Motor Racing: Schumacher's scarlet pain-killer

British Grand Prix: German driver believes his mission to bring Ferrari their first title for 20 years is close to fruition
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SUDDENLY THE bolt upright position, the familiar image of authority and self-assurance dissolved. He slumped forward on to the table and admitted: "I have been suffering for the last three years."

Many would view Michael Schumacher's penance as not only self-inflicted but also just. Much as he is acknowledged as the outstanding driver of his generation and worthy of comparison with the best of any era, he is unlikely to be considered among the most loved. The mantle of the cold, ruthless, arrogant Teuton was thrown around his shoulders early in his Formula One career and the subsequent protestations have fallen on deaf ears. There will be little sympathy for him now.

He went to Ferrari in 1996 after winning the World Championship twice with Benetton, moulding the entire team around his cause. Eddie Irvine was recruited as his dutiful No 2. Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, two important figures in the direction of the team and the creation of the car at Benetton, followed him to Italy. And money, naturally, was no object.

Midway through his fourth season with Ferrari, the crusade is yet to achieve its objective. Schumacher, thwarted initially by Williams, then by McLaren-Mercedes, is still seeking his third championship, still striving to distinguish himself as the man who brought the title back to Maranello.

It is now 20 years since Ferrari had a world champion and Schumacher approaches Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone trailing McLaren's Mika Hakkinen by eight points. The scarlet car has been much improved over the past two years but it remains tantalisingly short of the best.

Ayrton Senna, whose death five years ago left Schumacher as the world's undisputed No 1, was offered the opportunity to drive the Ferrari dream but declined. Maybe one day, he said. He preferred to stay with McLaren, to retain the best car. The only challenge he required was within himself. He needed the personal satisfaction of putting himself as close as possible to his limits.

Schumacher could appreciate that now. "Absolutely," he said softly, still bent across the table. "I would be very much happier if I had the best car, to show exactly what I can do. After three years I clearly look forward to that situation. Basically that was my idea of what I should achieve at Ferrari. If it goes well this year, after difficult circumstances, hopefully next year I will have the luxury of the best car."

Schumacher's detractors contend he went to Ferrari for the $20m bounty, which has since risen to $30m, but wealth beyond the comprehension of the average racing fan was never in doubt. Mercedes would have provided him with his every need and more to return him to his spiritual home.

The irony, of course, is that Mercedes, as engine partners to McLaren, now frustrate his planned deliverance, yet he maintains he does not regret turning them down.

"I don't necessarily think I should have gone to McLaren because at the time who would have known they would suddenly jump so far? Also it was a particular challenge for me to do the job with Ferrari and it is still. Until I have got the final result I am motivated to do that. And for sure the belief is still there.

"We are so close. It is difficult and I probably should have won in Canada and France. But maybe that's a good omen. We did well there in the previous two years and didn't win the championship, so maybe we can turn that round this year. We have plenty of good opportunities to come. I don't feel any more pressure because it has been so long. If I was the reason for not winning it then there would be pressure."

At the age of 30, Schumacher should be just about at his peak, but he feels he has still to reach his potential and that Irvine, a more consistently competitive driver this season, is forcing him ever nearer. "I can still improve and Eddie is good for that, to show me sometimes there are areas where you can go faster, and I can pick them up," he said. "That's what you need in a good team-mate, somebody who can push you. Sometimes you go out, you think you are doing a good job and then you find out there is still some margin to go better."

Some suspect Irvine is getting too close for comfort. The word in the paddock is that the relationship between Schumacher and the Ulsterman has become strained this season, that Irvine has tired of being No 2 and may move on to find his own fulfilment.

Schumacher said: "People try to make out there is a change in our relationship but from my point of view there isn't. There were stories about difficulties between us after Melbourne, but I was very happy for him to take his first victory there. A lot of things were supposed to have happened, but nothing happened.

"I feel as relaxed with him as before - and I think he with me - and I don't feel any more pressure from him. If you look at the situation properly you find the margin between us is still what it used to be, but it is a more consistent margin. It is still three to five tenths of a second a lap, but without the big steps up to one and a half seconds that there were in the past.

"The car is obviously better and maybe he is more confident to do the job. When the circumstances have been difficult he has struggled more. Luckily, I am always faster and that's why I am the No 1 driver and he is the No 2 driver.

"As the No 2 driver he should be in the position to take points off the other guys. He still does not have the car to do that all the time, but in Melbourne and Monaco he did. In Canada he didn't take all the points off Mika and wasn't really fast enough to be able to, but he is doing a good job and I don't think there is any reason to change.

"I have no reason to want a change. He is a driver very close to my style, which is important for testing. But I am not making the decision. It is the team making the decision and they have to get on with him. The question is will he accept to stay in the same situation? I would understand if he moved, but would he be able to go better anywhere else? What does he prefer, to be a No 1 in a team where he cannot be on the podium, or No 2 and able to win races?"

Schumacher's self-belief is as striking as his pace. His critics argue that conviction too often spills over into a destructive and potentially dangerous arrogance.

The German responds earnestly: "I don't feel I am arrogant, so I don't see how it can be a problem. If people feel I am, well that is their view. I doubt they are right because most of these people don't really know me. I have confidence, but I don't think I express it in this way.

"If I was arrogant because of my confidence I would say I am going to beat anyone, any time, that I am a better driver than Hakkinen. But that is not my style. I don't do that. So if people still think I am arrogant they don't want to see the reality."

One certain way of establishing whether Schumacher is better than Hakkinen is, of course, to put them in the same team with equal status.

"I think it would be good in order to find out who is really the faster guy," Schumacher said, sitting upright and smiling again.

"I don't think it would be fair on my side to make a comment on that until we have driven in the same car. But I would be confident to take the challenge.

"Mika does a good job, he does a consistent job. That doesn't really surprise me because he always has. But there are, in my view, circuits where he is not totally on it. There are moments when David (Coulthard, his team-mate) seems to be able to go faster. That is good to see from my point of view.

"David has come a bit closer to Mika in lap times and he has been very, very unlucky. The race in France showed how his luck has been this season."

Schumacher had a word of understanding, too, for Damon Hill, his nemesis of the mid-nineties. The much troubled Englishman is keeping his helmet on for the British Grand Prix, despite warnings of dire consequences from Irvine and others, but Schumacher said: "I think this race will give him the motivation to do well. I think he is right to go on in his home grand prix.

"It has not been easy for Damon, or Jacques Villeneuve in Formula One, following famous fathers. This is one of the reasons I would not encourage my son to take up motor racing, although I would not stop him if he really wanted to. Also because of the normal concerns a father has. But it would be difficult for him to step out of my shadow."

Schumacher is contracted to Ferrari until the end of 2002 and maintains he has nothing mapped out beyond that date.

"It is now a long time since my last title so if I win it this year I will be hungry enough to take a second with Ferrari or maybe a third. But I don't want to predict anything further than 2002," he said.

"I can't say what Formula One will be like after that or what my ambition will be, so I have no clear thoughts on retirement.

"But I don't think I will go down the grid. The preferable solution for me would be to go out at the top, and I hope to achieve that."