Schumacher returns to crash scene

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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher, as hot as his flaming red Ferrari, has returned to the scene of a crash that almost killed him nine months ago.

Driving the best car Ferrari has produced in a generation, the jut-jawed German has won the season's first three F1 races, closing in on a promise he made five years ago to bring long-suffering Italians their first drivers' title in 21 years.

Schumacher, 31, seems mentally refreshed and physically stronger since breaking his right leg when his brakes failed and he smashed head-on into a tyre barrier at the British Grand Prix.

Now the sports' only superstar is back at Silverstone, the converted World War II airfield that hosts Sunday's British GP.

"I won't feel at all strange about going back there. Where a crash happens doesn't really matter," said Schumacher, who slammed into a retaining wall at Stowe Corner - a turn drivers approach at 190 mph.

"If you arrive with no brakes it can happen anywhere, at any corner," he added. "You can't do anything about it. The only thing I will be checking up on is that they have a better run-off area."

Schumacher got an eerie reminder last week of what happened to him when, in rain-soaked testing at Silverstone, British American Racing driver Ricardo Zonta crashed at the same corner.

Zonta pin-wheeled through a high-speed spin and flipped when he hit the tyre barrier. He walked away with only a cut finger with Schumacher calling him "very, very lucky" and pushing Silverstone officials for even more safety changes.

Silverstone spent about £600,000 on improvements in the off-season including adding an extra layer to the tire barrier. This season's race has been moved up three months on the schedule, putting the race into the heart of England's wettest season.

After only three races, the often taciturn Schumacher has a 21-point lead over new teammate Rubens Barrichello, and is 24 ahead of two-time defending champion Mika Hakkinen of McLaren. Hakkinen has won all three poles but completed only one race in his breakdown-prone MP4-15, which is still regarded as the quickest car on the track.

Schumacher has won 38 GPs, just three behind legendary Ayrton Senna and seems almost certain to overtake F1's all-time leader Alain Prost (51).

"We have the momentum, but we know how quick and lively Formula One can be," said Schumacher, who won the series drivers' titles with Benetton in '94 and '95 but hasn't won since.

"To win the title for Ferrari has been my challenge since the day I signed for them."

The last time Ferrari started this well was 1976 when it won five of the first six races with four of those victories for Niki Lauda. However, there a warning here. McLaren's James Hunt won the drivers' title that season by a point over Lauda.

Lauda won for Ferrari in 1977, South African Jody Scheckter took the title in 1979 - and Ferrari hasn't won since.

It's been an awful start for reliability-troubled McLaren. The team's No. 2 driver David Coulthard finished second in the Brazilian Grand Prix, but was disqualified and lost an appeal when stewards ruled the front wing of his car was out of tolerance two millimetres.

McLaren didn't pick up its first points until Imola with Hakkinen taking second and Coulthard third.

"It's a heck of a gap to make up," Hakkinen said. "The only way to make it up is to win races."

"Michael can still be caught," Coulthard said. "We've got plenty of races left so the opportunity is there. But we've got to get 16 points at Silverstone. We have to make sure he'd no higher than third."

Coulthard is on the hot seat with reports suggesting former series champion Jacques Villeneuve is considering a move from BAR.

"It is quite understandable if he talks to other teams," said BAR chairman Craig Pollock. "Jacques is burningly competitive and still wants to win more races, more championships as much as he ever did. It is up to us to prove why he should stay at BAR.