Schumacher takes dramatic pole

If today's qualifying session is anything to go by, the Japanese Grand Prix will be Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen's most titanic battle yet

Schumacher takes dramatic pole

Schumacher secured pole after a thrilling session at Suzuka, but his advantage over Hakkinen was just 0.009s.

The pair swapped the advantage between them with every run. Schumacher struck first, deposing early polesitter David Coulthard and shading Hakkinen's effort by 0.074s.

Hakkinen's second run put him 0.077s ahead of his rival, only for the points leader to respond with a lap a further 0.1s faster. Hakkinen dug deep and squeezed another tenth out of his McLaren to then go 0.074s faster than Schumacher.

With only three minutes remaining, Schumacher's final run was just enough to seal what could be a crucial pole position. The German was 0.009s quicker than his Finnish adversary and this time Hakkinen was unable to fight back, his final lap not good enough to pip Schumacher. The latter only needs to finish second to Hakkinen in the final two races to clinch his third world title, but after qualifying he said he was looking to settle the issue with victory tomorrow.

"You always want the best opportunity to win the race and pole position is the best position to start from," he said. "Our target is to win the race and take the championship here. This is the first step towards that, but it's not finished yet."

Hakkinen needs to win in Suzuka to stand a realistic chance of beating Schumacher to the crown and was frustrated to have missed out on pole by such a small margin.

"Basically I'm disappointed," he admitted. "My last run was pretty good but in the last chicane I wasn't able to accelerate as early as I wanted to."

Coulthard edged closer to the top two throughout the session and will start from the inside of row two, a spot he reckons is "the best seat in the house to watch the title battle."

He is alongside Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello, who was only 0.5s off pole despite arriving at Spoon curve backwards on his second run.

Jenson Button maintained his practice form to take fifth, joined on the third row by his Williams-BMW team-mate Ralf Schumacher.

It was also a good day for Jaguar, as the team got both its cars into the top ten for the first time: Eddie Irvine will start seventh, Johnny Herbert tenth.

Jordan had a mediocre session, Heinz-Harald Frentzen salvaging eighth but Jarno Trulli having to be content with 15th. There was also mild disappointment for BAR-Honda, Jacques Villeneuve only ninth quickest on the engine manufacturer's home ground.

However, tomorrow all this will become a mere sideshow as the Schumacher-Hakkinen battle takes star billing. The Ferrari driver may have ended qualifying on top, but he had to fight for every tenth of a second. Now the pressure is on Hakkinen, with the Finn knowing that if they finish in the order that they qualified, Schumacher will be crowned champion. With Coulthard and Barrichello well placed to help their team-mates, two Williams-BMWs ready to pounce on any slips by the fancied frontrunners and rain a possibility for tomorrow's race, the Japanese Grand Prix should be one of the most memorable races yet in this already incredible season.

Click here for full qualifying results.

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Hakkinen sets pace in final practice

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