IMOLA, Italy -- Double world champion Michael Schumacher of Germany delivered another crushing demonstration of his and Ferrari's current superiority on Sunday when he completed a season-opening hat trick of victories in the San Marino Grand Prix.
The 31-year-old driver capitalized on his team's excellent strategy to move into the lead during a critical four laps following defending world champion Mika Hakkinen's second pit stop. Once ahead, he stayed there.
As he crossed the line ahead of Hakkinen, the huge crowd around Ferrari's home Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit erupted in a celebration of flag-waving rapture.
Schumacher won the previous two races this season in Australia and Brazil. His
success has made him the clear early-season favorite to win his third world title and Ferrari's first drivers crown in 21 years. Schumacher joined the Italian team in
He boosted his total of points to a perfect 30 after the first three races on this year's 17-race calendar and has a comfortable 21-point lead over his second- placed Ferrari teammate Brazilian Rubens Barrichello.
Schumacher leads Hakkinen by a commanding 24 points. Hakkinen, the defending world champion, earned his first points this season. The Finnish driver of McLaren Mercedes did not finish either previous Grands Prix.
"That's a hell of a gap, I know," said Hakkinen. "But at
least I finished. It is up to me to try and stay with Michael
now and try to win some races."
Hakkinen, whose McLaren was hampered by damage to its floor during the race, finished 1.1 seconds behind Schumacher. David Coulthard, Hakkinen's British teammate, placed third, 51 seconds behind the winner.
Rubens Barrichello, the newly signed Brazilian driver of Ferrari, finished fourth to complete a sensational day for the home team. Canadian Jacques Villeneve finished fifth after a superb drive for the BAR-Honda team and Finn Mika Salo was sixth for Sauber.
Schumacher took the lead at the end of the 44th lap as Hakkinen made his second pit stop. The Ferrari driver pitted for the second time with 14 laps left. He came out with a lead of 3.7 seconds over Hakkinen and stayed in front through the end of the 62-lap race.
It was Schumacher's 38th career win and his third at Imola in the last six years. A two-time world champion with Benetton, Schumacher is trying to give Ferrari its first world drivers title since 1979.
Schumacher, who made his usual joyous leap on the winners' podium, said he was delighted by his victory, particularly as he had left Ferrari fans disappointed on Saturday by failing to grab the pole position through a mistake of his own making.
"I promised myself I would do better today and I did so I am delighted for that reason and for the tifosi," said Schmacher who added that his start was as bad as his getaway at Suzuka in last year's Japanese Grand Prix.
He also said he nearly hit Pedro Diniz's Sauber during the race when the Brazilian braked unexpectedly to let him by. "I lost two seconds there and it was a very near thing," he said.
The race itself was mostly processional once Hakkinen had made a perfect getaway from his 24th pole position. But McLaren's tactics in bringing Hakkinen in for his second stop when he led Schumacher by only 2.6 seconds after 44 of the 62 laps left him vulnerable.
Schumacher cruised past and opened up a 22.5 seconds gap before pitting a second time himself and coming out in front. He stayed there to the delight of the massed fans and drove comfortably home to win.
|Michael Schumacher sprays Mika Hakkinen with champagne on the podium Sunday.|| |
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