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AUGUST 23, 1999

Schumacher back in action

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER was back in a Formula 1 Ferrari on Friday for the first time since his accident at the BritishÊGrandÊPrix on July 11. He had been out of action for less than six weeks. Doctors said at the time of the crash that he could expect to be unable to race for at least two months and Schumacher's manager Willy Weber was quoted as saying that Michael would be out for 12 to 16 weeks. These games are continuing with some speculation that Michael will race at the BelgianÊGrandÊPrix. Michael said after the test that he will meet with Ferrari soon to discuss racing at Monza.

Schumacher was given the go-ahead to test by his doctors on Thursday evening and the following morning flew by helicopter from Switzerland to Mugello where he began testing immediately. His second lap was faster than the fastest lap achieved by Irvine and he improved this by half a second in the course of the day. The test was watched by Ferrari boss JeanÊTodt and by French surgeon Gerard Saillant, who performed the second operation on Michael two weeks ago. Michael was still walking with a very pronounced limp and we understand that he had to be helped into and out of the car. This will probably mean that he will not be able to race before the Italian Grand Prix as he needs to be able to pass the FIA safety test which insists that a driver be able to climb unaided from his car within five seconds. There is also the danger that his healing legs could be damaged more seriously if he were to be involved in another big accident.

The test at Mugello suggested, however, that driving is not a problem. Michael completed 65 laps of the Ferrari test facility in the hills above Florence - a distance of 211 miles - the equivalent of more than a Grand Prix distance. After the test both the team and Schumacher said that the aim was for him to return at Monza but Michael's love of Spa and his desire to claw back points in the World Championship seem to suggest that he might return in Belgium.

The contradictory statements made in recent weeks by Schumacher's management and Ferrari mean that anything could happen. Schumacher is 24 points behind Irvine in the World Championship - and there are only five races remaining. If Schumacher misses Belgium there will virtually no chance that he could catch Irvine in the World Championship.

The fact that Irvine is leaving the team at the end of the year may convince Michael and Ferrari to take a risk and go for the World Championship. The danger of this strategy is that Mika Hakkinen may win the title because one Ferrari is taking points from the other. Ferrari management may, however, have concluded that Irvine is going to lose anyway and so it is better to have Schumacher going for the title, rather than trying to support a faltering bid from Irvine.