Motor racing: Emotions run high as Ferrari turn up heat

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The Independent Online
TWO RACES to go, everything to play for, and the contesting camps have taken over from their drivers as the struggle for the World Championship becomes a test of nerve as well as skill and reliability.

This nation is gripped by euphoria following Ferrari's one-two success in the Italian Grand Prix and Michael Schumacher's elevation to level points and wins with McLaren Mercedes' Mika Hakkinen. The Finn retains the lead only because he has two second places to Schumacher's one.

They resume racing combat at the Nurburgring, on Sunday week, but the off-circuit jousting is unrelenting and Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, took the opportunity to apply a little more psychological pressure rather than wallow in the celebration and adulation.

"We've noticed every time we put McLaren under pressure it's gone well for us," Todt said. "McLaren were a bit quicker than us here and I think they still are, but they did not take advantage or use the potential of the car. Everything is open in the Championship now. Emotions here mean nothing. We have to live with reality and the reality is that Michael has six wins. I don't know when that was last done in a season by a Ferrari driver."

The answer is 1952, the driver Alberto Ascari. Schumacher, too, wondered aloud whether Hakkinen would survive the heat. "We make things difficult for him and keep him under pressure," the German said. "I'm not saying he is going to crack, but it was easier for him in the early part of the season. Now mistakes are more likely. He's been a good racing driver this season but we will see how he copes in the two races left."

Hakkinen, who has lost a 16 point advantage in the last three Grands Prix, admitted he was "nervous" and anxiety showed on the faces of his colleagues.

However, Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, made a defiant retort and an effort to restore confidence after their wretched race. David Coulthard's engine blew when he held a comfortable lead and Hakkinen, hampered by a brake problem, was lucky to salvage fourth place.

Dennis said: "If you can't take the heat you shouldn't be in the sport. These things happen. We're not wimps. Neither of our drivers is and we're going to fight all the way and put the pressure on them."

Schumacher is a highly talented and motivated driver, but he's made mistakes this season and there's no reason why he won't make more mistakes. One spin from Michael or Mika in the next two Grands Prix can determine the World Championship.

"We're not walking away from Monza as losers, we're walking away leading the Constructors' Championship and equal in the Drivers' Championship. Let's deal with facts and not the emotional situation.

"Obviously Ferrari's reliability is exceptional, but we're trying always to get a performance advantage. When you push things to the limit it's inevitable you stray into areas where unreliability can strike.

"Motor racing is not a sport for the faint-hearted. If you are fighting for the World Championship you've got to expect it to be difficult and that's what it is."

Schumacher will have home advantage and the added weight of expectation on Sunday week, but then so will Mercedes and Norbert Haug, the head of their Formula One operation, echoed Dennis's insistence they were not about to buckle. I feel really ashamed for what happened to David," Haug said. "He came to me and apologised but I told him we're the ones who should apologise. Now the showdown is on and I can understand why Ferrari say we will crack, but the pressure will not break us. It is clear the problem we have had was technical, and no fault of the drivers. They made no mistakes, we did."

Damon Hill knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of Schumacher's pressure. He succumbed to it in 1994 and 1995, and is a captivated observer as his old adversary, aided by the former Benetton technical director, Ross Brawn, threatened to pull off a third title.

"The situation is unbelievable," said the Jordan driver, sixth on Sunday. "We all wrote off the Championship for anyone other than McLaren at the start of the season when they were having one-twos. "Whatever has gone wrong I don't know, but you just can't give someone like Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher the slightest whiff of anything, or else.

"I find it difficult to predict the outcome of the Championship but, although McLaren might have the advantage in machinery, you would have to say Ferrari have now got the edge in morale and that can go a long way."

The Championship can be decided at the Luxembourg Grand Prix only if Hakkinen wins and Schumacher fails to score. The more likely scenario is a last race decider in Japan, on 1 November.