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'Write off Schumacher at your peril'

October 13, 2006 16:55 IST

Team boss Frank Williams once remarked that Michael Schumacher would be a contender even if he was driving a pram.

The Ferrari driver did not get to win seven world championships, and a record 91 races, without being the consummate competitor -- someone who never gives up until the bitter end.

So when he appeared to concede defeat in the Formula One championship to Renault rival Fernando Alonso in Japan last weekend, it was inevitable that his words were met with a certain amount of scepticism.

"I can't believe he will go to his very last race without the intention of fighting for everything he can," said Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher's former Ferrari team mate.

"It's not the way he is made."

Briton Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion and Schumacher's former foe, agreed.

"Michael said he's not thinking about the championship now, that's baloney. He never gives up," the Briton told the BBC this week. "I would keep my armour on if I were Alonso until after the last race."

Pat Symonds, who guided Schumacher to his first two titles with Benetton and is now Renault's master tactician, assumed the Ferrari great must have been misunderstood.

"You've got to be strong in this business, and Michael is strong," he said on Sunday. "If he made that comment that the championship's all over, then I suspect he'll reflect overnight and he'll be back fighting in Brazil.

"It's his last race, if nothing else, and even if Fernando is sitting on his tail, he'll want that race so much."


Schumacher is 10 points behind reigning champion Alonso with only next week's Brazilian Grand Prix to come after he retired at Suzuka with a blown engine.

He must win at Interlagos and hope that this time it is Alonso who fails to score, for whatever reason.

"To be honest, I don't think there's any chance left for the championship," the German said at Suzuka.

"To assume that someone will not finish, or to plan on winning [the championship] on something like that, isn't a basis that I want to build upon."

Schumacher was merely facing up to the reality that the championship is out of his hands.

He can win the final race of his career, and will be a clear favourite to do so, but the rest is beyond his control.

That is not the same as giving up, however.

Schumacher has been around long enough to know that, as veteran British television commentator Murray Walker used to say repeatedly, anything can happen in Formula One and usually does.

Briton Nigel Mansell, the Williams driver whose rear tyre exploded in Adelaide with the 1986 title almost in the bag, can testify to that.

Schumacher has not let up since Japan, setting impressive times at Jerez this week in what stands to be the last test session of his career.

Let there be no doubt that the 37-year-old will do everything in his power to win his last race and, until Alonso crosses the line, there will always be a flicker of hope in the back of his mind.

Schumacher has only to think back a few years to remind himself just how difficult it can be for a driver to do anything less than race flat out for victory.

In 2003, he went to the final race in Japan needing just a point while McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen had to win and hope Schumacher did not score.

Raikkonen led that race while Schumacher had a nightmare, colliding with local hero Takuma Sato at the start and dropping to last place. He finally moved up to eighth as Barrichello took the victory.

It was all a bit too close for comfort and Alonso cannot assume his race will be any more of a cruise.


The Spaniard will have to worry about every backmarker, every engine noise. He would be advised also to stay well clear of Schumacher's Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa, particularly at the first corner.

Yet Alonso will also have to score more than just the one point, with Renault only nine points clear of Ferrari in the constructors' championship, unless team mate Giancarlo Fisichella can beat Schumacher.

One more win would allow Schumacher to retire with as many victories as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna combined -- the next two after him on the all-time winners' list -- for a remarkable achievement.

"Don't ever write that guy off. It's not over until it's over," said Hill, who lost the 1994 title to Schumacher after they collided in the season-ender.

"He's going to go into that last race thinking: 'Now, how can I win this and Alonso not score anything?' That's the way he's going to approach it. Otherwise, he's not Michael Schumacher."


Alan Baldwin
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