Tuesday June 26th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Ralf Schumacher has the perfect opportunity to get his own back on brother Michael at this weekend's French Grand Prix by making the world champion wait for his 50th career win. Michael established beyond all doubt at the Nurburgring on Sunday that brotherly love would not stand between him and his most basic objectives.
His by now familiar veering move at the start of the European Grand Prix left Williams driver Ralf with little choice but to back off or make contact with either a concrete wall or his elder brother. Ralf, who celebrates his 26th birthday on Saturday, did the sensible thing and Michael went on to notch up his 49th career win and stretch his world championship lead over McLaren's David Coulthard to 24 points.
Most people now expect the Ferrari driver to overtake Alain Prost's all time record of 51 victories during the next few months before claiming his fourth world title. Michael has five of the season's nine races, Ralf and Coulthard have won two apiece, and been on pole position seven times. He has also triumphed in the French Grand Prix four times in his last seven outings.
His younger sibling will doubtless be pleased when Michael adds another record to his already extensive collection, but he also has every reason to want to delay the celebrations for as long as possible. The good humour radiating from the Williams motor home before race day, particularly after Ralf extended his contract to the end of 2004 and qualified on the front row of the grid alongside Michael, was noticeably absent on Sunday.
Ralf's disappointment, though, may have been more to do with his mistake in incurring a 10-second penalty for illegally crossing the pitlane exit line, an understandable gaffe in the heat of the action but one that cost him the race. Magny-Cours has plenty of fast corners and a straight that facilitates overtaking. Williams, whose BMW engine produces more straight line speed than their rivals, dominated a recent test session at the circuit, which is also home territory for the team's tyre suppliers, Michelin.
"Magny-Cours is one of my favourite race tracks," Ralf Schumacher said. "We had some very promising tests there so I think we should be fairly competitive."
Coulthard won there last year, putting in one of his finest performances in a race overshadowed by the older Schumacher's driving tactics. At one point, Schumacher almost forced the Scot off the track to block a passing move, prompting Coulthard to shake his fist and then raise a single finger in a gesture seen by millions around the world.
"I just don't think Michael is very sporting in the way he drives on the track," Coulthard said afterwards. This time, however, the performance of his own car is likely to be a bigger concern than the German's behaviour, with the McLaren adrift in qualifying and half a second off the lap speed of the leaders at the Nurburgring.
Coulthard is Schumacher's only real rival for the world title but, with just eight races left, crunch time is fast approaching. He knows that even if Schumacher suffers a string of retirements, it will still take him at least three Grands Prix to catch up. The Ferrari driver has failed to finish in the top two positions only once in his last 15 races and can now also count on Ralf or his Williams teammate Juan Pablo Montoya to take points away from McLaren.
"I can only do what I can do," said Coulthard after the Nurburgring. "I've had some good races at Magny-Cours and won there last year so we have reason to believe we can go better."