Schuey exit promises many twists and turns

Ferrari on pole but it's Massa not Michael
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The Independent Online

So, who is the man under the greatest pressure in Interlagos this weekend? Michael Schumacher, who starts only 10th and must battle through to win with Fernando Alonso failing to score if he is to retire with an eighth world championship? No.

The German has all but conceded (well, publicly, at any rate) that his chances are slim to non-existent. Even so, the speed of the Ferrari all weekend suggests that he can still win. Fernando Alonso, then, the man who needs only one more point even if Schumacher does manage to win on his 249th and final attempt, and who therefore has to pray for a hyper-reliable Renault and who must steer clear of trouble? No, again.

It's actually Giancarlo Fisichella. If Renault's supposedly joint number one driver wins, it's all over for Schumacher no matter whether Alonso finishes or not. But can Fisichella, sixth on the grid, beat the Ferraris? At worst, Renault need 10 more points in the constructors' championship to frustrate Ferrari. Assuming that Alonso were to finish only eighth for the point he needs, that means Fisichella has to beat the Ferraris, given the points scoring system of 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 for first down to eighth place.

In doing so, he would enable his team-mate to drive a cautious race, staying out of trouble. If Alonso does better than eighth, of course, say fourth which is where he will start, with Fisichella third, a one-two for Ferrari would bring them from 186 to 204 points, while Renault would garner 11 to add to their 195. Game, set et match, ne c'est pas?

The problem is that Fisichella has Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, Jarno Trulli, Alonso and Rubens Barrichello ahead of him on the grid. Of them all, Massa will be tough to beat.

Much will depend how the charismatic little Brazilian, a revelation as Schumacher's team-mate at Ferrari this year to all but those who bothered to watch him carefully when he was at Sauber, plays the game. He would love to win at home, but to help Schumacher he will really need to bottle everyone up so that Michael has the chance to catch up.

And what if the game were not to be played by the Queensberry Rules? Schumacher, of course, has a reputation for ruthlessness that he will never live down. Ask Damon Hill.

Or Jacques Villeneuve. Respectively they were on the receiving end of his tactics in Adelaide in 1994, and Jerez in 1997. The first occasion won Schumacher his first title when, after his own unforced error had taken him into a wall, he then drove Hill off the road to ensure that his own points tally could not be beaten.

The second, when he turned into the French-Canadian as the latter dived inside him into the first corner to take the lead, saw him slither haplessly into a gravel bed, retirement, and a second place in the title chase that the FIA subsequently annulled.

Until his Ferrari crept slowly round the opening lap of the final qualifying session and then headed for the pits where it remained with a mechanical problem, he could have afforded to keep his hands clean, and at one stage people wondered instead what would happen if Massa were to tangle with Alonso? The Brazilian is not that sort of driver, but there will be a lot of pressure this afternoon in this high stakes game.

But now that Schumacher must chase Alonso, from the fifth row of the grid, anything can happen. He came here saying he does not want to win a title which depends on a rival retiring. Very laudable, if a trifle hollow based on past events.

But perhaps things have changed after his latest misfortune. Alonso, meanwhile, knows it is not over yet and is not the type to go into cruise mode.

And there's more. Not to speak ill of the retiring, but other drivers have their enthusiasm for Schumacher under firm control. At one stage this weekend there were suggestions that a few of them, anxious to see a fair and even contest without any underhand tactics, were of a mind to indulge in a bit of tit-for-tat if they were to discover that Massa had taken Alonso out, and might make things difficult for the outgoing Schumacher.

And you thought that Formula One is all about wing angles and tyre compounds. What would be fitting would be for Schumacher to fight through and bow out gracefully with a 92nd victory that would combine the scores of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

And for natural justice to see Alonso get his point and retain his crown as the curtain comes down on one of the most dramatic eras in the sport's rich history. As we saw in Suzuka, however, Formula One is not always predictable.

Drive times: The highs and lows of a long bumpy road


Kart King

Schumacher won his first title at the age of six, becoming the junior champion at the Graf Berghe von Trips go-kart track at Kerpen driving a machine built from tenth-hand parts by his bricklayer father.

Spa Treatment

At 22 he made his Formula One debut at Spa in a one-off drive for Jordan in 1991. Qualifying seventh, he lasted less than a lap after his clutch exploded. A year later at the same track he won his first GP, driving for Benetton and finishing third in that year's championship.

Italian Jobs

After two titles with Benetton (1994-95) he took a gamble by moving to Ferrari, titleless since 1979. Won five consecutive championships (2000-04), beating Juan Fangio's record of four.

Winning By Numbers

Schumacher has not so much set records as smashed them:

Seven titles (previous best: Fangio, five); 91 GP wins (Alain Prost, 51); 154 podiums (Prost, 106); 1,354 championship points (Prost, 798.5); 13 wins, 2004; 11 wins, 2002 (from 18 races; Nigel Mansell won nine out of 16 in 1992).

Charitable Outlook

Generous with his money, he donated $10m to the tsunami fund after one of his bodyguards died in the disaster, and enjoys playing football in charity matches.


Good Driver, Bad Sport?

In 1994, leading the championship from Damon Hill by one point going into the final race, Schumacher collided with Hill in the Australian GP, some say intentionally, and took the title when both cars had to retire. In 1997, when again a win for either driver would have given them the championship, he collided with Jacques Villeneuve in the European GP. This time, the stewards stripped him of all his season's points.

Hairpin Spin

Leading qualifying for this year's Monaco GP, he stalled at the Rascasse hairpin, preventing other drivers from bettering his time. The stewards decided this was deliberate and he had to start the race from the back of the grid, but he still finished fifth.

No Time For The No 2?

Praised for working closely with management and mechanics, he is accused of being distant and unhelpful to driving colleagues. Johnny Herbert at Benetton in particular complained about this.

National Distrust

Not his fault, but well, he's foreign, and German to boot. Not Britons' favourite sporting race, Boris Becker apart.

Simon Redfern