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Schumacher begins drive for more records
March 04, 2003 13:45 IST
Mika Hakkinen's long and happy days in retirement are as much a measure of Michael Schumacher's continuing success as any of the Ferrari world champion's own numerous records.
The Finn, who left McLaren in 2001 to spend more time with his family after winning two titles, remains the last Formula One driver to have led Schumacher in the championship -- all of two-and-a-half years ago.
Schumacher's 896-day run at the top could end in Melbourne on Sunday but if he wins again, for the fourth year in a row, the 'Red Baron' will be set to stretch his extraordinary championship lead well into 2003.
The 34-year-old Schumacher could celebrate 1,000 days in the lead by the time his raucous army of bare-chested, beer-soaked fans pitch their tents and park their motorhomes around the Nuerburgring for his German homecoming at the end of June.
The last time Schumacher trailed anyone in the standings was before Indianapolis hosted the U.S. Grand Prix for the first time on September 24 2000, a race that he won to regain the lead from Hakkinen.
Since then Schumi has shared the lead just once, with McLaren's David Coulthard after the Scot came second at Imola in April 2001, and won three titles with Ferrari to add to his two for Benetton.
That means 36 races in the lead -- a distance in terms of kilometres that would take Schumacher from Germany well into Asia.
It is already 22 races and 6,709.535 km of race laps since Schumacher last failed to finish a Grand Prix. Last year he became the first driver to complete an entire season of 17 races on the podium.
In total, he has been on the podium for the last 19 races, in the points for 22 in a row.
Schumacher is the Tiger Woods of motor racing, a man so dominant in his chosen sport that even his rivals are impressed, if not awe-struck.
He is the public face of Formula One, listed by one magazine last year as the most influential man in the sport, ahead of Bernie Ecclestone.
Whatever other drivers may think of his tactics and past misdemeanours, such as trying to run Jacques Villeneuve off the track in the 1997 title-decider, his place in history is secure.
"There's no question that Michael is one of the greatest drivers ever to drive an F1 car," said Britain's former champion and one-time Ferrari favourite Nigel Mansell.
"He's a total professional. Utterly focused. If he wants something, he'll do what it takes to get it. Whatever it takes," Mansell wrote in F1 Racing magazine.
Among Schumacher's many abilities are those of being instantly quick out of the pits, which should help in single-lap qualifying, having a mind like a computer and being a fitness freak.
Schumacher stores up key information and compartmentalises, refusing to allow anything to distract him, while also constantly searching for advantages and ways of improving his performance.
He puts in long hours in testing, poring over the telemetry data with engineers, and then flies home to his young family in Switzerland.
Last year, he won 11 of the 17 races, more than any other driver has ever managed in a single season, and took his fifth title in record time to equal Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio.
Along the way he collected a record number of points in a season (144) with the biggest overall winning margin (67).
Since he arrived on the scene in 1991 with Jordan, Schumacher has led 100 races and won 45 times for Ferrari -- nearly a third of the Italian team's total tally in half a century of grand prix racing.
This week could see more Schumacher records stretched or snapped, not that the five-time world champion expresses much emotion about them.
"You know racing and you know my statistics and I haven't retired from one race this year," he said in 2002. "One day it will hit me. We obviously hope it will not happen but you know how it goes."
The German already occupies most of the Formula One record book but there are a few more pages he can look forward to writing.
If he qualifies on the front row, he will be just one race away from equalling Brazilian Ayrton Senna's record of 87 starts from the front.
Another pole will take Schumacher's tally to 51, still 14 off Senna's mark, while another win will be a record 65th.
By the Spanish Grand Prix in May, he could be the first driver to complete 10,000 race laps if his car's extraordinary reliability continues uninterrupted.
The German, starting the season with a record career tally of 945 points, will undoubtedly become the first driver to break through the 1,000-point ceiling.
By the end of the year, he could become the first Formula One driver to win six championships and only the second to take four in a row.
But with a Ferrari contract that runs until the end of 2004, another championship win may not be his last.