THE only thing Michael Schumacher did not do to ruin the party was to go round to the McLaren motorhome and puncture the balloons put up to celebrate the team's 500th grand prix appearance. Alongside the Ferrari driver at the front of the grid for the Canadian Grand Prix, David Coulthard, of McLaren, was in predatory mood and brimming with confidence.
But the Scot, disqualified from second place in Brazil six races ago, yet again found his world championship challenge floundering on the rock of Formula One's rulebook, while his German rival sped to an unchallenged fifth victory of the season. To rub salt into the wounds of defeat, Ferrari brought Rubens Barrichello home in second place.
So, a Ferrari one-two and a 22-point championship gap between Schumacher and Coulthard, who finished seventh. Mika Hakkinen, Coulthard's team-mate, made little impression and came home fourth behind Giancarlo Fisichella, of Benetton.
But the tragedy for the 100,000 spectators and worldwide viewing audience is that they were robbed of a potentially epic confrontation between Schumacher and Coulthard.
In attempting to edge his car forward on the grid just before the start of the parade lap, the Scot stalled his engine. He frantically waved his pit crew back on to the grid to get him restarted, otherwise he would have had to start from the back of the field of 22 cars.
Even as Schumacher let out his clutch, and tyres all around the McLaren Mercedes smoked as they gripped the track, Coulthard's crew were struggling with his car. Just as the grid started to pull away, the McLaren's engine burst into life and Coulthard's mechanics scurried for safety. It seemed that Britain's best hope was safely in the race.
But the race stewards judged that his mechanics should not have been working when the grid was ready to move off and imposed a ten-second stop-go penalty. In that instant the Canadian Grand Prix lost the chance of a thrilling duel.
Coulthard acknowledged his mistake but appealed to the Formula One authorities to allow for flexibility in rules. "I know the stewards have to stick to the letter of the law but this needed the spirit of the law to be applied," he said. "The spectators were deprived of a thrilling race because I believed I could win. It is really disappointing because I felt ready for this race."
Coulthard is in the middle of a rich vein of form and knew that the predicted rain would gave him the chance he craves to take on Schumacher in a straight fight. From the start, he kept his cool and was content to follow Schumacher, but Mika Hakkinen, his team-mate, was swallowed up in the melee as the field swarmed towards the first corner.
Hakkinen got away securely and ahead of the Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello but if he thought he was safe from attack, he was wrong. Jacques Villeneuve charged up his inside in his BAR-Honda and took the quickest line into the second turn; so surprised was Hakkinen that he was also passed by Barrichello.
Crucially, though, Villeneuve's start was fast but his car is relatively slow and he became a mobile roadblock between the ultra-fast duos of Barrichello and Hakkinen and Coulthard and Schumacher, who were pulling away at the rate of a second-a-lap.
By lap 10, they were 14 seconds ahead but what Coulthard could not see was the marshal running to the McLaren garage with notification of the ten-second penalty. As soon as the news was delivered on lap 14, Coulthard posted a fastest lap of the race whilst he acknowledged that his challenge was effectively over. He emerged from the pits in tenth place.
The British misery did not end there, though. Jenson Button struggled to finish eleventh while Jaguar endured another poor weekend. Johnny Herbert suffered transmission failure after 14 laps and Eddie Irvine finished last - three laps adrift of the leaders.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2000