Motor Racing: Schumacher turns potential into a potent force: Benetton's engine, teamwork and No 1 driver promise classic head-to-head with Williams this season. Derick Allsop reports

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The Independent Online
PASSENGERS on Flight BA244, arriving at Heathrow's Terminal 4 from Sao Paulo yesterday, had their own versions of the season's opening race, its implications and repercussions; as varied as the sense of persecution gnawing at Eddie Irvine and the anticipation of Michael Schumacher's challenge for the championship.

Schumacher's victory and Ayrton Senna's demise in Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix were analysed in every cabin. But the German's boss at Benetton-Ford, Flavio Briatore, came to the conclusion: 'If Michael can beat Ayrton in Brazil, he can beat him anywhere.

'Michael has no psychological problem with Senna, and every time he did a fast lap, Michael matched him. It is going to be a great fight for Formula One this year, between Schumacher and Senna, and between Benetton and Williams.'

Round one had gone overwhelmingly in favour of Schumacher and Benetton. They had come into the season prepared, while Williams were still finding their way with the FW16. Williams, dominant for the past two seasons, now know they are not invincible.

Senna was already soundly beaten when, in his anxiety to rescue a lost cause, he over-reached and slithered off. Damon Hill, acting on strangely defensive team instructions, made one fuel and tyre stop rather than two, and was never able to compete with his partner or Schumacher. 'We have to redouble our efforts,' the Briton said solemnly.

Benetton were positive and slick, their confidence buoyed by the brilliance of their driver. Schumacher had played down his title prospects for this season, yet he has presented powerful evidence that he possesses the physical and mental capacity to take on and perhaps eclipse Senna.

The return of conventional, passive suspension after the luxury of active systems will test strength and stamina, and Schumacher, a fitness fanatic nine years younger than the Brazilian, may have a significant advantage. Schumacher told his engineers that he was unusually weary at the end of the race, yet he still looked fresh compared with Senna, who was patently drained.

The emotional strain no doubt contributed to Senna's plight. He was on home ground, having his first race for Williams. Nothing short of victory was acceptable. There is a belief within Formula One that he is psychologically vulnerable, if only he can be subjected to pressure. Schumacher substantiated the theory and at the same time indicated he had the strength of mind, as well as body, to cope with direct confrontation on this scale.

Martin Brundle, team-mate to Schumacher at Benetton two seasons ago, said: 'He is a totally different bloke from the Schumacher back then. He's lost that smart- pants bit. He's very calm and mature, very impressive.

'I believe Schumacher is ready for the championship. He put Senna under pressure and Senna threw it off the road. Senna will come back with a vengeance and, over the season, I would still have to put my money on him, because he'll have more reliability and knows how to win a championship. But if Schumacher can rattle his cage, he might have him.'

Brundle is hopeful his new team, McLaren-Peugeot, will be in a position to joust at the front later in the season. The Briton acquitted himself creditably despite recurring throttle and clutch problems over the weekend. He was coasting to retirement in the race when he found himself on the wrong end of a major accident. His helmet cracked and he was knocked unconscious as Jos Verstappen's Benetton assaulted him from behind.

The man deemed responsible was back in economy for the flight and may have to stay there for a while, though not on the next trip. Irvine was fined dollars 10,000 (pounds 6,700) and banned from participating in the Pacific Grand Prix, a fortnight on Sunday. The 28-year-old Ulsterman said: 'I'm infamous rather than famous. In my first race I had a punch-up with Senna, in the second I crashed, in the third I destroyed four cars and for the fourth I'm banned.

'The trouble is people will think I'm some sort of nutter, but I was looking at a guy in front of me at 200mph and Verstappen should have understood I had to take evasive action. I think the decision is harsh and now I've got to find the money out of my own pocket.'

His team, Jordan-Hart, have appealed, but there was a suspicion through the aircraft that the authorities had seized the first opportunity to punish Irvine for his part in the contretemps with Senna in Japan.

In business class, Mark Blundell and Johnny Herbert were characteristically chirpy. Blundell declared himself none the worse for his accident, the consequence of a suspected wheel failure and was encouraged by the performance of the Tyrrell-Yamaha.

Herbert had demonstrated that, for all his frustration at being denied a move to McLaren, he was a committed racing driver once strapped into the car. He had cajoled the cumbersome Lotus- Mugen to seventh place and has new machinery due for the European sector of the season.