Monza spurs Schumacher towards title

Course and Montoya will test championship leader during tomorrow's US Grand Prix
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Michael Schumacher has never been short of confidence, and his 68th Grand Prix victory, scored a fortnight ago at Monza, may have been the crucial act of a season that brings him a record-setting sixth world championship crown. Judging by his manner yesterday, the German certainly thinks so.

In Hungary in August he drove one of the few lacklustre races of his illustrious career; only his fourth place in the 2001 Italian Grand Prix, in the shadow of September 11, was worse. At the Hungaroring the best he could manage against a phalanx of Michelin-shod cars was eighth place. Ferrari, already on red alert as Bridgestone's performances in recent events had left them trailing, went into panic.

The result was a crucial win at Monza, and the critical part of that race was Schumacher's wheel-to-wheel run through the second chicane on the opening lap with his, arch-rival Juan Pablo Montoya. Whoever won that scrap would win the race. Montoya edged alongside and was a fraction ahead, but Schumacher kept his nerve and his lead.

Thereafter, Montoya's decision to go for one notch more on the rear wing, against the advice of his BMW Williams team, proved the deciding factor. The Ferrari maxed out at 229mph down the straights, on a track where tyre and chassis performance is less important than sheer grunt, and Montoya had to settle for second.

The smart money is on a Michelin revival here at Indianapolis, where the tortuous infield is a key part of the lap, but there is also a very long straight, the longest in the business, which will help Ferrari.

The situation is so delicately poised, with Schumacher leading Montoya by three points (82 to 79) that it is impossible to call. And adding spice is the fact that for the first time since 1986 there are three drivers still in the running for the title with only two races to go. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen is seven points adrift of Schumacher, who only needs a 10-point lead when he leaves America to win the title.

Schumacher, a five-time winner already this season and the victor of the inaugural United States Grand Prix at IMS in 2000, can sense victory.

"I think we have a really good car," he said yesterday. "We have a good package. We have worked very intensely on every option in testing last week. We feel we are very well prepared, but at this stage, less talking, more showing is better. It's exciting. It's good. We are strong; we won the last race. We obviously believe in ourselves, and the rest is, you take it as it comes, and you do your best."

Montoya is also a past winner here, however, albeit of the prestigious Indianapolis 500 in 2000. He led the 2001 race too, and has won twice this season and scored seven further podium finishes for BMW Williams. The Colombian is also quietly upbeat.

"It's a matter of going out there and doing what we can," he said. "It's a three-point difference, and we can narrow the gap, so it could be ideal. We've got to try to stay in contention with Michael and make sure Kimi doesn't get ahead of us, either. It's going to be quite an interesting race. I think we should have a very good one here. I don't have to win the race, I just need to make sure I finish next to Michael and Kimi, and that doesn't make it necessary to win."

Montoya upstaged Schumacher in initial qualifying yesterday, as the German again complained that being first man out - as championship leader - left him in the role of track cleaner. In turn, Montoya was beaten by his team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, but Rubens Barrichello's 1min 09.835sec for Ferrari redefined the ante as he once again overshadowed his team leader and boosted Bridgestone's hopes. The day ultimately belonged to Jarno Trulli, however. Fastest already in practice he pushed Barrichello aside with 1.09:566 for Renault, which meant that the day ended with more questions than answers.

Fast performances from Mark Webber, David Coulthard and Fernando Alonso left Schumacher only eighth, a position that could seriously hamper his chances of a pole-position start tomorrow.

* Britain's Ralph Firman, 28, made his return at Indianapolis yesterday after sitting out the last two races. Firman covered 45 laps, having gone into private testing not knowing if he would be fit to race this weekend. Firman missed races in Hungary and Italy after his 150mph crash during practice in Budapest and was still struggling with an inner-ear imbalance during testing last week. Firman finished seventh fastest for Jordan-Ford.