Modern Times

So the Championship goes to the final round: down, as journalists are fond of saying, to the wire. In the Luxembourg Grand Prix, in Michael Schumacher's back yard and in front of his adoring fans, Mika Hakkinen produced the race of his life. This seesaw season swung again, and set the scene for a Suzuka show-down.

Which is, of course, a major relief to the Japanese organisers, to TV moguls around the world, and to Bernie Ecclestone. If Hakkinen had won at the 'Ring and Schumacher had failed to score, the Finn would have been crowned there and then. As it is the world holds its breath until November 1, and will set its alarm clocks to share what Suzuka brings.

It hasn't always been like this. In 1992 Nigel Mansell was crowned in Hungary, with five races and three months still to go. Various systems have been tried to keep the result open to the end, and in the 1950s only your four best scores counted, out of eight or nine rounds. So if you won four races and set fastest lap in each, you could score a maximum (as Ascari did in 1952). Between 1985 and 1990 you could only count your best 11 scores out of 16 races. In 1979 it was even more complicated, with the best four scores from the first half of the season and the best four from the second half. Such permutations bewildered the average TV audience, and since 1991 every point in every race has counted.

Titles decided by the last race tend to be memorable ones. In the final 1958 round in Morocco, Stirling Moss had to win and set fastest lap to be a champion. Even then Mike Hawthorn could still take the title if he finished second. Moss did all that was required: Hawthorn, meanwhile, ran a distant third behind his Ferrari team-mate Phil Hill until the American got the signal to slow and Hawthorn took the title by one point. In 1962 it was Graham Hill's BRM versus Jimmy Clark's Lotus in the South African GP: that year the final race didn't happen until the Saturday after Christmas. Clark led until an oil leak handed the race and the title to Hill.

In 1964 three drivers went to the final round in Mexico with a title chance. John Surtees took it for Ferrari after Clark had another oil leak, and Hill was conveniently hit from behind by Bandini's Ferrari. The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix has gone into F1 lore. Niki Lauda withdrew after two laps, refusing to race in the dreadful conditions, and James Hunt scraped into fourth place to win the title by one point. Less often quoted is Lauda's achievement at Estoril in 1984. He needed second place to take the title by half a point, and from 13th at the start he came through brilliantly to get it.

Whatever happens in Japan, 1998 will be remembered for the McLaren/ Ferrari duel. Which is as it should be: the best sporting battles end up as one man against one man, one team against one team. But back in March, after McLaren's crushing one-two in Melbourne, you wouldn't have put money on the title race lasting past Spa. By the end of May, Hakkinen had almost double Schumacher's points. Then Michael won three on the trot, only for Mika to take the next two, and at Hockenheim Ferrari were embarrassingly off the pace. Then the see-saw moved again. Schumacher's win in Hungary was a masterpiece of strategy and sustained speed; he would have won Spa by miles had he not collided with Coulthard; and at Monza helped, it must be said, by a bad bout of McLaren unreliability he went from pole to victory. And when we gathered in the Nurburgring press room for Saturday's post-qualifying conference, the seesaw still seemed to be firmly up for Maranello, down for Woking.

Not only had Michael sent the heaving, cheering crowd of red caps and yellow flags delirious with delight by taking an untouchable pole position: Eddie Irvine, in one of the two best minutes of his career, had joined him on the front row. The McLarens were humiliated in third and fifth places, and in the press room the body language told the story. Schumacher, head up, chin out, hair neat, positively glowed with confidence. Irvine was grinning at McLaren's discomfiture. Hakkinen's shoulders were slumped, beads of sweat dripping down his face from the root of his unkempt hair. And yet: the rueful half-grin when Mika said they had work to do showed the fighter still coiled inside, ready to spring from this setback.

As we saw, come the race, in a blinding drive. With the Ferraris first and second, and Schumacher building his lead while Irvine held back the pursuit, it seemed all over. But the seesaw was getting ready to tip again.

The Nurburgring race is a two stopper. McLaren reasoned that with Hakkinen starting behind the Ferraris, the key would be when Schumacher had his first stop. If Mika could race on with a clear road and, light on fuel, be devastatingly quick at this point, he might just be able to build up enough cushion to make his own stop and get out ahead of Schumacher. McLaren was learning the lesson of Ferrari's Hungary victory. But to make it work, Hakkinen first had to get ahead of Irvine. With the championship poised as it was, this needed a neat, confident move, or he could end up off the road minus a wheel or two. Patiently, he stalked, then pounced: from well back, an unanswerable charge into the chicane.

Then the McLaren started to fly. The gap between the leading Ferrari and the second-placed McLaren shrank nearly ending in disaster when the Finn, on the absolute limit, had a big sideways moment under braking for the chicane. Somehow Mika gathered it all up and pressed on, consistently lapping faster and faster. At one-third distance, as the Ferrari pit gave Schumi the 'In' board, the gap was less than five seconds. Schumacher's stop went well, and 8.6 seconds later he was under way again, with fresh tyres - he'd complained on the radio of oversteer on the first set - and fuel. Now Hakkinen, thinking and driving like Schumacher, gave his all. With light tanks and his Bridgestones holding up well, he put in four blistering laps before stopping himself. After 8.7 seconds he was off again, his thumb on the rev-limiter switch to keep under the pitlane speed limit, just as the Ferrari came barrelling out of the Coca-Cola Kurve.

It was one of the seminal moments of the season. Schumacher, to his astonishment, saw the McLaren rush out of the pit lane and swing across his bows to line up for the Castrol S. As they swung left then right through the third-gear sweep Hakkinen just hung on, and as his tyres warmed he eased away from the Ferrari.

He stayed ahead during the second stops; but Schumacher is not one to stop trying. The Ferrari was never far behind, and the margin at the flag was 2.2 seconds after 190 miles of racing. But the margin was also four points. At Suzuka that will mean a lot. Schumacher has to win; effectively, Hakkinen has to beat everyone else, but doesn't have to beat Schumacher.

But it's a long way from being over. Suzuka is a cold, bleak place in late autumn. The rain that would have helped Schumacher at the 'Ring is a frequent factor. And Eddie Irvine, having failed to hold off Hakkinen in Germany, is always brilliant there. It's where he served his racing apprenticeship, and scored a point in his first Grand Prix (earning the rage of Ayrton Senna for passing him in the wet). Last year he led, before °obediently moving aside for his No 1. If he can hold off Mika and finish second, he'll deliver the title to Michael.

Reliability could be a factor, too. As recently as Monza McLaren's race was ruined by a blown engine and severe braking problem. By contrast the Ferraris have been astonishingly reliable. In 30 starts this year they've had two mechanical failures: Irvine's transmission in Hungary and Schumacher's engine in Melbourne.

Recent history tells of last-round heartbreak (Mansell's 1986 puncture in Adelaide) and collision (Hill vs Schumacher in 1994 in Adelaide, Villeneuve vs Schumacher in 1997 in Jerez). There are further factors at Suzuka: it is Goodyear's last race, in Bridgestone's back yard. If Schumacher is champion, so is Goodyear; if it's Hakkinen it's Bridgestone. And if it's Schumacher, it's Ferrari, for the first time since Jody Scheckter was champion in 1979. Whatever happens, history will be made at Suzuka. Set your alarm...