Schumacher's peak — the ascent is arduous

G. RAGHUNATH

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER, attempting to defend his World Championship title for the eighth time, has managed to win just a solitary race so far this season, and that too the US Grand Prix that degenerated into a farce after the leading teams pulled out of Indianapolis over the Michelin tyre safety row, leaving just six cars on the starting grid.

The performance, so uncharacteristic of the seven-time world champion, who had blazed to victory in 13 out of the 18 races last season, signalled the end of the German's five-year sovereignty in Formula One.

The sharpening of pencils is deafening as the Formula One observers prepare to write the final footnote on the career of one of the greatest drivers in the sport's history. The man who single-handedly steered Ferrari, the oldest team in Formula One, to a new age; the virtuoso who, in a magnificent display of his genius, showed the world that he knew best how to steer a car to the chequered flag. ("Give him any car, and he will put it on the front row", used to be the refrain in the Formula One circuit); the monarch who posted victories with such monotonous regularity that he very nearly destroyed Formula One racing.

At the end of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, the home of Ferrari, Schumacher, while writing off his chances after finishing out of points, bet his shirt on Renault's Fernando Alonso. "You don't need to be very prophetic to say the championship is over. For Kimi (Raikkonen) it is only a very small, theoretical possibility. A lot of things need to happen for Alonso not to win it and I don't see them happening, so for me the topic is over."

Jackie Stewart, the former world champion, opined that Raikkonen of Finland has supplanted Michael Schumacher as Formula One's dominant driver. "Raikkonen is now the fastest driver in the world. At present he has already taken over the position of the dominant driver, even ahead of Schumacher and Alonso," he said.

The man known for being up-front on matters related to the sport he passionately loves, the plain-speaking Scot also didn't appear to demur while placing the capstone on Schumacher's career. "Michael was the best racing driver of his time, but that period may have moved," he said. He also suggested that Schumacher should have quit Formula One as world champion.

"Michael now has to win more races, he now has to regain the World Championship and prove his dominance again if he's going to go down in history as the man of his time," he said.

One of the problems dogging Ferrari — and Schumacher too — this season is related to the Bridgestone tyres the `Prancing Horse' is riding on. The tyres simply don't match up to the Michelin variety used by the other top teams such as Renault and McLaren.

Formula One's new rule which permits teams to use only one set of tyres for each race meant the companies — Michelin and Bridgestone — had to go in for sturdier and reliable compound. That Bridgestone failed to live up to the demands considerably blunted Ferrari's challenge in the World Championships.

Bridgestone's inability to develop competitive tyres stems from what Ferrari calls `singular effort' as opposed to rival Michelin's group effort. While Bridgestone secured data on tyre development only from Ferrari, Michelin benefited from inputs provided by several teams. The end result was that both Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello were awfully off the pace.

Ferrari also needs to cop part of the blame for the situation they are in today. Going into the 2005 season with an updated variant of the car they used in 2004, after all, was a very bad idea. When the move boomeranged, the team hurriedly pressed its new car into service at the Bahrain Grand Prix. With very little time on hand to test the car, the team had to grapple with many more problems for, far from being fast, the car was anything but reliable and competitive.

Even as Schumacher came down heavily on his team for introducing the new car late, Ferrari was gradually slipping into a morass as the season progressed. "There is no point getting angry. We were much too slow and nowhere near where we want to be, but we have to live with it. The championship was obviously lost a while ago," he said.

Despite Schumacher's abysmal run this season, where he has been upstaged not just by championship leaders, Alonso and Raikkonen, but drivers half as talented as he is, it is still too early to debate if the 'Schumacher Era' has ended. For one thing, it would be imprudent to write off the German after just one bad season. As David Coulthard of Red Bull said, "Whoever wins the championship, Fernando (Alonso) or Kimi (Raikkonen), they will not have actually beaten Michael Schumacher. Yes, they will have finished in front of him, and they will have won the title, but they can't say they've beaten Schumacher because the Ferrari is not in the same formula."

In a dog-eat-dog world that is Formula One, people tend to get cynical too quickly. And Schumacher, like the Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna before him, had to bear the brunt. As it happened in 1994 when he won his first world title, but was accused of colluding with his team Benetton in cheating and using illegal aids on his car; or in 1997 when he was stripped of his second place in the drivers' championship for what the authorities thought was unfair tactic in the final and decisive race in Jerez, Spain, where he made an aggressive manoeuvre in an attempt to pass Jacques Villeneuve, the eventual champion, and careened off the circuit.

Schumacher didn't feel bad about the victory he snatched from his Ferrari team-mate Barrichello in Austria in 2002, following team orders. He also didn't hide his mirth when Mika Hakkinen's engine blew up on the homestretch, handing him a fluke victory in the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix. To him winning was all that mattered. To his detractors, Schumacher said then: "Victory is a great emotion. I drive for this reason. This is my goal." Whether this helped clear people's scepticism, one is not sure. But the manner in which he controlled Formula One from 2000 to 2004 was without doubt imperious.

That Schumacher's poor run more than the prospect of Alonso or Raikkonen winning the World Championship is the focal point of discussion in the Formula One circles is indeed a tribute to the genius that the Ferrari driver is.

All that Alonso or Raikkonen or any other driver needs to do to beat Schumacher is to break the barrier set by the German — seven World Championships and five of them on the trot.

Schumacher, after all, scaled the peak of Formula One by overhauling Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five World Championships.