Sat, Jul 03, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Schumacher has French GP title clearly in sight

AP , MAGNY COURS, FRANCE

While Ralf Schumacher and his Williams-BMW team have experienced different fortunes the last year, it's status quo for brother Michael and Ferrari.

Ralf won the French Grand Prix at Magny Cours last year, his second victory in a row, and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya was second to give Williams its second straight 1-2 finish and hope of catching Ferrari.

This season, entering tomorrow's French race, Ralf has two cracked vertebrae in his back after a crash at the US Grand Prix and is sidelined until at least September. Williams hasn't had a car in the standings the last two races, with disqualifications and Ralf's accident.

"To be honest, I wasn't expecting my birthday to be like this," said Ralf, who turned 29 on Wednesday.

Michael Schumacher, who has won eight of nine races, and Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello are now the ones with a string of 1-2 finishes -- three in a row and six in the campaign.

"Never, not in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined such a season," Michael said. "I sincerely thought the opposite, that is, I thought it would be a really hard season."

As the second half of the 18-race season begins, Michael is on course for his seventh Formula One title and fifth in a row. He's 18 points ahead of Barrichello -- 80 to 62 -- and 36 better than the nearest non-Ferrari driver, BAR-Honda's Jenson Button.

In 2002, Michael claimed the title at the French Grand Prix -- the earliest time that happened.

"We thought that the challenge for the title would be very difficult," Michael continued. "We based our opinion on the data and the impression we had from the winter tests. Nothing then seemed to suggest that Ferrari would have such a successful season.

"We didn't try to play things down but only tried to be realistic."

Still, he's concerned about tomorrow's race.

"Magny Cours can definitely be described as `testing' and not only for the high temperatures,'' said Michael, third at Magny Cours last year. "The heat renders life very hard during the race as the track surface tends to become more and more slippery as the race goes on."

Ralf's car hit the wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 20 after rounding a corner at about 300kph. A punctured tire, because of earlier debris after an accident, likely led to the crash. On Monday, he was told he fractured the two vertebrae and suffered a concussion.

If he returns at the beginning of October, only two races will be left in the season.

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