Schumachers make up but race rivalry will stay at full throttle

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They had lunch together yesterday, as often they do, and on Sunday they will be prepared to race each other to the edge, as the younger man now accepts they will often do in the future.

The brothers Schumacher made a public show of family unity after Michael had squeezed Ralf almost against the pit wall at the start of last Sunday's Grand Prix of Europe. Ralf's dismay at the Nürburgring was compounded by a stop-go penalty which ended his hopes of challenging Michael for victory and he could not bring himself to shake hands when it was all over. They have settled a few corporate nerves by publicly renewing communications and yet both made it clear there would be no family truce in Sunday's French Grand Prix here.

Michael is within two wins of Alain Prost's all-time record of 51 because he is uncompromising and insatiable. Ralf, in turn, states he is ready to compete on Michael's terms. Ralf, twice a winner for Williams-BMW this season, said: "I have told Michael he will have to fight for his 50th victory. I'm looking forward to another fight but this time I intend to make it a better ending for me.

"I forgive Michael but it wasn't amusing for me. That kind of thing isn't exactly very pleasant for the person on the receiving end. But he was just defending his position, as he did later on in the race as well. It was very tough, though never unfair. I would have done the same. I know how he drives and he knows how I drive. We have to live with that. We don't make presents to each other.''

The 32-year-old Michael, seeking a second championship with Ferrari to match the two he collected at Benetton, maintained his bitter-sweet approach to the challenge of his younger sibling, who is 26 tomorrow.

"Ralf was quite upset about the 10 second stop-go penalty and I agree with him – it was a very hard decision," he said. "But the rule is there and sometimes we have to accept it.

'"He wasn't too happy with what I did at the start, I can imagine. I have also been behind somebody, so I know what it is like. But we don't have a particular problem. We race for different companies as well as ourselves and we have to maximise what we have within the rules.

"The battle between us will certainly continue. We'll hopefully see some real overtaking. I don't know when, but we have had some very tough battles in the past, always very exciting.

"If Ralf continues winning and maybe goes for the championship next season it will not be a problem for our relationship – that's 100 per-cent sure. I will be delighted to see my brother do very well and win the title. I have already achieved a lot in my career.''

Williams now appear capable of out muscling McLaren-Mercedes and emerging as Ferrari's most serious threat, but Michael contends that David Coulthard, trailing him by 24 points, remains his prime concern.

The elder Schumacher said: "With eight races to go you just have to look at the points situation to see who is the biggest danger for me. David has to be my main opponent for the championship.''

McLaren admit they have to raise their game to give Coulthard, who is 24 points behind the German, a realistic shot at the title, but then Schumacher has long demonstrated his ability to defy adversity and conjure improbable victory.

Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, was asked why his team were able to win races even when their package was not necessarily the best. The Frenchman cocked his head to the left and said: "If Michael was not sitting next to me, you know what I would say.''