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SEPTEMBER 30, 1998

Much ado about nothing...

THERE has been a great deal of noise in recent days about the incident between Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard during the recent Belgian Grand Prix, with the Ferrari management publicly blaming the McLaren driver for taking the German out of the race.

Schumacher was attempting to lap Coulthard at Spa, in torrential rain, when the Ferrari driver ran into the back of the McLaren, damaging his car beyond repair. Michael drove back to the pits and then stormed to the McLaren pit and accused David of trying to kill him. Coulthard later said that Schumacher had acted "like an animal".

The German's fans - never known for their reserve nor charm - behaved badly after the race, showering Coulthard with beer cans when he left the circuit.

There has been little support inside the F1 business for Schumacher and Ferrari. Belgian GP winner Damon Hill - who has often clashed with Schumacher in the past - said that Schumacher's attitude was to be expected. "Blaming others is a tactic he often uses when he has made a mistake," Hill said. "He targets the innocent party to deflect from his own error. To think that David would make Michael run into the back of him is just too ridiculous for words."

Even Schumacher's own team mate Eddie Irvine says that Coulthard would never have tried to take out Schumacher on purpose. "There is no way that DC is going to do it deliberately," said Irvine. "He is not that kind of person. No driver would do that to a colleague. Michael was just unlucky."

Former Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni, who now commentates for Italian TV, said that Schumacher is the best driver in F1 but "he drives with arrogance and thinks he is a demi-god. He wants to humiliate his rivals, not just beat them. He could have avoided the scene in the McLaren pit. His behavior was not worthy of a champion."

On the day after the race Mercedes-Benz boss Norbert Haug asked Schumacher to apologize to Coulthard for his accusations. "The situation could degenerate at Monza and we must avoid that," Haug said. "A Schumacher apology would calm things down. We want to preserve our good relations with him and our hand is held out to him."

Schumacher adopted a more conciliatory approach, but refused to apologize. "I think we should discuss what happened," he said. "Looking back you see things in a more balanced fashion but that does not mean one has to apologize. What happened happened, and it doesn't merit discussion."

Ferrari team bosses, however, did not appear to want the controversy to quieten down and issued a statement in reply to what they called "misleading interpretations" of the accident.

The team said that it had conducted another investigation into the accident and had concluded that Coulthard ignored blue flags for an entire lap and never gave way to Schumacher; that on several occasions Michael Schumacher moved off line to show Coulthard his car was there; that Coulthard slowed down suddenly while on the racing line. The team added that: "Ferrari will make no further statement about what happened and considers the incident closed".

But McLaren was clearly upset by Ferrari's attitude and a few hours later issued its own statement. "It is our regret that this incident occurred and that its subsequent interpretation by Ferrari has challenged the integrity of our team and its driver," the British team said. "It is clear, however, that the incident was accidental and a consequence of the actions of both drivers involved who were competing in appalling weather conditions.

"It was understandable that immediately following the incident, emotions were running high and incorrect conclusions were reached.

"The stewards of the Belgian Grand Prix received a detailed account of the incident from David Coulthard and reviewed the car performance data downloaded by the FIA. At no time leading to the incident did David Coulthard apply the brakes or lift from the throttle, he was merely driving in a manner which would allow Michael Schumacher to pass.

"The stewards concluded that the accident was a racing incident and that there was no case to be answered by DavidÊCoulthard."

While the F1 circus is largely convinced that Ferrari is trying to exploit the situation to put pressure on McLaren and create an excuse if the team fails to win the World Championship - as it said it was going to do before the season began - it will be more difficult to convince the Ferrari fans who have accepted the team's version of events. When testing began at Monza banners reading "Licensed to Kill by Mercedes" and "Killer Coulthard" appeared in the grandstands and Coulthard was jeered every time his car left the pitlane.