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Schumacher poised to sustain Ferrari's challenge

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER's devoted army of fans across the world will have breathed a collective sigh of relief as their hero's scarlet Ferrari came pounding past the checkered flag at Suzuka on Sunday afternoon to clinch the first drivers' world championship in 21 years for the legendary Italian scuderia.

The prospect of a fourth successive failure in the quest for the restoration of F1 racing's most famous team had simply been too awful to contemplate. Many observers regarded the 2000 season as Ferrari's win-or-bust season with the depressing prospect of the team going into another gradual cyclical decline if the sport's most successful multi-millionaire failed to deliver.

Now, with 43 career victories under his belt, the fulfilled Schumacher now faces a clear track to becoming the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time. Nine more victories would take him past Alain Prost's current all-time record tally of 51 triumphs and realizing that remarkable ambition is now a very realistic prospect for the Japanese grand prix winner.

More than anything, Schumacher is a true child of the commercial sporting age. One might reasonably have concluded that the warning light on his reservoir of motivation, courage and sheer speed would be flashing dangerously on fast corners after a decade in the business.

Yet this would be to misunderstand the what makes Michael tick. If his critics say he has a profound disinterest in the traditions of his sport, everybody stands in awe of his prodigious talent. Driving racing cars is as important for him as the air that he breathes.

He also operates in a remarkable stress-free cocoon which has been painstakingly erected for him and his wife Corinna by the tireless Stuttgart entrepreneur Willi Weber who originally discovered him as a teenage kart racer and crafted his career, entering him in his own formula three team a decade ago as the first step on the ladder to stardom.

The emergence of Ferrari and Schumacher as the sport's top contenders will also bring a smile to the face of F1's commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone. A self-confessed fan of the German driver, Ecclestone knows that if Ferrari are winning, then it is good for business.

Traditionally television viewership increases if Ferrari is winning as the Prancing Horse is regarded as one of the most famous brand names in the world. That means more income for Ecclestone and his F1 Administration empire at a time when it is being fattened for a possible stock exchange flotation and a sale of a stake in it to several of the world's major motor manufacturers.

The success will also come as a relief to Fiat chairman Paolo Cantarella who, if rumor is to believed, was having increasing trouble persuading his board to continue bankrolling Ferrari's $120 million program if it repeatedly failed to win the title. In that connection, the company's agreements to supply customer spec. Ferrari engines to Sauber and Prost, which should yield at least $40 million in additional income for relatively modest outlay, are seen as crucial in the overall attempt to keep the books balanced at Maranello.

Schumacher is also now Germany's most famous international sportsman, if far removed from the only predecessor from his homeland who came within hailing distance of a formula one world championship.

In 1961, the aristocratic Count Wolfgang von Trips stood poised to clinch the world championship only to be killed, along with more than a dozen spectators, when his Ferrari crashed in the Italian Grand Prix. His team-mate Phil Hill won the title, but believes pressure of inter-team rivalry almost certainly contributed to Trips's crash.

In those days, of course, the team owners called the shots. Enzo Ferrari bestrode the grand prix world like an irascible automotive colossus, paying his star drivers a few hundred dollars a month and invariably heightening the tension between them by failing to nominate a team leader.

In the era of Michael Schumacher, the best driver in the world dictates the terms at Ferrari. He knows just how difficult it really is to win a world championship and does not intend to let the interests of his team-mate get in the way of his own towering ambition.

One man who willingly played the subservient role to bask in Schumacher's reflected glory is Eddie Irvine. The Ulsterman left Ferrari for Jaguar at the start of this season, but remains absolutely convinced that Schumacher is the best.

"Michael is always pretty intense," he said. "There is nothing lighthearted about Grand Prix racing for him. He is there to win and nothing else."

The betting is that Michael Schumacher will do a lot more winning before he opts to ring down the curtain on his remarkable Grand Prix career. And the clever money says that all that winning still to come will all be done at the wheel of a Ferrari, to whom he is contracted at least until the end of 2002.

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