn had made a good start, but had to fend off Rubens Barrichello
in the second Ferrari
at Turn One, dropping time to the two leaders. Coulthard's tactics, however, soon bunched the leading trio together again, before Schumacher muscled his way through at the start of lap seven. Hakkinen was then allowed through without too much opposition, as much because Coulthard had got the call to serve his stop-go penalty as in the interests of the championship, of course.
Almost as soon as he was through, however, Hakkinen disappeared, as McLaren
got wind of the pace being set by the early stoppers for slick rubber. A collision between Jarno Trulli
and Jenson Button
- at the time running in fifth and sixth - saw the Briton swap to the four-groove option, and almost immediately, he was lapping quicker than the front runners. Determined to steal a march over its rivals, McLaren
wasted no time in calling Hakkinen in from second, and handing Schumacher a sizeable lead.
With Coulthard making his penalty call on the very next lap - and then stopping again on nine for his move to slicks - and original fourth-place man Barrichello also having stopped, the German found himself over ten seconds to the good. Opting not to stop only increased this margin, as those behind filtered onto pit-road one-by-one, and Schumacher was 13secs up on Heinz-Harald Frentzen by lap ten.
As if to prove McLaren
wrong, Schumacher then set a handful of fastest laps, before Hakkinen again began to make a mark on the leaderboard. The Finn had found himself stuck, legitimately, behind the Minardi of Gaston Mazzacane and, with the track still damp off-line, could do nothing as Schumacher stretched away. By the time the German decided that his wets had had enough punishment, he was able to stop and rejoin still in top spot, and with a 16sec advantage to boot.
Now Hakkinen began his charge, setting a string of fastest laps with every one completed. Slowly but surely the gap between the two championship contenders came down until, by lap 24, Schumacher was just four seconds up the road. Hakkinen had succeeded in taking the lap record down from 1min 18.7 when he began to carve through the field, to 1min 15.7 when he made it into second place, but his recovery was beginning to take its toll. On lap 26, the Mercedes finally cried enough, showing flame under the engine cover as Hakkinen tried to coax it back to the pits - and retirement.