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Schumacher gets back on target

Outwardly, the signs are hard to detect. The thrust of the famous chin remains as proud as ever, the walk retains the typical racing driver's jauntiness. Over dinner with friends, he looks relaxed. But however he likes to slice it, these are tough times for Michael Schumacher.

Outwardly, the signs are hard to detect. The thrust of the famous chin remains as proud as ever, the walk retains the typical racing driver's jauntiness. Over dinner with friends, he looks relaxed. But however he likes to slice it, these are tough times for Michael Schumacher.

Three easy victories at the start of the year gave the German a healthy lead in the World Championship, and two more along the way helped him to maintain it, even through a run of bad luck saw him lose a deserved triumph in Monaco, at least second place in France, and then wrote him out of the races in Austria and Germany via first-corner accidents.

It was not until the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps a fortnight ago that he actually lost the points lead as Mika Hakkinen pulled off that remarkable overtaking move on the main straight to boost his chances of claiming a third consecutive crown. All of this is the sort of racing luck that Schumacher not only understands, but can cope with. It goes with the badge.

But last week the veteran Ferrari racer Clay Regazzoni made the suggestion that some might regard as heresy: the wunderkind may no longer be quite the driver that he was. "Michael would not have been passed in such a manner two or three years ago," he suggested. "He has become too cautious." Hakkinen might take exception to the latter suggestion. After Schumacher attempted to edge him off the track during the Finn's first attempt to overtake at Spa, one could be forgiven for believing there is nothing cautious about the former champion's track manner. Quite the reverse, it would seem.

The two had words about the move, but they remain private. In public they fell back on the new mantra of Formula One: we cannot comment until we have seen the video. This is a convenient accommodation for avoiding any comment at all, for usually such things are forgotten by the following race. But at Monza memories remained sharp, and Schumacher was pressed to offer an opinion as to whether he had once again overstepped the line of on-track decorum.

It was suggested that in the days when Regazzoni gave Ferrari the home victory it so craves this afternoon, drivers acted within a code that has long since been eroded, and in a sporting spirit now departed. It was what allowed them to determine whether a move was safe or not. "Does the same spirit exist from the media side to the sport, as it used to 20 years ago?" Schumacher retorted. When it became clear he wasn't going to get off the hook, he referred to an incident in Montreal two years ago. "I think there is this kind of spirit," he said. "And I think we have proven that when I had a problem with Heinz-Harald Frentzen in Canada when I wasn't able to see him coming out of the pit lane. This kind of thing proves that we can do this."

It was an interesting insight into the mind of a man used to winning at all costs, for it was actually Frentzen who had the problem with Schumacher. The Ferrari driver exited the pits, crossed the halfway line on the track which drivers had agreed not to cross in such situations, and promptly obliged the fast-approaching Frentzen to take avoiding action which put him on to the grass at 300kph. Frentzen crashed his Williams heavily as a result.

Many people here believe that there will be more mayhem this afternoon. And that the chances of the whole field making it through a revised first corner without incident are even slimmer than those of Ron Dennis, Sir Frank Williams and Eddie Jordan wresting control of the sport from the elected FIA president, Max Mosley. (This bit of off-track theatre occasioned a measure of amusement in several circles as the trio of team owners attempted to "persuade" Mosley to stand down during a meeting at Heathrow last Wednesday, yet succeeded merely in antagonising him sufficiently to dig his heels in even deeper.)

A serious misfire during his last two runs prevented Hakkinen from challenging the Ferrari duo for pole position, as the red cars made a remarkable performance leap following their drubbing by McLaren in Belgium. Schumacher put down an uprising from Rubens Barrichello, albeit by mere hundredths of a second, while David Coulthard was unable to ride shotgun for his team-mate after persistent problems with traffic ate into his consistency. "The best sector times add up to a good lap," Coulthard said, "but I just couldn't put a good lap together."

Just to add a pinch of spice, Jacques Villeneuve sits in fourth place on the grid in his powerful BAR-Honda. The former champion certainly carries no brief for Schumacher, who needs a win. On past form you wouldn't bet against the French-Canadian snatching the lead off the line. Any more than you would all 22 cars surviving long enough to get to the second corner.

Last year, Hakkinen's race ended with the unforgettable television image of him weeping in frustration after throwing away victory with a spin. A straw poll of the drivers after qualifying yesterday suggested that very few believe that they will all get through the tight first corner without things ending in tears for at least a couple of them. At a time when Schu-macher and Hakkinen are poised to prolong their title fight, taking advantage of any contretemps at the start may be the last ace in Coulthard's hand.