Coming to the boil nicely

What is significant about the Alonso-Schumacher duel is that both are driven solely by ambition, an objective to win, unlike in the case of Senna-Prost, where the rivalry was often interspersed with personality clashes, writes G. Raghunath.

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher is gunning for an unprecedented World Championship No. 8, which he says he desperately needs, and believes he can win. The German's rival, Renault's Fernando Alonso, is aiming to achieve what only five drivers — Alberto Ascari (1952-53), Jack Brabham (1959-60), Alain Prost (1985-86), Michael Schumacher (1994-1995) and Mika Hakkinen (1998-1999) — have accomplished in the history of Formula One — successfully defend the World Championship crown.

But with a lead of a mere 12 points, and that too with only four more races — the Italian GP (Monza, Sept. 10), Chinese GP (Shanghai, Oct. 1), Japanese GP (Suzuka, Oct. 8) and the Brazilian GP (Interlagos, Oct. 22) — to be run in 2006, the Spaniard must be feeling very uneasy in the head that he could clearly tell a pillow from a stone.

"We need something more to fight with Ferrari for victory," Alonso said after the Turkish Grand Prix, where he failed to match the pace of Felipe Massa's Ferrari and had to stave off Schumacher's challenge several times in the last 15 laps before finishing ahead of the seven-time world champion by a car length.

"But everybody at Renault, and our partners at Michelin and Elf, is very focused on the next four races and I am confident we can find what we need to win again," he added.

Ferrari and Renault, also battling for the Constructors' title (Renault is ahead by just two points at 160), have been going through frenetic testing schedules ahead of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. As the teams gear up for the final offensive on the homestretch, the race for the Drivers' title appears set to go down to the wire. And what a season it has been so far!

Alonso, carrying over his amazing form of 2005 to this year, steered clear of the field by the end of the first three races. Then came the former world champion's riposte at Imola (San Marino GP) and Nurburgring (European GP). And beginning with the Canadian GP, Schumacher persistently chipped away at Alonso's lead — 25 points then, and considered a safe cushion by the powerful Renault crew — and tapered it down to 10 points by the end of the Hungarian GP. Hereabouts emerged a new rivalry, between Schumacher and Alonso, which had the Formula One enthusiasts smacking their lips in anticipation of a scrumptious fare.

Never mind the irony that the man, who not very long ago was seen as the one who almost led Formula One to the threshold of ruin with hegemony on the track, is also one of the principal characters in the sport's resurgence. At a time when incidents such as the open war between FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) and FIA over the share in telecast rights, the intermittent threat of a breakaway series, and FIA's own bizarre move, putting a cap on engine development programmes, have bruised and blistered Formula One, the Alonso-Schumacher match-up is the kind of unguent the sport direly needed.

You cannot fault the Formula One enthusiasts' temptation to compare the Alonso-Schumacher match-up with the fierce rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late 1980s, or the Nelson Piquet-Niki Lauda duels in the mid-1980s. But what is significant about Alonso-Schumacher is that both drivers are driven solely by ambition, an objective to win, unlike in the case of Senna-Prost, where the rivalry was often interspersed with personality clashes that sometimes plumbed ridiculous depths and caused embarrassment all around. At the height of the Senna-Prost duel, the tension from the pits percolated to the tracks (Prost even accused his team McLaren of showing preferential treatment to his team-mate Senna) and to their personal life. They adopted means, both fair and unfair, to upstage one another. And at one stage Prost, who was instrumental in getting his team, McLaren, to sign Senna, confessed to a French newspaper, "I wanted to create a dream team, but nightmares were what we got."

But few would disagree that the passion and intensity with which they fought on the track is unrivalled in the history of Formula One.

Schumacher himself is no stranger to such ruthless and hard battles on the track. If he was dreadfully notorious for his run-ins into Damon Hill (in 1994) and Jacques Villeneuve (1997), he was equally famous for his duels with Mika Hakkinen (in 1998 and 2000).

Alonso, an icon of the Spanish youth, knows pretty well that winning the World Championship is not easy, and defending it is even more difficult. And that explains his resolve even after the Court of Appeal ruled Renault's innovative `mass damper' system illegal.

The system, incidentally, bolsters the car's stability and helps its aerodynamics function more efficiently. The Renaults using the system were faster than the other cars by nearly a second. But as he showed in Hungary (victory seemed to be in his grasp until a loose wheel nut did him in), even without the `mass damper' system, the Spaniard can be as aggressive and competitive as he was in 2005. Alonso believes tyres would play a decisive role in the race for the World Championship.

"I think we are in Michelin and Bridgestone's hands because at the end of the day, the cars are at their maximum development now. The tyres can give you more than half a second, so I think they will be the deciding point."

Schumacher is in agreement with the reigning champion. And the engineering heads of both Ferrari and Renault are of the view that it would be a close finish to both the drivers' and constructors' titles. Perhaps for the first time in so many years, the Formula One is talking about competition. Real competition, that is.