Schumacher poised to overtake them all

Derick Allsop argues that Germany's F1 world champion, who can set a record for grands prix wins in a single season on Sunday, is already one of the sport's greats
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The Independent Online
It is estimated Michael Schumacher could earn more than all the other Formula One drivers put together next season. If that is so, he will be getting just about what he is worth.

Across the sporting spectrum, there are few individuals - if indeed any - as pre-eminent in his sphere as Schumacher is in grand prix motor racing. And of course his sphere is not merely sport. It is also business, a business which attracts massive investment and he generates extraordinary prestige.

Nowhere is the investment greater and the prestige more coveted than at Ferrari, the most famous team in the business and yet a team that has not had a world champion driver since 1979.

They believe Schumacher can bridge that gap for them, hence their willingness to pay him a basic $25m (pounds 16m), plus bonuses, a year. Only the late Ayrton Senna achieved comparable financial stature.

Comparative stature as racing drivers is less simple to gauge. No one disputes Senna's place among the all-time hierarchy of the sport and many contend he was the grandmaster.

Schumacher's precise position remains debatable. He has been in Formula One only four years and his opposition has been relatively inferior to that confronted by Senna, who raced against Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell at their peak.

However, Schumacher at 26 looks closer to the finished article than Senna at 26 and is the youngest man to hold two world championships. The Brazilian claimed the first of his three titles at the age of 28.

They would probably have been embroiled in the classic duel last season but Senna was killed in the third race, at Imola. It should not be forgotten, though, that Schumacher had won the two previous grands prix and Senna's spin in vain pursuit at Interlagos betrayed a lingering vulnerability.

Damon Hill, who took up the challenge for Williams-Renault and Formula One, responded splendidly when an unlikely chance of the championship presented itself, and was denied only by that controversial collision in Adelaide.

Last season remains an unsatisfactory chapter in the annals of the sport. Doubts raised by Senna and others about the legality of Schumacher's car, the Benetton-Renault, darkened the course of the championship and disciplinary measures served merely further to undermine the credibility of the contest.

The most salient fact of the year was that Schumacher won the title from 12 of the 16 races. He was banned or disqualified from the other four. This season he has capitalised on a full quota, retaining his crown with two rounds to spare. Victory in Australia on Sunday would take him past Mansell's record of nine in a season.

What makes Schumacher's domination of the field all the more admirable is that he does not have the best car. The consensus of opinion is that Hill's Williams is superior and we can only speculate whether any of the other drivers would have made better use of it.

Perhaps Jean Alesi or Gerhard Berger would have. Perhaps David Coulthard would have, had he discovered his form in the first half of the campaign. The young Scot's ascendancy in recent races poses fresh questions about Hill's capabilities.

There is little dispute Schumacher in a Williams would have been irresistible. He has frequently been outpaced in the smash and grab of qualifying by both Hill and Coulthard, yet has outfought and outmanoeuvred them in the races.

Certainly Schumacher has had the concentrated backing of an enormously gifted technical crew. Benetton have been the class act among the teams, their reliability matched only by their strategical acumen.

But probably Benetton's smartest move was in recognising they had a rare talent and building their entire operation around him. They channelled their resources where they expected to produce results. Schumacher galvanised the team, raising their expectations and their performance. Hill envied him his absolute seniority inside the camp, maintaining it was critical to their relative fortunes. There again, you cannot help feel Schumacher would have handled a straight fight within Williams.

Schumacher has the fundamentals required to win races at this level: pace, car control commitment and ambition. The qualities that elevate him to a stratum above his contemporaries are the stamina to sustain speed for up to 200 miles of varying track lay-out and changing weather conditions, the mental agility to plan one step ahead of the rest, and the uncompromising instinct to get tough when necessary.

Schumacher has established new standards of physical fitness for drivers, which in turn help him cope with the mind games, the constant flow of technical data and intelligence on opponents. Seasoned engineers, stationed at the pit wall, marvel at his analytical and decision-making capacity while racing at 190mph. Shades of Senna.

A natural self-belief has enabled him to exploit his gifts and his spectacular advance in the sport has developed still greater confidence to the point, some suggest, of arrogance. More shades of Senna.

Arrogance may explain excesses on the psychological battleground. Not content with soundly thrashing Hill on the track, he has shamelessly seized on opportunities to belittle him off it. Did Senna not treat Prost in the same contemptuous manner?

Selfish, ruthless and imperious, Schumacher is the embodiment of the modern Formula One champion. He is sure of himself and his worth, and that valuation evidently concurs with Ferrari's.

Events next year could measure the accuracy of their calculations. In a sense, Schumacher is giving the rest a chance by going to Ferrari and he contends his target is the championship of 1997. Alesi and Berger will endeavour to emulate his feats at Benetton, while the team will be anxious to prove they have not been a one-man band.

Hill is anticipating another shot - possibly his last - although he must grapple with a new team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, who has already announced he does not intend to be No 2 to the Englishman.

Schumacher takes his No 1 to Maranello and if he still has that number on the scarlet car in '97, then his place among the grandmasters will be assured.