Schumacher faces up to thin chance before the fat lady sings

Michael Schumacher conceded defeat after Fernando Alonso's victory in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix had taken the Spaniard within a point of retaining the world drivers' title. But having been on the receiving end of an engine failure that all but stymied his own aspirations, the German knows that Formula One is a fickle mistress who can turn on suitors in the blink of an eye.

Schumacher and Alonso have enjoyed awesome reliability. Alonso's Renault wobbled recently, with a wheel-nut failure costing him victory in Hungary and a broken engine taking him out of the points at Monza, but the last time Schumacher's Ferrari let him down mechanically was in Bahrain last year. His last race engine failure goes back to 2002!

Though the German has said he does not want to win a title by wishing ill fortune on a rival who would have to retire to revive his chances - laudable comments in the light of what he did to Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez in 1997 - he will nevertheless push to the very end. Brazil will be the last race of his great career and there is still an outside chance that he could win the title even though a mere eighth place for Alonso would seal it.

Schumacher's own performance in Suzuka, back in 2003, when all he needed was a point for an eighth-place finish, will doubtless be running through his mind. Instead of driving his usual aggressive race he tried to be cautious and ended up having collisions with his brother, Ralf, and the fired-up local hero, Takuma Sato. In the end, Schumacher did finish eighth as team-mate Rubens Barrichello won convincingly in the other Ferrari, but he made hard work of it.

Alonso, however, refuses to believe he has held on to his crown and pledges to drive in his normal feisty manner at Interlagos. Besides, he and Giancarlo Fisichella need to do their best there to keep Renault in contention for the constructors' title. Renault are nine points clear of Ferrari, but there are another 18 still available.

The odds clearly favour Alonso, but the fat lady has yet to start singing her final note.

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