Race to turn tide of Formula One championship

Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher are battling for psychological supremacy on and off the track. Martin Brundle, the Ligier driver, looks ahead to their next confrontation in Sunday's British Grand Prix, and (below) laments the lack of control and character in the cockpit
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The Independent Online
We have an intriguing championship which has ebbed and flowed, and it may well continue to do so before someone takes a decisive hold on it. Almost without exception, the races filter down to the same two guys, and hopefully Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill will give us a titanic contest this time.

In Argentina and Imola, Damon looked absolutely comfortable and invincible, while Schumacher was throwing it off the road and apparently struggling. It is interesting, though, that no matter what happens to Michael, he just comes bouncing back and in the last few races he has dominated completely.

I was with him the morning after he won at Monaco, and the guy just glistened. You'd never have believed he'd done one of the hardest races of the year the day before, and I'm sure he'd done a bit of partying as well. He exudes health and fitness and personal confidence, and his ability to shake off all those mishaps might have disrupted Damon's programme a little.

If you look at the other Benetton, while Johnny Herbert has probably had misfortune, he's generally been back in fourth, fifth or sixth places. Schumacher is making the difference. He's like Ayrton Senna was. He had a surplus of mental capacity and energy, way above what he needed to actually drive the car. He had plenty left to work out what was going on around him, while still doing stunning lap times.

Schumacher has worked with his engineers and Renault, and is maximising those cars, which are very difficult to drive, very knife-edge to set up. You have to put him in the same league as Senna, and he's still only 26.

If you had to put your money on it, you'd put it on Schumacher, but Damon can come back. He's got a great car in that Williams, and it would need only a reliability problem for the pendulum to swing the other way, so I wouldn't write him off.

Damon also seems to thrive on pressure, but a different type. It's like playing a game of tennis with someone who's better than you are. You end up playing the best game of your life. Damon needs that to stay in touch. I don't think it comes as easily to him.

Some people are just gifted with this speed and I remember from when I was Schumacher's team-mate that he did one particular lap, and he hadn't been anywhere close to that time all day. He just pulled it out in qualifying. I asked him where he felt he got it from and he answered, very honestly, I believe, that he didn't know. It's just a gift.

If Michael has a weakness it's that he gets so upset about what people say or think about him, and that surprises me. I think Damon has tried to throw a few spanners in the works through the press and Michael has taken it all to heart.

Damon's strengths are his application, consistency and determination. His weakness, I guess, is that he has to have somebody to aim at. He's with a team that have been around a long time and seen some great drivers, and they're not particularly tolerant, I would imagine, of some of the comments he's come out with.

It seems to be one or other of the Ferrari guys challenging in any one race. Jean Alesi can be emotionally out of control, as I can testify from recent experience. He tends to drive with his heart, rather than his head, and that does not lead to championship contention. His car control we all admire.

You sometimes sense with Gerhard Berger that he performs well when the car is good, if not, he'll have a dismal day. I'm sure that after his drive in Argentina they sent a list of his lap times with that month's million dollars! When Gerhard's got a good car and can sniff a good result, he's awesome and can win the race, as he's proved nine times. I think, though, that if Gerhard was going to win the championship, he would have done so by now.

David Coulthard, in the other Williams, looks a star of the future, an old head on young shoulders. At the beginning of the year, people were saying he'd be a championship contender because he was as fast as Damon, but there's so much to learn, as the little mistakes show.

David says he has been debilitated by tonsillitis this season, and I don't know of any sport that pushes you so hard mentally and physically over a two-hour period with such dire consequences if you get it wrong. He's smart enough to look, listen, learn, understand and apply - if he's given the chance over two/three years - to become a race winner. Championship contender? I don't know.

Johnny Herbert, I think, is coming to terms with Schumacher. I see him as being in a subsection - and I include myself in it - beneath the stars who have won races and championships. We have been knocking on the door, but haven't got in.

Yet the drivers in this group are still capable of steering teams in the right direction, but this group is getting smaller. The pressure is so enormous in Formula One now because there are fewer and fewer seats. We're down to only 24 now and in future it could be fewer still.

But there's nobody coming along who is automatically going to boot you out of your seat. They keep coming and going. Have any of them shown the kind of pace and direction that Schumacher and company showed from day one? I don't think so.

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