Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, October 11, 1999

With 2 Races to Go, Schumacher Heightens the Season's Intrigue

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - With Michael Schumacher's sudden return to Formula One, an unpredictable season will now also have an unpredictable finale. And that may be precisely why the double world champion is making his comeback after a

three-month layoff with a broken leg that has barely healed, and with just two races to go.

On Friday, only one week before the first practice sessions for the Malaysian Grand Prix next weekend, Ferrari, reversing a statement made five days earlier, announced that its leading driver would return. While there had been speculation about a return since before the Hungarian Grand Prix in mid-August, the previous announcement had seemed to be the final word.

''I can't train hard,'' the German driver had said, ''and in this condition, it would make no sense to return to competition.''

Last Monday, he seemed to prove the point by spinning out after only 15 laps of practice at Mugello, Italy, and damaging the car, but not himself. On Tuesday, he visited Pope John Paul II, kissing the pontiff's hand and proclaiming it the happiest day of his life. Practice sessions again on Thursday and Friday apparently gave expression to this lift in morale as he twice broke lap records at Fiorano, Italy, and then announced that he would race after all.

It was uncharacteristically enigmatic behavior from this most single-minded and predictable of drivers. Generally considered the best driver of his generation, with 35 career victories he is the third-most victorious driver ever, behind Alain Prost with 51 and the late Ayrton Senna with 41.

Since 1996, when Ferrari hired him, the German's consuming desire has been to win the team's first drivers' title since 1979 when Jody Scheckter won it and its first constructors' title since 1983. The first goal was almost achieved in 1997, when Schumacher lost the title to Jacques Villeneuve in the last race, in Jerez, Spain. Last year, the title again came down to the last race, this time between Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen of Finland, in Japan. Hakkinen won.

This year, Schumacher won two races, led the championship for a time, and in Monaco became the most victorious driver ever for Ferrari, with 16 triumphs for the team. Then came his accident on the first lap of the British Grand Prix on July 11, which would not only cost him the next six races, but, once again, the driver's title.

The German's absence coincided with a period during which Eddie Irvine, Ferrari's second driver, was at his peak. The Northern Irishman started the season with a victory in the first race, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March, after both Schumacher and Hakkinen had car problems. Irvine has gone on to finish all but one of the season's 14 races, and scored points in 12 the only driver to do so. He also won the two races in Austria and Germany following Schumacher's accident. He is now only two points behind Hakkinen for the drivers' title.

While Schumacher may not want to see Irvine take the glory that was destined to be his, the team is only eight points behind McLaren for the constructors' title. Two good results by Schumacher could clinch it for them.

Upon hearing of Schumacher's return, Irvine said it was ''fantastic.'' He added: ''It's just what the whole team needed. Watch out, McLaren.''

Hakkinen and McLaren are the fastest driver and car. And with a two-point lead, 62-60, the Finn can win the title if he wins the race in Malaysia and Irvine does no better than fifth.

But both David Coulthard, McLaren's second driver, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who drives a Jordan, are also still in the running for the title. Ferrari may be trying to destabilize its rivals.

Schumacher can help Irvine win the title by simply out-racing Hakkinen, thus taking points away from Irvine's rival.

But things could get dirty. Ferrari has in the past employed tactics whereupon one driver is used to slow down the pack to give the other driver a chance to break away. But many wonder whether the German is capable of playing the secondary role.

Cynics might say that Schumacher's return is a ploy by Formula One to increase ticket sales for the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix.

But there is a self-serving angle to it for Schumacher: As his season is a write-off, he must now concentrate on winning the title next year. The experience of racing again after a three-month absence will get him back in the swing before the winter break, from November to March. And if Ferrari wins a title, the team breaks through the psychological barrier even for next year of achieving a goal that has seemed forever beyond its reach.

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