Schumacher's rivals won't join the party

IT is difficult to find a quiet place when you have just made sporting history in front of tens of thousands of delirious fans.

ANDREW BAKER

It is celebration time for Michael Schumacher and his team, Ferrari, after the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. -- Pic. MARK THOMPSON/GETTY IMAGES-

IT is difficult to find a quiet place when you have just made sporting history in front of tens of thousands of delirious fans.

Michael Schumacher found an empty corridor at the back of the control tower at Suzuka Circuit and slumped against a window, emotionally and physically spent. His sweat-soaked overalls steamed up the glass against which leant.

Only one person was with him: Jean Todt, who built the indomitable Ferrari machine around him.

Time and again the German fell forward, overcome by his emotions. Time and again the little Frenchman grabbed his shoulders, shaking Schumacher with sympathy.

The man in the scarlet overalls had just become the first driver to win six World Championships, and the world, the watching millions, wanted to know how he felt.

The trouble was, Schumacher didn't know how he felt, didn't want to tell anyone anything.

Eventually, he was cajoled before the cameras, clearly emotional but oddly unfocused. Schumacher sometimes makes winning look easy: but on this day he made it look very hard.

"It's been a tough year," he said. "A tough last stage of the season, and a tough race — really, that's one of my toughest."

Yes, yes, but how did it feel to have broken Juan Manuel Fangio's record, to be alone atop the pinnacle of his sport?

Schumacher's face clouded for a moment. "It's perhaps not appropriate," he broke off. "With all his happening, with a very, very strange race, my feelings just haven't sunk in. I can feel for the team, but I can't feel for myself, I'm just empty, exhausted."

Ferrari are everything to Schumacher because the team was constructed around him, tailored to his taste as carefully as his race-suit. "How many people wrote us off?" he asked, defiantly. "Here we are. We're back. We never give up."

That is a chilling message for Schumacher's rivals, but they seem pretty chilled by him already. Asked for a reaction to his team-mate's sixth title, Rubens Barrichello avoided the question; pressed, he wriggled before producing a purely abstract appreciation.

Kimi Raikkonen, who came much closer to defeating Schumacher than most had expected, had not a single word of praise for his rival: no words at all, in fact. David Coulthard was similarly mute. The message could hardly have been clearer: Schumacher may be adored by his millions of fans, but among his peers he is loathed.

Rubens Barrichello won the race, Schumacher finished the season ahead of others for his sixth overall title, which was also the fifth for Ferrari. -- Pic. REUTERS-

What manner of champion is this, who breaks every record in the book, but in the process so alienates his rivals that he has forfeited their respect?

It is a champion who will stop at nothing in his annual quest to remain champion. We have seen his trademark combination of ruthlessness and a kind of corporate cunning time and again.

The ruthlessness previously deployed against Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve was exercised against Schumacher's younger brother.

Ralf, fighting his way back up the field after a number of mishaps, was making energetic efforts to deprive big brother of the eighth position he needed to be sure of his title.

Ralf loomed alongside on the main straight, at 200mph, and had the momentum to pass. Michael veered right, and kept on veering right until Ralf had to either back off or hit the pit wall.

Hard racing? Or too hard? Either way, it is a style of driving that Schumacher senior has made his own.

The corporate cunning, which Schumacher inspires but for which he is not solely culpable, came into play earlier in the season when Ferrari protested about the tyres used by their increasingly successful rivals.

There is no need to go back into the nitty-gritty of that dispute now: suffice to say that it threw a spanner into the works at Williams just when they were threatening to dominate, and that Ferrari never looked back.

The tyre shenanigans reinforced the conviction among the other teams that Ferrari play politics too often, and too well, to allow any rival to establish a competitive edge. What results is an erosion of respect for the best team and the best driver in the sport.

This is a shame: people forget, sometimes, that Schumacher left a high-achieving team to join an under-achieving Ferrari. They forget that he might by now have won more than six world titles had he not done so.

But his fellow drivers cannot forget the manner in which all this was achieved. That is why, when Ferrari's celebrations got under way in the Log Cabin bar at Suzuka's Flower Garden hotel, Michael Schumacher's greatest rivals were not queuing up to buy him a drink.

The results:

Japanese Grand Prix 5.807-kilometre (3.608-mile) Suzuka Circuit with driver, country, car, laps completed, winner's time.

1. Rubens Barrichello, Brazil, Ferrari, 1 hour, 25 minutes, 11. 743 seconds. 2. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, McLaren-Mercedes, 11.085 seconds behind. 3. David Coulthard, Britain, McLaren-Mercedes, 11.614. 4. Jenson Button, Britain, BAR-Honda, 33.106. 5. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Renault, 34.269. 6. Takuma Sato, Japan, BAR-Honda, 51.692. 7. Cristiano da Matta, Brazil, Toyota, 56.794. 8. Michael Schumacher, Germany, Ferrari, 59.487. 9. Nick Heidfeld, Germany, Sauber-Petronas, 60.159. 10. Olivier Panis, France, Toyota, 61.844. 11. Mark Webber, Australia, Jaguar, 71.005. 12. Ralf Schumacher, Germany, Williams-BMW, 52 laps. 13. Justin Wilson, Britain, Jaguar, 52 laps. 14. Ralph Firman, Britain, Jordan-Ford, 51 laps. 15. Jos Verstappen, Netherlands, Minardi-Cosworth, 51 laps. 16. Nicolas Kiesa, Denmark, Minardi-Cosworth, 50 laps.

Drivers' standings (after 16 of 16 races):

1. Michael Schumacher, 93 points. 2. Raikkonen, 91. 3. Montoya, 82. 4. Barrichello, 65. 5. Ralf Schumacher, 58. 6. Alonso, 55. 7. Coulthard, 51. 8. Trulli, 33. 9. Button, Webber, 17. 11. Frentzen, 13. 12. Fisichella, 12. 13. Da Matta, 10. 14. Heidfeld, Panis, Villeneuve, 6. 17. Gene, 4. 18. Sato, 3. 19. Firman, Wilson, 1. 21. Pizzonia, Verstappen, Kiesa, Baumgartner, 0.

Constructors' standings:

1. Ferrari, 158 points. 2. Williams, 144. 3. McLaren, 142. 4. Renault, 88. 5. BAR, 26. 6. Sauber, 19. 7. Jaguar, 18. 8. Toyota, 16. 9. Jordan, 13. 10. Minardi, 0.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003