Beware the galloping horse

Ferrari and Schumacher look a long-term force: 'This isn't the end, but a new beginning. He's going to stack up a collection of titles'

The investment of $75m in Michael Schumacher has finally paid off for Ferrari. Amid emotional scenes of celebra-tion in Japan and Italy, the world's best-known Formula One team were at last able to lay claim to a world champion driver. The wilderness years since Jody Scheckter won their last drivers' title back in 1979 could finally be forgotten.

The investment of $75m in Michael Schumacher has finally paid off for Ferrari. Amid emotional scenes of celebra-tion in Japan and Italy, the world's best-known Formula One team were at last able to lay claim to a world champion driver. The wilderness years since Jody Scheckter won their last drivers' title back in 1979 could finally be forgotten.

But the hunt is not quite over. Ferrari must still defend the world championship for constructors in Malaysia next weekend. The odds favour them, with 156 points to McLaren's 143. With a maximum of 16 available - 10 for first place, six for second - it will take something very special for McLaren to beat them.

It has been a while since two teams so dominated a season. In 1999 Jordan and Stewart-Ford wonon occasion, but this year nobody else has looked remotely like unsettling the increasingly invincible duo. If anyone is likely to reach the chequered flag ahead of either Schumacher or Hakkinen at the Sepang circuit, it will be their team-mates, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard - anonymous last week.

"I'm sure you'll find," F1's supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, said, "that neither was in aposition to challenge in Japan. Their hands were tied by the threatened ban on anyone who got in the way of the championship fight. But the shackles will be off in Malaysia."

Both men have assiduously supported their team leaders, at personal cost. Coulthard in particular picked up the cudgels for McLaren when Hakkinen had his "sleepy" spell early on, and was a genuine contender for some time thanks to victories in Britain, Monaco and France. But since Hakkinen's return to peak form in July, the Scot's chances ebbed.

"I had a very good run in Malaysia last year until the car broke," Coulthard said, "and it would be nice to finish with a win." Though he is too astute to say so publicly, he would also dearly like to emerge from the Finn's shadow, in which he has been trapped for three years.

Barrichello scored his first win, in Germany, and thus protected Schumacher's points- lead after the German had been taken off at the first corner. Though he is the type who wants to win from the front, he will doubtless not have forgotten that last year Schumacher gifted the Malaysian race to team-mate Eddie Irvine to help his championship quest.

Last year Schumacher also gave Hakkinen the rollercoaster ride of his life, backing off and brake-testing the unhappy Finn all afternoon as he performed the very blocking that drivers were recently warned would not be acceptable in Suzuka. Then, and again in defeat in the Japanese race, Hakkinen handled the situation with his customary dignity, but imagine someone repeatedly stabbing the brake pedal ahead of you on a 200-mile motorway journey and you get the picture. A fifth victory would round out his season nicely, while evening the score in the way he would prefer.

Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, paid tribute to Hakkinen in Japan. "I don't subscribe to the view that the McLaren is a better car," he said. "I think that it's more a case of Mika being a very good driver who is underrated."

But Schumacher is on a roll, and another victory would equal the nine-in-a-season record that he shares with Nigel Mansell. His manager, Willi Weber, believes that the success which places him on the same pedestal as fellow multi-champions Juan Manuel Fangio, Sir Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost will only serve to whet his appetite. "Don't think, now that Michael has finally won the championship for Ferrari, that he will be satisfied," he warned long before the bubbles in the champagne had started to go flat. "Thisisn't the end, but a new beginning. He is going to stack up a collection of titles now."

With 43 victories, it isn't difficult to see him eclipsing Prost's record of 51. Perhaps even Fangio's benchmark of five titles will prove vulnerable, now that the prancing horse has finally begun to gallop.

Comments