Motor Racing: Schumacher fit to rank with the best: Prost warns rivals against taking animosity on to the track as pride and ego still rage within Britain's former champion

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The Independent Online
THE byword all weekend was 'psychology' and, when the racing ended, the consensus was that Michael Schumacher was 'stronger in the head' than the vanquished Damon Hill. Schumacher had probed Hill's mental resilience with a pre- meditated character assassination: the Englishman blocked with a dignified dismissal of the 'half-baked attempt' to destabilise him.

Commentators predicted that whoever sustained control of mind over matter would emerge as champion.

However, in this maelstrom of psychoanalyses, we have been bamboozled into expecting rather more of Hill and significantly less of Schumacher than we had reason to. We appear to have ignored the possibility that the German really is a cut above the rest.

Hill's solemn countenance after Sunday's Grand Prix of Europe indicated he miscalculated his opponent's ability as much as the relative benefits of their pit-stop strategies. He talked a good race and is still endeavouring to do so as they contemplate the two remaining rounds of the championship.

It is no slight towards Hill to say he was outclassed by Schumacher, that he was exposed as second best. To the Williams-Renault driver's credit, he was better than the rest. The fact of the matter is that Schumacher is quicker, more determined and stronger physically, as well as in the head, than any other driver in the world.

There is no disgrace in being second best to such a man. Even Ayrton Senna could not beat him in the two races they contested before the Brazilian's death. He was killed striving to repress the irrepressible.

Schumacher has won eight of the 10 races permitted him so far this year. In another he was second despite having only fifth gear; in the other his machinery failed him. Victory in the last two races would take him past Nigel Mansell's record for a season. And this, at the age of 25.

For a driver of his tender years, his prowess and consistency are astounding. Jackie Stewart reckoned even the most gifted required five years to achieve championship standard. Stewart took that long. So did Alain Prost. So did Senna.

The who-was-the-greatest debate will rumble on forever without producing a satisfactory answer, but when we consider Fangio and Moss, Clark and Senna, it could be we should now examine the merits of Schumacher.

Without Senna, there is no obvious opponent capable of stretching Schumacher. Hence the return of Mansell. On the evidence of his drive for Williams on Sunday, he is light years away from the form which won him the championship, two years ago. He must, however, be judged over the three races of his rehabilitation.

Schumacher will be champion if he beats Hill by five points in Japan on 6 November, where the title issue has been settled in dramatic and controversial circumstances over the years. Prost and Senna clashed there at the climax of championship campaigns in 1989 and 1990. Prost, among those who have been monitoring the psychological influences on the current combatants, warned them against the perils of taking their personal differences - which were all too apparent after Sunday's race - on to the circuit.

The Frenchman said: 'I was surprised to hear some of the things Michael said about Damon because I know him quite well. But the problem is that the situation is tense and there are so many pressures, from the media, from everybody. It is very difficult, especially for two inexperienced drivers.

'The trouble is that it is presented as worse than it is. They are not enemies, but I know things are not very good between them. The danger is that they take this on the track. We have had a bad year already and must not have more bad moments.

'I know what it is like. When Ayrton said certain things it was difficult for me. If I said nothing in reply it looked as if I agreed. Then I saw the papers the next day and thought: 'Oh, no.' It then looks really bad, as if it is a war.

'We need an etiquette in the sport, but unfortunately that is not always the case.'