MOTOR RACING : German needs to take stock

DERICK ALLSOP reports from Barcelona
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Michael Schumacher has the opportunity to shore up his defence of the Formula One world championship here this weekend - even if the Spanish Grand Prix is a race he cannot win. It is time to play for percentages, much as that would seem to be a game alien to his nature.

Watching the German through these opening stages of the season presents an eerie reminder of the tormented Ayrton Senna early last year. The Brazilian pushed himself and his Williams- Renault to the outer limits in an attempt to contain Schumacher but pushed himself for the last time at Imola. Schumacher pushed himself and his Benetton-Renault too hard at the same track, 12 days ago, and was fortunate to walk away from his latest accident unscathed.

He will doubtless have taken stock since then and realised that he risks not only serious injury but falling too far behind the current leader, Damon Hill. Right now Hill's Williams is the best car out there and the Englishman's composed appliance is producing the results without unnecessary alarm.

Things can change, however, as they did last year. By the end of the championship Williams had caught up and overtaken Benetton. Even with the help of Schumacher's penalties, Hill could not quite make up the leeway, yet the general consensus is that a fourth title would have been well within Senna's capabilities.

Benetton are optimistic they can make significant improvements to the handling and performance of the car, and believe the sweeping summer circuits will suit them, while Williams may not have so much more to eke out of an already excellent machine.

Six or four points in the bank on Sunday might, in the longer term, prove a useful investment for Schumacher. A controlled drive would also suggest he had not succumbed to the pressures, after all.

Hill, six points clear of Schumacher and Ferrari's Jean Alesi after winning the last two races, is, of course, content to encourage the theory that the champion is feeling the strain.

"Michael's been making mistakes. He has had accidents, which is a clear sign of someone overdriving, a sort of immaturity," he said.

"I don't think Schumacher can be happy in himself. I know he has arrogance but he's not impervious to criticism. He stuck two fingers up to the regulations regarding his weight and that was not the behaviour expected from a champion who is supposed to be representing his sport."

Ferrari are confident they are making the kind of progress to be feared by the rest and Alesi is characteristically enthusiastic. "The car is getting better and better, and if a win does not come here I think it will soon."

His team-mate, Gerhard Berger, was further encouraged by his testing times at Imola last week. "I would say there is still about half a second a lap between us and Williams in race conditions," he said, "but it seems every race it is a little less. There are one or two areas where we can improve, so there is light at the end of the tunnel."