Irvine in attack on 'dangerous' Schumacher

Just when Michael Schumacher thought it was safe to go out into the open and bask in the adulation of his countrymen, he found himself embroiled in another feisty chapter in the ongoing saga of his racing morals.

Just when Michael Schumacher thought it was safe to go out into the open and bask in the adulation of his countrymen, he found himself embroiled in another feisty chapter in the ongoing saga of his racing morals.

He arrived for Sunday's German Grand Prix here armed with his customary cool front against questions about whether he and his Ferrari team were in a state of crisis after seeing his world championship lead shrivel from 22 points to six in two races.

However, his demeanour changed markedly when he was again challenged about his driving style and his tendency to steer in front of other cars at the start.

McLaren-Mercedes' David Coulthard, Schumacher's closest challenger, had voiced his disapproval after the French Grand Prix, earlier this month and received support from Eddie Irvine, for four years the No 2 to the German at Ferrari, and Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion.

Irvine called Schumacher "a bully", while Villeneuve questioned his ethics. A stern-faced Schumacher responded: "I don't take those two guys or their comments seriously."

Irvine, back on duty at Jaguar after missing the Austrian Grand Prix with a still undiagnosed abdominal complaint, and sporting a new blond look, interpreted that statement as evidence for the prosecution.

"He should take us seriously," the Ulsterman said. "That's very arrogant. I'm not doing it to wind him up. I'm doing it because it's a safety issue. If he's not taking the issue seriously he should not be the head of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association."

Schumacher counters that the case against him has already been put to the authorities and rejected. Charlie Whiting, the international motor racing federation's race director, has reaffirmed that a driver is permitted one change of direction in any manoeuvre and that Schumacher drove within that rule at the French Grand Prix.

Irvine contends that Schumacher made two changes of direction in France and offended more seriously at the San Marino Grand Prix this year.

"He should have been disciplined," Irvine said. "What he did at Imola, especially, was out of order. The way he drives at the start of races is dangerous.

"The problem is that it's not a simple black-and-white matter for Charlie. Apparently it's OK if he gets away with it and the guy behind him lifts. But that's like shooting at someone and not being charged with attempted murder if you miss.

"I always believe that what goes around comes around. I'm convinced of that. My relationship with Michael is fine, no problem. It's just that I don't agree with his starts."

Schumacher implied that hypocrisy and British bias is fuelling the campaign against him. He said: "Charlie clarified the rule and if the rule allows the way I drive I shall continue to drive that way. Is this Formula One or Happy Families on an afternoon drive, stopping off to drink coffee?"

He added: "The people who complain have done the same thing in the past. I'm seen as the bad guy in England, but this is the way Formula One has been ever since I have been racing in it. What about [Ayrton] Senna and [Nigel] Mansell at Monaco in 1992? Everybody said that was great racing."

On that fabled occasion Senna used every inch of the principality, weaving this way and that, to block Mansell and win the race. It was, indeed, hailed an outstanding spectacle and Schumacher has a valid point.

Ironically, Coulthard, another official of the GPDA, was the least animated by these latest exchanges. The Scotsman, just two points ahead of his McLaren team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, was more anxious to contemplate Sunday's race. He said, a little reluctantly: "Every time a car goes on to the track there is a potential for an accident. It's an issue over what the rules are. Charlie has given his view, and as long as we know where the line is we go racing.

"Danger is an accepted part of our sport and I'd be surprised if any driver would put his own safety at risk to put another driver's at risk."

And Ferrari's championship campaign in crisis? "No, it's not," Schumacher said calmly. "It's not been ideal for us in the last few races but we have had enough bad luck and it's our turn for good moments. I don't feel it's slipping away."

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