Schumacher sees off all challengers

Champion creates family tension by blocking off brother Ralf while Coulthard finishes third to see title hopes fade further
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The Independent Online

Ralf Schumacher discovered the brutal way here yesterday that nothing and no one comes between his brother Michael and the quest for success.

Long after Michael had taken the acclaim of his countrymen for achieving a ruthless victory in the Grand Prix of Europe, the younger Schumacher was holed up in his motor home, hiding his anger and sense of betrayal from the rest of the world.

Michael had squeezed round against the pit wall at the start to defend his lead into the first corner, a manoeuvre permitted under the regulations but palpably a shock to the Williams-BMW driver.

Then, to compound Ralf's dismay, he was handed a stop-and-go penalty for crossing the white line of the pit lane exit after his tyre and fuel stop. That decision ended his hopes of catching his brother and denied the watching millions a fight to the finish.

It was generally recognised that the white-line law had to be enforced for safety reasons, but opinion was divided on Michael's latest show of strength. Ralf, who came in fourth, refused to shake hands with Michael, scurrying away and muttering: "I don't want to say anything I might later regret.''

David Coulthard, who was closer to the Schumachers' brusque exchange than ever he was to the front of the field, said: "Ralf was clearly not happy with Michael about what happened.''

Michael Schumacher's uncompromising style has incensed many an opponent down the years but he is nothing if not consistent. Ralf represents a growing threat that has to be repelled. On this occasion the Ferrari driver's hard-line defiance and his pit crew's slick work preserved his lead and, even if Ralf had not been penalised, it might have been just enough to give Michael his 49th Formula One win, only two fewer than the record holder, Alain Prost.

Schumacher Snr is also firmly on course for a fourth World Championship. He heads Coulthard by 24 points following the Scotsman's third place in the McLaren-Mercedes. Juan Pablo Montoya, in the other Williams, was second, confirming the scale of Coulthard's plight.

Ralf later said he felt he could have beaten his brother had it not been for his transgression but Michael was adamant the changes made to his car at the pit-stop significantly improved its performance. Michael sympathised with Ralf over the white-line incident and, to a certain extent, for forcing him across the track. However, he insisted he and the authorities have merely applied the letter of the law. He said: "I had to make sure I was first into the first corner otherwise I would have been in trouble and I used the one-move rule to the maximum. That's the way you have to work, unfortunately.

"I don't think he touched the wall. It's tough, I know, and seems unfair to the one who lifts, but it is clear what is and what is not allowed. He gives no presents, either. We make it difficult but leave room to survive.

"The stop and go was tough on my brother. It was a very strong decision and destroyed the race. I remember things that have happened to me that were hard. But then, like hitting the wall, you have to be careful.'' In other words, rules are rules and business is business.

Gerhard Berger, BMW's motor-sport director, who was the nearest Ayrton Senna had to a brother in Formula One, accepts that winning is an addiction that draws some to the edge. "I was not a bit surprised by what Michael did,'' he said. "It was hard, but that's racing. It's the way he's got so many wins. You don't win that many without being on the limit and he was on the limit.''

The brothers fell out after a collision here four years ago and their father, Rolf, had to heal the rift. Coulthard has been on the wrong end of Schumacher's combative nature and empathised with the younger brother yesterday. He said: "I maintain that if you do something that causes somebody to take avoiding action it can't be right, but I don't write the rules.''

The harsh reality for Coulthard is that his championship cause is running out of gas. The advance of Williams is serving to distance him from his objective, and his air of resignation reflected the state of play with eight races remaining.

Coulthard, always struggling after qualifying fifth, said: "Third is the best we could have hoped for. Our performance in the last two races shows the situation. We are not as competitive as we would like. There's no point looking at the points situation. The championship is not decided until it's decided."

Eddie Irvine just missed out on the points, finishing seventh in his Jaguar. Jenson Button, at the centre of transfer speculation here, was 13th in a Benetton.

Rebuttals are rife but there is a belief that Jaguar might be prepared to consider employing Button next year if Williams, who have long-term control over his services, decide they do not require him into 2003.