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F1 rivals can take heart from past comebacks
Alan Baldwin | October 06, 2006 11:36 IST
With two races to go, Michael Schumacher is looking more and more like Formula One's comeback king -- even if he is just about to retire.
If the Ferrari driver wins the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday, and Renault's Fernando Alonso fails to score, the German will take an eighth championship and complete one of the sport's great fightbacks.
Schumacher was 25 points behind Alonso after the Canadian Grand Prix in June, and almost written off as a contender as Formula One insiders speculated on just how early the championship would be wrapped up.
Since then Ferrari have won six out of seven races, with Schumacher triumphant in five of them.
After his victory in China last weekend, one race after he announced his retirement at the end of the season, the 37-year-old eased ahead of Alonso 7-6 on race wins after levelling on points.
The pressure would appear to be on his 25-year-old rival, sounding frustrated and increasingly critical of his team and the powers-that-be after the latter banned Renault's performance-enhancing mass damper system and penalised him in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix.
Yet the Spaniard can take heart from Schumacher's own experience 12 years ago.
In 1994, when Schumacher was a 25-year-old at Benetton, the German was on the receiving end of what would have ranked as the greatest Formula One comeback, had it come off.
Briton Damon Hill was 37 points adrift of Schumacher after the first seven races in that tragic season, forever associated with the death of his Brazilian team mate Ayrton Senna at Imola.
However a two-race suspension imposed on the German put the Williams driver back in the game, winning in Italy and Portugal in Schumacher's absence.
By the time they came to Suzuka, the penultimate round of that season just as it is this year, Schumacher was only five points clear of his older rival.
Hill then produced one of the bravest drives of his career, piling the pressure on Schumacher and beating him on a rain-soaked track to cut the gap to one point with only Australia to come.
The final showdown in Adelaide culminated in high drama, Hill chasing Schumacher until the German hit a wall and took out the Briton on the rebound.
Schumacher's win was controversial and Alonso would not want to emulate that. But it serves as a reminder that even the strongest of comebacks can run out of steam at the critical moment.
This time, the battle is simply too close to call.
"It's so even, it's unreal. It could go either way, it really could," said Australian driver Mark Webber.
"What has happened in the last eight months is absolutely in the bin," he added.
"It's now a two race championship and both will have that in their mind. They've got six more practice sessions, two more qualifying sessions and two more races.
"There's a lot at stake. It's the last two. And Fernando might get the nod under pressure, because I think he feels there's less pressure on him," he said.
"Fernando's got for the rest of his life the fact that he beat Michael before he retired. He's already done that once. He'll be cool here."
Equally, Schumacher has pretty much seen it all in an extraordinary career and can retire having led the championship again after a dismal 2005. At the very least he has shown everyone that he still has what it takes.
He has won and lost a fistful of titles in last race showdowns and dominated an entire season like no other driver right from the very start.
Even if he is no great student of Formula One history, Schumacher might prefer to contemplate another comeback completed in Japan.
Thirty years ago, at the Fuji circuit, Britain's James Hunt won the title after having been 35 points behind Niki Lauda, who missed three races after a near-fatal fiery crash at the Nuerburgring.
Alonso now also finds himself in the position of being reeled in by a rival who looked beaten only months earlier. But Webber, for one, believes he will cope with it.
"He's a fiery competitive bastard, that's how he is," said the Australian, who shares a manager with the Spaniard in Renault team boss Flavio Briatore. "He doesn't look it, but he is. And that's what it's about. You don't get what he's got if you're not."
Sunday's Suzuka clash has all the makings of a classic.
Formula One: The Complete Coverage