Motor racing: Pressure on Frentzen and Berger

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The Independent Online
A common language, a common love, but contrasting emotions and prospects. Sunday's German Grand Prix here could be a defining moment in the lives of three principal characters.

Michael Schumacher has the opportunity to extend his lead in the world championship at the wheel of his Ferrari. His compatriot Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Austria's Gerhard Berger seek instead the direction effectively to save their competitive careers.

Frentzen, the man signed by Williams-Renault in place of Damon Hill, is under severe pressure to justify that appointment. It is understood he has been told by his bosses, Frank Williams and Patrick Head, that they demand better than he has so far produced, which must be interpreted as a threat to his job.

Berger's need is to prove to himself and any potential employer that, at the age of 38, he still has a part to play at the forefront of Formula One next season. The one certainty, he revealed yesterday, is that he will not be staying with Benetton.

He insists his split with the Anglo-Italian team has nothing to do with their signing of Giancarlo Fisichella, simply that his contract and "two- year plan" is over. He is less clear about his next assignment, insisting he wants two or three races to consider his decision.

Berger returns to racing this weekend after missing three grands prix. He was recovering from two sinus operations when his father was killed in a plane crash. In his absence, his young countryman, Alexander Wurz, staked a claim for a full-time drive next year and it is widely supposed he will partner Fisichella. Berger declared himself still infatuated with F1, yet stressed he had no desire to flirt with a car on the side.

He said: "Clearly I am at the crossroads. I have to prove something to myself. It's normal in sport to be forgotten quickly so you have to prove yourself all the time. I want to give myself time to be clear in my head what I want to do. I still love F1, so it's going to be very difficult to make this decision. I would like to continue in F1, but I could never see myself in a team that does not have a chance to win. I've thought about IndyCars, but I love F1. I have a few things outside F1 I could do."

After 13 years in F1, 10 of them at the sharp end, Berger can smile: "I've made my money, so I'm not worried about that." His demeanour yesterday suggested he was resigned to enjoying his wealth.

Frentzen's body language indicated he was far from confident about his future at Williams. The team are not totally content with Jacques Villeneuve's input, but the Canadian has four wins to his credit and stands just four points behind Schumacher in the championship standings.

Frentzen has only one win and his wretched contribution at the British Grand Prix, stalling on the grid and then tangling with another car on the first lap, stretched Williams' patience almost beyond endurance.

Frentzen admitted making a mistake and confirmed he had "talked about various things" with his team. But he still preferred to follow his own instincts on the car's settings. "Occasionally we have our differences of opinion with Patrick Head, but I have to live with the car and he has to accept that."

Hill, meanwhile, is still talking optimistically of a return to competitive racing in 1998, which would almost certainly mean a move from Arrows-Yamaha. The reigning champion maintained that his priority was to find a leading team rather than another pot of gold.

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, has warned Hill that he risks pricing himself out of another championship challenge by asking for a $10m (pounds 6m) salary when younger drivers are available at more modest rates.

Hill replied: "Money is a side issue, but the slip side of taking on younger drivers is their lack of experience. There are many teams who will be aware this season they have missed experience in the car."

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