Motor Racing: Schumacher's Hungary deadline

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER could be back in his Formula One car on Saturday in what amounts to a last realistic attempt to win this year's world championship.

The Ferrari driver, who broke his leg in last month's British Grand Prix, acknowledges that unless he resumes racing in Hungary, on Sunday week, he will have no hope of retrieving a cause taken up so effectively by his team-mate, Eddie Irvine.

Schumacher has doubtless watched in growing frustration as Irvine has capitalised on errors by McLaren-Mercedes that have undermined Mika Hakkinen's title defence with back-to-back victories in Austria and Germany. Irvine leads the championship by eight points from Hakkinen.

"It should have been me," must be Schumacher's rueful refrain.

Schumacher is 20 points behind Northern Ireland's Irvine, but he retains No1 status at Ferrari and will have no compunction about pulling rank if he has to. With six grands prix remaining, he patently feels he still has a chance.

The German will be examined by a doctor on Saturday and admits his chances of receiving clearance to drive his car at Fiorano, the team's test track, the following day are "only five per cent". However, the fact that he is prepared to even contemplate a return indicates that his prospects may be rather better than that.

He said before Sunday's race at Hockenheim that he was more concerned about the damage to his heel than the fracture. His press officer, Heiner Buchinger, said: "The heel is still swollen and at the moment he is not able to move it as freely as he should. When I left him on Sunday he was still on crutches, but Ferrari have prepared the test for Saturday. I have to say it is very unlikely he will be able to make that.

"Of course Michael realises he could be well clear in the championship. The guy is a racer and he wants to be in the car. Eddie has driven very well to win the last two races but normally Michael is faster than Eddie so it is fair to assume he would have won those races."

Ferrari had talked of a possible return by Schumacher at the Italian Grand Prix on 12 September, but by then the championship would certainly be out of his reach. If he does return in Hungary he will have a maximum of 60 points to aim for. He could yet overhaul Hakkinen and Irvine to become Ferrari's first champion in 20 years and claim a place forever in racing lore.

Irvine may be less excited about these unexpected developments, and still more inclined to part company with the team at the end of the season. He has been strongly linked with a move to Stewart-Ford, where he would not only command a higher salary, but also a position of seniority.

Mika Salo, the Finn standing in for Schumacher at Ferrari, would be disappointed, too. He responded heroically at Hockenheim on Sunday by leading the race and then dutifully giving way to Irvine.