Motor Racing : Schumacher keeps a low profile

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Michael Schumacher peered out at the rain cascading from leaden skies and permitted a hopeful smile to ripple across his face. "At least it should not make it worse for us," he said.

The Ferrari driver leads the world championship by seven points, but suspects that by the end of Sunday's French Grand Prix here, and certainly by the podium ceremony at Silverstone a fortnight later, Jacques Villeneuve and his Williams-Renault will have the decisive momentum.

We have heard it all from Schumacher before, of course. He is the master of playing down his chances: remember Canada, earlier this month. He maintains he is ever the realist. Make that a realist about the potential of the Ferrari. The German has demonstrated on numerous occasions his ability to bridge the car performance gap. Now, however, he insists he is confronting a bridge too far.

"Here, and at Silverstone, it is going to be difficult for us to finish in the points," he said. "After Silverstone, I do not know where I will find myself.

"The fact is that we are not strong here or at Silverstone and there are four teams who will give us strong competition - Williams, Benetton, McLaren and even Jordan.

"Sure, I am leading the championship, but you have to realise why. As far as reliability is concerned, Ferrari are strong. Williams have the performance but because of certain problems and mistakes they do not have as many points as they might have.

"I will fight to the end and do everything possible to stay in the lead, but I doubt I can do it."

One of the mistakes Schumacher refers to forced Villeneuve into an embarrassing early submission on his home circuit, at Montreal, prompting theories that he might be cracking under the pressure.

Schumacher, for one, is not counting on that. He said: "It would not be fair to suggest this because of one mistake."

The rain would help his cause, as it did in Monaco, and the local forecaster says the weather will be unsettled deep into "le weekend". Schumacher requires further guarantees. "We must pay someone to pray for rain," he urged his team.

Ferrari are working on less divine intervention, bringing on stream improvements which should make the car more competitive in the second half of the season. Williams, meanwhile, are hoping their familiar surge at this time of the campaign will carry them beyond all powers.

Damon Hill, champion with Williams last season and now, in an Arrows- Yamaha, a distant observer of these matters, believes Williams and Villeneuve can rest assured that will prove the case.

He said: "After Canada, Jacques will be feeling shell-shocked, but I think he's sufficiently resilient to bounce back and after his home race, he will be feeling more relaxed.

"Williams are always strong at this period and the swing has been decisive for them in the past. They traditionally have the upper hand in France, Britain and Germany, and I would expect them to come through again."

Buoyed by his maiden finish for Arrows, albeit in a truncated Canadian Grand Prix, Hill is now hungry for more. "That was good for the team and for me, because it can be deflating when you're not finishing races," he said. "The next step for us is to get into the points."