A master of manoeuvre

Fernando Alonso's emergence as a potential heir has done the sport no harm; and Schumacher's resurgence only acts like an adrenalin shot for Formula One, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

BACK in '94, after Ayrton Senna had died at the San Marino track that painfully silent afternoon, and the initial shock had passed, the impossible search for an instant replacement began. Senna's nearest rival at that time was a brash young man named Michael Schumacher. The ambitious German, then 25, went on to finish as world champion that year; then again the next season, as inadequate opponents were quelled ruthlessly, one after the other.

Schumacher arrived quickly at the threshold of greatness; but there were those who grieved, those who disputed Schumacher's rise in the absence of a credible challenge, and stubbornly maintained Senna had died at the most inopportune of moments. Which, it ought to be said, was a rather unreasonable argument considering Schumacher could have done very little about it.

His identity grew, slowly at first; but it has transformed into something else altogether since 2000, the year Schumacher began his unbroken five-year stint at the top. His reputation attained mythic proportions; but resentment grew as Ferrari began to dominate an inherently imbalanced sport. Kimi Raikkonen nearly managed to break the spell in 2003, but lost out after the season finale. Schumacher outperformed even himself in 2004, winning 12 of the first 13 races in a particularly soporific Formula One season; and while it reinforced his greatness, few were rooting for him. Schumacher was no popular champion, if it came to that, partly because his ascent was inextricably linked to Senna's passing; and, his subsequent domination didn't help, either.

Not surprisingly, Schumacher's slow start to the 2005 season has provoked hope; and certainly, there is the possibility that Alonso might finish the season as the youngest ever champion in F-1 history. The quip goes, not only is Fernando Alonso a gifted driver, he is also not Michael Schumacher. After three false starts, Ferrari was in bad shape; and Schumacher's abilities were being gleefully questioned.

Could Ferrari and Schumacher make a comeback at this stage, or had they passed the point of turnaround?

IT's interesting to compare (and contrast) Schumacher's case with the supposed erosion of Sachin Tendulkar's skills. At 32, Tendulkar, the batsman, seems vulnerable particularly after his elbow injury; after nearly 17 years of international cricket his reflexes have unquestionably slowed down — if only marginally. But irrespective of whether he has matured as a player, the fact remains he has consciously cut out the aggression from his game: the two issues aren't necessarily linked. Tendulkar seems exhausted. And, while he continues to accumulate runs, his greatness lies more in the unique methods he once employed. At 32, Tendulkar appears merely mortal.

On the other hand, the decline in Schumacher's performance at the start of this season could be blamed squarely on the under-performing Ferrari. Rushing the F2005 to Bahrain, two months ahead of schedule, didn't quite work as well as the team had hoped; Schumacher's assault on Alonso's position at the Sakhir circuit came to a premature end at the head of the 10th lap after technical trouble.

But, as a driver, the German unquestionably retains his impeccable credentials: he remains perfectly capable of out-thinking younger tearaways like Kimi Raikkonen. That he has a fast car only complements the fact the wily Schumacher is a tactical wizard. Still, at 36, you would expect Schumacher — like Tendulkar — to react a fraction of a second slower than he used to; you'd think as a result even a driver of his calibre wouldn't be able to make some of the moves that he could, in the past.

Now, after five straight world championships, but without a single podium finish in the first three races this year, Schumacher was enduring his worst start to a F-1 season in eight years. In motorsport, words like `mortal' tend to take on uncomfortably solemn connotations — think of Senna — so perhaps it's more appropriate to say that for a change, Schumacher was beginning to feel human.

THINGS continued to go wrong for Schumacher initially at Imola last fortnight, after he hit a bump and locked up while carrying a heavy fuel load during the second qualifying session. The mistake pushed him behind, from second place to the middle of the starting grid.

Once the race began Schumacher preferred to hold back for the first twenty-odd laps, nursing his tyres and engine instead, clearly in preparation for a flat-out assault. Operating on a brilliant fuel strategy, the German gobbled up seconds in clear traffic as the cars ahead of him began to pit. In no time he had jumped to third position, with only Alonso and the somewhat overrated Jenson Button ahead of him.

Michael Schumacher breathes down Jenson Button's neck. Button took a marginally wrong line, in San Marino, and that was enough for the German ace to steer ahead.-MARK THOMPSON/GETTY IMAGES

Then, in a majestic overtaking manoeuvre, Schumacher shot ahead of the Englishman in the braking zone for the Variante Alta chicane, taking advantage of Button's tentativeness as they approached the back markers.

Button took a marginally wrong line and Schumacher squeezed straight through, bouncing over the kerbs; and by the time the shell-shocked Button had recovered, Ferrari's superior engine had put Schumacher beyond his reach.

It's unlikely that another driver from the present generation would have spotted Button's error so quickly, and above that, risked overtaking him at that point, given the circumstances. A lesser driver, trying to recover from a bad start, would have thought twice before risking a crash-out, after working hard to get to third position. Such a manoeuvre requires more than just ordinary courage or skill; it takes a certain level of impudence. At any rate, it proved the man had lost very little of his sense of timing; he remains one of the most alert drivers on the grid.

Really, only Schumacher — or perhaps, a kamikaze pilot with a superb sense of self-preservation — could have pulled off such a risky move; soon Alonso found himself trading punches with the number one Ferrari as it weaved in-and-out of his line, and locked him around the waist trying to probe for the slightest opening.

But not for nothing is Alonso regarded, in some circles, as Schumacher's successor. The 23 year-old is acquainted with all the tricks that the overlord tried to pull off; and although Alonso's Renault proved much slower in pace, it displayed better grip, enabling him to block Schumacher out at every potential overtaking point.

Not since 1992, when Senna and Nigel Mansell rolled into the final stages of the road runner circuit at Monaco while locked in a fierce embrace, had we seen such a closely contested race.

The proud champion that he is, Schumacher will be acutely disappointed, angry even, at losing this race. Still, the fiery pace his Ferrari set at Imola will have encouraged Schumacher; it will reinforce his belief that the season, in these initial stages, is far from lost already. But in a sense, it does not matter whether the German does go on to deprive Alonso of his prize; it does not matter if he doesn't go on to win an eighth championship. He's proved his point.

Meanwhile, Alonso's emergence as a potential heir has done the sport — which, admittedly, was suffering from the side-effects of one man's utter and relentless domination — no harm. And, Schumacher's resurgence only acts like an adrenalin shot for Formula One.

THE sport, it appears, has come a full circle since that fatal afternoon in Imola 11 years ago. Once, seemingly ages ago, a champion called Senna struggled to hold on at the start of the season, as his young challenger, a German thoroughbred, threatened to displace him. Then, abruptly, he died in tragic circumstances, passing on his title as a family inheritance sealed by genius.

Ayrton Senna is no more. But his spirit lingers on in men like Schumacher, in good health and raucous cheer, and it will doubtless transcend generations.