Motor Racing: Schumacher victim of tyre trap

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The Independent Online
I USUALLY make one mistake a year," Michael Schumacher said after his spectacular departure from Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix. But no amount of flippancy could disguise his chagrin at throwing away the advantage that Ferrari has so assiduously been building in this year's cat-and-mouse world championship campaign.

By the best reckoning, that is one mistake more than Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda or Alain Prost used to make. So what is it about this double world champion, whose errors are now beginning to seem suspiciously like habit?

Falling off the track while chasing his team-mate Martin Brundle at Imola in 1992 could be forgiven, for that was his first full season in the big league. But what of that famous unforced error in Adelaide in 1994, that preceded his infamous dispatch of title rival Damon Hill? Baulked by Heinz- Harald Frentzen, Hill had fallen three seconds behind Schumacher, having earlier sat right on his tail. But even without immediate pressure the German had slid into a wall and damaged his car. When Hill went to overtake, Schumacher moved over on him and their collision settled the title chase in Schumacher's favour.

What of Monaco in 1996, when he crashed on the first lap? Jerez in 1997, when his effort to slam the door on Jacques Villeneuve saw the biter bit and the Canadian take the crown? Spa last year, when he threw away a significant lead by taking the risk that sent him crashing into the back of David Coulthard's spray-hidden McLaren?

These may be questions that have occasionally flitted through the minds of Ferrari's management. After all, his $30m (pounds 18.75m) stipend from the Prancing Horse stable must entitle them to ask such things.

"I lost control of the car at the last chicane, because I went off the racing line and got on the dirt and ended up in the wall," Schumacher admitted. "This was clearly my mistake. I apologise to the team, who again did a great job this weekend. It was a shame because the car was working perfectly. I hope this incident was my last for the season."

At least this time Schumacher was in good company. Fellow former world champions Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve also came to grief at the same spot.

Perhaps this all tells us rather more about the current breed of F1 cars, which must surely be the most criticised in history. At a time when F1 interest is being rekindled in north America, via the forthcoming US Grand Prix at Indianapolis next year, the sight of the cream of the world's drivers slipping and spinning into gravel traps and walls all weekend is scarcely conducive to positive image creation. The FIA, the sport's governing body, surely cannot have forgotten that the last time F1 cars ran in America, at Phoenix in 1991, local papers claimed that a nearby ostrich race attracted more spectators. This weekend visiting observers from America's ChampCar series departed amid gales of laughter.

"The problem with these cars is that the tyres are so hard and ,when you are in a slow corner, where the aerodynamic downforce comes off, there is so little grip," Coulthard said.

Hill was again critical of the cars this weekend. "I cannot remember a time when I least enjoyed my racing," the 1996 champion said. "Max Mosley has said that overtaking should not be easy. I would say that it never is. Of course it shouldn't be easy, but it would be nice if it was possible. These days it is very, very hard."

Yet surprisingly, Hill is not necessarily in favour of a return to the slick tyres that were banned at the end of 1997. "The compounds that we use now are far, far too hard," he said, echoing Coulthard's sentiments. "That means that you cannot drive the tyre, you cannot slide the car much, because you end up going off the road. I'd like to see a dramatic reduction in downforce, and wider tyres. But they needn't be slicks. I think that wider, softer compound, grooved tyres would be a step forward. That way we could get away with sliding more because more rubber would be in contact with the road."

Mosley's point in opting for narrow, grooved tyres is that a car that corners slower has less momentum to scrub off when it spins. But this did not appear to be borne out in Canada over the weekend, when both Pedro Diniz and the race winner, Mika Hakkinen, had alarming spins which went on and on. If a tyre has a lower coefficient of friction, it follows that it will not scrub off as much speed, surely?

None of this helps Schumacher, of course, as he contemplates a four-point deficit to Hakkinen. But it explains much about the current state of the regulations if the cars are so unforgiving that they catch out drivers of his calibre.

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