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When a top Formula One driver approaches the end of his contract and weighs up his options, the sport?s whole driver market hangs on his decision. When two top racers are available at the same time, things get complicated.
The F1 world is waiting for Michael Schumacher, statistically the greatest driver in the sport?s history, to decide whether he will continue racing or retire at the end of the season. He has indicated that if he stays, it will be with Ferrari.
Schumacher, who has won seven world drivers? titles, is 37, which is pretty old by modern F1 standards. In his 10 seasons at Ferrari he has transformed them from perennial underachievers to the elite squad that has won 10 world championships (driver and constructor titles) in the last six years.
?The decision could come very late,? Schumacher warned in Barcelona last week. ?Ferrari can wait for me until the end of the season.?
This pronouncement marked a change of course for the German, who had previously insisted that he would make his decision in June. But either way, Schumacher must retire before too long and Ferrari managers want to ensure the team does not slide back into mediocrity when he does. To this end, they need a top driver in place for the future.
Most of the F1 paddock, preparing for Sunday?s Monaco Grand Prix, believes the Italian team have secured McLaren?s lead driver Kimi Raikkonen to a long-term contract starting next year. Then, if Schumacher decides to race on, he will be obliged to share his team with Raikkonen.
McLaren have already hedged their bets by poaching reigning world champion Fernando Alonso from Renault, which could leave the champion team without a top-class driver.
Schumacher has managed to avoid facing a teammate of his own calibre throughout his career and it is hard to imagine that he would want to start now. Raikkonen says he is not afraid of Schumacher but the team is built around the German and Raikkonen would need time to get the crucial personnel on his side. ?The decision on what I do in the future is not linked to Schumacher,? he said recently. ?I?m not interested in money, I just want a winning car.?
Both men know that next year represents a tremendous opportunity. Ferrari are expected to have an edge because tyre supplier Michelin is withdrawing from the sport and all of its teams will be forced to switch to Bridgestone, Ferrari?s current supplier.
Bridgestone has already indicated that the tyres for next year will be based on its 2004 model. Ferrari dominated the 2004 championship and have a big head-start in engineering the car to work on those tyres. Renault and McLaren will inevitably take time to get up to speed and that could give Ferrari the opening they need to control the championship.
?Schumacher is tempted by the prospect of a clear run to another title but Raikkonen is even more hungry, having lost out on the 2003 and 2005 world titles through mechanical failures.?His relationship with McLaren was strained by those failures and this season it has reached breaking point as his car has failed to match the performance of Renault and Ferrari.
?The world title is between [those two teams],? he said gloomily in Barcelona at the Spanish Grand Prix. ?Because they always finish races and they fight for victories and podiums.?
On the face of it, Ferrari seem well placed for 2007 but are they a good long-term bet? There are signs that there could be other significant personnel changes. behind the scenes.
Team boss Jean Todt, who has overseen the recent renaissance, is keen to do other things within the wider Ferrari empire. Technical director Ross Brawn would has spoken of his desire like to take a sabbatical. Both men have a succession plan in place but their replacements have lived in their shadow for years and it is debatable whether they are of the same calibre.
As for Renault, the fear is that, having dominated the last two seasons, they will be left without a front-line driver. They look certain to draft in their promising test driver Heikki Kovalainen and are making a desperate bid for Raikkonen but it may be too late,
?Alonso is not easily replaced,? said Alain Dassas, Renault sport president, last week. ?But we are ready to do whatever is necessary to get a good driver.?
Until the announcements are made, it is all speculation. It is a unique situation with two top drivers up for grabs and the prospect of them racing each other at Ferrari is mouthwatering. But why should Schumacher risk ending his career on a down note?
?Everybody knows that Michael is spoiled here, which he deserves,? said Todt recently. ?He?s like a spoiled kid in the team. I want him to be happy. Saying that, we need to make sure that Ferrari is in a strong situation for the present and for the future.
?That?s what we will do and together with Michael, when Michael feels comfortable with the announcement, we should announce it around Monza.?
The Italian grand prix at Monza is on September 10. Few believe that Ferrari can keep their plans secret for that long.
James Allen is ITV Sport?s lead F1 commentator