Schumacher has pace to surpass McLaren

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The Independent Online

It has not all gone perfectly. By his own admission he missed four sitters in the drivers' football match the other day and he was a might miffed Pele hadn't taken up his invitation to make a guest appearance for his team.

But the very fact that Michael Schumacher considered himself fit enough to resume his other sporting passion was a further ominous sign for his rivals. Already the German and his team, Ferrari, have two wins in the locker and the main opposition have not so much as a point to show for their efforts so far.

McLaren-Mercedes' cause has been undermined by reliability problems and David Coulthard's appeal against disqualification in Brazil was turned down by a court in Paris. The British-based team contend they still have the quicker car, to which Schumacher responds: "Prove it."

Schumacher, now fully recovered after breaking his leg in last season's British Grand Prix, said yesterday: "I'd love to race them to the end and then we would see what the situation is. Both teams are competitive and at the end of the day we will see who will be quicker."

And where better to stage this head-to-head than right here in the heart of Ferrari-land, in Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix? All Italy expects success here - along with Ferrari's coronation at the end of the season for the first time in 21 years. The only blot on Ferrari's copybook was Rubens Barrichello's enforced retirement at Interlagos, for what Schumacher described as a "minor fault".

Schumacher rates Barrichello his fastest team-mate to date, which can only help the championship leader stay on his toes. The prospect of a third title, after five years of endeavour at Ferrari, should be enough incentive for Schumacher, but he maintains that the motivation is more fundamental and personal.

"The real motivation is the pleasure of driving the car on the limit - doing it as well as I can," he said, eerily evoking the words of Ayrton Senna, who was killed here six years ago.

"Every lap is a new challenge, always trying to improve and find a new way. It may look the same but there is always something different. It is still a big challenge after all these years. Even in testing. It is easy for me to feel this excitement."

At 31, Schumacher should be at his peak, confirming his pre-eminence with the championship denied him so long only because he has not had the best equipment. Modesty, of course, necessitated a demonstration of his nifty footwork when he was asked if he believed himself to be the best driver in the world.

"I haven't been able to race against all the other drivers in the same team and that is the only way to judge," he reasoned. "It is unfair to say I am. All you can say is that I have always been fighting for the championship."

There appears little doubt he will again be fighting McLaren for the championship this season. Mika Hakkinen, champion for the past two years, and Coulthard know they have to register that challenge here or else risk losing contact with Schumacher.

Coulthard was denied his second place in Brazil because the front wing measurement was 2mm outside the prescribed tolerance. It can be taken the team will be running no risks this weekend. Their mechanics were even measuring the right height of their trucks, lined up in the paddock yesterday.

"We have to live with what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again," Coulthard said. "Now we are focused on this weekend. The mechanics are all upbeat, we've got a quick car. We drivers would like some points but we are here with the opportunity to go for pole and win the race, and that is a great feeling."

The verdict of the Appeal Court and subsequent shuffle of the results at the Brazilian Grand Prix means that Britain's Jenson Button is the youngest driver to score a point in a Formula One race. However, just like Coulthard, he preferred to turn his attention to this weekend's race, which is just as well since he has never raced on this circuit.

The 20-year-old Williams-BMW driver said: "It's very good to get that point so that I am on the world championship table but really it's a bonus. Hopefully I'll get a few more. It's good to be back in Italy because it played an important part in my karting career in 1994 and '95, but I've never been to this circuit before. I can't wait to get out there in the morning."

* The International Automobile Federation, FIA, has fined the organisers of last month's Brazilian Grand Prix £63,000. Motor sport's world governing body imposed the sanction after practice for the race at Interlagos was interrupted three times when advertising hoardings fell on to the track. The Frenchman Jean Alesi escaped injury when one hoarding fell on to his Prost car.

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