Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, August 26, 2000

Schumacher Looks for Redemption

Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium - Michael Schumacher will be seeking to brake his fall from grace with Ferrari fans at the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday, a critical race for the struggling German driver.

Working in his favor is the location of the contest -- Spa, a track where he has been very successful. But the locale will not help him if he fails again to complete even one lap.

In his past three races, Schumacher has bombed out before the first corner. In Austria and Germany, bad starts got him knocked off the track and out of the race. In Hungary, he failed to profit from his pole position and let Mika Hakkinen slip through at the first corner, essentially handing the Finn both the victory -- it is next to impossible to pass on the Hungaroring -- and the lead in the drivers' series.

Two months ago, after the Canadian Grand Prix, Schumacher held a 24-point lead over Hakkinen, his biggest rival of the past two years. But after scoring points at only one of the last four races, Schumacher now lies two points behind Hakkinen with only five races left in the season.

While Ferrari's Italian fans usually blame poor results on the team rather than on the driver, they are now beginning to criticize Schumacher for his bad starts. At Spa on Thursday, Schumacher defended himself.

''I did quite good starts already this year, but you can't always do them,'' he said, adding that people tend to look for trends in one's driving ''rather than doing a proper analysis.''

An analysis of Schumacher's starts from the front of the grid, however, reveals what may well be the driver's Achilles' heel. Out of 28 career pole positions, Schumacher won only 10 of his 40 victories. On the other hand, he has won 15 of the 25 races that he started from second position, the other 15 triumphs coming from the 84 races in which he started behind the front row.

By comparison, when Jacques Villeneuve won the championship in 1997 with Williams, he won seven races, five from the pole -- he had 10 poles in all -- and two more from when he started from second position.

Does Schumacher get the jitters when he starts out front?

''There's always a bit of luck involved,'' Schumacher said. ''Because you have a lot of horsepower available, you have a fairly small clutch and a lot of heat, so a lot of things can go wrong during a start, and it's a fine edge to get right.''

But his pole position failures have come at some of the most crucial moments in a championship. In the championship-deciding race at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1998, Schumacher stalled the car while on pole, just before the start. He had to start from the back of grid while Hakkinen, who qualified second on the grid, but inherited Schumacher's pole, won the race and the title.

In fact, Schumacher's race start statistics from the front of the grid are getting worse: Since the beginning of the 1998 season he has had 11 pole positions and only two victories from those poles. Of those two victories, he made a bad start in one of them -- at Imola in 1998. He succeeded in leading from the start through the first corner and winning the Canadian Grand Prix this year.

In Hungary two weeks ago, Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director, acknowledged the team was beginning to feel the problem, saying, ''We have to get ourselves out of that trough with Michael.'' Ironically, the bad news is that Schumacher's car is the best he has had at Ferrari. But as it improves he scores more pole positions, and is thereby put at a disadvantage.

Part of his problem may be the pressure a driver undergoes driving for the sport's most legendary team, which may be more closely scrutinized by the Italian fans and media than probably any other team is by its fans.

''Being at Ferrari when you are competitive is fantastic, but when you are not, it's really difficult,'' Alain Prost said at Spa. Prost nearly won the title with the team in 1990, but failed to win a single race with the team in 1991. ''It's always more difficult at Ferrari because you get more pressure.''

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