Motor racing: Can Schumacher lift the shadow?

Derick Allsop believes Michael Schumacher can regain his reputation and the world title in the new F1 season which begins in Melbourne tomorrow
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The Independent Online
WHEN you are the best racing driver in the world and make a million pounds a week you would expect to have it cracked. Reassuringly for the rest of us, life has a way of spreading its blessings and ensuring no one has everything. Michael Schumacher is living proof.

Every driver will be under intense scrutiny as another World Championship begins in Australia tomorrow, but Schumacher will be watched, pursued and analysed as no other.

Not merely because he is the best and highest paid, but because he will be required to adhere to public demands of decency and fair play.

Schumacher professes himself unconcerned whether or not he is liked. He has acknowledged he made a mistake in causing that ill-starred collision with Jacques Villeneuve at the 1997 Grand Prix of Europe, but maintains it was not a deliberate foul act.

Furthermore, he contends, he has paid his dues, having been stripped of second place in the championship and his points, although not his wins from last year. Many question the punishment, and attitudes towards the 29-year-old German have hardened.

Schumacher claims the majority of fans are still with him and that his critics overlook his positive contribution to grand prix racing. "They don't wish to talk about my wins or any other achievements before the incident at Jerez," he says. "That is the disappointing part for me."

That seems also to contradict his insistence he is indifferent to public opinion. The fact is that he is more sensitive than he wishes to admit. He keeps tabs on his press, television and radio coverage around the world. He has potential interviewers screened and exploits his media platform whenever he needs to.

A confidant said: "Michael has been genuinely shocked by all the negative publicity he has had. He didn't realise it would cause such strong feelings against him. I think he and Ferrari misread that whole situation.

"If they had been more open and honest from the start and Michael had apologised and accepted the responsibility in Jerez it would not have been so bad. But he and the Ferrari people spent a lot of time deciding what they would say and in the end they made it worse."

In his self-consciousness, and so many other ways, Schumacher is very much like the late Ayrton Senna. He is not as emotional as the Brazilian but is driven by the same commitment and has achieved a similar standard in Formula One. He is the imperfect genius of the day.

Senna, too, would resort to desperate tactics to protect his status. He speared Alain Prost off the track in 1990 in an assault far more violent and dangerous than Schumacher's. Twelve months earlier Prost had, at a safer juncture, taken out Senna.

Like Senna, a compulsion has carried Schumacher to the top and, like Senna, his ruthlessness is a great strength but also a destructive weakness.

Senna is, above all, remembered for his brilliance and Schumacher will be if, as he promises, he does not repeat his indiscretion. Schumacher said: "I am sure all of this will be forgotten after a few races and there are other talking points for everyone. The best way I can stop the talk is by winning races."

Precisely so, and this is the season long scheduled to herald Ferrari's return to the pinnacle of Formula One. Alas for Schumacher, and his team, their forward planning has been blurred by developments in the winter.

Ferrari have concentrated their test work away from tracks used by their opponents, leaving the outside world to guess at their potential. Some reports from Italy indicated dissatisfaction with the car's performance.

Equally disconcerting for Schumacher has been the form of the new McLaren- Mercedes. He will have anticipated an increasing threat after the team's advance last season, but their times in pre-season testing surpassed most expectations.

Schumacher said: " McLaren will be the biggest danger to us. It is clear they are going to be very strong this year. My concern is how our Goodyear tyres will compare with the Bridgestones of McLaren and Benetton."

He is of course, a master of pre-race psychology, shifting the burden of expectation on to others. He states the championship is not his duty, merely his goal.

"Of course the expectation in our team and in Italy is high, and that puts a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, but that just makes me more motivated."

Since Williams are unlikely to become a second-rate team overnight, Schumacher could have an even more intense fight on his hands than last year. He will probably be facing hostilities on at least two fronts this time.

The challenge just might inspire him to greater heights. If either, or both, Williams and McLaren weaken their prospects of the individual title by persisting with a policy of running joint No 1 drivers, then Schumacher, supported by Eddie Irvine, is best equipped to capitalise.

No driver is as complete as Schumacher. He is not simply quick, but able to generate competitive speed at any circuit instantly. His strategy and his ability to change strategy according to race circumstances or track conditions place him apart from the rest.

Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, says: "Schumacher has this habit of going very fast on his first run in practice so that his name goes to the top of the time sheets and everyone gasps. It's all part of his psychology. He's big on psychology."

He is also big on wet tracks as he demonstrated at Monaco and Spa last year to embarrass Villeneuve and Williams.

Head said: "Jacques knows this season the step he's got to take is being able to drive in all conditions and have an input before and during the race. He goes incommunicado once he's in the car on the grid and you can't do that when rain clouds are coming over.

"He's got to be right in there and switched on. I don't blame him for our mistakes last season, but he played a part in those mistakes by not being part of the decision-making process. Unlike Schumacher. In fact, Schumacher makes most of the decisions at Ferrari. Jacques needs to beat Schumacher in a wet race to prove how good he is."

Ron Dennis, having hauled McLaren out of their recent trough, is conscious, too, that Schumacher's powers of improvisation are unrivalled in modern racing. "Michael has achieved great results in adverse conditions," Dennis said. "After Michael there is a whole range of drivers with similar ability."

According to Frank Williams, it gets up Villeneuve's nose to hear constant eulogies to Schumacher, while other drivers maintain the German cannot lose, since he takes the credit for any victory and Ferrari the blame for any defeat.

That is true, yet surely it is the ultimate tribute to Schumacher. Only Senna, in recent times has attained such immunity. And it would be no bad thing for Formula One to have its outstanding driver reinstated as world champion.

1998 GP Calendar

8 March Australia

29 March Brazil

12 April Argentina

26 April San Marino

10 May Spain

24 May Monaco

7 June Canada

12 July Great Britain

26 July Austria

2 August Germany

16 August Hungary

30 August Belgium

13 September Italy

27 September Luxembourg

11 October*

1 November Japan

(* Portuguese GP cancelled. May be replaced by either South Africa or China)

How the teams line up for the 1998 Formula One season

Williams

Jacques Villeneuve

(Can)

Age: 26

GPs: 33

Wins: 11

World Championships: 1

Heinz-Harald Frentzen

(Ger)

Age: 30.

GPs: 65.

Wins: 1.

World Championships: 0.

Manchester United Formula One - now appropriately in red - always seem to have strength in depth and desire to see off pretenders to their throne. The car is again bound to be competitive and the team insists the engine, although no longer a Renault in name, will be as potent as ever. Both drivers should benefit from their year together in the team and Villeneuve is adamant he has the motivation to retain his championship.

Ferrari

Michael Schumacher

(Ger)

Age: 29.

GPs: 102.

Wins: 27.

World Championships: 2.

Eddie Irvine

(N Irl)

Age: 32.

GPs: 65.

Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

According to the long established game plan, this is the year Ferrari hail their first world champion since 1979. Anything less would be unacceptable in Italy and possibly cost the team the services of Schumacher next year. The German remains their greatest asset and he will be eager to put behind him the Jerez affair. Ferrari's preference for private testing has shrouded their potential in mystery, but they should be serious contenders.

Benetton

Giancarlo Fisichella

(It)

Age: 25.

GPs: 25.

Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Alexander Wurz

(Aut)

Age: 24.

GPs: 3.

Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

The team led to prominence by Michael Schumacher will be hoping the first two years without him are proved to have been the worst. Now under the guidance of David Richards following the departure of Flavio Briatore, there is a sense of rejuvenation in the camp. They have two young, gifted drivers, although their inexperience could be exposed to their cost. Richards is banking on a switch from Goodyear to Bridgestone tyres to give them additional momentum.

McLaren

Mika Hakkinen

(Fin)

Age: 29.

GPs: 96.

Wins: 1.

World Championships: 0.

David Coulthard

(GB)

Age: 29.

GPs: 26.

Wins: 3.

World Championships: 0.

The hot tip for success this year after producing impressively quick times in testing. Much will depend on whether Mercedes can match power with the requisite reliability. The other top team to have opted for Bridgestone rubber and they are confident they have made the right choice. Two talented, ambitious drivers still young enough and hungry enough. There is a real belief in the team they can win the championship for the first time since 1991.

Jordan

Damon Hill (GB)

Age: 37. GPs: 84. Wins: 21.

World Championships: 1.

Ralf Schumacher (Ger)

Age: 22. GPs: 17. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Eddie Jordan's team have been knocking on the door of the major league but may be no nearer forcing it open. Hill has discounted a championship challenge and could have an interesting scrap with the younger Schumacher.

Prost

Olivier Panis (Fr)

Age: 31. GPs: 59. Wins: 1.

World Championships: 0.

Jarno Trulli (It)

Age: 23. GPs: 14. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0

Alain Prost's team look to have the better of the engine exchange with Jordan, but have had their problems in pre- season, not least satisfying crash test regulations. Should eventually be a competitive package.

Sauber

Jean Alesi (Fr)

Age: 33. GPs: 135. Wins: 1.

World Championships: 0.

Johnny Herbert (GB)

Age: 33. GPs: 133. Wins: 2.

World Championships: 0

The Swiss team have the resources and professed desire to reach the upper echelon, although hitches in testing have frustrated the drivers. An exciting driver pairing should keep everyone on their toes.

Arrows

Pedro Diniz (Bra)

Age: 27. GPs: 50. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Mika Salo (Fin)

Age: 31. GPs: 52. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Tom Walkinshaw's ambitions know no bounds. Having revamped this team and recruited John Barnard he has now embarked upon his own engine programme. Has a gifted replacement for Hill in Salo, but faces a hard season.

Stewart

Rubens Barrichello (Bra)

Age: 25. GPs: 81. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Jan Magnussen (Den)

Age: 24. GPs: 18. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Ford will expect a significant step forward by their factory team, who would have appreciated a fuller test programme. There is much talk of the car's potential, but it desperately needs more running.

Tyrrell

Ricardo Rosset (Bra)

Age: 29. GPs: 0. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Toranosuke Takagi (Japan)

Age: 24. GPs: 16. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

The squabble between past and present bosses, Ken Tyrrell and Craig Pollock, has overshadowed a promising build-up. While the appointment of Rosset in preference to Jos Verstappen has dismayed Tyrrell, Takagi has been a revelation.

Minardi

Shinji Nakano (Japan)

Age: 26. GPs: 17. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

Esteban Tuero (Arg)

Age: 19. GPs: 0. Wins: 0.

World Championships: 0.

The other Italian team have bold plans to rebuild this year and eventually upgrade, but they are again favourites for the wooden spoon. A doubtful driver line-up can scarcely help bolster confidence in the camp.

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