Shadows over Schumacher, sunshine for Patrick

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The Independent Online

"For the first time," mused the peerless driver talent-spotter Peter Collins after the Grand Prix of Europe last weekend, "you begin to sense that Michael Schumacher is entering the area into which Mika Hakkinen ventured in 2000."

"For the first time," mused the peerless driver talent-spotter Peter Collins after the Grand Prix of Europe last weekend, "you begin to sense that Michael Schumacher is entering the area into which Mika Hakkinen ventured in 2000."

Collins, whose understanding of young drivers helped Nigel Mansell, Johnny Herbert, Hakkinen, Alex Zanardi and now Tonio Liuzzi into Formula One, believes that Schumacher is beginning to have days, as the Finnish world champion did, in which he can no longer summon all of his awesome firepower.

While the two major pretenders to his crown - McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and Renault's Fernando Alonso - battled for the victory in Germany, Schumacher trundled home a lacklustre fifth after Raikkonen's spectacular departure with suspension failure on the final lap which resulted from serious tyre vibrations. His Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello took a podium finish after a rather more convincing performance.

"Michael showed at Imola and Monaco that the old fire still burns when there is a chance of victory," Collins continued, "but every so often he betrays signs of lost commitment, in just the way that Mika did." After two unconvincing seasons in which even McLaren began to question his level of commitment, Hakkinen retired at the end of 2001 and was replaced by his fellow countryman Raikkonen.

This is not to say that Schumacher will not add to his record tally of 83 grand prix victories, nor that he might yet win an eighth world title. But at 36 he is fighting a rearguard battle against rivals who have 10 years on him. The writing on the wall may not yet be indelible, but it is there.

Raikkonen, Alonso and Schumacher Snr did not make the biggest impact on motor sport last weekend, and neither did Daniel Wheldon, the first Englishman to win the Indianapolis 500 since Graham Hill in 1966. The driver in question was unknown to all but diehard fans prior to the Memorial Day classic, yet had 300,000 spectators at Indy on their feet screaming, and now has corporate America doing backflips. The jockey-sized rookie, 22 years old, a tad over five feet tall and 100lb wringing wet, qualified fourth at 227.004mph and set the month's fastest overall lap at 229.880 on their first visit to the Brickyard. Her name - that's right, her name - is Danica Patrick.

Indianapolis was once such a bastion of masculinity that women were not even allowed in the pits, but thanks to trailblazer Janet Guthrie in the Seventies, the Speedway became used to the idea of a woman racing there. Lyn St James, and more recently Sarah Fisher, further helped to massage bruised male egos into understanding modern life better, but Patrick is the most convincing female challenger Indy has ever seen. She became the first of her sex ever to lead the famed 500-mile race (three times, for 19 laps), and but for stalling while leaving the pits, and for the need to conserve fuel in the final laps after a series of yellow flag interruptions had obliged her team to gamble, she could have won. She only surrendered to Wheldon, and later to Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta, with six laps left.

She finished fourth, a fantastic performance that did enough to show the watching F1 world that she, like Wheldon, whose manager Julian Jakobi was touting him heavily in the paddock at the Nürburgring, could have a future this side of the Atlantic. Five years ago Patrick finished second to the BAR Honda test driver Anthony Davidson in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, the most prestigious encounter in junior racing. And former rival Jenson Button gave her his backing before last weekend's big race. "I'll be cheering on Danica," the BAR team leader said. "We are good friends and I've been watching her progress. She's been doing a great job, though I don't know if she will be strong enough for F1. Sure, she'll be quick. And if you are quick enough to win, then you're quick enough to win, regardless of gender."

They haven't talked about a sportswoman in the US the way they are about Patrick since Annie Oakley or Amelia Earhart. Having already been featured in FHM, she has made Sports Illustrated's cover this week too. She is a marketeer's dream, and the 500's figures bear that out. ABC's television coverage drew a 17 per cent viewing share, up 40 per cent from 2004 and the highest for the race since 1997. The ratings during the last 15 minutes, as Patrick slugged it out for the win - on pure merit - with Wheldon, spiked at 21 per cent. Last year's race, won by her Rahal-Letterman team-mate Buddy Rice, drew only 11 per cent.

Give it a year or two, and Patrick and Wheldon could be the frisky cubs joining Raikkonen and Alonso.

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