Schumacher tilts balance

David Tremayne says the shock return is good news for Irvine

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER'S sudden decision to return to cockpit duty for the final two races of the Formula One calendar puts a whole new spin on an already precariously balanced World Championship battle. The Malaysians, due to play Grand Prix host this weekend for the first time, cannot believe their luck in the most topsy-turvy season in years.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER'S sudden decision to return to cockpit duty for the final two races of the Formula One calendar puts a whole new spin on an already precariously balanced World Championship battle. The Malaysians, due to play Grand Prix host this weekend for the first time, cannot believe their luck in the most topsy-turvy season in years.

Schumacher's return is also the best possible news for Eddie Irvine, after his pointless run in the Grand Prix of Europe at the Nurburgring a fortnight ago left him trailing reigning champion Mika Hakkinen by two points, 60 to 62. As they lock horns again at the brand-new Sepang circuit in Kuala Lumpur, Irvine will expect Schumacher to bring Ferrari the impetus that was missing in the last two events, while also counting on his help to fight off the still threatening Heinz-Harald Frentzen (50 points) and the marginalised David Coulthard (48). Schumacher completed three days of intensive testing at Mugello and Fiorano last week, before agreeing that his injured right leg was OK.

Whether the German made the decision willingly or was given a gee-up by his team is unclear, but Ferrari's official line said: "Michael wants to give the maximum support in the fight for the championships, and to fulfil the wishes of the team and all the fans."

As does Johnny Herbert, of course, having raised them so spectacularly with his shock victory in Germany, where he accepted with his customary grace the suggestion that luck played a significant role.

Well, what bad luck there has been in the Stewart-Ford team this season, and assuredly there has been plenty, has visited itself upon his car with almost religious fervour. While team-mate Rubens Barrichello led races, stood on podiums and made himself into the sort of star that Ferrari have since poached to partner Michael Schumacher next season, the 35-year-old Englishman has struggled with a serious of silly failures and a car that was a bitch to drive. At one stage team principals Jackie and Paul Stewart were not disguising their disappointment in him any more than they were their obsession with Barrichello, or their wish that Johnny would voluntarily go and do something else.

Yes, Johnny knows all about luck. He knows how it feels to have both ankles shattered in an accident not of his making, yet to come back against all the odds and to finish fourth in his first Grand Prix. How it feels to be sacked by Benetton because his still-pulpy feet couldn't press the brake pedal hard enough. And the stomach-numbing isolation of being Michael Schumacher's team-mate.

So the third victory of his gritty career came not just as a boost to the confidence that he admits had been bruised, but also as a timely reminder of his underrated ability and a payback for all the aggravation that he has had to endure in a tough year. "It was a surprise," he admitted, "but a really nice one."

What luck was involved was of the self-made variety that lies at the root of most success stories. McLaren and Ferrari made crass errors in the pits that they will be desperate not to repeat this weekend. Coulthard made an unfathomable driving gaffe that all but threw away his World Championship chance, and Giancarlo Fisichella was simply not man enough for the job. Only Frentzen and Ralf Schumacher truly deserved sympathy for their disappointments. Herbert, meanwhile, did not put a wheel wrong in the tricky conditions, and had sufficient grey cells to spare from the purely physical duties of driving his Stewart-Ford to assess what was going on around him.

"We made our first pit stop at precisely the right time," he said. "I was thinking of the wet-dry Grand Prix at Donington back in 1993, and trying to read the clouds and not just the weather we were getting at any one moment. When it first rained on the 18th lap I was surprised when people started pitting, because the track was really only damp. So I stayed out. Later I went past the pits and came down to the left-right section, and it was absolutely pouring down. I looked at the clouds, and they were like a great big teardrop whose tail was right in the middle of the scoreboard down there. I knew it wasn't going to move, because the wind had been blowing up the straight all day. So when I came in I called for wets even though the team had more dry tyres ready. It was a bit of a risk at the time, but it was precisely the right thing to do."

He was, he admits, smirking over the last few laps, savouring the moment because this victory was so much better than either of the two he scored for Benetton in 1995. At Monza that year Benetton boss Flavio Briatore barely acknowledged him. This time there was a lot more genuine emotion. "It's great for Stewart-Ford," Herbert said. "Jackie had only three races left with the team running in his name and tartan colours, before the change to Jaguar green next season, and it was wonderful to help him and Paul realise something so dear to their hearts. I know how much they really wanted a win for the Stewart marque."

The teams tested at Barcelona last Thursday in readiness for Malaysia, and Frentzen split the McLaren duo. But it was Herbert who was quicker than all of them, building on his new confidence and Stewart-Ford's. And leaving luck in the garage.

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