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Schumacher stays at Ferrari until 2000

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER has signed to remain with Ferrari until the end of the 1999 World Championship - an extension of his current contract by two years.

The deal guarantees Ferrari stability at a time when the Italian team is beginning to shows signs of becoming a winning force in F1 again. The deal is believed to be worth in excess of $25m a year to the German, although he is able to gain a great deal more money through his Schumacher Collection merchandising operation and from endorsements.

Ferrari driver retainers are traditionally paid by cigarette company Marlboro - which has plenty of money available at the moment thanks to its decision not to continue to support McLaren next year.

Schumacher joined Ferrari this year after winning two World Championships with the Benetton team. The team has struggled to be reliable with the F310 car but has made a great deal of progress in the course of the year. Schumacher's three victories gave him third place in the Drivers' World Championship and took Ferrari to second place in the Constructors' World Championship behind Williams. There is much optimism at Ferrari that the current gap to Williams will be a great deal smaller next year, as Ferrari development programs bear fruit.

Ferrari men know that Williams is still going to be strong next year - and some feel that the arrival of Heinz-Harald Frentzen will actually make Williams even stronger than it has been with Damon Hill. In 1998, however, Williams will probably be weaker as the team will be working with a new engine partner. This means that the 1998 season is probably Schumacher's best chance for renewed success. With his current contract ending in 1997 Schumacher would not be in the best position to exploit that if he was to move teams. The new contract means that he will probably get two good shots at the title in 1998 and 1999 before coming onto the market again in 2000, by which time Williams should be a winning force again.

The signing is bad news for McLaren boss Ron Dennis who has been trying to lure Schumacher away from Ferrari so that McLaren can create a German "superteam" of Schumacher, Mercedes-Benz and West cigarettes. With Frentzen tied up by Williams and Ralf Schumacher tied to Jordan for three years, Dennis is going to struggle to find a German star for his team. The best he will be able to manage will be Gerhard Berger, who will be looking for a drive when his Benetton contract expires at the end of next year. By then Berger will be 38 and will probably be looking for a two year contract to end his frustrating F1 career. He knows McLaren well - he drove for the team in 1990-1991-1992 - but is still keen to be in the right car at the right time.

When Schumacher joined Ferrari he spoke of getting ready to win the World title in 1997 but Ferrari bosses are already saying that it might not be possible to win next year. The team's new 66% rolling-road windtunnel will not be finished in time to help the 1997 design and it is fairly clear that in 1998 there will be a different design team as well - with John Barnard's crew moving on and Ross Brawn expected to arrive from Benetton. Schumacher is believed to have pushed very hard to have Ferrari sign up Brawn, who was technical director at Benetton when Michael was winning there.

"I am sure that in the next three years we will reap the fruits of this great common effort," says Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, "and we will give our supporters - shareholders, sponsors and fans - the satisfaction they deserve."

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