Schumacher cites Senna in his defence

Arrogant veneer of Ferrari's No 1 driver appears to be cracking as championship tide turns towards McLaren-Mercedes

If Michael Schumacher finds himself at the centre of a start-line shunt tomorrow afternoon, he can expect the weight of the world to descend on him hard enough to make the aftermath of his controversial move at Jerez in 1997 seem like a spat at a kids' tea party.

If Michael Schumacher finds himself at the centre of a start-line shunt tomorrow afternoon, he can expect the weight of the world to descend on him hard enough to make the aftermath of his controversial move at Jerez in 1997 seem like a spat at a kids' tea party.

Back then even the German star was taken aback at the opprobrium heaped upon him when his attempt to drive Jacques Villeneuve out of the world championship backfired and left him red-faced in a gravel bed, Ferrari's hopes once again shattered. Now he is facing similar scorn from other drivers after a number of controversial moves at the start of races has once again dented his popularity. In Imola, in April, he put brother, Ralf, on to the grass as he weaved to defend his pole position. In Magny-Cours, a month ago, his swerving cost his title rival David Coulthard second place as they left the line.

At Hockenheim, this weekend, the yardstick by which other drivers judge themselves and are judged has kept his famous chin thrust resolutely forward, and the insouciant bounce was still in his step as heangrily shrugged off the criticism before setting the fastest practice time yesterday. Villeneuve says he lacks ethics. His former team-mate Eddie Irvine has described him as a bully. Schumacher's reaction has been blunt and to the point. "Listen, I don't take these two guys seriously and I don't want to discuss their comments at all. There is no point in that for me. Let's talk aboutserious matters."

This is typical Schumacher. But sometimes he has the same uncanny knack of assessing a situation as his old Benetton team-mate NelsonPiquet, even though the truth may not be palatable to everyone.

His disdain for Coulthard, another who has been critical of his tactics, is matched only by his disdain for Damon Hill. While he might say that he does not rate Villeneuve, as a defence against the French-Canadian's criticism, the BAR-Honda driver is one of the men he fears most. Coulthard is not. "I think we should wait and see whether it is more a case of Mika [Hakkinen] going through a low point, than David having raised his game," he said recently when it was suggested that the Scot has emerged as his main rival for the title this season.

On paper the comment seemed innocuous, but the manner in which it was made spoke volumes. Coulthard, Schumacher believes, is not in his class. The Austrian GP at Spielberg two weeks ago, when Hakkinen returned to form, suggested that his assessment of the situation may not have been entirely baseless.

So who is in Schumacher's league? On Thursday he answered the question by pointing at Hakkinen, sitting in his usual somnolent manner alongside him at a press conference. "He's right next to me," Schumacher said, adding quickly, "whichever of the two McLaren drivers is the faster and scores more points will be my main rival for the title."

These are tough times for the German as he chases a third world title. At the beginning of the season he seemed destined to beat McLaren-Mercedes even before they truly cleared the starting gate, as he won the opening three races and then added another two. But with only one finish in the last four races - a win in Canada - Schumacher's championship challenge has run on to the rocks. Beneath the arrogant veneer cracks are developing.

"The results haven't been ideal, obviously," he admits grudgingly, sweeping aside talk of a "crisis" within Ferrari. "But I would like to think that we have now had enough bad luck to be able to start turning things around again. Things are not slipping away yet. Various circumstances have come together to prevent us scoring points, but these things were all normal in the racing business. It's unfortunate, but it happens."

Nevertheless, the tide appears to be turning McLaren's way, with the British team winning three of the last four races and closing on to Ferrari's tail despite the recent glitch when they lost 10 constructors' points in Austria for a technical infringement.

There is a defensiveness in Schumacher that suggests a man with his back against the wall. Like all top sporting stars he has an implacable belief that he is right in all things, and that his way is the only way. It came out in his anger that he should be called to account for his driving tactics, and there are echoes of Ayrton Senna's self-justification in the way he defended himself.

"It is a rule, about what we can do," he said. "As long as you make the move in a safe way, it's OK. So what are we doing here? Is this Formula One or is it drinking coffee in a happy family situation? We are racing in a very hard and fair way, in my view. Nothing else. It has always been like this. If the rules allow us to fight like this, then that's how we will fight. It is part of the business.

"I know that things have been turned to make it appear that I am some bad guy who does things which are not allowed to be done. This is not true. The things I do are OK. If not, the stewards would tell me, and I would have to drive accordingly. But that is not the case.We can discuss within our group whether this should be the case. That is a different matter. But in all the years I have been involved in F1, that has been the case."

His fire well stoked, he chose to highlight Senna's defence of the lead at Monaco in 1992, when a recovering Nigel Mansell chased him home, having led until a wheel worked itself loose. It was an unusual choice, since on that occasion Senna's tactics were acceptable in so far as all he had to do was stay on the racing line and leave Mansell, on new tyres, to weave about behind him. He might have been better served recalling that earlier in that season he had stunned observers after finishing third in Brazil by launching a stinging attack on Senna's driving. "What he did to me today was not the mark of a champion," he had ranted then. "He weaved to keep me behind, and that is totally unacceptable."

How times change. Two years later Schumacher would take Hill off the road in Adelaide, in a move generally adjudged to have been deliberate, to win his first world title. Another three years down the yellow-brick road he appeared to try the same thing on Villeneuve in Jerez, moving into the Williams after the French-Canadian had taken him by surprise. Rumours persist that the Ferrari had a water leak that day which would have prevented it finishing. If Villeneuve had also failed to make the flag, Schumacher would have won by the single-point lead he held going into the race. Instead, he became thevillain again overnight.

The sport's world governing body, the FIA, did little, simply removing from second place in that year's championship and, with supreme irony, asking him to help with their road safety campaign. They appear to be turning the same blind eye to his starting moves, too, as was often the case with Senna, whose mantle he inherited.

If Schumacher revives his flagging title hopes by winning this weekend he will equal Senna's score of 41 victories. There is something fitting in that statistic.

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