A hot shoe feels heat

As the Williams team speeds down a new track with touring cars, pressure builds on Benetton's championship leader David Tremayne on the mental and mechanical woes of Michael Schumacher
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The Independent Online
IT WILL not be easy for Michael Schumacher to forget being overtaken by Damon Hill in last week's Argentinian Grand Prix. It was a vital psychological blow for the Englishman, the first time that he has accomplished such a feat on the road. It was, perhaps, symbolic of a subtle change in the German's career path. And if remarks about quitting Formula One for IndyCar, recently attributed to him, are given any serious credence, he may challenge Nigel Mansell as Whinge Champion.

Though fortune smiled on him in Paris on Thursday, Schumacher is entering a critical new phase, that of the Champion Under Pressure. We began to see the first signs in Suzuka last year. In Adelaide it manifested itself in two accidents in successive days. Most unusual. Then victory in Brazil was taken away. Schumacher is understandably angered by allegations of foul play that have tainted his successes, though the scam (for such it was) at the weigh-in, another manifestation, was, one team insider insists, all Schumacher's idea.

Even without Hill's dominance the intensity of things may be gnawing at the Champion's nerves. With only one day of qualifying in Brazil, as opposed to Schumacher's two, his team-mate Johnny Herbert qualified within half a second of him. On Friday in Argentina, after both had troubles, they were separated by a thousandth.

Schumacher is not used to this. It is a while since any team-mate was able to get within even the same second of him. Herbert's job is to score points for the team, to help it rectify its own shortcomings that lost it the Constructors' Championship last season. To do this, Herbert needs to qualify well and to race hard. His job is not, in his team-mate's eyes, to upstage him. Reports within Benetton suggest that, when Herbert found himself some four seconds adrift on Saturday in Argentina, it was because he had suddenly been isolated, and was no longer privy to the precise set-up of his team-mate's car. If one of the drivers in a team is denied vital information it can be confusing at best, demoralising at worst. If the stories are correct, it's time that Flavio Briatore got things in hand, and started fighting with both cars rather than one.

John Surtees, world champion 30 years ago, watched the Argentine race keenly. "Did you see the way that the Williamses went?" he bubbled . "It's far and away the best car out there at the moment. Hill and Coulthard could put it anywhere they liked on the track. It's so stable."

A winter's development work has reversed the situation Senna and Hill faced as they prepared for the San Marino Grand Prix last year; then the Benetton had a clear handling advantage, and largely maintained it for the season. Now the boot is on the other foot, and Hill in particular will not resist swinging it hard towards Benetton's (and Schumacher's) most tender areas.

As Schumacher prepares to head for the heavily revised Imola track, his exclusion from Brazilian victory was negated on appeal, giving him back the World Championship lead. But the world champion remains a man under pressure, and the Formula One world waits to see how his depth of character equips him to cope with these setbacks.

His situation is a reflection of that which Senna faced this time last year. And that is an irony that will not be lost on the man who superseded the Brazilian as the yardstick by which all others are now judged.