German Grand Prix:Hakkinen douses home fires

German Grand Prix: Ralf Schumacher tries to stir fans in absence of brother Michael
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The Independent Online
IN RAYMOND CHANDLER'S book The Little Sister it is Orfamay Quest, the ugly-duckling younger sibling of the flashy actress Mavis Weld, who ultimately steals the show. And that, some suspect, may ultimately prove to be the case with Ralf Schumacher.

It is no sinecure coming into a sport as much in thrall to your older brother as Formula One is to Michael Schumacher. And Ralf's first steps, testing a McLaren in 1996, did not exactly fill their chief executive Ron Dennis with the sort of enthusiasm that imbued Jordan five years earlier when Michael left them breathless with his pace at Spa-Francorchamps. Ralf, it seemed, was destined to become a journeyman.

Things are different now, and they have nothing to do with the enforced absence of Michael as he recovers from the leg fracture sustained at the British Grand Prix. His first year as a driver, with Jordan, the team who Michael forsook after that one race in 1991, revealed Ralf to be quick but erratic. Last year, as he matured, he stacked up well against Damon Hill.

As a Williams driver in 1999, he has blown away his talented but troubled team-mate, the double ChampCar champion Alex Zanardi. Little brother is fast becoming a star in his own right, despite a car that clearly has significantly less grunt and grip than either the dominant McLaren-Mercedes, or the Ferrari piloted by Michael.

All this makes it even more ironic, then, that the fans have stayed away in their droves from Hockenheim. "I have the feeling that there are fewer, because of Michael's absence, than there were last year," Ralf admitted. "In one way I understand that, but in other ways it is a bit of a shame, because it is not really fair. All of us do our best to offer a good show to the crowd here."

Winning is what F1 is all about. It is what has elevated Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen to the rank of superstars, and what made the British public take Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill to their hearts. Winning is everything. Ralf has yet to win a GP (though he came close at Spa last year) and has scant chance of doing so this season unless Williams stumble upon a magic bottle full of downforce. There are consolations, however. The private jet and the big yacht doubtless help to ease the frustration.

If Schuey Jnr feels disgruntled by the fickleness of his countrymen, however, he has no complaints in a team who traditionally mishandle their drivers. Letting one world champion go might be regarded as unfortunate, but as Lady Bracknell might have suggested, losing Nelson Piquet, Hill and Alain Prost as well as Mansell has made Sir Frank Williams and his technical director Patrick Head look downright careless.

"I feel great in this team," Ralf counters. "I have read comments about the cool atmosphere that is supposed to exist at Williams, but I get along great with Patrick, with Frank himself and with all the rest of the team. I feel perfectly happy here."

It shows, especially as Zanardi has been struggling so much to "unlearn" the delicate style that made him such a star on the 240mph ovals of America. In recent races the Italian has been castigated by Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard for on-track clashes, though the latter's outburst in Austria last week seemed imprudent for a man who had just bundled off his own team-mate.

All appeared to be sweetness and light again at McLaren this weekend, no doubt because Hakkinen is a big enough man to recall taking Coulthard off the road back at Estoril in 1996, and Coulthard, for all his pot-calling- the-kettle-black remarks about "idiots" in Austria, was big enough to apologise. But there was an interloper in the script as Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the other "local boy", momentarily booted Hakkinen from his customary pole position with an inspired lap in the Jordan.

Hakkinen duly restored his own dignity with a lap five- hundredths of a second faster, but Coulthard was left trailing in third place as his efforts to improve his initial time met with failure.

Nor was Hockenheim a scene of satisfaction for the championship contender Eddie Irvine, who went off the road on his first run, and was later the victim of outrageous fortune as he encountered heavy traffic on his final run. He managed only fifth place, ahead of Rubens Barrichello and behind his Ferrari team-mate Mika Salo.

"We went the wrong way with a set-up change in the middle of the session, and there was no time to change back," Irvine said. "But in terms of lap time, we are closer to the front than in Austria, and we did not get the best out of the car today."

Irvine won last week, but Jordan's speed in race trim seems likely to make them a serious threat this afternoon as well, if not to McLaren then certainly to Ferrari, with Hill starting eighth on the grid.

Upstaged by Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher showed his customary aggression to reach 11th position, as he was left hoping for a miracle to turn the German tide in his favour. His brother Michael will hold a press conference just before the race to reveal details of his recovery. But for his legion of fans, Hockenheim remains Hamlet without its prince.