Motor Racing: Schumacher's final chance to end crusade

It has been 20 years since Ferrari last won a drivers' title. Now the team must deliver, or face the consequences. By Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
THEY HAVE been saying "this is the year" from the moment Michael Schumacher joined the crusade but still they wait, as they have waited for a generation. This they say, would be the perfect year, the 20th anniversary of their last drivers' championship success.

However, conviction is fading like the memory of Jody Scheckter's distant achievement.

The gnawing doubts have been ever more evident through the winter and now, with the start of the Formula One season at hand, you sense Ferrari fear they are no nearer deliverance.

The nice symmetry of titles separated by two decades seems less likely than messy recrimination.

Even though Schumacher is still there, the faith has waned. Twice he almost made it but perhaps, as he pleads, he is not Superman after all. Just being the best driver in the world is not necessarily enough.

And yet, somehow he seemed to be more than that. All those sensational wins, defying logic and convention. Three years on, the people are becoming disillusioned. His crash into the back of David Coulthard in last season's Belgian Grand Prix and his subsequent, hysterical outburst, further tarnished an already grubby image.

This melancholy mood has engulfed Ferrari followers because they have learned to heed the proof of the clock rather than the propaganda material emanating from Maranello.

Mike Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes beat Schumacher's new car by almost half a second in a pre-season test at Barcelona, an ominous and gut-wrenching performance.

They will have tweaked the F399 since then and they will assuredly be tweaking it all the way to the start-line at Melbourne tomorrow, where the championship gets under way. More importantly, Schumacher will be driving in earnest.

But can the gap be bridged? A year ago the circumstances were much the same, McLaren starting distinctly the stronger and Schumacher very nearly got there by the end. Has anything really changed? Can anything change? Especially the result? Unless Ferrari and Schumacher provide positive answers, this may prove a year too many.

Already there is conjecture of impending changes. Heads must rolls, yell the mob. Why must they? Jean Todt, the team's sporting director, cries back in defiance. The Frenchman doubtless recognises he would be among the first to be sacrificed and pleads the case for stability.

Todt and the rest of the organisation, all the way up to, and notably, the president, Luca di Montezemolo, have pointedly tempered their post- 1998 season predictions. They no longer promise certain victory. Instead, they hint at a competitive effort and advise "let's wait and see".

It is debatable whether a "competitive effort" will be deemed good enough this time, either behind the portholes of Maranello or outside. If the call from the people for blood-letting is loud enough, the chances are those inside Ferrari will comply.

Such is the scale of the season now confronting Formula One's most charismatic team. They have had stability for some considerable time, certainly by Italian political sporting standards, so the argument for change will be difficult to refute and gather a raging momentum.

Schumacher and Eddie Irvine are embarking on their fourth season as the drivers. Todt has been with the team almost six years. Ross Brawn, the technical director, followed Schumacher from Benetton to Ferrari in 1996, and Rory Byrne, the designer, was duly reunited with his former colleagues a year later.

Apart from Todt, the most obvious candidate for scapegoat would be Irvine, the Ulsterman who signed for Ferrari as Schumacher's No 2, shotgun rider, test stooge and general factotum.

His is supposed to do all that and be a more assertive racer.

Not that he helps his cause with an overtly contemptuous sneer for the world at large and for the Italian media in particular. You can get away with many faults and indiscretions if you are a winner. But when you are not winning, those many faults and indiscretions come home to roost. Ask Glenn Hoddle.

Rumours of Irvine's demise have been swirling around the pits and paddocks of grand prix racing since his first season with the Italians. The latest intelligence suggests that Ferrari's test driver, Luca Badoer, has been allowed to compete for Minardi this season in preparation for his elevation to the saddle of the Prancing Horse next year.

Jean Alesi, too, is linked with the job. He was sacked in 1995 to make way for Schumacher, but now the French-Sicilian and the German are friends.

But what of Schumacher and the Hoddle factor? His perceived arrogance and occasionally boorish behaviour have been tolerated by the people because of the unrivalled brilliance of his driving. Until now.

His shabby attempt to barge Jacques Villeneuve off the circuit at Jerez and win the championship in 1997 has not been forgotten. The accusations hurled at Coulthard in Belgium have also been filed at the back of the mind. And, come to think of it, there was that incident with Damon Hill in Australia...

Schumacher may have to win the championship, nothing less, this season, to convince the people he really is worth the money and the unsavoury baggage. They may take the view that, on balance, they would prefer to lose without him than with him.

Eddie Jordan, the team owner who gave Schumacher his first chance in grand prix racing, echoes the sentiments of many in the sport when he says that he tipped his former protege for the drivers' championship last year but does not feel inclined to so again this time. Another team principal, Jackie Stewart, who has routinely acclaimed Schumacher as the outstanding driver of his era, wonders aloud whether the driver and his team may be burdened by too many inherent flaws.

"Michael could well win it and I'd be happy for Ferrari to take the championship again after 20 years," Stewart said. "But Schumacher is prone to making errors, as we saw last season. The incident with David Coulthard cost him the race and probably the championship.

"Ferrari themselves have a way of dropping the ball just when you feel they can't fail to score. They have all those resources, key personnel, the best driver, and yet it still hasn't happened for them. You have to wonder why."

The simple explanation is that someone else always seems to do it better than them. Last season it was McLaren, the two seasons before that it was Williams.

Second place to teams of that calibre is scarcely a disgrace. And had it not been for Ferrari, or Schumacher to be more precise, the past two championships would have been abject. Noble second places, however, can never represent fulfilment or provide ultimate satisfaction.

So it is that Schumacher, the acknowledged master of his craft, confronts the biggest challenge of his career. He says he is happy about the new car, confident it has potential, and optimistic it will be enable him to be more competitive than he was in the early stages of last season.

He also contends that if he does not win the championship, he will be back next season to try again. There are those who are not so sure.