Safety unlikely to clip Schumacher's wings

David Tremayne says the return to Silverstone holds no trepidation
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Michael Schumacher's body language has said it all after his wins in the first three Grands Prix of the season. The clenched fist, the arm bent and held in tight to the torso like an F1 parody of Bruce Forsyth, the grimace of victory stretching that lantern jaw. The image is not merely one of a man leading a world championship chase that he desperately wants to win; it is that of a man who knows the satisfaction of winning when, really, he should not be.

Schumacher is the only driver who gets close to the McLaren-Mercedes, and is therefore best placed to make the hardest assessment of his red rocket's performance in comparison to that of the silver arrows. Right now, the latter are slightly faster.

The first two races, in Australia and Brazil, were inconclusive, the first because the McLarens retired early, the second because Schumacher and his arch-rival Mika Hakkinen opted for different fuel strategies and the Finn's McLaren stopped again. But last week in San Marino they ran similar fuel loads and Hakkinen would have outrun the Ferrari by a small but significant margin had a mysterious on-board computer glitch and an encounter with on-track debris not hampered the world champion's flight.

Schumacher has always been a tactician par excellence, and it's not hard to imagine the thoughts running through his mind. Hark back to his original pronouncement about Ferrari's F1 2000: "We have a car which will be competitive everywhere, and we also know how to develop it." If I am winning now with this car, the thinking goes, just think what I can do with it when it is really developed.

Last year McLaren nearly threw away the drivers' championship with some silly mistakes, not the least of which came in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last July when Hakkinen lost a rear wheel while on target for victory. But by then Schumacher was already on his way to hospital after his accident on the first lap at Stowe left him with a broken leg.

At Imola last weekend, Schumacher was upbeat about returning this week for this season's much earlier running of the British Grand Prix on the only circuit on which he has ever injured himself seriously.

"I have no strange thoughts about going back," he said. "You can be on any track, it doesn't matter where you are if your brakes fail. It can happen at any corner. You can't do anything about it, except that hope the run-off area there has better protection."

Schumacher's accident was a combination of brake failure after a bleed nipple on a rear caliper had worked loose through vibration and, some observers believe, a moment of rashness as he could see the McLarens disappearing in the lead and was finding his team-mate, Eddie Irvine, reluctant to be overtaken.

Schumacher's comments came, however, before the Brazilian driver Ricardo Zonta had a very heavy accident at Stowe last Wednesday. Zonta escaped with nothing worse than a cut finger after the front suspension failed on his BAR-Honda, which then rolled several times before clearing the safety barriers and landing on the grass bank in front of a spectator grandstand. It was the sort of freak accident that gives circuit owners nightmares.

If Schumacher has anything to get his head around as he heads back to Silverstone, it is the safety aspects. The British Racing Drivers' Club, who own the circuit, have spent well in excess of £500,000 on improvements since last July, including the use of double-layer tyre protection at Stowe. They are unquestionably more committed to safety issues than some other circuits that the F1 circus visits.

Schumacher has recently taken over from the retired Gerhard Berger as the Grand Prix Drivers' Association representative in safety matters, which he took very seriously even before his own accident.

"Ricardo was very lucky and it just shows how good car safety is right now," he said after the crash. "But it also shows that although Silverstone improved safety in this area, it doesn't mean we can be satisfied. We still have to look at how we can improve it and there are a couple of changes that I think are vital before the weekend." Schumacher had immediate talks with FIA, the sport's governing body, and representatives of Silverstone, who indicated their intention to make any changes that are deemed necessary.

Rivals might wish that these safety concerns will take the edge off Schumacher's speed this weekend, but they are wishes that are unlikely to be fulfilled. Schumacher revealed how much Zonta's accident had affected him psychologically by setting the fastest time when testing resumed on a damp track on Wednesday morning and by maintaining his advantage when conditions dried out in the afternoon. Like Jackie Stewart before him, he has the strength of character to stand up for his safety beliefs, but also to put them firmly to one side whenever he climbs back into the cockpit.

Tough enough to stop at the best of times, he is all but unstoppable when the scent of a championship is in the air. Even though McLaren-Mercedes still have a small performance advantage, they know that Michael Schu-macher could again be all-conquering at the weekend.