A chancing horse man

David Tremayne believes Ferrari might prove a poor move for Michael Schumacher
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The Independent Online
AS THE ink dries on Michael Schumacher's new pounds 30m two-year contract with Ferrari, and the initial waves of envy that have flooded over his rivals begin to recede, one question continues to eddy around Formula One. Has the world champion really done the right thing in moving to the Italian team?

Ferrari last won the Drivers' Championship in 1979, with the South African Jody Scheckter, and their last constructors' title came in 1983. Though they hold the record for grands prix victories with 105, they have generally had to play second fiddle to the British teams - McLaren and Williams have dominated since 1984, with Benetton joining them in the past three seasons. Ferrari undoubtedly have the technical and financial resources, but are not yet in the same league as Benetton.

Schumacher's decision to leave Benetton and the powerful Renault V10 engine for Ferrari and its new, but as yet untried V10, is not, therefore, one based purely on logic.

Nevertheless, it carries with it the driving force of Bernie Ecclestone, the head of marketing for Formula One and the man orchestrating the chess game that is the driver transfer market. His silver and black motor home parked at the Hungaro- ring was almost as busy as Piccadilly Circus last weekend as driver after driver paid visits for advice or for a shoulder to cry on. Ecclestone is very happy that the Italian team has its first absolute superstar on board since Alain Prost came close to winning the championship in 1990.

Schumacher did not sign swiftly, however. "Every time I said no to Ferrari, they came back with yet another offer," he said. Clearly they eventually made him the sort of offer he simply could not refuse - and the contract is reportedly as large as a double-volume War and Peace. It is said that, among other requirements, it allows Schumacher to keep details of his precise chassis set-up to himself, and does not allow his team-mate to overtake him at any time.

Schumacher's gamble in going to Ferrari effectively begins now. Damon Hill is ideally placed to launch a strong challenge for the drivers' title in 1996, but the contest for 1995 is still far from over, with only 11 points separating him and the German. Both Schumacher and his Benetton will have to perform at their best to maintain that gap, and they may find that increasingly difficult.

After Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola last May, Patrick Faure, the head of Renault Sport, initiated Williams's fated fling with Nigel Mansell. But the star he really wanted to replace Senna in driving a Renault-powered car was Schumacher. To get him, Renault split its forces and made a deal to supply Benetton with the same engines that Williams enjoyed.

It remains to be seen whether Renault can resist the natural temptation to vent their anger at the defection of their chosen star by doing all they can to help Hill to the title. If Schumacher were champion again he would take the coveted No1 to Ferrari in 1996. The German expects a dip in his performance curve in his first year with the Italians, but it might come sooner than that.

Others are less settled. The Austrian driver Gerhard Berger was due to partner Schumacher at Ferrari, but was casting covetous eyes at David Coulthard's seat until the British team confirmed that the IndyCar racer Jacques Villeneuve was to be Hill's No2 for 1996. And as Ferrari was confirming Schumacher, Benetton announced that Jean Alesi will take his place.

Attention has turned to McLaren, who sorely need a proven race winner. Mika Hakkinen is certainly fast enough, but lacks the edge to bring a car to its full potential. Berger left McLaren for Ferrari in 1992, but Ron Dennis, who runs the team, always made it clear that the door is open for a return. He recently made Berger a good offer.

The moves may not be good news for three British drivers - Coulthard, Herbert and Hakkinen's partner Mark Blundell. Coulthard decided to leave Williams some while before the Villeneuve situation developed, and is known to be in talks with both McLaren (which is believed to have an option on his services after its fruitless attempt to prise him away from Williams for 1995) and Ferrari, though Schumacher is said to prefer the test driver Nicola Larini. Neither Herbert, who won the British Grand Prix, nor Blundell can regard their Formula One futures as certain.

Hill, meanwhile, is left with stronger cards than ever. He followed some particularly sound advice to the letter in Hungary by forgetting about Schumacher and the championship and getting on with winning the race and he is left with what is, at present, the best car, the best engine and a new improved contract for next year. It may be worth only a fraction of Schumacher's but he is less motivated by money than the German appears to be. "I now have a contract which reflects what I believe is my true value to the team," he said last week.