Formula Won

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KATE NOBLEIn the high-octane world of Formula One racing, the name Scuderia Ferrari is turbo-charged. The team's bright red cars have been fueling the fantasies of motor sport fans for over 50 years. That's not just because of their success on the track--119 victories, more than any other team--but because they come in street versions too. If boy racers can't imagine what it would be like to drive a Williams to school or back a Jordan out of the driveway, they can easily picture themselves piloting a scarlet road Ferrari to the supermarket. Which is probably why the team has so many fans filling Grand Prix grandstands with Ferrari red flags and why the Prancing Horse logo adorns merchandise from Milan to Manila.On Nov. 1 scarlet flags will be waving at the Japanese city of Suzuka when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari lines up on the starting grid for the final race of the year. Reprising the nail-biting climax of last year's championship, the German driver has a good chance of bringing the Italian team its first world championship since 1979. Going into the final race Mika Hakkinen, the Finn who drives for Mercedes-McLaren, has a four-point lead for the title, which means that Schumacher, never beaten 'til he's beaten, has to win, with Hakkinen at least two places behind.The denouement of the season will thrill European fans and whet the appetites of the Asian aficionados who make up 60% of the 350-million-strong global television audience for each race. Next year there will be two more Asian contests, at circuits in Kuala Lumpur and the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai. Other Asian races could be added to the calendar in the future, especially if the European Union goes ahead with its proposed 2006 ban on the tobacco advertising on which most teams rely for sponsorship. Asian companies could extend their involvement in F1, following the success of Japanese firm Mugen Honda's relationship with the Jordan team, owned by Irishman Eddie Jordan, and the Malaysia state oil company Petronas' sponsorship of the Swiss-based Sauber team. The arrangements provide each company with a worldwide advertising platform.If Schumacher does snatch the championship at Suzuka, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo's 1995 decision to offer the driver a three-year contract (reportedly worth $30 million a year) will look inspired. The Italian team had languished championshipless in the pit-lane since the 1979 triumph of Jody Scheckter, despite using Ferrari's huge wealth to lure the best drivers to its headquarters in Maranello. Our culture is cars, says Di Montezemolo, and we were missing the culture that is specific to Formula One. Once Schumacher had gotten his foot on the Ferrari accelerator, he persuaded team manager Jean Todt to bring in technical director Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne, who had both worked with him at the Benetton team. Says Todt: It's always a package deal. The car, the tires, the team, the pilot. When we win, we win together.PAGE 1||
As a driver Schumacher often seems to have more than his share of good fortune, or maybe he rides his own luck. For attempting to sideswipe Jacques Villeneuve's Williams off the track in last year's final race at Jerez, Spain--in a desperate lunge to hold onto his lead and win a third world title--Schumacher lost his points for second place in the drivers' championship; that was effectively a non-punishment, as by then the points didn't make any difference. Many commentators felt he should have been suspended for the first three races of this season. While leading this year's British Grand Prix, he was instructed to take a 10-second stop-go penalty for ignoring a warning flag two-thirds into the race; however, he completed all but a few meters of the final lap before pulling into the pit lane. Because his garage was across the finish line he was given the race. Michael appears to be able to get away with anything, says Damon Hill, the 1996 champion. He seems to think there's a set of rules for him and another set for everyone else.Getting away with it is not hard for the driver recognized as the best in the business. Frank Williams, head of the eponymous team, says Michael is an exceptional driver. He is in class one, alone. Schumi, as he is known to his German fans, won back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995 with Benetton, where his unique talent stood out from the rest of the grid. Di Montezemolo is pleased to have secured his services for an additional three-year contract. I wouldn't like having him on another team, says the Ferrari president. He knows how to please the crowd with his attacking style. Schumi's victories have helped generate big F1 audiences in Germany, where fans' support for their hero is full-throated, even if dependent on success. As the weekly Die Woche recently commented: Schumacher has the unconditional admiration of his fan community--as long as he starts from pole position and crosses the finish line first.Which is just as well, because Schumacher is not only an extraordinary racer but also an exasperating human being. His ability to pull off victory against the odds, as he did in Argentina, Hungary and Monza this year, has to be balanced against a major disability, his chronic case of Humility Deficit Disorder. Schumacher often appears supercilious and arrogant, and sometimes simply blows his stack. Michael's unpopularity is in a way self-inflicted because he achieves some of his greatness by a very high level of self-belief, says McLaren boss Ron Dennis. But it is a very fine line between high levels of self-belief and arrogance.Arrogance is something that has never been associated with Hakkinen, who has been acknowledged as a top driver since joining McLaren in 1993. His maiden victory in last year's final Grand Prix in Jerez after 96 Formula One starts proved to be the kick-start the well-liked Flying Finn needed. A quiet, modest man whose idea of triumphalism is to undo the top of his coveralls, Hakkinen has shown ebullience only rarely, and then with grace and generosity. When teammate David Coulthard won the Australian Grand Prix in 1997, the team's first victory in three years, he was lifted off the ground in an enthusiastic Finnish bear hug. For his own first victory Hakkinen could manage only tears. Afterward he said: I didn't know where to look, what to hear, what to say. I was in another land, outer space. His continuing success is a tribute to what Dennis describes as his solid self-belief that is not easily shaken.|2|
From the start of the 1998 season, the McLarens came blasting off the grid, grabbing pole position in the first nine races and winning five of the opening six, with Hakkinen taking the checkered flag in four. The team looked capable of repeating its annus mirabilis of 1988, when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won 15 of the 16 races. The team that dominated the 1980s ceded supremacy to Williams in the early '90s as it developed its car around a new Mercedes engine. Often seen as coldly efficient, McLaren is a reflection of the passion of team principal Dennis, who views victory as the only acceptable result. Coming second, he says, is being the first of the losers. Even mid-season, when Ferrari cut McLaren's 22-point lead back to three points, Dennis wasn't concerned. Worried is an emotion, he says, and you are not better equipped to address a challenge by allowing yourself the luxury of emotion.Between them McLaren and Ferrari have won all but one of this season's races. After eight years and 127 outings Jordan finally reached the top of the podium, with drivers Damon Hill and Schumacher's younger brother Ralf taking first and second after pouring rain caused mayhem in Belgium. Though all the cars restarted after the biggest opening shunt on record, with 15 of the 22 starters splashing into each other, only eight cars were left running at the end. Sadly for Williams, reigning champion Villeneuve couldn't take advantage of the bad weather to improve on the team's tally of 103 Grand Prix victories. Though the car performed better as the season wore on, owner Williams is resigned to viewing 1998 as a magnificent year for learning.Schumacher and Hakkinen have been competing against each other since 1983, when they were both national junior go-kart champions. The last time they came head-to-head in a final decider was 1990's Formula Three championship in Macau. The first heat saw Hakkinen ahead by more than two-and-a-half seconds. He had only to hold a second place behind Schumacher in the second heat to win the title, but impetuosity got the better of him: he tried to overtake as the German driver ran wide on a corner. The cars touched, Hakkinen's was wrecked and Schumacher went on to take the championship. This time around, the Finn's maturity may hold out against Schumacher's determination. But his car may not.With reporting by Greg Burke/Maranello and Ursula Sautter/Bonn||3