Tuesday June 19th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
The Ralf and Michael Schumacher Formula One show comes home this weekend with both brothers already having plenty to celebrate and expecting much more. Races do not come much easier to promote to local fans than Sunday's European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
Since Formula One last visited Germany in July last year, Michael Schumacher has secured a third title to become Ferrari's first world champion in 21 years and his younger sibling Ralf has finally become a race winner with Williams.
Organisers could have asked for no better scene setter than the last race in Canada where the Schumachers filled the front row and Ralf, in his BMW-powered car, beat Michael into second place for the first time.
Michael arrives in the Eifel mountains on top of the drivers' championship, 18 points clear of David Coulthard and a clear favourite to repeat last season's triumph. Even Briton Coulthard offers something for locals with his Mercedes-engined McLaren but Michael can expect most of them to be firmly on his side.
"It's always special to race in front of your home crowd and if I have a race with my brother like the one we had in Canada they will certainly not be disappointed," said Michael, who has already won four times this year. He said Bridgestone, Ferrari's tyre suppliers, had come up with some new developments since Montreal and hoped to have the edge over the Michelins used by Williams.
"However it is so close now that you can never be sure until the race itself which one will be strongest. If the weather changes between qualifying and the race then it could swing either way," he added.
The Nurburgring is only an hour's drive away from Kerpen, the small town near Cologne where the Schumachers grew up, and both know it by heart even though they have not always exploited that knowledge to full effect. In 1997, when Michael was challenging Canadian Jacques Villeneuve for the title, the two brothers collided on the first lap at the Nurburgring in a race they would rather forget.
They have banged wheels again since then but Ralf, who led at the Nurburgring in 1999 before suffering a puncture, showed in Canada with his second win of the season just how much the 26-year-old has matured.
"This is my home race and there is always a great atmosphere, which makes it very special," said the younger Schumacher, two points behind third-placed Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello in the championship.
"It would be nice to have a similar success at home to Canada, but the Nurburgring will be more difficult for us than Montreal so my realistic target is to collect as many points as possible."
"We are going to Nurburgring with confidence but we are also realistic because it is a very different circuit to Montreal," said Williams chief operations engineer Sam Michael. "I am sure we will see some interesting strategies Sunday because most of the passing at this circuit is done in the pits."
Coulthard took pole position here last year but that has not been an advantage in any of the races since Formula One returned to the reconfigured Nurburgring in 1995 after a 10-year absence. No driver since then has won from the prime slot on the grid and the Scot, who also took pole in 1995 with Williams, has yet to taste victory in Germany. But he remains confident of spoiling the Schumachers' party.
"Michael has got a big lead," he said. "But that can turn around in two races. The championship is still achievable."
His Finnish teammate Mika Hakkinen, the two times world champion, will be hoping to improve on his third place in Canada and won at the Nurburgring in 1998 in a crucial race hailed as one of the finest of his career. Ralf's teammate Juan Pablo Montoya will be hoping to finish for only the second time this season on a circuit he knows from Formula 3000, winning the title there in 1998.
Others too will be hoping that the Nurburgring lives up to a reputation for throwing up surprises, particularly if it rains as it so often does. In 1999, the track produced the last race without a Ferrari or McLaren driver on the podium.