Ralf ready to drive out of the shadows

British Grand Prix » The younger Schumacher is playing catch-up as he challenges his brother's supremacy
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From the moment Michael Schumacher first sat in a Formula One car, during testing for the Jordan team at Silverstone in August 1991, people have been piling on the plaudits.

Since the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, Schumacher's principal opponent on the track has been Mika Hakkinen. Until now that is. For in recent races his younger brother, Ralf, has steadily emerged as a world-class talent in his own right.

It might have taken the younger Schumacher longer to make his mark, but now that he has served notice of intent his brother knows he is in a fight to retain his place at the head of the family table.

Ralf made his Formula One debut in August 1996 in a test for McLaren-Mercedes at Silverstone, the venue for next week's British Grand Prix. Then, watched by team chief Ron Dennis and Mercedes-Benz motorsport director Norbert Haug, he achieved a best lap of 1min 29.2sec which compared favourably with Hakkinen's 1:27.8 qualifying lap from the previous month's British Grand Prix, and would have put the young German 11th on the grid.

It was reasonable debut, but a long way from the sensation of Michael's first run – in practice for his debut in the Belgian Grand Prix, when Jordan engineers had run on to the track to try to slow Michael down, until they realised how easily the pace he was setting came to him.

Michael was also much quicker to scale the heights of the podium and just a year after his debut race, he won his first grand prix and has since amassed another 49 victories. Ralf, slower off the blocks, made his debut with the Jordan-Peugeot team in 1997, and finally, after 70 attempts, won his first race this season.

Formula One, then, has been harder for him to crack. "I believe that Ralf is really special," said Willi Weber, the German entrepreneur who manages both brothers. "He has the same feeling for the car that Michael has, though perhaps he takes a little longer to get up to speed. Where Michael might need only three laps, Ralf takes five or six, but that is partly due to his lack of experience."

Last week at Magny-Cours, when Ralf achieved the first pole position of his F1 career, Weber was not to be seen in his habitual place in the Ferrari garage. Instead he had wandered down the pit road to the Williams team to be with Ralf. It was a small thing, perhaps, entirely to be expected. It would be easy to read too much into it. But it was significant, none the less. Ralf had come of age.

Michael, the reigning world champion, certainly believes that his younger brother possesses the necessary qualities to fight for the title. "He is very talented," he said, "but he has a different way to me of getting speed out of the car. If he wants advice I give it. But it is important that he finds his own way."

Ralf, six years younger than Michael, was born in Hurth on 30 June 1975 and had his first taste of powered motoring at the tender age of three – beating Michael's record by a full year – when he drove one of the karts at the racing school in Kerpen run by his parents, Rolf and Elisabeth.

Now, two decades later, the pair have shared the front row of the grid for the past three grands prix.

And if Ralf's BMW-Williams package had reached maturity slightly earlier, Michael would surely have had a fight on his hands for this year's championship.

However, reliability has been a problem for Williams, and Michelin's first season back in F1 has inevitably seen some inconsistency in tyre performance. Ralf takes the view that the team is building for next season, and says he isn't frustrated with the occasional drops in form. "We have been a lot better than we all expected to be this season, to be honest," he says. "The only problem that we have is that we haven't delivered as much as it turns out that we could have done.

"But I always knew it would be difficult with Michelin, especially on circuits where they just had an estimation of how things were going to be. But to be fair, with their dry tyre they have done a pretty good job and we have to be patient while they develop."

Speaking to Ralf it is easy to sense the calmness that comes with great expectations of the not-too-distant future but the younger Schumacher is reluctant to acknowledge that he is a contender – for now anyway.

"At the moment we are far away from challenging for the title," he said. "Aerodynamically we are not strong enough. There are things we have to get on top of first before we can really start to go for the championship. But I think if we get everything together then we might have a realistic chance to be permanently at the front next year."

He is well liked within Williams, and especially within BMW, now that he is working closer with his mechanics and engineers and he is clearly enjoying his long-awaited role as a leading player.

"The only thing you can do as a driver, apart from to drive fast," he said, "is describe your problems as best as possible to the engineers so that they can understand what you mean and then you can only hope the design department will find a solution."

Next weekend the Schumachers will be at it again, and Michael knows that Ralf is unlikely to go away now that he too has the taste for victory. One year on he concedes that he deserved the ear-bashing Ralf gave him after an altercation in Spain, but it's early days for such capitulation for the squeeze he gave him at the start in Germany last month. "Whatever happens in racing will not affect our relationship," he said.

Ralf, meanwhile, keeps his own counsel and says nothing for public consumption that he might regret later. It's another sign of his maturity, and his readiness to challenge the man in whose shadow he has lived his entire 26 years.