Motor Racing: Schumacher looms larger

"I GET fed up with hearing all the complaints about Michael Schumacher's driving. It's a pity we have not got more like him. He's good for the sport and he's prepared to take a few risks. We don't want drivers pussyfooting, we want them racing and competing.

"Michael's a big boy. I am sure he will be able to cope with his critics on and off the track. Whingers are losers."

You could tell it was a slow news week. The French Grand Prix is habitually the calm before the storm that breaks around British Grand Prix time, when the driver transfer market moves into high gear. Magny-Cours, slap bang in the middle of nowhere, is to Formula One what Siberia was to Russian dissidents.

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's powerbroker, does nothing without having quantified its likely effects, and his diatribe against Schumacher's detractors filled Saturday's newspapers at a time when the on-track action was less than riveting. Whether these were Ecclestone's true thoughts on the matter of the tactics used in the recent Canadian Grand Prix was irrelevant; Formula One remained strongly in the spotlight no matter what was happening in stadiums around the French countryside.

This particular ball had been set in motion when Schumacher condemned Damon Hill's weaving as they had fought for second place in Montreal. "There are other ways of killing yourself than doing it at 200 miles an hour," the former world champion had observed of his one-time arch-rival. Some saw that as Schumacher seeking a means of drawing the fire after his own uncompromising effort at dispensing with Heinz-Harald Frentzen's challenge by helping him off the road, and others have since weighed in.

Eddie Irvine called for Hill to be banned. The former World Champion John Surtees said: "What Damon did in Canada was ridiculous, the act of somebody who is not at peace with himself."

Across the paddock, meanwhile, David Coulthard voiced doubts about continuing as a member of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association if Schumacher was not seen to clean up his on-track act.

Hill, perhaps wisely, remained tight-lipped, but said icily of Irvine's comments, "He would say that, wouldn't he?"

Amidst this black comedy Keke Rosberg observed astutely, if a trifle cynically, on Friday, "Ferrari is going to be quick this weekend. If Irvine can be up there, just think what Schumacher is gonna do." While Irvine went on the attack in Friday's practice, only narrowly surrendering fastest time to Mika Hakkinen, Schumacher was content to use only one set of tyres on his way to a calculated fifth place.

There are many impressive things about the German over and above his sheer artistry at the wheel, and one of them is his remarkable resilience. Nothing in his performance betrayed the slightest legacy of an accident in testing the previous week when he went off the road at high speed. Incidents are an everyday hazard in a racing driver's life, but even by Schumacher's standards this was a big one. His Ferrari's chassis was torn in half in a near-repeat of the incident in which Olivier Panis broke both legs in Canada last season.

There was much-needed relief from the ennui when Tyrrell threw their annual party on Friday night to coincide with the England-Colombia game. It was poignant to imagine the absent Ken Tyrrell watching back home in England, savouring the national success. Formula One's avuncular elder statesman made a brief appearance in Canada, when he said, "I always planned that my wife Norah and I would attend a season of races, and watch from grandstand seats, once I had retired. But when you're in, you're in, and when you are out, there is no point in being around. I had lots of offers of motorhome hospitality, but I had 30 years of people doing that to me. I don't want to be a hanger-on."

Formula One misses Ken Tyrrell more than it is prepared to admit, and he will have taken heart from the performance of Jos Verstappen in his first outing for the Stewart team. Tyrrell quit a year earlier than intended after Craig Pollock, to whom he sold his team, replaced the able Dutchman with the Brazilian driver Ricardo Rosset.

Rosberg's judgement also proved to be spot-on. After Ralf Schumacher had set the pace, qualifying yesterday distilled into a battle between McLaren and Ferrari. Irvine had a moment of glory, then it was Schumacher until Coulthard, then Hakkinen, redefined the pace. Hakkinen improved again before Schumacher's third run pushed the Ferrari back ahead, but the final laurels fell to the Finn by just over two-tenths of a second.

"Now we are in a position to challenge," Schumacher said. "This is the closest the gap has been all season. From what I saw in testing last week, my car is very competitive, even if it lacked a few tenths for qualifying. McLaren have a fight on their hands this weekend that might just start to turn the championship tide."

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