Champion cool about challenge

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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher was at his most cool and phlegmatic. He had been a second adrift of McLaren-Mercedes yet maintained there was no cause for alarm and his followers were duly comforted. Germany has a prodigious presence in modern Formula One, with Schumacher's younger brother, Ralf, heading the three-strong supporting cast of drivers representing the home country.

However, it is Michael that the majority of the public here still come to see and adore, and his every move and lap time is a source of joy or despair. Yesterday, in practice for tomorrow's Grand Prix of Europe, the championship leader was fourth fastest, beaten by the McLaren pair of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard and by his sibling, in a Williams.

The elder Schumacher said: "I am not concerned. It's a similar situation to the one we had in Canada, where we were not the quickest on the first day. It is a question of how much fuel McLaren were running.'' Schumacher emerged from a weekend of practice and qualifying in Montreal with pole position, and clearly believes he is capable of repeating that feat today.

His brother beat him into second place in the race but here Michael suspects the greater threat will come from McLaren – and Coulthard in particular. Hakkinen has declared his intention to keep competing for the championship, even though he is 50 points behind Schumacher, while Coulthard, in second place, trails by 18.

"For two or three races it has been obvious David is my main opponent,'' Schumacher said. "He has been very strong this year. Of course you have to take into account that Mika has not been as strong as he usually is, but David has been consistent and made no mistakes.''

Dark clouds have provided Schumacher with a little more encouragement. "Generally I prefer a dry race but a wet race may suit me,'' he said.

McLaren-Mercedes' anxieties relate to the reliability problems that have dogged them this season, and in the last two races, have cost Coulthard crucial ground. Norbert Haug, the Mercedes motor sport director, said: "Reliability is always a worry. No team can guarantee finishing a race with two cars, but we have definitely had too many problems.

"A strong team can cope with these issues. Apart from Montreal, where Williams-BMW were the strongest, we have not been beaten recently by the opposition. It has been our mistakes. We have won only two races. We should have won more. Maybe we can turn it around. But there are three strong teams now, so life is not so easy for us.''

Williams-BMW appear increasingly capable of breaking the Ferrari-McLaren hold on Formula One and Ralf Schumacher's competitive showing yesterday suggests they are broadening their sphere of influence. "We have actually gone better than we expected,'' he said. "It is good that my home grand prix has started so well.''

But Williams, too, need to improve their reliability record, as Mario Theissen, BMW's motor sport director, acknowledged. "We have to finish more than four races in the second half of the season,'' he said.

Juan Pablo Montoya, in the other Williams, was again overshadowed by his team-mate yesterday, closing in sixth place. Eddie Irvine finished 15th in his Jaguar and Jenson Button, in a Benetton, was 18th.

Haug has insisted that his team are not yet in a position to name their drivers for next season. Ron Dennis, McLaren's team principal, has stated that he sees no reason to change his line-up and Coulthard has reaffirmed his wish to stay.

Williams have confirmed a two-year extension of their contract with Ralf Schumacher, to the end of 2004, worth £25m.

EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX (Nürburgring, Germany) First practice times: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 16.408sec; 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +0.171sec; 3 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW +0.947; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +1.099; 5 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari +1.257; 6 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW +1.329; 7 J Trulli (It) Jordan-Honda +1.725; 8 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +1.788; 9 J Alesi (Fr) Prost-Acer +1.944; 10 O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda +2.002; 11 K Raikkonen (Fin) Sauber-Petronas +2.026; 12 J Villeneuve(Can) BAR-Honda +2.065. Other: 15 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar +3.095; 18 J Button (GB) Benetton-Renault +3.570.

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