Schumacher shows strain in fight to hold back young pretenders

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The Independent Online

At Monaco in 1984 Alain Prost saw the future, and was troubled by it. Its name was Ayrton Senna. But for the vagaries of the weather and the decision of the Clerk of the Course, Jacky Ickx, to end the race prematurely, victory that day would surely have gone to the Brazilian rookie and not the French veteran.

On Sunday, Michael Schumacher looked like a man who had seen an equally unpalatable future as he stood on the rostrum looking physically and emotionally drained. At 34 Schumacher is still young enough to carry on for another four or five years before considering retirement. But he has been in Formula One since August 1991 and recent races have brought home to him the fact that there are now three young lions anxious to claw him on their way to the top: Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen and the Renault prospect, Fernando Alonso.

Montoya showed his mettle not just by muscling past Schumacher into the lead of the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix, but deliberately moving him wide in the first corner to frustrate a counter-attack. In France last year Raikkonen led Schumacher confidently until he was caught out by poorly flagged oil from Allan McNish's expired Toyota. More recently, only Alonso kept Schumacher honest in Spain.

The old lion knows that the cubs are getting restless. Of course, there is no suggestion that he is considering quitting, but afternoons like Sunday must bring home to him the growing challenge he faces.

Monaco affirmedall that is great about grand prix racing, with the three leaders driving with their hearts and their heads, and with professional courtesy. It was in contrast to some antics in Saturday's Formula 3000 race which, unfathomably, went unpenalised.

In the worst, Enrico Toccacelo, who had already ignored a penalty for four laps, was alleged to have slowed 30 metres early for the Massenet corner according to the telemetry from Vitantonio Liuzzi's car which was following closely as they fought for third place.

Liuzzi - a former world karting champion who has tested for Williams-BMW - is well versed in the art of running millimetres behind other vehicles, but something caused a sudden difference in their respective speeds at a point where he would not reasonably have expected it. His car was launched over Toccacelo's and almost cleared the new safety fence before crashing hard into the barriers. It was almost the accident many have feared for years in Monaco.

Liuzzi claimed he had been "brake tested"; Toccacelo denied it. If the stewards had ignored hearsay evidence from shaken marshals and video evidence that could have been interpreted either way, and simply removed the respective cars' telemetry, it would have provided empirical evidence one way or the other.

Toccacelo could have been cleared or suitable punishment, such as a one-race ban, could have been meted out. Instead, the stewards, Paul Gutjahr, Rafael Sierra and Christian Calmes dismissed it as a "racing incident".This it was not.

Gutjahr is the man who viewed Michael Schumacher's deliberate attempt to take off Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez in 1997 as a "racing incident" as they fought for the world championship. The decision was rightly overturned by the FIA World Council.

As Jenson Button's accident on Saturday showed, motor racing remains a dangerous business despite the dramatic safety progress of the past decade. It sends the wrong message to junior drivers that unacceptable tactics will go unpunished or without proper investigation. Worse still, bad habits at the higher levels always filter down to grass-roots racing.