Tight corner for the Schumacher brothers

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The Independent Online

Four years ago they managed to convince themselves it had all been Giancarlo Fisichella's fault ­ and the Italian in the yellow Jordan certainly made a good public scapegoat. But those who witnessed the first-corner shunt in the Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nürburgring knew different: the fastest brothers in motor racing had well and truly blown it. Schumacher, Ralf, displaying the reckless impetuosity of youth, ruined not only the race for Schumacher, Michael, but also his elder brother's chances of snatching the 1997 world championship from Jacques Villeneuve. Michael had qualified fourth that day, and even a third-place finish would, it later transpired, have been enough to claim his first title for Ferrari.

Ralf, though, scuppered all that ­ his superb start from eighth on the grid seeing him almost immediately bounce off his Jordan team-mate Fisichella and then clobber his brother. All three were eliminated.

The brothers were at it again in Spain last year. Michael deliberately manoeuvred Ralf into the dirt as he challenged for third place, allowing his own team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, to pass both of them. Ralf finished fourth, just ahead of his brother, and was very definitely not amused.

Last weekend, though, Ralf beat Michael fair and square in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, courtesy of the superior power, grip and fuel economy of his BMW Williams. He pushed Michael hard in the first half of the race, knowing there was no need to take risks because he could run further before his pit stop. We will never know just how ruthlessly the world champion would have been prepared to be to defend his lead against attack from his own sibling.

Next weekend the two Schumachers start as favourites in the Grand Prix of Europe ­ back at the Nürburgring ­ and the stands will be packed with their countrymen urging them on. Michael, of course, is used to all that. Ralf, though, is looking increasingly convincing since his maiden victory at Imola in April (even if he did fall off the road in Spain next time out, and again in practice at Monaco). But for him the adulation is a novel experience that he is enjoying, albeit in his understated manner.

"Patrick, upset?" he asked with deliberate and heavy irony after his gaffe in Monte Carlo, as if such a thing could be of concern to Patrick Head, the Williams team's technical director. "Why should Patrick be upset? He doesn't fix the cars. He's got people to do that. All he maybe does is pay the bill."

Ralf and Head have a strong mutual respect, the latter believing his driver has "cleared his head after last year, the way Damon [Hill] did for the final race of 1995".

"Winning does give you a bit more confidence," Ralf said, while denying he can challenge for the championship this year. "People said we were a contender after Imola and that was not the case. It still isn't after Canada. But I think if we get everything together we might have a realistic chance next year to challenge for the championship with the two top teams."

But before all that he has to negotiate the first corner at the Nürburgring.

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