Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, September 5, 1997

Schumacher's Fast Little Brother

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
IN THE pits at a Grand Prix race Ralf Schumacher looks so much like his brother Michael that often the only way to tell them apart is by the color of their baseball caps; on the race track, too, they are beginning to look more alike.

In preparation for Sunday's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the younger brother, who wears a yellow cap and drives a yellow car, has been going much faster than the better-known one in the famous red car and matching red cap. It will be the home race for Michael's Ferrari team, but Jordan-Peugeot cars set the fastest times during testing at the track last week.

Close up, the differences appear. Ralf does not have the muscle man presence of his brother, the double world champion. Ralf has just turned 22, and unlike Michael, 28, can look like a pink-cheeked, awkward teenager.

''I don't like to speak about it,'' said Ralf of his physique, in an interview under the awning of his team's motorhome at the Belgian Grand Prix, two weeks ago. ''And I don't like to have pictures in the gym or whatever because that's not my style.''

Ralf has been called arrogant. Some say he is simply inordinately self-assured, others that, at 22, he is immature. But he shares one characteristic with Michael that all race car drivers must have: a near lack of consciousness of the danger of hurtling around a track at break-neck speed.

Ralf answered questions while watching the time trials for a Formula 3000 race on television.

''It's really bloody quick,'' he said after being pressed on the danger. ''But there are several circuits where if you go off, you wouldn't have anything. You have a lot of big looking accidents where the drivers just jump out and nothing happens. And then other accidents like Panis's that didn't look that spectacular.''

Panis broke both legs in his crash in Montreal.

''I think it's very secure.''

At which point, on the television, a car spun off track, bounced into a tire barrier and nearly speared another car.

''Oh Oh Oh Oh!'' said Ralf.

Only last year, little brother Ralf was racing in Formula 3000 in Japan. He won that series. The year before he won the most prestigious race in Formula 3, the Grand Prix of Macau he says that is his best racing memory.

Like Michael, he had been a go-kart champion. He started at 2, Michael at 4. They still kart together. Michael acts as Ralf's mechanic.

Eddie Jordan, the Jordan team owner who discovered Michael in 1991 and hired him for one race before he was snatched up by Benetton, has said he signed Ralf for his qualities as a driver, but knew people would say it was for his name.

The other Jordan driver is Giancarlo Fisichella, a young Italian.

Jordan said: "Without doubt they're the two best young drivers in my opinion in Formula One at the moment. And any young driver who has never been at a lot of the circuits, to be able to score points in his last five Grand Prix is something quite exceptional, and he can only get better from here."

Ralf's record is better than big brother's at the same age. He was a year younger when he started in Formula One and scored a podium finish in only his third race. Did he learn from Michael's mistakes?

''Not really, no,'' he said. ''You can't really learn, not in car racing. You have to make your own mistakes.''

Some have criticized the brothers for an apparent lack of sibling rivalry.

At the end of the French Grand Prix in June, just before he crossed the finish line as the winner, Michael slowed down almost to a stop to let Ralf a lap behind pass him. The maneuver allowed Ralf to race another lap and move up a place and gain a point.

At the Hungarian Grand Prix, in August, Ralf, in fifth place, did not attempt to overtake his brother, in fourth.

''I was definitely quicker,'' said Ralf. ''I knew that he needed the points for the world championship title and I was quite satisfied with the position where I was.''

It cost Ralf, and his team, an extra point.

When pressed, Ralf changed his tune, saying the team told him not to overtake, because it would be too difficult.


LAST YEAR, Willi Weber, who manages the brothers, said he'd like to groom Ralf, now the youngest driver in Formula One, to take over the drivers' title just as his brother leaves the sport in a few years.

''You can never plan those things,'' said Ralf. ''I'm sure one day I'll try to win the championship. But now is a bit early to think about it. First I have to win a race, then we'll see.''

Ralf turned away and started talking to a team member about the Formula 3000 race. A German television crew waited impatiently at the next table. So last question: Does he race for the love of speed, or the love of competition?

''More the competition,'' he said. ''Speed is nothing. When you're sitting in the car you don't realize how quick you are.''

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