Champion geared for history

David Tremayne wonders if Ferrari can provide a third title for Michael Schumacher
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A MAJESTIC - and typically ruthless - performance in the European Grand Prix last weekend has again taken Michael Schumacher to the edge of winning the world championship. Even before the race, the chalice had not quite been at Damon Hill's lips, as it had momentarily been in Adelaide last year, but it was certainly still within reach before Schumacher's devastatingly successful pursuit of Jean Alesi's sliding Ferrari.

Hill is astute enough to know that, mathematics aside, it is all over for this year. With only 30 points up for grabs in the remaining three races he would need to win them all to secure the championship, while Schumacher needs only to come fourth in one of the races to retain his title. The last back-to-back winners were Ayrton Senna in 1991 and 1992 and Alain Prost in 1985 and 1986. Before that, it was Jack Brabham in 1959 and 1960. And this is only Schumacher's fourth full season of grand prix racing.

The only man to win three titles in a row, which must now be Schumacher's goal, was the late Juan Fangio, who achieved the feat in 1954-56 (he added a fourth consecutive crown in 1957). Whether the German can score a hat-trick will be the question that dominates the winter as he transfers to Ferrari.

It will not have escaped the world champion's notice that Ferrari's race strategy came very close to winning the European Grand Prix, and that only his own stunning drive prevented Alesi from backing up his success earlier in the year in Canada. The excitable Frenchman privately believed that Ferrari could win all of the remaining races, and expressed such thoughts to his rather more practical team-mate, Gerhard Berger.

But since that breakthrough, the Prancing Horse has run only at a canter. This is another thing that Schumacher will be pondering when he begins testing for the team after the Australian Grand Prix in November; equally he will have made a mental note of the tactical acumen of Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, whose decision it was to gamble on starting both of his cars on slick tyres last weekend. All the other teams bar McLaren opted for grooved wet weather tyres. When the track dried out, Alesi was left with a huge advantage that only Schumacher's determination could overcome.

In 1996, when the talents of Schumacher and Todt are combined and put to work in conjunction with the established genius of the British designer John Barnard, one of two things will happen. The ingredients within Maranello could combine to dominate the sport, or the ever-present politics at Ferrari could smother all their individual brilliance.

The Nurburgring offered two fascinating little insights. A question as to which driver would have priority use of the spare car next year touched a raw nerve when Todt snapped defensively: "I remind you that Ferrari is employing Michael Schumacher. It is not Michael Schumacher who is employing Ferrari."

Yet Todt himself is hardly in a position that inspires great confidence. Last weekend it emerged that, having dispensed recently with the consultative services of the former Ferrari world champion Niki Lauda, Todt then had the embarrassing experience of his boss, the Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, re- employing Lauda in front of him.

Then there is the potentially destabilising presence of Eddie Irvine, freshly announced as Schumacher's partner. Few journalists expect the Ulsterman will have the speed to handle the German, but that may in part stem from prickliness following Irvine's suggestion last week that he has yet to meet a journalist who knows anything about motor racing. If Irvine's speed matches his propensity for inserting his foot into his mouth, Schumacher will be in serious trouble. That, combined with Irvine's ability to appear as though he cares about nothing, may be a cause of concern to Schumacher, who has a reputation for psychologically destroying his team-mates.

Meanwhile, Hill is left to lick his wounds and reflect on what might have been. It is now clear that both he and Williams were a step behind Schumacher and Benetton at crucial points this season: the Williams broke in Brazil, Spain and Canada, while Hill made errors in Britain, Germany (twice) and Italy. Benetton's pit stops have consistently outshone Williams's as well.

For Hill and Williams, the final three races provide an opportunity to re-establish credibility and morale; for Schumacher, the chance to beat Mansell's record of nine wins in a season. And, perhaps, to reflect on the unrivalled excellence of the team that he is about to leave.