Schumacher reigns supreme

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Now we know God is a Ferrari fan. The heavens opened just long enough here yesterday to provide Michael Schumacher with the scenario he can exploit like no other driver. Schumacher's incomparable racing brain and car control took care of the rest. That, he knew even before the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, would be a formality.

The German duly annihilated the rest to confirm his pre-eminence at Formula One's most revered circuit. His fourth victory in six seasons here has lifted him 12 points clear of Jacques Villeneuve, his only realistic challenger for the championship and principal casualty of the capricious conditions.

Schumacher delayed taking his place on the grid as long as possible and watched torrential rain spear down on to the track. He opted for a car with wet-dry settings and intermediate tyres, gambling the downpour would be brief. Not for the first time, his hunch was right. By the time the rain passed over it was too late for anyone to change tyres.

"When I was sitting on the grid and the rain stopped, and I saw the sun, I started smiling," he said. "I knew then that I would win."

The first three laps were controlled by the safety car, and within two laps of the contest proper Schumacher was controlling the race. At one stage he led by more than a minute, and at the end was still 26 seconds ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan-Peugeot. Mika Hakkinen, newly retained by McLaren-Mercedes, completed the podium line-up.

Williams-Renault, committed to dry settings and full wet tyres, were left floundering in the decisive early stages and reduced to a desperate scramble for points in the closing laps. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was fourth and Villeneuve sixth, behind the consistently excellent Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Petronas.

The passionate embrace of the Ferrari faithful awaits Schumacher on Sunday week but in racing terms this has become his spiritual home, a domain he commands with imperious conviction. He announced his arrival as the outstanding talent of his generation here, in 1991, registered his maiden grand prix success a year later, came second in 1993, was first across the line in 1994 only to be disqualified and has won the three since.

Yesterday he resumed his familiar pose at the top of the rostrum, "emptied my mind and just enjoyed it. I could not have expected this in normal circumstances."

It was the 26th victory of Schumacher's Formula One career, making him outright fifth in the all-time list of winners. Only Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Jackie Stewart are above him. Given that he is 28, he will surely move further up the order and may eventually top it. A third championship patently beckons this season. Five races remain and, although 12 points scarcely represents an insurmountable advantage, Villeneuve acknowledges the prospect of more variable conditions that could undermine his chances.

The Canadian must have sensed, as assuredly as Schumacher, the die was cast in those moments immediately before the start. After the safety car peeled away, Villeneuve had to make use of an open road and clear vision. Schumacher squeezed his Ferrari inside Jean Alesi's Benetton-Renault at the start of the fifth lap, half-way round it forced Villeneuve into meek surrender, and by the end of it led the grand prix by six seconds.

By the end of the ninth lap, he was 34 seconds ahead, enough time to accommodate an unscheduled pit stop. It was Villeneuve and others who required such a luxury, scurrying in and out to take on intermediate tyres. Soon they were back in for slicks, Schumacher also, but no amount of weaponry could threaten the German.

When the inevitable debates over tyres and use of the safety car (behind which Mika Hakkinen and Pedro Diniz overtook and thus collected one-race suspended bans) are swept away, we are left with yet another reminder that Schumacher has powers his rivals dare not even aspire to. Of the bright young men emerging in Formula One, Fisichella could be the most gifted. He sustained pace and concentration to earn his best position. "I don't believe this, " he said. "Now my target is a victory."

Damon Hill, the only driver to have finished in front of Schumacher in six races here, was never likely to take on his old adversary this time. He, too, went the wrong way on tyre selection and his Arrows-Yamaha was classified 14th, after pulling into the pits a lap from the end.

The reigning champion, being linked with a possible move to Benetton or Jordan next season, said: "I'm furious with myself. I've been here often enough to know better. Conditions like these give you an opportunity to do well, for something that can backfire. This time it backfired."

Eddie Irvine's Ferrari tangled with the other Arrows driven by Diniz, on the last lap and went out, while David Coulthard, also retained by McLaren-Mercedes, spun off while running sixth.



1 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

(Ferrari) 1hr 33min 46.717sec

(average speed 121.907mph/196.149kph)

2 Gianluca Fisichella (It) 6pts

(Jordan-Peugeot) +26.753sec

3 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 4pts

(McLaren-Mercedes) +30.856

4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 3pts

(Williams-Renault) +32.147

5 Johnny Herbert (GB) 2pts

(Sauber-Petronas) +39.025

6 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 1pt

(Williams-Renault) +42.103

7 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +1:03.741; 8 P P Diniz (Bra) Arrows- Yamaha 1:25.931; 9 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +1:42.008; 10 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas) +1:42.582; 11 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari + one lap; 12 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford + one lap; 13 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford + one lap; 14 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault + two laps; 15 U Katayama Minardi- Hart (Japan) + two laps; 16 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugan-Honda + two laps.

Not classified (did not finish): 17 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford, 25 laps completed; 18 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 21; 19 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 19; 20 T Marques (Bra) Minardi-Hart 18; 21 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 8; 22 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 12.

Fastest lap: Villeneuve 1min 52.692sec (ave speed 138.344mph/222.596kph).