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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 06:11 GMT 07:11 UK
Schumacher one step away

By Jonathan Legard
BBC motor racing correspondent

Michael Schumacher
Jackie Stewart's advice to Michael Schumacher is that he should quit Formula One when he clinches his sixth world title.

But Kimi Raikkonen would schedule Schumacher's retirement for a fortnight's time - during the Japanese Grand Prix.

It is a long shot, given Schumacher's reliability record now extends to a mind-boggling 37 races but it is Raikkonen's best chance of claiming F1's ultimate prize himself.

Even then, nothing less than victory will do.

For a 23-year-old who has triumphed only once in motor racing's most demanding arena, his mission is almost certainly impossible.

McLaren rightly and understandably insist their quest remains realistic after Raikkonen secured pole position and second place at Indianapolis.

Whether Montoya will be mounting his 2004 bid in Williams colours remains to be seen
But Schumacher's transformation from August also-ran to Autumn record-breaker will surely be complete in Japan.

From seventh on the grid, behind both Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya, his championship rivals, the Ferrari maestro had no right to victory in America.

He looked even less of a winner after the team made the wrong decision over tyres as the rain fell during the first round of pitstops.

But when Montoya and Williams needed to be at their best, they self-destructed.

McLaren and Michelin lost ground in the heavy rain, so Schumacher was off the hook as the weather favoured the Ferrari-Bridgestone combination.

It was to Raikkonen's credit that he recovered his momentum to finish second and forced Schumacher to sweat it out for another two weeks.

Third or worse and Ferrari would have been home and dry.

Wet and miserable best summed up the mood at Williams - their two-pronged championship charge is now in danger of coming up short on both counts.

Montoya left the circuit, fuming about the decision of the stewards to penalise him for causing a collision with Rubens Barrichello.

With Ralf Schumacher's clash with the same driver so fresh in the memory, particularly after the protracted legal battle, Williams shared his frustration.

But Montoya might also reflect on the wisdom of such a manoeuvre after just two of the 73 laps.

When his all-action style comes off, like passing Michael Schumacher around the outside of the downhill hairpin at the Nurburgring in June, the wow factor has the grandstands on their feet.

But when the stewards are so trigger-happy, the risks can frequently outweigh the rewards.

Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams collides with Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari
Whether he will be mounting his 2004 bid in Williams colours remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, Montoya learnt that too late to save his championship challenge for 2003.

His removal from the title race could spur McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, to redouble his efforts to partner him with Kimi Raikkonen next season.

Williams insisted on Saturday that Montoya was going nowhere but Dennis' comments on race day were ambiguous.

"I have decided who's driving for us next year but that's all I'm prepared to say," he said.

"We have seven drivers under contract but I'm not going to list them all."

Asked whether he could categorically say that Raikkonen and David Coulthard would be racing together in 2004, he replied: "That is my intention."

But F1 sources suggest McLaren's intentions lie elsewhere, backed up by a fat chequebook.

Money, however, cannot buy the championship.

In any case, the market has already been cornered by Michael Schumacher.




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