Schumacher pours scorn on rumours of McLaren move

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The Independent Online

According to the German daily Bild yesterday, Schumacher had "secretly" met twice with the director of Mercedes motor sport, Norbert Haug. Haug subsequently confirmed that they had met, but said: "That is true, but we spoke only about the future of Formula One. I take it as rather unlikely that Michael would ever leave Ferrari."

Though Schumacher came to prominence as a Mercedes-funded young driver in the Sauber sportscar team, the McLaren-Mercedes team principal, Ron Dennis, has frequently stressed Mercedes' view that when the team wins with its current drivers it is McLaren-Mercedes who win, whereas with the seven-times champion aboard it would always be seen as Michael Schumacher winning. "That is not what we go motor racing for," Dennis has said on more than one occasion, though the two parties had brief talks a few years ago.

Schumacher said tetchily: "I don't even want to comment on rumours of me leaving Ferrari. Everyone knows how closely linked are Ferrari and I."

The 36-year-old German has a contract with the Scuderia that runs out at the end of 2006, when the contracts of Raikkonen and the world championship leader, Fernando Alonso, who have supplanted him this season, also expire. Bild also claimed that his manager, Willi Weber, had put negotiations on hold. But Schumacher has indicated recently that he might yet extend his agreement with the team rather than retire.

It has been a bruising season for Ferrari, with only a hollow victory in the six-car United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. On Sunday Schumacher failed to finish, having already lost time in a clash with the Australian Williams-BMW driver Mark Webber. The latter was unhappy with the champion's movements in the braking area and, in a refreshing break from the interminable political correctness of the sport that forever sees technical problems now addressed as "issues", effectively admitted that he had taken him off to teach him a lesson.

Schumacher has a chequered past, after winning his first title in 1994 only after pushing Damon Hill off the road in Adelaide, and then trying the same thing, with less success, to his rival and the subsequent champion in 1997, Jacques Villeneuve. Lately, his fellow drivers have been angered by what they see as his refusal to go along with driving protocols agreed democratically in the regular driver briefings. Webber insisted that he would again be raising that issue with Schumacher the next time the drivers meet at Monza in a fortnight.

There was further controversy for Ferrari yesterday when the Michelin tyre company indicated strongly that they are not happy about the Sauber-Petronas driver Felipe Massa testing for Ferrari at Monza next week. Massa will leave Sauber to become Schumacher's partner at Ferrari next year, but Michelin are concerned that the Brazilian might take some of their secrets to their rivals, Bridgestone. They have ordered Sauber not to let him test again after Monza.

The technical director at Ferrari, Ross Brawn, gave Massa's imminent arrival a lukewarm reception in Turkey, even though the Brazilian has driven exceedingly well for much of the 2005 season.

"I am quite happy that he has the drive," Brawn said, "and it's really up to him to prove next year whether he's a long-term Ferrari driver. He clearly has the raw speed but he was rocky when he first started."

Massa replaced Raikkonen at Sauber for 2002, and spent a year as Ferrari test driver before rejoining Sauber in 2004. "He has got the talent," Brawn said, "but we are going to find out next year exactly how much progress he has made."

As Turkish tourism officials targeted the Olympics as their next goal after their maiden race proved a great success, the Formula One commercial rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone, refused to discuss where the series might go next. "I have no idea." Asked to comment on possible races in South Africa or Mexico, he merely said teasingly: "They are nice places."

Undoubtedly the Turkish track has raised the bar again. Ecclestone described the Otodrom as a track "that sorts the men from the boys".