Byline: Kevin Eason in Kuala Lumpur
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER claims that he has no interest in Formula One's record books, yet he has fixed his eyes on the Malaysian Grand Prix. He talks of records being something that he will recite to his grandchildren, not something he will worry about before the race on Sunday.
A win here would take his tally to six consecutive victories, only three behind the record held by Alberto Ascari, Ferrari's first world champion. Five more wins would not only overtake the legendary Ascari but would put the German within touching distance of equalling the all-time total of 51 wins set by Alain Prost, considered by many to be the greatest grand prix driver.
Ascari's record straddled his two title-winning seasons in 1952 and 1953, when the World Championship was in its infancy and before the big car manufacturers with their huge spending power joined motor racing. Perhaps the thought of such domination of Formula One seems ludicrous while McLaren-Mercedes remain in contention and there is a threat from a grid comprising teams with money to burn to muscle their way to the front.
But neither Schumacher nor Ferrari seems to believe any record is out of reach. The German equalled the highest number of wins in a season with nine last year and two weeks ago in Australia set the highest career tally of fastest laps at 42, one more than Prost and 20 more than Mika Hakkinen, his only serious rival in the modern era. Wherever the page opens in Formula One's history, it seems that there is another record waiting to fall to make Schumacher officially the greatest driver ever.
Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director, believes that Schumacher is in such inspired form, particularly after his convincing win in Melbourne a fortnight ago, that he could be well nigh unbeatable for a while. The Englishman arrived in Kuala Lumpur yesterday convinced that Ascari's record will be next on the list.
"Michael is on a winning streak," Brawn said. "He has the same chance of winning here as he did in Australia, where he was magnificent. We had a fantastic year last season, eclipsing many records set by Ferrari, so why shouldn't we break a few more with him? We have some new pieces to come on the car for this race which should just make us stronger."
Schumacher is not only imperious on the track but his team has also found a winning formula. So often in the past he has had to race with a difficult car; this season he has a Ferrari that was clearly so fast in Australia that its speed rattled McLaren. Even David Coulthard, second in that race, had to admit: "We are playing catch-up and it will be difficult to pull Ferrari in for this race. It might take us a while to get on terms and overtake them."
Coulthard's throughts underline how powerful Schumacher and Ferrari will be in Malaysia. He won here last season and could have won easily the first time that a grand prix was held on this circuit in 1999 but handed victory to Eddie Irvine, his team-mate, who was going for the championship.
In spite of what Schumacher says, he is becoming increasingly conscious of his place in the history of Ferrari and Formula One. There are times when his reputation as a rapacious, overpaid sportsman overshadow his achievements on the track, but his rank in the sport is undeniable.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2001