Motor Racing: Schumacher shows courage of conviction

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The Independent Online
It was with unbridled relish that Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, gave his assent to the swell of conviction that Michael Schumacher was back in the contest for the world championship.

Of course, he thought the German could now go on and win a third title. His "fantastic" drive through torrential rain in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix here had thrown down the gauntlet to Damon Hill.

In Italy, Bernie's blessing will ring as loud as the bells of Maranello, but then Schumacher's victory and Hill's demise had been a godsend to Ecclestone. No one has put bums on expensive circuit seats the way this champion does, and suddenly he has opened up the prospect of an enthralling scrap for the title when a boring procession appeared more probable.

Before the race, Hill had acknowledged he was embarking on a crucial period of the season. He sensed the opportunity to tighten his grip on the championship and carry it out of his rivals' reach. Instead, he is challenged merely to keep hold.

Jacques Villeneuve, his Williams-Renault team-mate, now has renewed hope, especially as the next grand prix is in Canada, his home country. But the more serious threat to the Englishman will be expected from the other driver trailing by 17 points, the German who revels in Hill's discomfort.

Williams have confirmed the set-up of Hill's car was altered on the grid, minutes before the start of Sunday's race, and their intuition proved misguided. Villeneuve's car was untouched. Hill, who must have consented to the change, was honest enough to accept responsibility for that and his subsequent errors.

Hill had also expressed concern about the reliability of Renault's engines, to the apparent embarrassment of his bosses and irritation of their French partners, who pointedly remarked that their product had functioned without problem on Sunday.

The pressure on Hill may well intensify. Schumacher is testing a new nose on the Ferrari this week and it could be used in Montreal on Sunday week. He has insisted all along that the Ferrari would not be capable of competing consistently for wins until mid-season and the Canadian Grand Prix completes the first half of the championship.

Schumacher has fashioned Ferrari's campaign to his own liking, to his own tried and trusted pattern. The team, having invested $25m (pounds 16m) a year for his services, have willingly gone along with his demands for a concentrated effort on their No 1 driver. He has also revealed a human side that many suspected was not there, showing a genuine interest in the work of the humblest test mechanic and joining in impromptu games of football during breaks.

His signing was greeted coolly by Italians and he, in turn, made no attempt to woo their hearts with empty expressions of affection. It is not in his nature. He preferred to earn the respect and support of the tifosi through his performances on the track.

He made his decisive move in last year's championship by winning here and Hill was never able to respond. Schumacher, too, is content to go along with the opinion that he could be heading for the title again. "Yes, I think I can win it," he said. "The championship is open and there is still a long way to go. The next two races will be very important." Just what Bernie was wanting to hear.