Schumacher's waiting game

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The Independent Online
Michael Schumacher was a man in a hurry yesterday, not only on the track but across the paddock tarmac, sprinting from the Ferrari motor home to the transporter for the debrief.

"He'll be in there for two hours," someone said, which was a fairly accurate estimate. These are long working days for the world champion, much as he anticipated and much as he apparently relishes.

He was second fastest to Damon Hill in the first day's practice for tomorrow's Grand Prix of Europe here, and while Friday's lap times have been rendered pretty well meaningless since qualifying was confined to the Saturday, the German fully expects a rear view of the Englishman's Williams for the rest of this meeting.

It looks like being another pole for Hill, another win for Hill and another boring race, but Schumacher is adamant he has no regrets about his switch from Benetton to Ferrari, and that gratification will be all the greater when he delivers his first victory to the Italians.

Schumacher, a third place and two retirements to his name this season, said: "If I make the podium in this race it will be a success. Williams are out of reach here. But it is just as I always said it would be, so that is not a problem for me.

"It is the challenge I wanted. I am spending more time in the car than I ever did at Benetton and we are all working very hard to improve the car. The satisfaction will come when I win with the car I helped develop, which I hope will be mid-season."

All of which amounts to a warning to his supporters that they must wait until his second race on home ground, July's German Grand Prix, for a realistic prospect of seeing their man at the top of the podium again.

Irrespective of his position here, that vociferous fan club will witness Schumacher in spectacular form. If Eddie Irvine's 15th place in practice yesterday had little significance as a gauge, the difference between Schumacher and Benetton's current pair indicates a substantial loss to the champions. In place of a cool, analytical, positive, consistent No 1 driver, they now have the volcanic and erratic Jean Alesi, and the unpredictable, sometimes demotivated Gerhard Berger.

Hill says he suspects Benetton will, eventually, prove troublesome opposition and so they should, but he has to be hugely relieved that Schumacher is presently restrained at a safe distance. This is the time to capitalise and further wins here and in next week's San Marino Grand Prix, at Imola, would stretch his unbeaten opening sequence to five races, equalling Nigel Mansell's record in 1992.

Hill, suitably composed and organised, has opted for a risk-free strategy. He said: "If I have my way, I'll canter all the way to a 10- point victory. It's a dream if you think it's going to be easy all the time. Michael is trying all he can to get closer, but I'm determined to stay ahead."

EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX (Nurburgring, Ger, Leading provisional times after free practice): 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 20.853sec (126.785mph), 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:21.332, 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.478, 4 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:21.858, 5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.962, 6 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:21.973, 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:22.014, 8 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows- Footwork-Hart 1:22.093, 9 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:22.112, 10 H- H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:22.152. Other GB: 13 J Herbert Sauber- Ford 1:22.525, 15 E Irvine Ferrari 1:22.668.