Spectre of team orders looms as Schumacher feels the heat

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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher returned from his week of spiritual renewal to face the same old pressures and more here yesterday. Everywhere, it seemed, were drivers prepared to lean on the German.

Michael Schumacher returned from his week of spiritual renewal to face the same old pressures and more here yesterday. Everywhere, it seemed, were drivers prepared to lean on the German.

Schumacher, without a finish in the last three races, has had his lead in the world drivers' championship reduced from 22 points to two and Eddie Irvine maintains nothing short of victory in Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix will sustain the Ferrari driver's challenge.

The McLaren-Mercedes pair, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, are level in second place and should relish the high-speed circuits of Spa and Monza, which follow this race. And only 10 points behind Schumacher now is his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, who registered his maiden Formula One win in Germany, 12 days ago.

The Brazilian's emergence in the championship frame has brought up an old chestnut about team status and orders. Barrichello contends he has not been told he must support Schumacher's cause, despite reports quoting Ferrari's president, Luca di Montezemolo, spelling out as much.

It was an inevitable talking point in the paddock here and first Hakkinen, then Irvine, for four years No 2 to Schumacher at Maranello, had their say,intensifying the pressure on a man portrayed as the common enemy.

A few days' break and the reviving effect of private testing helped soothe Schumacher's psychological wounds and regenerate his optimism, but Irvine warns there will be no respite from now on. Schumacher, who stands accused of over-aggressive driving, has been told he will have no sympathy from his opponents.

Irvine, now with Jaguar, said: "I wouldn't want to be Michael leaving here trailing the McLarens. He has to win here to give himself a buffer for Spa and Monza. The McLarens will be rockets there. Here and Monaco are Michael's best circuits, but he's in a really tough position now. He's been getting involved in a lot of incidents and people are not going to lift for him now. They know he's the one who's got everything to lose.

"You look at the last two years and they give you an indication of how it might go. Michael is probably a better all-round driver than Mika, but Mika is probably better under pressure."

Irvine believes Schumacher's pace should account for any threat from Barrichello but does not dismiss totally his successor's prospects. "Rubens will not have a chance if Michael has no problems," the Ulsterman said. "Michael is the better bet. But if Michael has more problems Rubens has a chance. For sure Michael will be putting pressure on Ferrari to make sureBarrichello helps him."

Barrichello, still on a high following his emotional success at Hockenheim, is reluctant to accept, in public at any rate, that he is cast in a supporting role at Ferrari. The message put out in the media from Di Montezemolo conflicted with his understanding of the situation after a conversation with the president last week.

Barrichello said: "For me it is important what he told me, and that is quite a bit different from what has been said outside. He said he wanted the best for Ferrari and for us to win both championships. He didn't say now do this and do that.

"The team has brought me my own spare car here. Why would they do that if I'm not allowed to race. I hope we now have four cars for the rest of the season. There is a long way to go. If there is a chance at the last race then I'll go for it."

But what if he finds himself ahead of a faster Schumacher in Sunday's race? "I don't know," he said, transparently uneasy. "I honestly don't know."

McLaren pride themselves in operating a democratic system, forcing Hakkinen to confirm his superiority over Coulthard as well as the rest. The Finnaccepts that philosophy and suggests Ferrari's shackling of a driver will undermine him.

"If you hear that sort of thing from management I would say it affects the morale," Hakkinen said. "It's distracting and doesn't give you much motivation to race and give your best for the team. I don't think it's ideal."