Schumacher simply the best

Ken Jones on the qualities that set the world champion apart from his peers
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A big difference between the present and the past in Formula One racing is that without the paintwork it would be almost impossible to tell one speedster from another. Quirks of style are no longer visible.

"Standing in the pits I could always tell who was coming through by his shape and mannerisms," Stirling Moss said. "Fangio so relaxed. Gonzales, barrel-chested, crossing his massive forearms. The crouch Jack Brabham first adopted to protect his eyes on dirt tracks in Australia." Now even Moss has to look for the helmets and the livery.

That Michael Schumacher manages to create an identity on the track separate from the Benetton-Renault he has driven to an 11-point lead over Damon Hill indicates exceptional talent. Not an Ayrton Senna, not yet anyway, but a cut above the rest.

Success in sport can sometimes be achieved through dedicated application. In contrast with a number of his contemporaries, Nick Faldo is not a naturally gifted golfer. But he has surpassed most of them by winning five major championships. Much the same could be said of Kevin Keegan, who overcame technical deficiencies to become an outstanding international footballer.

The brassing of skill is not always accompanied by the determination to apply it. In sport, as in life, assistance is probably the most important of human qualities. To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, there is never a shortage of derelict geniuses.

Schumacher may not be a genius, but an estimated pounds 12m a year ensures he will never have to worry about the mortgage. Taking note of what appeared to be irrational behaviour when threatened by Hill in last season's Adelaide Grand Prix, and the irritation that controversy evokes in him, some people have questioned the 26-year-old German's temperament. It is probably loose thinking.

This week, Bernard Dudot, who is technical director of Renault Sports and described fondly as the "father of the Renault engine", had to deal with a dodgy question. It suggested that Schumacher's car is better tuned than the one driven by Renault's No 2 driver, Johnny Herbert. Meaning no slight on Herbert, the truth according to Dudot rests with Schumacher's technical superiority.

"For us to provide Johnny with compensation for half a second difference in their lap times would mean an extra 35 horsepower, quite a leap from the maximum of between seven and eight that shows on the computer." Herbert is no slouch, but Schumacher is that much better.

One of the things about Schumacher that impresses Dudot is his ability to absorb information under pressure.

"Michael is remarkably calm," he said. "When I listen to him in a race it is as though he is standing right next to me. You wouldn't think he was out there driving at great speed. He wants to know about the traffic, where the others are positioned, tyres, what pit stops have been signalled. Also logical. And, of course, there isn't a fitter driver."

If you saw Schumacher's lantern jaw on a boxer you would bet on being home in time for supper. But few men go to the ring in better physical condition. Footballers would be on to their union if confronted with the programme Schumacher sets himself. Between races he works out for up to four hours a day, five days a week.

The German is reckoned to be at his best when overtaking. "Forcible without being foolhardy - reminds me a lot of Jochen Rindt," is how Moss puts it. "Schumacher cannot yet be compared with Senna, who was absolutely brilliant, but among the present drivers I put him in a league of his own." Moss is equally impressed by Schumacher's performances in wet weather. "I see something of a pre-war German driver. Of Rudi Caracciola who was known as the 'rain master'," he said.

When Schumacher tussled with Hill in blinding rain at the Japanese Grand Prix last year questions were asked about his ability to cope with abnormal circumstances. Was he inferior in attitude to his less talented rival?

From top to bottom, the Benetton team will have none of it. Neither do they go along with suggestions of arrogance. Schumacher gets on well with mechanics, and team-mates have never had a bad word for him.

Above all else, Schumacher is unquestionably quick. You can't buy that at the drug store. You don't pour it on Sugar Puffs. It comes from the womb. No amount of jingoistic fervour for Hill at Silverstone tomorrow will be able to obscure an irrefutable truth. Regardless of the result, it is that Schumacher ranks as the most accomplished driver out there.