Ralf takes the scenic route to his destiny

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It is fashionable these days to play down your chances of success in Formula One. Blame it on Michael Schumacher. A few years back he started the game, downplaying Ferrari's hopes as they fought McLaren for the world championship. It was a useful ploy, because if you could actually fool people into lowering their expectations of you, everything you achieved subsequently seemed even more compelling.

Ralf Schumacher has picked up the trick from big brother. In the past five grands prix he has won two, and finished second, fourth (in a race won by his team-mate, Juan Pablo Montoya) and sixth. Where the former series leaders, McLaren, have picked up 34 points and the current leaders, Ferrari, 55, Schumacher Jnr's Williams team have garnered 70. With a good car and great Michelin tyres, the team are on a roll, and are now only three points behind Ferrari in the constructors' world championship. Ralf himself is third in the drivers', three points adrift of second-place man Kimi Raikkonen and 11 behind his illustrious sibling.

Not bad for a man who was being heavily criticised a month ago for a feeble race against his brother in Canada (where he was a beaten second) or a team who were being openly attacked by their engine partner, BMW.

At one stage there was even a question going round the paddock that bordered on heresy for those steeped in the historic achievements of the Williams team: will they ever win another world championship? Sages who should have known better were ready to consider the possibility that they were a spent force, incapable of investing sufficient money and talent into challenging McLaren and Ferrari. This of the team who won world championships for Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, and won the constructors' crown in 1980, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997.

Yet such is the way the game is played these days that Ralf Schumacher continues to play down his chances of winning the title as he heads towards Silverstone and next weekend's British Grand Prix.

"If the two of us, and the team, keep working like this we can keep this going," he says of Williams' momentum after he and Montoya scored a one-two in France last weekend. "There will be circuits where, for sure, it's going to be tough again, but certainly we are going in the right direction.

"We are definitely getting closer and closer to Ferrari, but for the moment I prefer not to think about our world championship chances, as things can change so quickly in Formula One.

"As my brother says, in Formula One you can never be too confident. I think we are doing a very good job altogether at the moment. As Ferrari are going to go testing some new bits, we have a very busy schedule in order to try and keep it where it is. But you never know. All of a sudden they could make a big step.

"It is going to be very tough. I am sure that we will try and stay where we are, and to keep basically going from race to race and trying to get the best result out of it."

He refuses even to be drawn on the likely outcome at Silverstone, although Williams were fastest in recent testing there. "OK, let's wait and see who will win that one. New battle here! We have had tests, they were looking pretty good for us. I guess for the last five races we have been competitive, why shouldn't we be there?"

The fact that Ralf is being so cautious is an interesting insight into his psychological make-up. When you have won the crown as many times as Michael Schumacher has, it is easier to be philosophical. But you sense that Ralf is walking carefully as his big dream has suddenly come tantalisingly into focus, and that he feels that acknowledging the fact and reaching out for it consciously might burst the bubble.

"Every driver who joins Formula One would love to win the title one day," he says. "Honestly, I am waiting a very long time for that and am aware of the situation that it might be possible this year. But it is still so far away. Since the points are so different this year, the gaps are a lot smaller, and it became more difficult. Let's wait and see what the next races are doing and then continue talking about it, maybe."

It's impossible to imagine Michael having such doubts, whatever he might say publicly, and even he predicts his brother could be his biggest threat. "There is no reason to exclude him from the circle of world championship contenders after the performances he has shown and with the consistency he has, which the car gives to him," the champion told Autosport magazine. "He is absolutely in it."

Perhaps technical director Patrick Head should put an avuncular arm round Ralf's shoulders and tell him the fable of another Williams driver who lacked the confidence of champions, the Argentinian Carlos Reutemann. In 1981 he held a healthy lead at the mid-point of the season - 43 points to Piquet's 26 - yet actually took a bet that he would not be champion. After a sublime qualifying lap in the final race, in Las Vegas, he trailed home a miserable eighth and lost the title by a point to the Brazilian.