Briatore prays for new life after Schumacher

Say what you might about Flavio Briatore, the colourful maverick who steered Renault to their world championships last year, the guy has a sense of humour and a sense of theatre. He is also one of those people who tend to see the bigger picture in Formula One (unless his driver is on the receiving end of a stewards' penalty, in which case he can be as peevish as the best of them).

Having poached Michael Schumacher from Eddie Jordan back in 1991, when Renault were called Benetton, and assisted him to two of his world titles (in 1994 and '95), Briatore is ideally placed to assess how the German's announcement of imminent retirement might affect him in the three final races as he goes head-to-head with Briatore's current charge, Fernando Alonso.

"I don't think it will affect him," he insisted, "but for sure, Fernando is very strong. It's amazing to see somebody so young, so determined, so strong. I don't know what affects Michael, honestly, but Michael has been in Formula One a long time, and I'm sure he's managing the pressure. But let's see the team, because Ferrari have everything to lose now. If they don't win this year, it will be difficult in the future as well. Ferrari really need to win this championship and we need to win it as well."

Briatore firmly believes that F1 will survive long after the curtain finally comes down on the Schumacher era towards the end of the month, in Brazil. "You know, I believe the sport is so strong. Whatever actors you have in this movie, sooner or later the actors stop and the movie is going on. We remember Senna and he is the classic example. We talk about Mansell, about Senna and we talk about Prost.

"Unfortunately, after what happened to Senna, I remember every magazine and newspaper said Formula One is finished. It was the headline in every newspaper. And there was no Michael there. But nothing changes. I don't think anything changes, honestly. We remember Prost, we remember Michael, because he won seven championships... I don't know who is the next dominant one, but what is important in Formula One now is that the young drivers arrive.

"BMW have done that and other teams hope to do it. We always need new stock. It is fundamental to Formula One. We have a lot of champions now, a lot of good drivers, quick drivers and really we need another star in Formula One on the driver's side and this is something we are missing. I hope that in this group of young drivers coming into Formula One that we can find a star for the future."

One assumes that Briatore was not including Alonso in that assessment (though given his imminent departure to McLaren for 2007, perhaps he was), and yesterday the Spaniard rose to the occasion to deploy all his considerable skill in annexing pole position ahead of Renault team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, their Michelin tyres providing much more grip in wet conditions than Schumacher's Bridgestones.

It was precisely the fillip that both team and drivers needed after recent bruising events, and though Alonso was hardly bubbling with glee, he did look satisfied. Doubtless the big smile was hidden by helmet and fireproof balaclava when engineer Rob Nelson said to him over the radio: "Poor old Michael, down in sixth place..."

"It looked OK from the beginning of qualifying, and with fastest times in Q1, Q2 and Q3, the car and team have been fantastic in these conditions, really comfortable," Alonso said. "Turn one was very difficult, and as soon as you got off line and touched any big water, you were off. But the amount of fuel we put in the car gave us more possibilities than normal to be able to repeat laps.

"If conditions are normal for the race, we will be really, really strong. We'll also be strong if it's wet like this, but it's always dangerous then and it can be difficult finish races. Whatever, we have to finish the job tomorrow."

Schumacher slithered his way around, narrowly missing exclusion from the final qualifying session as he pushed to the limit. "We did the best we could as our chances were damaged by the rain," he said, "and sixth was the best I could do. You could call it a damage limitation operation. This session has not compromised my chance of winning the championship. There are two more races after this, and everything is still possible."

Right now, fate could scarcely have dealt Alonso a stronger hand, just when he most needed it. Whether the luck will stay with him this afternoon remains to be seen. This world title fight looks set to go to the final bell.

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