8 October 2000
The gods smile on one of their own.
Michael Schumacher moved himself into the pantheon of triple world title winners at the Japanese Grand Prix, but it took a little help from above to let him through the door.
The German could have settled for second place at Suzuka, and still go to the final round in Malaysia knowing that a similar result would be enough to land the crown - Ferrari's first for 21 years - but he stated repeatedly that a win was the only option he was prepared to consider.
That looked distinctly unlikely right from the moment the lights went out, however, as, for the third year in succession, title rival Mika Hakkinen got the jump on the Ferrari. Despite Schumacher's best efforts to squeeze the Finn into the pit-lane exit, Hakkinen was away and clear by the first corner, and continued to make progress over the opening laps.
The McLaren's getaway was in doubt as the cars reformed on the grid, with wisps of blue smoke, and the first drops of fluid, emanating from under its rear bodywork, but there appeared to be nothing wrong with the car as the signal was given to go.
Indeed, there was nothing at all amiss as Hakkinen opened up a one-second advantage in the course of just two laps and, although Schumacher remained in touch for the first fifth of the race, it was to the detriment of the Ferrari's tyres, which quickly began to show signs of wear in the chase.
By lap ten, the gap had extended to almost two seconds, as Hakkinen slotted seamlessly into the sort of routine that had brought successive Japanese GP wins in 1998 and '99. Running at a tenth or two quicker than Schumacher, the only question remaining was whether a big enough advantage could be built up to overcome what was perceived to be a heavier Ferrari fuel load by the first round of pit-stops.
The question was rendered pointless when the two combatants - already some distance clear of the pack - pitted a lap apart, allowing Hakkinen to retain his lead when both stops had been completed. The gap now had crept close to three seconds, but it did not take long for the balance of power to change slightly.
Heavy cloud had hung over the Suzuka region from well before the morning warm-up and, although the track was dry when the grid formed, there threat of further rain was one that every team was taking seriously. On lap 28, the first signs that the conditions were changing became apparent, as Hakkinen's pace dropped slightly, and Schumacher inched closer with every tour.
Three laps after the first spots of moisture appeared, the gap had been slashed to just 0.8secs, and Hakkinen once again had the red peril looming large in his mirrors. The significance of the track conditions showed even more as, with the drizzle abating momentarily, Hakkinen was able to push his advantage back up over a second on the now drying surface. His break did not last for long, and the rain returned with increasing vengeance.
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