Schumacher benefits from Brawn

Motor racing
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The Independent Online
Amid the ritual frenzy of this weekend's gathering here, Ross Brawn may be even more conspicuous than usual.

The large, bespectacled Englishman is a difficult man to miss in the Ferrari camp, and he has earned widespread recognition for his influence since joining the team as technical director at the beginning of the year.

Brawn has brought order, logic and a sense of direction, providing Michael Schumacher with the opportunity to exploit his superiority on the track. It is a combination that appears likely to deliver Ferrari their first drivers' championship in 18 years.

Sunday's Italian Grand Prix, however, will be critical to Schumacher's duel with Jacques Villeneuve. He heads the standings by 11 points, with five races remaining. It was 12 until yesterday, when Mika Hakkinen was stripped of his third place in the Belgian Grand Prix because of fuel irregularities, and the Canadian moved up from sixth to fifth. McLaren- Mercedes were fined $50,000 (pounds 31,000).

Another victory here and surely the wait for the faithful will be over. That, at least, is how they see it and that, in turn, is why Schumacher is wary. Emotions and expectations are in danger of careering out of control, a classic scenario for the Prancing Horse to fall flat on its face.

Never will Brawn's composed presence be more reassuring for Schumacher. They worked together at Benetton and won two championships. Schumacher will feel no one is better equipped, technically and temperamentally, than Brawn to complement his efforts in the cockpit.

Brawn regards Ferrari as the ultimate challenge of his specialised skills. Unlike John Barnard, the designer who preferred to stay in England, Brawn has brought his family out to Italy.

"It was a chance I felt I could not miss," he said. "I know what I'm facing and what is expected, but I may not have forgiven myself if I'd turned down the job. There is so much potential and enthusiasm here.

"Even during August, when Italy is basically closed, we had no difficulty finding companies willing to produce parts for us because we're Ferrari. On a personal level, too, it's great. I'm having difficulty going into a restaurant and actually buying my own meal. The reception has been wonderful."

Ferrari's drivers joined the reception committee. Schumacher, it is understood, virtually demanded the team headhunt Brawn, and Eddie Irvine soon learned why. The Ulsterman said: "Ross has a way of explaining the car and what he is trying to get out of it. In the end it comes down to physics, and he has the ability to get that across."

Brawn apparently also understands the workings of a driver's mind, and has helped Irvine cope with Schumacher's pre-eminence. "There's always been an urge for Michael's team-mates to try and match him, when frankly he's simply the best out there," Brawn said.

"So I talked to Eddie about it and used the analogy of a golfer. I told him not to try and drive 300 yards just because the other guy could. Why not drive 250 yards and keep it straight?"

Brawn's task is to keep an entire nation on the straight and narrow these coming days and Schumacher did his familiar best to slam on the brakes. He said: "Even if I win on Sunday, I can't think I have the championship. It is still wide open."