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Hakkinen cruises as shunt sinks Schumacher.

Barrichello was able to despatch Button, Herbert and Salo in short order once he had got used to the new state of the Ferrari, but de la Rosa was another matter entirely. Arrows and Ferrari lapped at roughly the same pace for the first half of the race, and it looked, for a long time, as though Rubens was going to have to settle for fourth.

Having proved that its speed was genuine, and not the product of an artificial fuel load, however, the orange-and-black began to puff smoke. With the crew already waiting in pit-lane for its one scheduled stop, de la Rosa came in, but it was obvious from the body language of all concerned that the Arrows was going no further.

With the top three now set, barring mishaps, focus began to fall on the still closely fought battle at the lower end of the points. Salo, Herbert and Button all proved evenly matched, with the usual problem of overtaking preventing anyone from making a definitive move. The prevarication, however, allowed the recovering Villeneuve to slowly inch up on the group, so that he was perfectly poised to strike at the pit-stops.

All four drivers went well beyond half-way before calling in for fuel and tyres and, perhaps predictably, it was Herbert who came out the other side with the biggest losses. The Englishman had run comfortably in fifth spot for most of his opening stint, and rejoined immediately behind Salo after both had stopped. Sadly for both, however, BAR and Williams pulled off blinding changes to propel their men ahead once the order had settled itself again. Gene maintained an impressive eighth, ahead of local hero Alex Wurz, with the penalised Diniz making his own way to the finish.

From there on in, it was as you were, with Villeneuve and Button easing away while Herbert tried manfully to find a way around the Sauber. Button caused a little late excitement when he left the road, traversed the gravel and narrowly missed the tyres, but rejoined without losing a place to either of his rivals.

At this point, the front two had slowed their pace to match the threat of Barrichello in third, and were in no hurry to end their dominance. Coulthard was the first to blink, deciding to put in a couple of fliers to ease the tedium, and netting himself the honour of fastest lap in the process, but it was largely processional over the closing stages.

The Jordan challenge was done by lap four, when gearbox failure and a lurid trip through the gravel added Heinz-Harald Frentzen's name to that of team-mate Trulli on the retirement list. Ralf Schumacher was an early pit caller to have his front wing replaced after having nowhere to go at the first corner, and Zonta, the only other man to have shown a shred of pace, was forced to make a penalty call for his part in the fracas. He would soldier on towards a top ten finish, but was let down by his Honda, which grenaded in the biggest possible way.

If the Japanese company thought that was embarrassing, however, it would have been grateful for having no association with the Prost team. Amid rumours that its eponymous owner was in the closing stages of negotiation to sell to a Canadian consortium, drivers Jean Alesi and Nick Heidfeld contrived to take each other into the turn one gravel trap on the 31st lap - something that will inevitably lead to even greater tension in the troubled French camp for the remainder of the season.

Things are obviously less so in the land of silver and grey, as McLaren's second successive one-two finish lifts it above rivals Ferrari in the constructors' series standings. Schumacher's non-finish - his third in four races - has allowed both Coulthard and Hakkinen to close in in the drivers' championship too, with just six and eight points separating the trio respectively.

Hockenheim in two weeks time was always likely to be a pivotal race for the season. Schumacher returns home on a losing streak, and will be desperate to turn it around, while McLaren - and Mercedes - will be turning up the wick that little bit more in front of its own home crowd. The A1-Ring might have produced a touch of boredom, but F1 doesn't.



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