Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Schumacher Masters Politics, Too

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - It wasn't enough for Michael Schumacher to capture Ferrari's first drivers' title in 21 years at the Japanese Grand Prix on Oct. 8. He had to go on and win the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, giving the team its second consecutive constructors' title in style.

Can there remain any doubt that Schumacher is far more than just a talented driver with a great car, as his detractors sometimes suggest?

Since Ferrari's previous drivers' title, with Jody Scheckter behind the wheel in 1979, the team has had several exceptionally talented drivers. Even Alain Prost, the most successful driver in the sport's history, failed in two attempts to bring Ferrari a title before being fired from the team before the last race in 1991, a victim of in-house politics.

''Without a driver of his caliber,'' Prost said of Schumacher after the Japanese Grand Prix, ''Ferrari would hardly have survived the last five seasons without a title. Without Michael, the team would have been politically destroyed.''

Ferrari, the most politicized team in the sport, is, like Italy itself, very delicate to govern. And it was in politics that Schumacher succeeded where Prost failed. But Schumacher did not do it alone.

At Ferrari's annual media dinner at Monza last month, Luca di Montezemolo, the company's president, gave ample credit to the team's director, Jean Todt, who, Montezemolo pointed out had been in the job longer than any previous director. The Frenchman joined the team in 1993.

Unlike most world champions, who aim to join the teams with the best car, Schumacher joined Ferrari in 1996 when it had won only two races in the previous five seasons. And it was not just for the reported dollars 25 million salary he started there. Schumacher was also attracted by the challenge of lifting Ferrari, the sport's most venerable team, out of the doldrums.

Now, having achieved this, will he find the motivation to win another title? The way he reacted at the end of this season may be an indication of what is to come.

The 2000 season started well for Schumacher, with victories in the first three races. But by midseason his car had broken down twice, once while he led the Monaco Grand Prix in June, and then at the French Grand Prix in July.

If those mechanical failures were beyond his control, he was partly to blame for being knocked out of both the Austrian and German Grand Prixs after poor starts entangled him in accidents. From a 24-point lead over Mika Hakkinen after the Canadian Grand Prix in mid-June, Schumacher trailed by 2 points after the Hungarian Grand Prix in mid-August.

Although Schumacher raced spectacularly at the next race, the Belgian Grand Prix, Hakkinen won it and increased his lead in the championship.

During those difficult days, the German said it didn't matter if he won the title this year, he'd just go at it again next year. But the extent of the pressure he felt went public at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September when he broke into tears during a televised press conference after winning the race. Rather than resting on his laurels, Schumacher appeared liberated by the victory -- and perhaps the tears -- and won the next three races.

That Schumacher then found the wherewithal to win the Malaysian race after achieving the longtime objective of the drivers' title for Ferrari backed up his vow to profit by a revived team rather than quit and give a great car to someone else.

Then again, the Ferrari that won its first title in 21 years was not merely a great piece of engineering; it was part and parcel of the synergy between Schumacher, Todt, Ross Brawn (the technical director and race strategist) and Rory Byrne, the car's designer.

Todt had the prescience to hire all three to the team from Benetton, where they were part of the winning combination that brought Schumacher his first two drivers' titles in 1994 and 1995.

But doing it again at Ferrari, the only team that has raced in every race since 1950, is a much more difficult task politically, and one that takes more than just driving talent to achieve.

After the tumultuous 2000 season, we now have an entire winter to speculate over Ferrari's next act.

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