Schumacher Jnr shows precocious pedigree

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The Independent Online
Motor Racing

"I quite like the look of the Jordan, it's a nice little car. And I have to say that I would be surprised if it didn't win a race this season."

Those words belonged not to the colourful self-publicist, Eddie Jordan, but to the quietly-spoken Patrick Head, the architect of Williams-Renault's technical superiority and a man who knows how many beans make five when it comes to racing car design.

Head's words had a prescience that at one stage seemed likely to be justified sooner than expected, as Michael Schumacher's brother Ralf forced the pace of the Argentinian Grand Prix in Buenos Aires and put the eventual winner, Jacques Villeneuve, under serious pressure before dropping back slightly to finish in third place.

There is a saying in the Formula One paddock that Ralf is so arrogant that even Michael notices, and certainly self-confidence is not missing from his make-up. And, as befits one bearing the distinguished name, controversy was part of the best race of his life. But, without question, Mr and Mrs Schumacher's younger son earned the right to be regarded as a grand prix star in his own right on Sunday afternoon.

Gary Anderson, the technical director at Jordan, for whom Michael made his startling Formula One debut at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1991 before being snapped up by Benetton, said even before Argentina that he believes Ralf is better at this stage of his career than Michael was when he graduated.

Trevor Foster, Jordan's race director, has a slightly more reserved view, but the gist is not dissimilar.

"Ralf is his own character, and I think he drove a very good race," Foster said. "A podium finish in only your third grand prix is pretty good going. He's very strong mentally, and he's here to do the job. That's all we can ask. Sure, he's made a few mistakes, he's finding the limits, and there have been some spins, but that's what the job is all about.

"He's 18 months younger than Michael was at the same stage of his career, and Michael had the benefit of that extra maturity and a couple of seasons racing in the professional atmosphere of Mercedes-Benz's sportscar team. Just over a year ago, Ralf was still racing in Formula Three."

Foster added: "I said to Eddie when he signed him that I didn't think Ralf was at Michael's level, and that it would take three months, or six months, depending on how he applied himself. And I have to say that he's doing that very quickly."

Schumacher Jnr's equally promising team-mate, the young Italian driver, Giancarlo Fisichella, does not share the enthusiasm after being pushed off by Schumacher as they contested second place on Sunday.

"I am very angry but we have discussed the matter within the team," Fisichella said. Schumacher himself was publicly unmoved, but Eddie Jordan said: "He admits that he made a mistake, and he was very clear about it. Very correct."

The Argentinian Grand Prix was Jordan's 100th and so far, despite regular pre-season potential, the team has manifestly failed to deliver the win that its founder promises every time he launches a new car.

This year, however, Jordan seems to have just the right technical package, with Anderson's latest chassis propelled by the powerful Peugeot V10 engine which Alain Prost's team will use in 1998. Schumacher is already displaying the same aggressive determination that marked out his elder sibling and, the incident with Fisichella apart, he drove an intelligent race on Sunday afternoon to open his world championship points tally.

At the end of the race, the mechanics withdrew from the pit wall, rather than giving Schumacher the traditional congratulatory salute.

Some say there was a dispute with Jordan over bonus money, others that the last time a Jordan was running third, at Hungary in 1995 when the mechanics were ready to celebrate, it ground to a halt 100 metres short of the finish line - so a superstition had to be laid to rest.

Either way, if Sunday was a valid guide, it is a problem that is likely to recur.