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Formula One Makes Indy Debut

Michael Schumacher spent part of a gloomy Sunday afternoon doing a little bit of daydreaming.

His reverie lulled the German driver into an uncharacteristic mistake, but Schumacher could smile and joke about it after overwhelming the field in winning the first Formula One race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and passing Mika Hakkinen for the series lead.

Schumacher won the first United States Grand Prix in 10 years going away despite spinning and driving through the infield grass on the new 2.606-mile, 13-turn road course just five laps from the end.

"I wasn't concentrating any more because I was just cruising," Schumacher said with a shrug and a grin. "The team kept asking me to go slower and slower, and I did. I just caught enough grass that it spun me around. These things do happen when you don't concentrate properly."

Asked what his Ferrari team said after he lost nearly half of a 26.6-second lead over teammate Rubens BARrichello with the 360-degree spin, Schumacher replied: "They mentioned I should keep my concentration. I said, `Don't worry, I'm awake now."'

So were the more than 200,000 spectators the biggest crowd in F1 history who had quieted down after a raucous beginning.

It didn't take long for Schumacher, a two-time Formula One champion, to regain his stride as he went on to beat BARrichello by 12.118 seconds for his second straight victory and seventh of the season as many in the huge crowd cheered wildly and red Ferrari flags popped up all around the circuit.

Schumacher's 42 career wins put him one in front of the late Ayrton Senna and just nine behind all-time leader Alain Prost. More important, it gave him 10 more points and put Schumacher in control of his own destiny as he tries to become the first Ferrari driver to win a world title since Jody Scheckter in 1979.

Hakkinen's narrow lead in the championship went up in the flames from his expiring engine just 26 laps into the 73-lap event. The Finn failed to finish for only the third time in 15 races this season and now trils Schumacher by eight points with two events remaining.

"Eight points mathematically still leaves things open, although it's still a good advantage," Schumacher said. "I'll start believing in the championship when it's over, not before."

Hakkinen, the two-time defending champion, began the day with a two-point lead over Schumacher. He started third and was running second, cutting a lead of more than 16 seconds down to just over four before his Mercedes engine began spewing flames and smoke and he drove slowly to the pit lane.

"It looks like the engine just failed," the taciturn Hakkinen said. "What caused that failure, I don't know. I think I could have won it. I was gaining every segment. I was really good."

As for the tense championship duel with Schumacher, Hakkinen said, "It's going to be very, very difficult now. But it's going to be a fight to the end. This race is not over yet."

The Jordan of Heinz Harald Frentzen of Austria finished a distant third, followed by the BAR-Honda of Jacques Villeneuve of Canada, the only driver in the 22-car field with previous experience at Indy.

Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 on the historic 2.5-mile oval, only a small portion of which is used in the road course configuration.

David Coulthard, Hakkinen's McLaren teammate, took the lead at the start but was later penalized for jumping the green light. Before he came in for the 10-second stop-and-go on lap eight, though, Coulthard appeared to be holding up Schumacher as Hakkinen closed in behind the Ferrari driver.

On lap seven, Schumacher, who began the race from the pole, made a spectacular pass of the Scot, going around Coulthard on the outside on the long, fast main straightaway. The two touched lightly as Schumacher squeezed past entering the first turn.

Schumacher had no complaint about Coulthard slowing him down, but he wasn't happy about what took place during the pass.

"He is not really in the championship," Schumacher said of Coulthard, who is out of the title picture in third, 25 points behind. "He tried a bit too much in my view. He just pushed me wide and touched me."

Coulthard slipped back to 16th after taking his penalty. But he was able to salvage a fifth-place finish. The final championship point went to Villeneuve's BAR-Honda teammate Riccardo Zonta, who finished sixth, just ahead of Jaguar Racing's Eddie Irvine, the last driver on the lead lap.

With the track still damp after morning rain, all the drivers began the race on rain tires. The track dried fast, though, and all the competitors began trickling into the pits for dry tires after the fifth lap.

Schumacher remained on the track, lengthening his lead. By the time he made his tire stop on lap 16 the last driver to do so Schumacher had built a lead of more than 43 seconds. After the stop, he still led Hakkinen by 16.3 seconds.

Despite threatening clouds, the rain never returned and, other than his spin, Schumacher was in control the rest of the way.

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