A SEASON OF TWISTS AND TURNS

PHOTO: AP

For Michael Schumacher to win his eighth title, two things have to work in his favour — he has to win the Brazilian GP, scheduled for October 22, which to some extent is within his control, and Alonso has to finish out of points, which definitely neither Schumacher nor his team Ferarri can influence. So, it's advantage Alonso, writes G. RAGHUNATH.

Nobody, not even his die-hard fans gave Michael Schumacher as much as a ghost of a chance of mounting a serious challenge this season, let alone win his eighth title, as the defending champion Fernando Alonso opened up a staggering 25-point lead at the top, after the Canadian Grand Prix in June. The flamboyant Spaniard, who waged a fierce battle against McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen to win his first World title last season, was in ominous form as he finished on top in six of the first nine races this year, with the next best driver in the standings, Ferrari's Schumacher, the winner of seven World Championships, nowhere in sight.

People who smacked their lips in anticipation of a real big fight for the championship, especially after having seen a new champion and his compelling on track skirmishes with Raikkonen last year, were now chopfallen in the wake of the Alonso surge that almost had shades of Schumacher's hegemony from 2000 to 2004. Was Formula One drifting away to be another vapid show of one-man domination?

Not really. The man, who was singularly held responsible for pushing the sport to the brink with his absolute authority on the track, was back to allay any such fears.

The dramatic twist in the script started with the United States GP in the first weekend of July, where Schumacher took the chequered flag for the third time in the season, following his victories at San Marino and European GPs. Thereafter the German posted five more victories which, for the first time this season, hoisted him to the top of the standings, equal on points with Alonso but 7-6 ahead on number of wins.

Schumacher's resurgence also marked the emergence of a new rivalry with Alonso. The Formula One buffs now began to reconnect with history and the great rivalries, such as the Niki Lauda-James Hunt duel in 1976 (the Austrian pulled over after the first lap in the Japanese GP, the final race of the season, to hand Hunt the crown) or the gripping three-way contest between Nelson Piquet, Carlos Reutemann and Laffite in 1981. The straight fights between Niki Lauda and Alain Prost in 1984, Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher in 1996 and more recently Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher were also at the nub of discussions as the protagonists were sought out by the media for their comments on their rivalries and the on going battle between Alonso and Schumacher.

It was in one such interview that Damon Hill, world champion in 1996, explained that the title race this season isn't over until it is actually over. He refused to take at face value what Schumacher said about his chances after he blew his engine and failed to earn even a single point at the Japanese GP in Suzuka two weeks ago. The German had said that the title race was as good as over for him. But Hill, who was one of Schumacher's greatest rivals, said: "Don't ever write that guy off. It's not over `til it's over."

"I would keep my armour on if I were Alonso until after the last race. Schumacher is going to go into that last race thinking: `Now, how can I win this and Alonso not score anything?' That's the way he's going to approach it. Otherwise, he's not Michael Schumacher," the former champion told BBC recently.

Even Pat Symonds, Renault's engineering head who had worked with Schumacher during his Benetton days, cautioned Alonso saying his victory at Suzuka did not mean much. "I am sure Michael will be racing just as hard at the Interlagos (Brazilian GP)," he said.

Forthright though these comments are, they have whipped up a kind of frenzy not known on the circuit for quite some years. And the fact that Schumacher is due to retire at the end of the season makes the eighth title all that much more important for him.

Quite the strange thing about Formula One is that, just as absence of any purposeful competition can ruin the sport, too much competition can also undermine it.

A few years ago, the sport appeared to be in the doldrums, thanks to the lop-sided contests and Schumacher's domination. And just when Formula One seemed to be looking up, the Alonso-Schumacher match-up contributing to its resurgence in great measure, puerile off-stage lines have threatened to sully the good name of the sport.

First it was Alonso's own tirade against Renault, accusing it of showing preferential treatment to his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella.

Then came Renault chief Flavio Briatore's thoughtless fusillade against the establishment stating that the qualifications and even some races were rigged with the sole objective of handing Schumacher his eighth world title.

There was also the issue of the `mass damper' system, which Renault used to speed up its cars. The `mass damper' is a system that bolsters the car's stability and helps its aerodynamics function more efficiently. Ferrari strongly opposed the use of the system. And the FIA subsequently ruling the system illegal didn't help one whit as Briatore launched a fresh offensive against the apex body.

Caught up in the backstage brawl, Renault slipped into errors as was evident in the Hungarian GP. A loose wheel nut put Alonso out of the race he appeared set to win.

The team encountered more problems at the Chinese GP. A messed up tyre choice and pit stop, followed by a loose wheel nut meant Alonso's had botched up his chances of finishing first. Schumacher, as a result, won the race and went up the leaderboard.

The Renault fans, perhaps for the first time, began to believe in fate. To them even such trivial incidents as Alonso dropping his bottle of champagne from the podium in Shanghai, or the data screens at the Renault pit going on the blink during the Chinese GP presented some sort of an allegory of the team's horrific fate.

But things turned dramatically again as Schumacher retired from the Japanese GP with a blown engine, while Alonso regained the lead in the championship standings. For the German to win, two things have to work in his favour — he has to win the Brazilian GP, scheduled for October 22, which to some extent is within his control, and Alonso has to finish out of points, which definitely neither Schumacher nor his team Ferarri can influence. So, it's advantage Alonso.

However, for Schumacher personally, whether he wins the world title or not, his performance this season should rank as one of his best. He has proved that he can be furiously quick even when he is 37, an age that is considered "too old" in Formula One.