Motor Racing: Ecclestone sides with Schumacher

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THE DRIVING force behind Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, entered the sport's raging debate here yesterday with a ringing endorsement of Michael Schumacher's aggressive style and a withering put down for "whingeing losers".

Schumacher, who is seeking a fourth win in five years at the French Grand Prix tomorrow to maintain his championship challenge, has been criticised by his fellow drivers following his antics in Canada earlier this month.

The German won the Canadian Grand Prix, despite incurring a stop-and- go penalty for allegedly running Heinz-Harald Frentzen off the track. Frentzen, supported by his Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, has called on Schumacher to step down as an official of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.

Ecclestone, never a man to discourage controversy, responded: "I get fed up with hearing all the complaints about Michael Schumacher's driving. I don't know why they keep harping on about it. He's a racer and it's a pity we have not got more like him.

"He's good for the sport and like other guys in the past such as Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell, he's prepared to take a few risks. We don't want drivers pussyfooting, we want them racing and competing.

"But Michael is a big boy. I am sure he will be able to cope with his critics on and off the track. Whingers are losers.

"Schumacher shouldn't have been penalised in Canada. I saw nothing wrong and there was no accident. The stewards should never have done what they did. He didn't have the chance to give his side of things."

It is widely perceived within Formula One that Ecclestone is keen to see Schumacher stay at Ferrari, rather than move to McLaren -Mercedes, a scenario that might spell an end to the controversy as well as competitive racing.

"Michael is happy at Ferrari and there is no reason for him to leave," Ecclestone said. "He's the man taking it to McLaren and making a fight of it."

Schumacher's win in Montreal lifted him above McLaren's David Coulthard to within 12 points of McLaren's other driver, Mika Hakkinen. Schumacher's declared optimism here was reinforced by the performance of his team-mate, Eddie Irvine, in yesterday's practice session. Irvine was second quickest, just eight- hundredths of a second behind Hakkinen.

"I am cautiously optimistic. I hope I can make it tough for McLaren," Irvine said. "I put my money on Michael at the start of the year and see no reason why I should change my mind."

Coulthard, anxious to stay in touch with the title chase after being let down by his car in Montreal, was third yesterday, a tenth of a second behind Irvine. Frentzen was fourth ahead of Schumacher.

Damon Hill, continuing his search for a first point in the Jordan, was encouraged by ninth place. "We have definitely used our testing to good effect," he said. "We have a much better chance of qualifying further up in the top 10 than normal."

Johnny Herbert's Sauber was a disappointing 10th following an encouraging performance in testing here last week.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours): Positions after yesterday's unofficial practice: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 16.515sec (av speed 124.275mph/ 199.960kph); 2 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:16.597; 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:16.707; 4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome 1:17.026; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:17.429; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:17.505; 7 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Mecachrome 1:16.664; 8 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Mecachrome 1:17.706; 9 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen- Honda 1:17.895; 10 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:17.977; 11 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:18.036; 12 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:18.172; 13 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:18.367; 14 R Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 1:18.649; 15 M Salo (Fin) Arrows-Yamaha 1:18.656; 16 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:18.703; 17 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Mecachrome 1:19.008; 18 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 1:19.023; 19 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford 1:19.057; 20 J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart-Ford 1:20.286; 21 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford 1:20.445; 22 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 1:20.871.