Michael Schumacher was trying desperately to make a left on Sunday as he entered the East Terrace turn at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, but he wound up making three quick moves that led him straight to the Formula One world championship. First he went right, into a concrete wall just off the course; then left, swinging his Benetton-Ford back across the track; then right again, into the front wheel of his archrival, Damon Hill, who had shadowed him for 35 laps and was poised to pass him.
Hill, a Brit who's the son of two-time F/1 champion Graham Hill, realized that if he could sneak by, he would be world champion, so he dived to the inside as Schumacher veered left. "I saw the opening and thought, I've got to go here," Hill said afterward. "But it didn't happen." Schumacher abruptly shut the door with that last right, bending the front suspension on Hill's Williams- Renault and nearly flipping his Benetton.
While Hill was able to drive on, Schumacher had to abandon his car and wonder if he had lost the championship. Coming into this final race of the year, he led Hill 92-91 in the drivers' point standings and needed only to finish ahead of him to become, at 25, the youngest champion since Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972. What Schumacher didn't know was that Hill had made it only as far as the pit area, where he parked his car for the day. "I waited, and he didn't appear," Schumacher said. "I waited some more. It seemed the longest moments of my life. It took awhile for me to believe I'd won, but then I got back to the pits, and everyone was crying."
The crying game in the F/1 pits had begun eight months earlier, as Schumacher won six of the first seven races of the season. There was grumbling throughout the year that his car was working a little too well. Opposing teams accused Benetton of hiding launch-control software in the computer system of the car (thus accounting for his rocket starts), of tinkering with a refueling nozzle to increase flow and of shaving a wood plank under the car so thin that it give him an aerodynamic advantage. He was disqualified hours after winning the Belgian Grand Prix when officials discovered the irregular plank.
The Benetton team denied having tampered with the car's computer or the refueling nozzle. But after Schumacher ignored a black flag during the British Grand Prix, he was disqualified and slapped with a two-race suspension. While he was away, Hill won twice and closed the gap in the point standings. Schumacher returned to competition on Oct. 16, at the European Grand Prix, and won. At the next race, in Japan, Hill edged him at the finish. And so, the two men who had taken a scuba diving vacation together before last year's race came to Adelaide this time at sword's point.
Schumacher, who blamed Hill for what he felt was rumor-mongering about the alleged cheating, had said in Japan that he didn't respect him. On Sunday, he admitted he had "underestimated" Hill. "It was a great battle," he said. "I think I deserved to win the championship. I would have preferred to win it by winning the race. But that's the way it was."