He might have won two World Championships previously, but Michael Schumacher has never celebrated so joyfully as he did after winning at Suzuka. His defeat of Mika Hakkinen gave Ferrari its first drivers' title since 1979, and sent a whole nation into rapture.
It's not surprising that Schumacher has his detractors. To them he is a racing machine with a heart of stone, ready to barge his rivals off the track if they try to beat him - especially in a title fight. Remember Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994 or his collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in '97?
But he also has his fans. To them he is a supreme racer who never ceases to look happy when he wins - even if his 'air guitar'-style podium leap looks a little too contrived. Since '96 he has given up much easier options to bring the world championship back to Maranello. After the trials and tribulations, not to mention his broken leg from the middle of last season, Y2K was his and Ferrari's at last.
Suzuka was a race created for Schuey's micro-surgeon touch and deftness. It rained with varying intensity from the middle of the race to the end, which played into the German's hands after he made an appalling start from pole. After swapping positions at the first round of stops, it wasn't until Schumacher's second halt for fuel and tyres on lap 40, three laps later than his Finnish rival, that it became evident the title was won.
"As we saw Mika going in for his second stop we knew that we had a couple more laps to go," explained Schumacher. "And we knew these were the crucial laps. The problem was I had traffic, and I wouldn't say it was too easy to pass them, so it cost me a little bit of time. And when I entered the pits there was this Benetton [Alex Wurz] spinning in front of me and moving backwards, and I didn't know where he was going to go. So I thought it isn't enough, simply. I wasn't really thinking that I was going as fast as I should have done, and as I came out Ross kept me updated saying 'it's looking good, it's looking good' down the pitlane. Then he said: 'It's looking bloody good!'"
The TV camera sited at the first corner told the story. As Hakkinen hove into view in the distance, Schumacher zipped out of the pits in the foreground with a handy cushion that he was able to maintain until the end, despite a frantic charge from Hakkinen.
A fitting end to a fantastic, and hugely sporting, fight.
WHAT THEY SAID...
Michael Schumacher: "Mika is a really good guy. I have seen many drivers who have been completely different, trying to complain, trying to make things bad. Mika is great and fair and the best man I have been fighting. I hope we have some good years together."
Mika Hakkinen: "I've got silver, which isn't too bad bad when you've won it twice. I don't want to spoil Michael's great year by saying I feel sad. This is what racing is all about. I was trying like crazy...perhaps next year will be my turn."
Jean Alesi: "It is like when you are a fan of a football team and they win the Cup. I really felt something special and I am really pleased for all of them at Ferrari."
Eddie Jordan: "I don't think there's anyone out there who doesn't believe he deserves it. What happened was nothing short of phenomenal - two drivers slogging it out in the fairest and most sporting fashion. There is a lot of talent left in Michael Schumacher."
Ralf Schumacher: "Since Indianapolis [the previous round] he has been in a good mood and confident of getting the job done. We told him he had to finish it here or we would kick his arse!"
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