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Schumacher in trouble again

CONTROVERSIAL German Michael Schumacher's brilliant drive at Spa was spoiled by some outrageous blocking of Damon Hill when the Englishman was using wet tires and quite clearly traveling much faster than Schumacher, who had decided to stay on dry tires in spite of a rain storm.

Damon Hill clearly thought that Schumacher had gone too far and so too did a lot of others in the F1 paddock - notably the stewards, who called him in after the race and gave him a suspended one-race ban, for the next four Grands Prix. Considering that the German received a severe reprimand for his collision with Hill at Silverstone he seems to have been quite lucky to escape with such a light penalty.

After the race Hill was typically civil about the whole affair but he felt sufficiently upset to go straight to Schumacher to express his feelings. Later he refused to reveal what he had said to the German but they did not look like pleasant words. Schumacher's actions came when he decided to risk staying out in the wet, on dry weather tires, in the hope that the track would dry. Schumacher had started 16th on the grid because of problems and bad luck in qualifying and had lost a lot of time early in the race, so Benetton engineers convinced Michael that the only way he had any chance of beating Hill was if he gambled on the weather improving. If Michael had taken wets, they argued, he would gain nothing, but if the gamble was successful he could win.

Hill rejoined behind Schumacher but was quickly right on Michael's tail. On wet tires Damon was capable of lapping in the 2m17s bracket, while Schumacher was lapping in the 2m23s. "I was trying to keep him behind me as long as possible," Michael said later.

There is no doubting this was the performance of an artist behind the wheel of a car, because driving on slicks in such circumstances is extremely difficult, but some of Michael's tactics were judged unacceptable. On a couple of occasions he simply squeezed Damon into positions where Hill had to either back off or go off the road. And it was not only in the slow corners, as Michael later claimed, he was doing it at Blanchimont and Raidillon as well. At one point they touched wheels.

"Michael drove a stupendous race," said Damon. "We had some pretty hairy moments and I am not satisfied with being driven into. I don't think that was acceptable. That is all well and good but if it was meant on purpose I would be very upset. F1 cars are not go-karts. I think there are some things which are acceptable and some things which are not."

Michael defended himself by agreeing that touching wheels in high-speed corners is "not acceptable" but added that "at the speed we did it I think it is acceptable".

Whatever the case, on laps 22 and 23, Hill lost around 12-15 seconds stuck behind the German. On lap 24, Michael finally cracked and went off onto the grass. Hill was ahead and gone and had a three-second lead by the end of the lap. But the track changed and the slick rubber suddenly began to work again which meant that Michael's 25th lap was 10 secs faster than his 24th and he breezed past Hill again, leaving Damon no choice but to pit again for slicks, which meant that Schumacher was suddenly 30 secs ahead.

Benetton announced its intention to appeal the one-race ban immediately after the Spa stewards had concluded their investigation. In doing so, Benetton is risking the penalty being increased as happened last year with Eddie Irvine, who had a one-race ban increased to three races. If the FIA Court of Appeal concludes that Schumacher is wasting the court's time he could be banned for a race which would severely damage his World Championship chances.

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